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An American Diplomat in Vichy France

Shortly after Nazi Germany invaded France in May 1940, the French government surrendered and signed the Second Armistice. Under its terms, the north of France was occupied and directly administered by the Nazis, while the south remained nominally independent under a government seated in Vichy, but which was still under suzerainty of the Nazis; it was led by the 84-year-old Marshal Henri Phillipe Petain, the World War I hero turned collaborator. The American embassy moved from Paris to Vichy and had to conduct its increasingly important work under dangerous circumstances.

Douglas MacArthur II, nephew of the famed general, was assigned to the American embassy in Paris prior to the invasion, and moved to Vichy with the rest of the embassy. In these excerpts, he discusses issuing visas to refugees, working with the Resistance, the secrecy they needed to maintain, and what life was like as an American. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in 1986.

You can read other Moments about World War II.

Working Under the Eyes of the Gestapo

Q: Were there any instructions on how you were to deal with this?…The Foreign Service and the State Department has been criticized, particularly after the war and after the extent of the Holocaust was known, for their…strict adherence to the immigration.  

MACARTHUR: All of us in those days, when you entered the Foreign Service, you entered as a probationary vice consul after you passed your oral and written examinations. Your first assignment was invariably at a consulate general where you did visa work, commercial work, shipping, protection work, citizenship, and the like. We were under very formal training and instructions at that time about the requirements that were required of people who were applicants for visas. But in retrospect, we perhaps were too strict, but we stretched the immigration law that the Congress had passed to the maximum extent possible, I think. We encouraged these people if they had friends or relatives in the United States who would undertake to see that they didn’t become a public charge to fulfill that requirement, and so forth. The public charge requirement, I think, was the most difficult problem. The rest of the thing, there was a relaxation on temporary visas for refugees…The basic requirement was that they show that they would not arrive in the United States and become a public charge. 

I don’t think [the Jewish organizations] were very active. It all came so swiftly during the “phony war”, the general expectation was that France and Britain would be able to hold against the Germans. I don’t think anybody had anticipated the swiftness and the extent of the catastrophe that [befell] Western Europe north of the Pyrenees…The continent was gone for all intents and purposes for the Western World except for Spain, Portugal, and Switzerland….

Then I went back to Vichy.…We had expected [the French Government] to go on to North Africa…but in early June the Petain-Laval nomination overthrew the government at Bordeaux. The Petain-Laval government was established, the Armistice was signed, and the so-called government of “Free France” was set up in Vichy….[it] was totally dominated by the Germans…but there were some remarkable and…courageous people who served in that government [who passed information to the Americans and the British] during the time that Britain was standing alone…. 

When the Germans came in, initially for a period of about two to three weeks, they permitted nobody in or out of Paris, including diplomats who were of neutral and non-involved countries such as the United States. In early July, [almost three weeks after the Germans occupied Paris on June 14th], Mr. [William] Bullitt [U.S. Ambassador to France], the neutral ambassadors of these countries that were not involved in hostilities, were permitted with members of their staff to leave Paris.…

When we got to Vichy, our principal task was to try to ascertain what the Germans were up to, what their demands were on the French government, economic and the like, what they were doing, how they were behaving….We could only get [this information] through sources who were friendly to the Western cause. I would say that when France fell, there was no organization, …no resistance,…nothing to work with.

There were a series of individuals, some of whom came up to us privately, usually not at the embassy for fear of being seen by the Gestapo [who were watching us], but they said, “If there is anything we can do, let us know.” Sometimes they came up and said, “You know, the Germans are doing this, that, or the other thing.”

You must also remember that at that time with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, the French Communist Party, which was the most abject in its taking orders from Moscow of any of the Communist parties of the Western World, was firmly on the German side and they remained on the German side until June of 1941 when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. Then suddenly these people who had been opposing Britain and France’s “imperialistic war” against the democratic Germany of Hitler suddenly became the great resistance heroes. Why? Because the Communist Party from the beginning of time has had their cellular organization. They have had arms. They have always been prepared to take over a democratic country if [the circumstances were right]. With the attack on Russia and the French party getting its orders from Moscow, [they] started a series of sabotage actions and assassinations against the Germans which were admired by the French people….This is the summer of 1941.

In the period when I returned to Vichy from the end of the summer of 1940 to 1941… a series of [individuals] had come together in different groups and formed their own little resistance cell. We were dealing largely with them because we [didn’t trust] the Communists, who wanted no part of us because they were allies of Hitler… 

There was no assignment to have some sort of a contact with Vichy. We had an assignment to find out what the Germans were up to,[and their demands] on the Vichy government… Economically it was of great interest to Britain. We met with whoever would come to us…Gradually, as these individuals came to coalesce together in different little groups, they maintained contact with us. We tried to limit the contacts within any group because we knew if the Gestapo got them and tortured them …, they would inevitably have to give in and tell whatever they knew…The one requirement…most resistance organizations that I worked with had was that, if you were taken by the Gestapo, hold out for 24 hours if you can, but hold out for 12 hours, because probably by that time it would be known that you had been taken and the network had been blown and there would be time for people to go underground…

Our primary objective [with the] Petain government [was to convince them] not to align [themselves] directly with the Germans or to give them any assistance, encouragement, or facilities that would enable them to take over North Africa.

Q: At this time, in the period after the German occupation of most of France and the setup of the Vichy government, what was the attitude of the men in the embassy…Did you see yourself as eventually going to war with Germany?

MACARTHUR: I think every thinking American knew that it was just a question of time until our vital interests collided with Germany’s vital interests and that eventually there would be no way of escaping some kind of a show-down with the Germans, probably in North Africa or the Middle East. You must remember that the United States was singularly ill-equipped then. We had a standing army, but it was the 27th or 29th in the world, less than 200,000 officers. The OHIO Movement showed that the American people were still living in sort of a dream world where there was all this business of opposition to not being drafted for military service but even to registration for military service in the event that we became involved in the hostilities. So, our role was basically one of doing everything we could to support the British, who were standing alone…

Frequently, the information we gathered we automatically encoded it and sent it to Washington and London so that the British would know…In the process of that first year, we began to come in contact with these groups that were forming that became larger and more important. One was Dr. Mazé’s group in Brittany. I think I was the only American that knew Dr. Mazé and his group…Joseph Laniel, who was later a Prime Minister of France, who had been a Deputy and Minister… They basically provided us with bits and pieces of information. Georges Bidault, who later was Foreign Minister and Prime Minister,…with Pierre Henri Tetchin, who was de Gaulle’s first Defense Minister, I met them first in a tiny back room in Qusay, a suburb of Vichy, at night, where they came to offer the services of their resistance organization and provide us with information and so forth… 

Until Hitler attacked Russia, these resistance people had no weaponry….The Germans confiscated everything, including shotguns. The Germans let it be known that it was…a death sentence if you were caught with a weapon in your home, in your place, or anything. The only people that had arms underground were the Communist Party. That is why they were initially the ones that did the type of [armed] sabotage… The other people did things like blowing up a railroad junction that would slow the passage of material being looted from France to Germany, intelligence, …or delaying in the filling of requisitions that the Germans had placed on the Vichy government to produce so many hundreds of thousands of sheepskin.

Propaganda Wars

I remember, after…the Germans made a terrible strategic mistake in waiting so late to attack Russia in late June rather than going up in May, the first knowledge that we had in Vichy that the [Germans] were in serious trouble and would not make it to Moscow was in the very early autumn (September or something like that) when one of our friends in the Vichy government came and gave us a copy of a requisition order from the Germans for 200,000 [or so sheepskins] that had to be delivered right away. Obviously, these were for their troops that were in Russia and there wasn’t going to be any collapse of Russia if in early autumn they were already ordering these things. The handwriting was on the wall. So, we had other people . . . Germond Vidal, a fine man in the Vichy Interior Ministry, whose wife, when he was blown was later taken to Auschwitz and terrible things happened to her…kept us acquainted of all the things that the Germans were doing and insisting on in the Occupied Zone as well as in our zone.

But one of the more amusing things that happened was when I was contacted one day by a… socialist worker who worked in a printing plant in Clermont-Ferrand …which [Pierre Lavalle] had a financial interest in…He contacted me at the request of Léon Blum’s daughter-in-law. Léon Blum, the former Prime Minister of France, was Jewish. He was arrested by the Vichy authorities, tried at Bourresol, [and transported] to Germany. I had known Léon Blum as a young officer in Paris. One of our people lived in the same apartment building with…him. When he was in prison…Blum’s daughter would come up and I would give them a little piece of paper in French with the latest news and developments, which they would memorize and destroy.

When they visited him, they could tell him [the news]. This little man … had in his hand a published sheet about 8×12 which was an absolute facsimile of the British leaflet that was dropped called “Courier de l’air.”…It was a single sheet that was dropped with information on both sides, three or four columns on each side on different things…It was a very subtle and vicious anti-British, anti-Western, anti-democratic propaganda leaflet…when this fellow gave it to me and said that they were printing these things and had orders for several hundred thousand to be dropped over unoccupied France by the Luftwaffe, we sent immediately to London a complete summary of what it contained….We asked London to get the …to get on the BBC…and broadcast continuously in every broadcast for 24 hours to France…that Lavalle, the traitorous Premier of France, was using his print shop and receiving large sums of money from the Germans to reproduce an exact replica of the “Courier de l’air” and this is what it contained…So, the Germans decided not to drop it by air, but they did have these things distributed in various cities by collabos (French term for collaborators)… [It was]…amusing…when several of our resistance friends told us separately…[after this]…, “You know, the British intelligence service knows everything.”

In…[another case]…the British had gotten a bum steer from an obviously planted German source…[that] there had been a protest against the Germans in a town just north of the line of demarcation…This was a phony. The BBC broadcast this thing. Within a matter of two hours, we had from three separate resistance groups operating out there that this was false, that it had obviously been done to discredit the BBC because there had been no such demonstration of any kind there…so we got on the BBC and told them to correct it and they…[did] … 

There was no question about where our interests lay or what the President’s feelings were. Everything he was trying to do was prepare the country for the fact that eventually we were going to have to face it. So, we were…encouraged to do this…by the Department….

“We had strict injunctions not to keep any diaries”

When the Germans took over France, they divided it into an occupied and an unoccupied zone. In the occupied zone, they said, “There will be no diplomatic representation because there is no government but the German Occupation government that rules here.” They created the fiction of an unoccupied France that was independent so that diplomats were assigned to the embassy in Vichy, Unoccupied France. We kept a consulate [in Paris]. The Germans treated it as a consulate general….That was maintained, I think, perhaps until [May 1941]…. 

We wanted to have a listening post in Occupied France in Paris, as well as what we had in the unoccupied zone. They closed down the consulate at Le Havre and in Lille, where we had some sort of an office. But in the unoccupied zone, we had a consulate in Marseilles and one in Lyon. In Marseilles, to sweeten the pot and make it in Vichy’s interests not to let the Germans go too far, we struck a deal with the Vichy government by which we shipped a certain amount of food, basically grain, and petroleum products to Unoccupied France for …the French civilian population. That stuff came in through Marseilles. Similarly, I think we had a consul and one vice consul in Lyon. Paul De Riviere was the vice consul, if I remember correctly. They stayed there until the …Germans grabbed us.

They were keeping contact with local things and they sent one of their people up every couple of weeks to brief us…We had strict injunctions from [the deputy chief of mission] Doc Matthews…not to keep any diaries. One of our greatest worries when Admiral Leahy came was that he kept a diary…[We] knew that eventually the Germans would grab us and …they would grab any diaries, books, or papers that we had and try to identify either by time, place, circumstance, or name some of these people that were risking not just their own lives but their families lives, their wives’ and children’s lives, deportation and death in extermination camps and the like by their activities. So, we kept no papers.

We kept cryptic things about certain things that we sent out by pouch. If they were very sensitive, involving the names of resistance organizations and things of that kind, we usually encoded them…and did not send them in the pouch….We had a naval code man, who was under Lee Murray, our regular code fellow. He brought over modern coding one time pads and things of that kind that we could use. Until the war came along, we had the most antiquated system in the world. We had the gray code, where you sent personnel and administrative stuff, words and so forth, there were these phrases you used. We had the brown code, which was supposed to be one to use stuff that was confidential. Then we had two other codebooks. I’ve forgotten what those series were called. …But it was back in the 18th century. I mean, it was really childish. It was only after France fell and we moved into Vichy that we got supplied with this very fine naval file….

President Roosevelt felt that Marshal Petain …seemed to be drifting…toward giving in to German demands. We were desperately worried about North Africa. We knew, if the Germans took North Africa, the Middle East was gone and all the rest of it….The thought was that Admiral Leahy, as a most distinguished American military file, would be able to have a rapport on a career basis…with Marshal Petain and could perhaps be…influential in slowing down the gradual drift…toward accommodation and assistance. So, we welcomed Admiral Leahy. I happened to know him because he was in the class after my father in the Naval Academy. As a small boy, I called him “Uncle Bill.” My father and the admiral had been posted on the same place, perhaps in Newport….

Mrs. Leahy tragically died of an embolism just before they were scheduled to return to America. My wife went over and stayed with the admiral until the arrangements were made for return to the United States. It was a dreadfully sad occurrence. The American Ambassador was pretty much isolated in Vichy. None of the people that were helping us, the resistance people, these various leaders…would be seen with us publicly or anywhere. If they did, they would immediately be suspect.…