The Ambassador in France (Caffery) to the Secretary of State

No. 604

Sir: French grievances against the United States are an old story to Americans who dealt with French problems in London and Algiers before the liberation of France. As a direct aftermath of our unreadiness to recognize General de Gaulle1 and as an aftermath also of the Clark–Darlan accord,2 the French in London and Algiers maintained concerted attacks, openly and covertly, on American policy and American intentions. There were, for instances, charges that America was surreptitiously supporting Pétain3 and Laval;4 that America was trying to set up a future government for France in Madrid, its members to consist of such people as Chautemps,5 de Monzie,6 Noguès,7 Mistier,8 etc.; that America was trying to work out a compromise peace through the Vatican against the wishes of Stalin9 and of Churchill;10 that America had produced almost no civilian goods for North Africa; that American rookie aviators were trained over French targets because the German ones were too difficult; etc., etc.

Optimistic souls might have been justified in believing that the foregoing rancors were swept away by the liberation of France. As a matter of fact, American popularity zoomed to an all-time high in France for one month preceding and one month following the liberation of Paris. At that time almost all Frenchmen dealt with a few simple realities: It was American arms that had saved them from the Germans. [Page 662]De Gaulle’s complications with Washington (hardly one man in a thousand had any idea what these could have been about) were considered matters of no importance. But this phase in turn has passed. The emotional glow of liberation has dimmed. Dissatisfaction with Americans is on the increase, and we now face the prospect of multiplying grievances.

Several factors are working against us in France. In the first place, the French exiles from England and North Africa who had been thoroughly indoctrinated with anti-American attitudes, have now swarmed back to France and have “enlightened” those members of the resistance who, during the occupation, had other things on their minds than de Gaulle’s bickerings with Americans. It would be easy to exaggerate the effect of this anti-American propaganda; actually, the anti-American sentiments entertained by the exiles have been considerably diluted with the passage of time and contact with people who remained in France. Nevertheless, distrust of American motives is a recognizable ingredient in current French thinking.

In the second place, the population of France, however much it likes to fancy itself immune to German and Vichy propaganda, actually swallowed a great deal. One of the themes of German propaganda was “American imperialistic designs.” The French were innoculated with the idea that Americans proposed to snaffle French territory everywhere in the world. It is clear that a Fifth Column still exists in France, and the “American imperialism” motif is circulated with great craftiness. Even when the French divest themselves of their suspicions on a rational level, the suspicion still forms an emotional under-tow to their thinking (concerning German-Vichy propaganda on the Jews, it is also worthy of note that whereas all Frenchmen possessing any mental probity use exactly the same bywords in repudiating anti-Semitism as they used before the war, nevertheless they betray by small remarks how much they were genuinely persuaded on this subject by the Germans and Vichy).

In the third place, the delicate state of French sensibilities can hardly be exaggerated. Physical privations and moral humiliation have left a mark on French mentality. Nearly all Frenchmen betray their frame of mind by aggressive statements concerning France’s place in the world and by their willingness to entertain suspicions on everything and anything. Below are tabulated some of the more common French grievances against Americans.

Almost everywhere in France there is bitter indignation against American treatment of German prisoners. The spectacle of Germans, accused of torturing Frenchmen and pillaging French property, receiving far better rations than the average Frenchman obtains, is an every-day subject of conversation and a constant leitmotif in the press and over the radio. An interview granted to the French press by the [Page 663]American Provost Marshal, General Milton A. Keekord, explaining that America merely follows the Geneva Convention,11 did nothing to lessen the indignation. Arranged trips to a German prison-camp for French journalists merely whipped up the campaign. Some Frenchmen remarked in a surly fashion that America ought to denounce the Geneva Convention in view of the fact that German brutalities in France do not entitle Germans to any consideration under international agreements. Others remark that America is taking a selfish attitude in insisting on maintenance of the Geneva Convention to protect its own prisoners in Germany. “The United States should notify the Germans that it will henceforth treat German prisoners exactly as the Germans treat the prisoners of America’s allies.” Without doubt this anti-American campaign started spontaneously among the people, but the fact that it has now assumed a standard, stylized form—”Americans everywhere are feeding vast quantities of oranges to German prisoners” …12 and “In this city and that village Germans ride through the streets tossing oranges at French civilians”—indicates a carefully directed campaign. Until a more careful inquiry is possible, this must be ascribed loosely to Fifth Column activities.
America has failed to supply (a) arms for the French Army (b) machine tools and other capital goods, (c) consumer goods for civilians. The French have never been adequately informed on the re-equipping of the French forces in North Africa or on the civilian goods brought from the United States for that area. What is more important at this point is that they have no adequate grasp of the transport problem, and since this situation will in all likelihood grow increasingly difficult within the next few months, complaints against the United States will multiply. Even when a certain quantity of transport is made available to the French, they themselves will be forced to make a choice between (a) consumer goods, (b) machine tools and the like, and (c) matériel for re-equipping their armies. Whatever the decisions, there will be complaints. If emphasis is placed on military matériel, industrial leaders will complain that they are not receiving necessary goods for re-establishing their factories, and the public will complain because consumer goods are not brought from the United States. If, on the other hand, the government puts emphasis on consumer goods and machine tools, stories will spread that the United States is withholding war goods in order to keep down the military power of France. If the public is to be instructed on the transport problem, this must be undertaken by the Americans themselves on the French press and radio, for the French government has certain advantages to gain by public grumblings against America: it deflects criticism from the government and it provides the French authorities with a psychological background for their concrete transport demands.
“Nazi hold-outs on the Atlantic coast of France”. Many French fiercely blame Americans for not cleaning out these German pockets before proceeding on to the war in Germany. They cite the lack of [Page 664]arms in the hands of the FFI13 and the pitiful conditions under which the men maintain their holding actions. The position of the FFI in this regard, however, has dampened certain French tendencies noticeable three months ago to attribute victories to the FFI when as a matter of fact the Germans had merely evacuated in the path of the advancing Allies. The situation on the Atlantic coast of France has made it clear that the FFI alone can achieve very little. Many Frenchmen declare that they have been informed by the British that full responsibility for the failure of the Allies to clean out the German pockets rests on the Americans, since the commander-in-chief14 is American. The Embassy possesses no evidence to support this accusation.
“Americans are quite too lavish in their requisitioning of French property”. There doubtless have been valid complaints along this score, particularly in the provinces. The probabilities are that for every valid complaint, there are ten imaginary grievances.
“Americans refuse to believe stories of Gestapo atrocities”. This is only partly true. There is plenty of evidence to indicate German atrocities in France, and this has been accepted by responsible Americans. On the other hand, the French have a tendency to exaggerate the extent of the tragedies. Finally, it is true that the ordinary, uninformed GI does not believe in Nazi atrocities and says so frequently. Whereas the French grievances based on treatment of German prisoners and the German pockets on the Atlantic are based on specific situations, the grievances on the score of atrocities is simply a manifestation of a French temperamental malaise.
“It is hard for us to accept everything from Americans”… “Americans treat us like children”. These words, which fall very often from French lips, are typical of the more irrational complaints, indicating a post-liberation neurosis.

It is proper to record at the end of this series of complaints that one anticipated grievance which Americans faced frankly before liberation has never materialized. It was feared that American troops which often succeeded in stirring up ill-will in North Africa by their turbulent behavior, would succeed in further irritating over-drawn French nerves. Actually, this has never happened. The French masses have been hospitable to Americans; the GI’s themselves have behaved on the whole circumspectly, and complaints are almost never heard. The army was prudent in keeping soldiers out of French restaurants, which would have aroused the old “locust” complaints—that American soldiers with vast quantities of money were buying up all available food and supplies in shops. The high-cost of living in France has discouraged soldiers from making any but the most modest purchases.

The foregoing is intended to be only a summing up of the chief complaints made against Americans by the French population. The remedies are various. In some cases the grievances will disappear [Page 665]automatically with the end of the war. There are other grievances, however, that hold the germ of prolonged discord, and these should be handled by enlightening the French public on the magnitude of the war and the gigantic burdens imposed on the United States in carrying it to a successful conclusion. This involves cooperation between the various government departments operating abroad, including the Army and Navy, the Department of State, the Office of War Information and the Office of Strategic Services.

Some phases of our propaganda future in France are covered in our despatch no. 307, December 5, 1944.15 It should be pointed out that speed in undertaking this work is vital, because the French press and radio are still in a fluid and receptive state. In North Africa we encountered a sullen and hostile press, a press that had been almost completely inoculated with anti-American propaganda. It was extremely difficult to get editors to print any articles that might have helped to dissipate misunderstandings. In liberated France, however, while the radio and newspapers are constantly indulging in a kind of criticism explained above, there is still a disposition to tell the other side of the case, and it is the job of all American government departments to tell it.

Respectfully yours,

Jefferson Caffert
  1. Gen. Charles de Gaulle, Head of the French Provisional Government.
  2. Clark-Darlan Agreement signed at Algiers November 22, 1942, Foreign Relations, 1942, vol. ii, p. 453.
  3. Henri Philippe Petain, Chief of State of Vichy France.
  4. Pierre Laval, formerly Chief of Government in France.
  5. Camille Chautemps, formerly Premier of France.
  6. Anatole de Monzie, formerly French Minister of Public Works.
  7. Charles Noguès, formerly French Resident General at Rabat in Morocco.
  8. Jean Mistier, formerly member of French Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chamber of Deputies.
  9. Marshal Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Soviet Union.
  10. Winston S. Churchill, British Prime Minister.
  11. International convention relative to the treatment of prisoners of war, signed July 27, 1929, Foreign Relations, 1929, vol. i, p. 336.
  12. Omissions in this despatch indicated in the original.
  13. Forces Franchises de l’lnterieur.
  14. General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower.
  15. Not printed.