France-Amérique: American leadership was flabbergasted when France fell in June 1940, even more than the French themselves. Did the U.S. overestimate the French military and underestimate the Nazi threat?
Michael S. Neiberg: I think everyone did. Even many senior Germans were surprised by their success. For the Americans, an assumption of French strength let them believe what they most wanted to believe, namely that they did not need to rearm and could retain an isolationist policy towards the crisis in Europe.
You write that the U.S. felt safe and comfortable with reducing military spending during the two world wars because it thought France and its empire guaranteed the stability of the world order. Is this the opposite situation of NATO today, with France limiting its military spending by excessively relying on America?
France has a high military budget and a very modern, efficient military. It has obligations beyond NATO, including major operations in Africa. There may be a debate to be had about the balance of how France allocates its military resources, but France is a cornerstone of western defense and anti-terror strategies both within NATO and on its own. With the U.K. gone, France is undeniably the most important military player in the European Union.
You describe FDR as a Vichy supporter throughout your book and you write that he underestimated the three French leaders, Philippe Pétain, Pierre Laval, and François Darlan, failing to see them as actual Nazi allies and not as neutral as they pretended to be. Is this true?
They were not neutral. All three saw a close relationship with Germany as advancing France’s goals. I think in their minds, Pétain, Laval, and Darlan thought that they were doing the best they could for France given the collapse of the Third Republic. Laval went the furthest. He thought he could outwit the Germans at the coming peace conference and thereby minimize the damage. Darlan argued that as long as France kept its fleet and empire, it remained a first-rank power. If they could keep good relations with the U.S. while maintaining pro-German behavior, all the better. If not, they would favor Germany every time. All three were stridently anti-British and looked to compensate for future French losses to the Germans and Italians by gaining parts of the British empire. Of course, the British never gave in and so there never was a postwar Axis-run peace conference.
FDR despised de Gaulle, whom the British supported, nearly until the Normandy landings when the U.S. finally recognized that he was the new, legitimate French leader. Why did the Americans and the British not see eye to eye on de Gaulle?
A large part of the answer lies in Africa. Charles de Gaulle and the British shared an interest in gaining the loyalty of France’s African colonies and getting them to flip from Vichy. For de Gaulle, getting African support would validate his claim to be the leader of France. Félix Eboué did just that in August 1940, declaring Chad the first part of the empire to be loyal to de Gaulle. By working with him and de Gaulle, the British would gain an ally in ridding Africa of Axis colonies like Ethiopia. American leaders did not see a similar overlap of interests until as late as June 1944.
Do you think this hostility from FDR vis-à-vis de Gaulle explains de Gaulle’s hostility towards the U.S. when he returned to power in 1958?
No, I think de Gaulle was too good a politician to be blinded by his resentment. He recognized that state interests were the driving factor in international relations. He may have been bitter at the United States under FDR for working with Vichy, Henri Giraud, and Darlan, but by 1958 he believed that he had to protect French core interests such as Algeria and an independent foreign policy separate from a United States seeking to curtail them.
Tell us about René de Chambrun and his role during the Vichy regime as Pétain’s envoy to the U.S. Was he that influential?
Chambrun was related through his mother to the Roosevelts, and a descendent of the Marquis de Lafayette. He came to the U.S. early in the crisis of 1940 and met with FDR and anyone else who would listen to him. He presented a vision of a France that, despite defeat, wanted good relations with the United States and would fight to keep France both neutral and anti-communist. Given the shock of 1940, that vision certainly was alluring. He remained a key player in French-American relations for decades.
You recall that the U.S. bombings destroyed more of France than the Germans did, and that the GIs did not always behave well towards the French they liberated. Do you think this helps explain the French anti-Americanism after the war?
Maybe in part, but I don’t think it’s a main driver. Years ago, I was invited to a dinner given by a French general. I sat next to his wife, who was a child in Normandy in 1944. She told me of her family having to hide in cellars to protect themselves from Allied bombers. She told me her father was very angry about it, but over time came to understand and forgive it. I think that’s a fairly typical reaction. The anti-Americanism of the postwar period has its roots more in stark differences in American and French visions of the world, along with differences in foreign policy aims in the 1950s and 1960s.
Overall, your book reveals that U.S. leadership was not very well informed about France and the French. Is this a permanent characteristic of American geopolitics, ignoring other nations until it is too late, as was the case in Vietnam and Afghanistan?
It is not solely an American problem. I have met a lot of Americans who do not understand France at all. Equally, I have met a lot of French people who do the same when they look at the U.S. The problem only gets worse when dealing with a society as different from the West as China or Afghanistan. I tell my friends on both sides of the French-American relationship that they should begin by understanding, then only criticize after much thought and discussion. It is not easy to do, but it is much better than a reflexive assumption of bad will on the part of the other side.
When France Fell: The Vichy Crisis and the Fate of the Anglo-American Alliance by Michael S. Neiberg, Harvard University Press, 2021.