85. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • US-French Relations; Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia; the Middle East; and Viet Nam


  • US
    • The President
    • Walt Rostow, Special Assistant to the President
    • Ernest Goldstein, Special Assistant to the President
    • Charles R. Tanguy, Country Director for France-Benelux Affairs
    • Alec Toumayan, Interpreter
  • French
    • Michel Debre, Minister of Foreign Affairs, France
    • Ambassador Charles Lucet, Ambassador of France
[Page 165]

Franco-American Relations

Debre recalled with pleasure receiving the President several years ago in Paris when Debre was French Prime Minister.2 The President replied that he would always be grateful for the opportunity that this meeting had afforded him. After saying how touched he was by the President’s receiving him today, Debre stated that no matter what the difficulties that develop from time to time in our relations, the President could be assured that his actions would leave an important mark on the history of the United States and of the whole world. Mr. Johnson had been President, Debre continued, during one of the most difficult periods since the end of the last war. Those who are attached to political equilibrium in the world know how much they owe to the President. We are gong to continue to live in a difficult world. However, the coordinated action of the West will help us to prevent the worst from happening.

Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia

The whole of Europe was shaken by the Soviet intervention, Debre said, and peoples’ minds are troubled by it. Debre referred to his discussion of the subject with the Secretary earlier in the week3 and noted with satisfaction that the French Government’s analysis of the problem was similar to that of the United States.

The Middle East

Debre mentioned that he had also talked to the Secretary about the Middle East and expected to revert to the subject at the Secretary’s luncheon for him tomorrow.4 In some ways, Debre said, this area of the world will be the most pre-occupying for the coming year. It would appear indispensable for the big powers to have a common policy in this area to avoid any aggravation of the situation which might create dangerous tension.

These are two areas (i.e., Europe and the Middle East), Debre commented, where it is most useful for us to compare notes and coordinate our views on a regular basis.

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Debre said that he did not really need to speak of this problem. The President’s “very fine and very great speech” of last March 315 had opened the way for peace talks. Since then, Debre and others in his Ministry had been in regular contact with our representatives in Paris. The French followed their patient efforts with great interest.

US Domestic Policy

Debre observed that the French have always followed US domestic policy with great interest. The program of social renewal which the President had inaugurated and which has been largely successful, Debre said, would mark post-war American history. The President expressed a deep appreciation for these remarks.

The President’s Views on US-French Relations

After recalling with pleasure and cordiality the time which Debre, as Prime Minister, had given him during his visit to Paris, the President said that he had come into office very much aware of the lack of agreement between our two governments on some of the basic questions confronting the peoples of the world. Despite this awareness, the President had proceeded in the belief that in any crisis that threatened the American people, France would always be with us. The President had tried, therefore, to minimize our differences and disagreements and to maintain the respect and affection for the French people in our country. The President could not forget the many times the United States and France had been shoulder to shoulder at the front, starting with the birth of our nation down to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. This awareness has helped him resist the temptation common to many leaders to air disagreements in public. The President hoped that his successor would find the bridge to traverse these differences so that our two great nations could come closer together. The President deeply regretted that he had not been able to do this.

The President fully realized that General De Gaulle had very strong views on some of these divisive subjects. The President thought, however, it was more important to have an understanding of the situation than to get into public arguments. General De Gaulle had some problems at home just as the President did in the United States. Regardless of these various disagreements, the President said, he had always recognized what France would be without General De Gaulle. In a troubled period calling for strong leadership, the General had provided it. The President appreciated this, even though our two governments had not always gone down the same road.

[Page 167]

The President then referred to Ambassador Shriver’s reports confirming the President’s expectations that the Ambassador would have a warm reception in France. The President also noted favorably the Ambassador’s hope that we could do more to improve our relations. The President expressed appreciation for the great efforts by the French people making it possible to conduct the Peace Talks in their country. The President regretted that we do not see the Viet-Nam problem in the same light but he had thought it best not to allow this disagreement to inflame our relations. We could not go to Cambodia or Poland for the talks, the President recalled, and recent events have made even clearer why Poland was not feasible. It is a tribute to the character of the French people, the President continued, that despite their views on the Viet-Nam war, they made it possible for us to hold the talks in their country. We have trusted in the fairness of the French people, the President added, and we are still hopeful about the talks.

Mr. Debre commented that there was no doubt that for the duration of the talks, the French Government would do what was necessary to assure a propitious material, political, and intellectual atmosphere for them.

Launching Apollo 7

It was almost 11 o’clock and the President invited Mr. Debre to watch the launching of Apollo 7 on the television. Debre said that it was a “very great date,” and the President said that it was good to have our French friends with us on the occasion.

Debre’s Concluding Remarks

When the official conversation resumed, Debre emphasized that there would never be the slightest difference between France and the United States regarding fundamental matters. In the face of attempts to establish dictatorship or other actions by forces hostile to liberty, France and the United States would always stand side by side. It is natural, Debre continued, that our interests and objectives do not always coincide, but the great advantage of friendship is that we can speak freely to each other. Debre reiterated that, during this visit to the United States, he was General De Gaulle’s interpreter. He assured the President that his action had always been highly appreciated by the French Government. The latter regrets very much seeing him leave his huge responsibilities and deplores his departure. “But you leave,” Debre said, “with our total admiration.”

The President’s Concluding Remarks

The President said he was grateful for these statements. He asked Mr. Debre to express his gratitude for General De Gaulle’s help in connection with the Paris Peace Talks. The President hoped that the Foreign [Page 168] Minister would also convey to the General the gratitude of the American people for the way the General had treated the negotiations. The President also asked Mr. Debre to transmit to General De Gaulle the depth of the American people’s feeling for France. The President was sorry that he had not done as much as he wanted to bring our two countries together, but he was convinced that he had done nothing to push us farther apart. The President mentioned his keen desire to revisit France after January 20. On his previous visits, he was obliged to be in a hurry, so he was looking forward to seeing France under less pressing circumstances. After January 20 he was never going to be in a hurry again. The President noted that the problems of youth and university turbulence are prominent in many countries, including ours, and that as President, he had tried his best to cope with them. He concluded that it would take a lot more than he has seen in his lifetime to convince him that France and the United States would not always be together.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL FR-US. Secret. Drafted by Tanguy and approved in the White House on October 15.
  2. Vice President Johnson visited Paris on April 6, 1961, to participate in ceremonies marking NATO’s 10th Anniversary.
  3. October 4. Their discussions were reported in telegram 6870 from USUN, October 4. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL FR-US)
  4. Their talks were summarized in telegram 259155 to Paris, October 21. (Ibid., POL 7 FR)
  5. For text, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968-69, Book I, pp. 469-476.