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When France Fell

The Vichy Crisis and the Fate of the Anglo-American Alliance

Michael S. Neiberg

Harvard University Press, 2021

Hardcover. 320 p. ISBN 978-0674258563. $29.95 / £23.95 / €27

Reviewed by Antoine Capet

Université de Rouen




Writing Vichy […] out of the history of the Second World War only helps us to tell the story we wish to tell ourselves’, writes Professor Neiberg, Chair of War Studies at the US Army War College [242]. Unlike the First World War and the Vietnam War, let alone the armed interventions in Irak and Afghanistan, the Second World War is generally described as a ‘good war’ to the American public in the popular press, in Hollywood and in best-selling novels. President Roosevelt suffers from little criticism – often from right-wing extremists – and much admiration and respect for his direction of the war.

In Britain, in France and later in the war in Poland (among other East European nations), the rosy picture of enlightened and benevolent American diplomacy – followed or not by military action – was soon perceived as needing a number of caveats. It is well known for instance that during the war, and especially in its last stages, a man like Churchill privately had many grievances against the American leadership – which he continued to keep for himself in his memoirs as he needed President Eisenhower’s support during his second Premiership in the early 1950s.

Neiberg’s fine monograph argues that these grievances were entirely justified. Its guiding thread is that Roosevelt had excellent advisors for his British policy, like Harry Hopkins and Averell Harriman, but very poor ones on how to deal with the French split after June 1940, the worst offender being Admiral Leahy – with people like Cordell Hull and Robert Murphy almost equally wrong-headed. The whole book accumulates accusations against the Washington power élites’ lamentable failure to assess the moral force of the Gaullist side and their continued backing of the hopelessly decaying Vichy régime.

The book’s subtitle is in fact misleading (possibly dictated by commercial considerations, with an eye on the UK market) since much of the discussion of the extremely complex three-cornered relationship between Britain, France and the United States from September 1939 to May 1945 and beyond is devoted, not to Anglo-American relations, but to Franco-American relations, heavily slanted towards Vichy and Pétain and neglectful, even contemptuous, of the Free French and de Gaulle. In other words, for Neiberg, the Second World War may have been a ‘good war’ on the domestic scene and thanks to the triumph at relatively little cost in American lives over the atrocious Nazi régime, but it produced a serious – though muted – rift with Churchill’s War Cabinet and proved disastrous in terms of future relations with France when de Gaulle came back in 1958. It is no overstatement when Neiberg writes that ‘America’s Vichy policy had long-term legacies’ [244]. As far as the attitude towards defeated France was concerned, the different approach of the Americans and British is well known, and Neiberg neatly sums up the divergent reasoning on both sides of the Atlantic:

[Britain’s early backing of de Gaulle] put the British at odds with the Americans who hated de Gaulle’s arrogance and conceit from the start. […] American officials feared that the British might try to set de Gaulle up as a puppet and a Gaullist France as a kind of postwar British client state. The Americans thus saw a closer relationship with Vichy as in its [sic] best interests. [76].

Neiberg fully documents the ‘paranoia’ [65] which seized American military and governing circles, caught completely wrong-footed when the French Army, on which they relied for the defence of Continental Europe, collapsed almost instantly before the German war machine. Today, the strategic importance of the French airfields in the colonies of West Africa is largely forgotten, but American officials could fear a German attack on South America which would then head north towards the United States, with its obsolete armaments. Why people like Henry Stimpson believed that the safety of the country against a German intervention in the New World would be enhanced by making friends with Vichy is something that passes Neiberg’s comprehension. The far more sophisticated Foreign Office people, Eden, Cadogan and Vansittart – let alone Churchill – had a totally different perception:

Rather than the Americans manipulating Vichy, they concluded, Vichy manipulated the Americans. As seen from London, America’s flirtations with Vichy only proved how little the United States understood the true security situation in Europe. [80]

As might be expected, Neiberg then explores all the faux-pas of the American diplomats and military commanders in their policy towards wartime France – which were as many sources of derision or friction in Britain. He of course denounces Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s ‘extreme reaction to a minor incident’ – he ‘quite unexpectedly exploded in fury at what he described as a Free French violation of the Monroe Doctrine’ [137-138] – when a Gaullist raid snatched the small islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, off the coast of Newfoundland, from Vichy in December 1941. American public opinion – and even more so public opinion in Britain – was almost unanimous in supporting the Free French, who kept the islands. Concluding on the incident, Neiberg is not kind to Cordell Hull:

The Saint-Pierre and Miquelon crisis publicly revealed the tenuous and contradictory nature of his own policy of talking tough to Vichy leaders in private but working with them in public. […] Now the Saint-Pierre and Miquelon affair had forced him to acknowledge that the basis of American policy in relation to Vichy had failed in the eyes of the American people. [140]

Worse was to come twelve months later. The terrible muddle after the successful landings in French North Africa of November 1942 naturally takes pride of place in Neiberg’s narrative, with the well-known ‘temporary expedient’ Darlan, whom ‘the Americans put in power instead of in jail’ [208]. Neiberg very aptly reproduces a little-known, damning photograph which shows Darlan in civilian clothes posing between ‘Dwight Eisenhower, Mark Clark, and a grinning Robert Murphy’ [203]. Another, with Clark and Darlan in uniform exchanging wide smiles while shaking hands over the papers which clinched the notorious ‘deal’, is equally uncommon in history books. ‘Note the portrait of Pétain staring down over Clark’s shoulder’, the caption irreverently invites us [245]. Thanks to his paintaking research in public archives and private papers, Neiberg is also able to throw new light on the reactions of contemporaries, besides the published ones of protagonists like Churchill:

The head of the Czechoslovak government in exile, Eduard Beneš, who met frequently with American officials, told Eden that Hull and the Americans were frustrated that they ‘had backed Pétain and he had proved a broken reed. […]  They had burnt their fingers and were correspondingly sensitive’ to criticism at home and especially abroad. Macmillan agreed, laconically observing that ‘Americans hate backing a loser’. [216].

Macmillan’s remark applied to Pétain, but he might as well have made it in connection with Roosevelt and Hull’s next protégé, General Giraud, possibly  a fine military chief, but  a hopeless political leader. Again, the charade of the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 is extremely well documented in the existing literature, but Neiberg manages to add some contemporary comments, notably on the British side, which make his reader wonder why the American leaders did not realise that Giraud was a non-starter as the future leader of Liberated France. For Neiberg, Hull’s eyes finally opened during his visit to Algiers in October 1943. He started to lose faith in Giraud, but this did not solve the problem since the American leaderhip continued to pooh-pooh de Gaulle. Naturally the Gaullists peddled the idea that the ultre-Conservative Giraud was still a Pétainist and that among the Allies he was only backed by the Americans who continued to lean towards Pétain. In fact, Neiberg shows that this was not sheer denigration. Since Giraud had proved no good, they might keep Pétain at the end of the war. He has unearthed a note of February 1944 by Lord Halifax, the very Conservative British Ambassador in Washington, to his chief, the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, with a damning report:

Within the last week Admiral Leahy has advised the President that when Allied troops enter France, the most reliable person to whom we could look for help in rallying the French was, in his opinion, Pétain.

The note bears a marginal handwritten addition, possibly by Eden, which reads ‘We have always suspected Admiral Leahy of this’ [232]. Leahy was of course Roosevelt’s trusted friend and advisor, whom he had sent to Vichy as Ambassador. How, residing in Occupied France as he did, he could continue to entertain illusions about Pétain’s future in February 1944, is not explained in the book. How de Gaulle could now afford to take no notice of Leahy’s refusal to face facts is however perfectly explained. With Giraud a spent force in Algiers, he also had the support of the British (including Churchill in private), the encouragement of the American people – and above all the obvious endorsement of the French population.

When invited by Roosevelt to visit Washington in the first days of July 1944, de Gaulle undiplomatically put his finger on the fundamental flaw of American foreign policy as he saw it, suggesting that Hull (but no doubt he thought of the whole of the State Department élite) was ‘handicapped by his limited knowledge of everything that was not America’ [237].

The new team of American diplomats in Washington and Paris from 1945 did not try to defend the French policy of their predecessors and, in France at least, did not try to interfere with what Neiberg calls ‘the reconstruction of recent history’ [250] by the French, eager to forget the années noires of what turned out to be a civil war with foreign interference in all but name.

It can be supposed that few specialists of the diplomatic aspects of the Second World War would refuse to acknowledge Neiberg’s monograph as a splendid addition to the existing literature, especially on Franco-American relations. It deserves to a have a wide readership in the United States, far larger than the academic circles for which it is primarily intended, reminding people fed on Hollywood pap that there is more to it in their ‘good war’ than the heroic assaults at Iwo Jima, Pointe du Hoc, or other places in popular memory.

It is a pity the book cannot be recommended to young students, because the proof-reading was apparently non-existent, with many English spelling and grammatical mistakes left (‘their venality of their own government’ [164] and an atrocious ignorance of French genders (‘la Conseil’ [257 ff.]) and accords (‘L’aide américain’ [261]) in the copious notes, with many previously untapped resources listed.



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