851B.20/172: Telegram

The Consul General in Martinique (Malige) to the Secretary of State

51. Department’s 23, January 23, 6 p.m. and my 38, January 25.82 The following reply from Admiral Robert has been handed to me by Captain Benech:83

“Your note of January 2584 reveals such a conception of my position and my duties that it is worthwhile that, to avoid any confusion, my position be stated precisely:

“(1) It is because I was appointed High Commissioner by the French Government in 1939 and confirmed by the succeeding French Governments that I act here in the name of the French people and that I am, legally and in fact, the guardian of French interests in the French Antilles and Guiana.

“(2) The Gentlemen’s Agreement represents for me a bilateral engagement the more affirmed because the result of concessions subscribed to by me beforehand at the request of the American Government. In particular the clause of reciprocal neutrality had as a costly counterpart the immobilization of the warships exacted as a pledge. I cannot neglect recalling the insistence used in obtaining this pledge nor the satisfaction that the representatives of the American Government experienced nor the correct nature of the French attitude in these possessions since the entry into war of the United States.

[Page 226]

“(3) On November 13, the State Department informed me that your Government, with the approval of the President of the United States, was disposed to maintain relations with these territories on the basis of the Gentlemen’s Agreement and to examine the problems that would arise in the same spirit as in the past. I recall that this decision was taken on November 13 subsequent to the action of American forces in North Africa,85 to the rupture of diplomatic relations between France and the United States, to the invasion of unoccupied France and to the occupation of our frontiers by the German and Italian troops. I was then and am still justified in believing that the events of November 7 to 13 would not alter the principles that had resulted in our agreement and which only events to come could place them under discussion again. However, since November 13 there has not been to my knowledge any change in the situation of France that exceeds in importance the total sacrifice on November 27 of the French Fleet acting under orders received not to fall into the hands of the enemies of the United Nations.

“(4) The unilateral annulment of the Gentlemen’s Agreement solely because one of the signatories intends to respect scrupulously all of its clauses or because one party is not in a position to adopt a derogation sought by the other appears to me to be difficult to Justify legally.

“(5) It is impossible for me to consider that the defeat of France or the misfortunes it does not cease to experience, honorably, removes from its Government the right to represent the French people or its legitimacy. Besides this concerns a French question where an error of judgment is easy, for a foreigner. You know very well also that never has the French Government given me orders nor laid down directives that might have in any way harmed American rights and interests—finally that the Gentlemen’s Agreement permits on my part of an engagement of strict neutrality and that my communications since December 3 have been limited to your convenience.

“The preceding considerations represent my reality. Also real is the constant loyalty of my attitude. I want to believe that, these realities considered, the examination of our problems may be pursued by means of friendly negotiations and that the difficulties of my position will not be systematically disregarded. My resources are of the lowest order compared with those that the American nation is employing and the effects of my neutrality are negligible compared with the forces engaged in the conflict. However, feeble those resources may be, it is nevertheless in the interest of no one that they be condemned to destruction between two opposing pressures and that they should no longer exist when their utilization would become possible.

“In sum, I refuse to lose the confidence placed by every Frenchman in the idea of liberty whose torch is upheld by the American nation.”

Captain Benech confirmed that in the penultimate sentence above “destruction” means “scuttling”, that the two pressures are American and German and that the last six words convey Admiral Robert’s hope that he may allow us to have the ships eventually. He said the Admiral intended to consult Vichy in an effort to obtain a relaxation [Page 227] in his guarantees as described in my 16, January 10. They interpret item 4 in Department’s 23, January 23, as not yet applicable to any such message but I have reserved the doubt in our favor until I can receive clarification on the point from the Department.

  1. Latter not printed.
  2. Capt. Pierre Benech, Chief of Staff to Admiral Robert.
  3. See telegram No. 23, January 23, 6 p.m., to the Consul General in Martinique, p. 223.
  4. For correspondence on the Allied invasion of North Africa, see Foreign Relations, 1942, Vol. ii, pp. 429 ff.