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To be Young, Rich and Ambassador to Paris in the ’50s

C. Douglas Dillon was a politician and diplomat who served as U.S. Ambassador to France in the critical post World War II period, 1953-1957, and later as Under Secretary of State and Treasury Secretary. Son of a wealthy investment banker, Dillon graduated from Groton and Harvard, served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, returning to become president of his father’s Wall Street firm. He doubled its investments in six years. President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed C. Douglas Dillon to be Ambassador to France.

It was an exciting time to be in Paris. The city was undergoing massive reconstruction following the war. Christian Dior was reestablishing Parisian influence on world fashion, and writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus forged new forms of literature. But there was still wide-spread poverty, trauma from the war and pressure from the Soviet Union. During his tenure as ambassador, Ambassador Dillon had to contend with French backlash against the U.S. execution of convicted espionage conspirators Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, antagonism against the U.S. in response to the encroachment of communism, and rising Cold War tensions.

C. Douglas Dillon was interviewed in April 1987 by Robert D. Schulzinger. To read more about France, communism or the Cold War, please follow the links.


“The President-elect had given him the right to suggest one person for one of the major embassies”

Clarence Douglas Dillon, U.S. Ambassador to France, 1953-1957  

DILLON:  [Between 1948 and 1952], I began traveling abroad every year, particularly in France. Besides the apartment in Paris, my father had bought, in 1935, a vineyard in Bordeaux — Chateau Haut-Brion — and we had been active in managing and running that, and I went back and forth to understand that and work with it. . . But I had no job related to foreign affairs. (Dillon on the cover of Time as Treasury Secretary at left.)

After Eisenhower was elected, very early on, he asked Dulles to be Secretary of State. That was in mid-November. I think it was early December when I got a telephone call from Mr. Dulles, who was working at the Commodore Hotel. I went there and had lunch with him, and he asked me if I would be interested in being ambassador to France. He told me at that time that the President-elect had, in effect, given him the right to nominate, to suggest, one person for one of the major embassies.

Foster Dulles [the new Secretary of State] was always particularly interested in France, because he had studied there as a youth, and his wife had been there, and they had gotten together there, and he had a real understanding and love of France. So he was interested in that, and he thought I could do the job. This was a surprise for me because I was so young for that– at that time I was 42 years old.

He did say that there was one problem — that it was very delicate — it was a major thing that was very close to this heart, and that was the European Defense Community — the EDC.

He was going to appoint David Bruce, who had been in Paris before as ambassador, to head a special mission [known as “the Bruce Mission”] which would be located in Paris, but would be assigned the whole of Europe, the members of the Coal and Steel Community. Its primary and really sole purpose would be to try and help with ratification of the EDC in all the European countries. So, that was how I came to get my first assignment.

When he [John Foster Dulles] did call me, I thought that he wanted to talk to me about something, but I didn’t think it would be anything like that. I thought it might be a special job within the State Department or something of that nature, which would not be surprising, but this thing was quite a surprise.

“In the early days I found, right away, that nothing started very early”

It was about this time that my wife started to study French. She wasn’t very good in French. I could read French: I could understand it when it was spoken to me by one person speaking directly to me, but I was very rusty in speaking it myself. I had an accent, but I could get along. (Dillon and wife Phyllis with President Kennedy at right.)

So I didn’t have to do much special studying at first; I did what I could. We took a fellow with us when we went across on the boat… We took lessons every day for a week. We got to Paris about the 10th of March [1953].

In the early days I found, right away, that nothing started very early. We found a girl who was sort of a failed actress of the Comédie Française, a very good, intellectual, single woman who spoke beautiful French. She came to the house every morning, and I would take half an hour with her reading the French newspapers and talking about them in French with her, which helped my accent and my vocabulary.

[These lessons were] about 9:00 or 9:30, and then after that she would take on my wife. I would get things together and go down to the office, and get to work about quarter to 10 or 10.

The residence at that time was a building at No. 2, avenue d’Iena, which was just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, and the Chancery (seen left), of course, was on the Place de la Concorde. I would come down and read the cable traffic, which was the first thing I did, both incoming and outgoing.

The procedure was that all outgoing cables were signed by the ambassador, though he doesn’t usually see them. In a big embassy like Paris there would be a large stock of cables every day. Unless they were important they wouldn’t get to the ambassador before going out. All the important political messages, and very important economic ones did get to me in advance, but they were a small part of the overall traffic.

After I would finish with the cable traffic, I would probably meet for a few minutes with the Deputy Chief of Mission, whose office was nearby, and see what was up, and we just took it from there.

It was a kind of a new life for me, because I’d been more on my own before, but here I found that there were lots of things to do that were representational. I had to go and be present at the laying of a wreath, or the opening of this or that, so generally I was very busy.

One of the things that made my job interesting, particularly in those years, was that for one reason or another, the State Department at that time, probably on account of Secretary Dulles, with his interest and knowledge where French statesmen were concerned, such as [Georges-Augustin] Bidault [French politician and then-former Prime Minister], liked to carry on the major relationship– through the American Embassy in Paris, rather than through the French Embassy in Washington.

Now, that changed later, and they now do most of it through the French Embassy in Washington. [. . .] But during my time, for one reason or another, they handled it more the other way, so we had more to do.

It was like a battlefield. They advised me to not be there”

[French interest in the Rosenberg case] didn’t affect my work. It was not a very pleasant experience, because, as it was coming up to the time that they [Julius and Ethel Rosenberg] were to be executed, the communists and their supporters stirred up a tremendous amount of excitement over there [in France]. I don’t think it was probably a very popular thing anywhere, but certainly not among the intellectuals in France.

At the actual time of the executions, there was a tremendous sort of a riot, I guess you’d call it — demonstrations, maybe, that’s a better word — in the Place de la Concorde, and the French had to turn out all sorts of police of different types.

It was like a battlefield. They advised me to not be there. We went out to the country, and they sent someone with us to be at the house, some security people, for a couple of days, and nothing ever happened out there.

There was a certain amount of rock throwing, and what-else throwing, and there were about 10 or 15 police that were injured and in the hospital. I remember when I came in the next week, I went to the hospital, and thanked them, and some French police officials there liked that very much, and we never had any trouble after that.

“They wanted to protect their own hides”

There’s one very interesting thing that I found out that’s probably appropriate to say here which developed quite often, during my spell there. The Embassy staff in Paris felt differently from the Bureau of European Affairs [EUR] of the State Department.

There were a number of people in EUR who were basically rather unfriendly to France and things French, and liked, were very taken with, the Germans. That was the period when [John J.] McCloy [first U.S. High Commissioner for Germany 1949-1952] had just left and [James Bryant] Conant [first U.S. Ambassador to West Germany 1955-1957] had just gone there, and Germany had just come on with [Konrad] Adenauer [first post-war Chancellor of Germany 1949-1963], as the big, wonderful place.

EUR still remembered the French from the Vichy days, as a lot of them had served there, and they were not friendly at all, so we often had differences of opinion. When the time came to send a telegram back that differed with the view of the State Department, (as indicated by) the telegrams we’d received, [Theodore] Achilles [Deputy Chief of Mission at U.S. Embassy Paris 1952-1960] or my people from the political department always would come to me for approval of their reply.

They would come and say “this is what we feel, and we want to write a telegram, but would you please send it under your name?”

What they meant by that was to send it personally — you would write in the telegram, “I.” The use of the word “I” always meant it came from the ambassador personally. If there was a “we” in it, it came from the Embassy over the ambassador’s signature: “we think this,” “we do this,” “we do that,”–that was a sort of code way of doing it.

They wanted me to say “I” because they wanted to protect their own hides, back in Washington, because where they went for their next post depended on what the people in Washington thought of them. If they could blame an ambassador for telling the State Department to go to hell, that was all right, so, many times they would ask me to do it in this way. I was glad to. It was just a sort of protection for the staff that made me aware of the advantages of a non-career, politically-appointed ambassador.

When you get that sort of a relationship between career people on an Embassy staff and the Department, they are often scared to say what they really think, if the people in Washington don’t like it. And so it was an advantage to be a political appointee. There may be some disadvantages, too, but this was a very real advantage, and we made full use of it.

“What we tried to do was to carry out American policy”

There was another thing that I would do. Secretary Dulles, as I have said earlier, was very interested in France and had a very good understanding of some of the French political figures. Sometimes I would get a directive from Washington to do something: the Embassy should tell the French this or that, something that we did not agree with. (Dulles with French Foreign Minister in France, 1958, at left.)

I would, in those cases, send back to Washington a telegram addressed to the Secretary. That would say “Eyes only — Secretary,” but that didn’t mean only him. It went to about 20 people in the department, but not to 200. But I would say in it: “re: your so and so,” which was the [demarche] that we had received from the Bureau of European Affairs — I don’t agree for this reason or that. I don’t intend to carry out the order unless you specifically tell me to.”

That happened three or four times, maybe five or six times, and I don’t think he ever told me to carry out the original directive.

It’s hard [providing examples], but it was usually– probably having to do with the EDC. We, the Embassy staff and I, had a running disagreement, from the time I got there until the final National Assembly vote, with the Bruce Mission [the U.S. plan to ensure French Assembly ratification of the European Defense Community] on our appreciation of the prospects for EDC in France. (EDC signing seen at right.)

We were constantly getting these: “can’t you do this?” or “can’t you do that?” and we’d say “No, we can’t do this, it would be counterproductive.”

What we [the embassy] tried to do was to carry out American policy, which was to favor the enactment of it [the Bruce Mission]. But very early on, we decided that, after checking with all the people — we had much broader contacts in France than the Bruce mission did; they were talking primarily to the Monnet-type people [those who supported European unity and the European Coal and Steel Community] , who were very interested in EDC and they took their evaluation at face value.

We had much broader contacts, and we came rather quickly to the conclusion that the EDC would never be ratified in the French Assembly. So we were always trying to advise Washington to prepare a fall back or at least to have a thought out position for when that happened.

It turned out at the end that we were right, and that the French, when they did turn it down, wanted immediately to make amends and be friendly, and that’s when Mendes-France [then-former President of the Council of Ministers] said they would join the Common Market [passed in 1957], and they relaxed the objections they had to German rearmament and German admission to NATO, and so forth.

“If the American ambassador wants to see me, he comes to see me”

When I’d been in Paris about two or three months, and I’d met all sorts of people and people from different parties, I said to Achilles [Minister to Paris 1952-1960] and the people in our political division that I wanted to meet General [Charles] de Gaulle (seen left.)

He replied, “That would be a good idea but it just hasn’t been done– the American ambassador just doesn’t talk to General de Gaulle.”

“How come?”

“Ever since Ambassador [Jefferson] Caffery, who had a fight with him, no American ambassador has had any connection with General de Gaulle.”

So I asked him how we could get in touch with him, and he said, “We don’t know. But we think that the station chief here might, because they have some contacts with him that might help.” So, I got over the local head of the CIA, who was a different person from the man who was there at the time when I arrived a couple of months before.

The new station chief happened to be a man I had known since my college days, a fellow New Yorker, a fellow by the name of James Hunt. So I said, “I want to meet de Gaulle,” and he said, “Sure! That would be wonderful– that’s just right. We have good friends on his staff that we talk to all the time.” So they arranged that the next time de Gaulle came to Paris I would meet de Gaulle.

The reason why the American ambassador had no contact was that [Ambassador] Caffery had insisted that, after de Gaulle resigned and was out as prime minister or whatever he had been after the war, if they were to see each other, it was up to de Gaulle to come and call on the American ambassador at his Chancery.

De Gaulle said “No, if the American ambassador wants to see me, he comes to see me.” And so that was a total break, and it had continued ever since. I thought that was nonsense and said, “Well, I’ll go see him.”

“He had to think of France first, and let Roosevelt think about the world”

So I went up and saw him during the summer of ’53, at the Hotel La Perouse (seen right), and met in his small sitting room. He gave me a time about 9:00 at night, so I went after a light supper and we talked until about 10:30 or 11:00.

He was very interested. He liked the opportunity to talk very much; he wanted to explain; and he talked about the war and how he’d been a great burden to President Roosevelt.

He said that he felt very badly about that because Roosevelt was carrying all the burdens of the world on his shoulder, but he, de Gaulle, was responsible for France, and he had to think of France first, and let Roosevelt think about the world. And that made some difficulties, and he said he felt Roosevelt was a great fellow.

We talked about what was going to happen in the future of France, and he was rather glum about it, because the French were feeling pretty terrible at that time, and he had no idea then that he’d ever come back!

We had a very nice talk and I said I’d like to keep in touch with him, and would he permit me to see him when he came to Paris, which was about every six months, and he said certainly. At these times we only talked for about 20 minutes, because it was usually just general conversation.

So we started a relationship then, and then the Embassy staff people expanded their relationship with the Gaullist representatives in the Assembly and the Senate–Senator [Michel] Debré is the one I think of. We had a pretty good relationship there, and we knew what they were thinking, and what they felt, and we knew where they were going…

I never took a note taker or an interpreter with me”

One other thing, also, which I think is interesting: from day one, when I got to Paris, and I went to call on people at the Quai d’Orsay [Foreign Ministry, seen left], or any other ministry, I never took a note taker or an interpreter with me. I was always on my own.

Yes, which [writing up his recollections immediately after conversations] made me very busy. It had an advantage. In the beginning my French wasn’t all that brilliant, but in the Quai d’Orsay, most of the people there understood enough English, so that if I had difficulty I could say what I wanted in English and they could understand it. I could understand their French, so we had perfect communication.

But the advantage of that, I think, was very great, since I didn’t have a note-taker, then they didn’t– maybe they felt that just wasn’t cricket. I don’t know if they would do that now, but that was the way it was then.

I’d see Bidault and it would be one-on-one, and he’d tell me things he never would have said if he’d had his own note-taker with him and certainly not if I’d have had mine. I think that was very helpful in developing a good and useful relationship…

“Build up certain understanding and good will. . .”


One thing I did while I was in France which is probably of some interest: I made a real effort to visit different parts of France, and I found that they were very interested in receiving the American ambassador on an official, local basis. I thought it was very helpful, because you could prepare some sort of a speech, which I did with the help of this girl who came to help me with my French. She also worked on speeches.

The Embassy would help prepare a French speech, but no matter how good they were, they didn’t know how to put it in really good French, and this girl did. She would do that, so that the speeches I delivered were more colloquial, more proper French than a translation from English to French. So they were quite good, and they worked very well.

By doing that, in my four years I managed to visit and spend the night in some 65 of the 90 departments [political administrative divisions] of France.  I felt that you build up certain understanding and good will that way.