Volume #14 - 1058.|
EUROPE, THE SOVIET UNION AND THE MIDDLE EAST
Ambassador in France|
to Secretary of State for External Affairs
May 31st, 1948|
The increasing tension between the Soviet Union and the West and particularly the situation which has developed in Berlin have inevitably had serious repercussions in France. It may therefore he of some value at this time to attempt to estimate the reactions of opinion in this country towards the possibility of war. Although at times I shall be discussing gloomy possibilities I should not like to give the impression that I believe an outbreak of war with the U.S.S.R. to be inevitable. I do feel, however. that the time has come when the state of French preparedness, both moral and material, is a very important factor in the struggle between East and West which should be considered with all its implications.
2. The attitude of the French people in the face of the threat of another war can only be understood if one bears in mind all they have been through in the last ten years. These have been years of strain and shock which have left the French not only materially weakened but emotionally exhausted. They are in no mood for heroic enterprises. On the contrary, they want to go about their own business and pleasure peaceably and in reasonably prosperous circumstances. Their principal preoccupation is with the multitude of daily difficulties and shortages which interfere with their return to normal life as they knew it before the war. Most of them are more interested in the price of food than in any Cause. A symptom of this state of mind is the passivity of the French under trials and provocations which in any other period of French history would probably have produced an explosion of popular feeling. Again and again in the last two or three years it has been freely prophesied that France was on the eve of civil war. Certainly the Communists have done their best to foment trouble, but the people have refused to respond. They seem to have lost their traditional taste for the barricades. They want to avoid trouble at home as well as abroad. If geography allowed them to be so, the French might be quite as isolationist in another war as the mid-West States of the United States were in 1939. Indeed the daydream of the French might well be to tow France out into the mid-Atlantic as far as possible from the Continent of Europe and there find a haven of rest. Failing this, as the widespread desire to emigrate shows, many Frenchmen would like to remove themselves physically from the soil of France.
3. But as France is obliged to remain part of the European Continent and as the French people are unable to leave their country in any numbers, they realize that if war comes they will be involved. They feel that they are trapped by geography. The doctrine which Petain endeavoured to inculcate that France was paying by her sufferings for her past sins is now less popular than ever before. But the vogue of existentialist philosophy (popularly understood, or misunderstood) reflects the fatalism and the claustrophobia which are the legacy of defeat and occupation. Indeed the last wars have left such scars on European civilization that many Europeans ask themselves whether anything, even submission to tyranny, could be worse than another war. Perhaps the fate of Jan Masaryk may be considered as symbolic of this state of mind. Masaryk was willing, in order to spare his people a civil war, to collaborate with the Communists. He preferred submission to fighting but in the end he preferred death to either.
4. It must be remembered too that the French have already experienced one crusade against Communism. The Vichy regime drew its support from those who believed that Communism was the principal danger to European civilization. The French now see Vichy personalities reappearing not only in the worlds of business and the arts, but even in political life and such people are in a position to say to their fellow Frenchmen - "We told you so. What was the use of defeating Germany in order to clear the way for a Soviet invasion of Western Europe? Why did you waste your time in resisting the Germans when if the counsels of Marshal Petain had been followed the Western nations, including Germany, would have united against the Communist peril, which is now exactly what they are attempting to do?" Such a swing, however slight, of the political pendulum so soon after the struggle of the Resistance against Vichy is apt to breed cynicism and bewilderment in the mind of the average man.
5. Apart from these psychological and political influences there are the more tangible questions of the pattern which war might be expected to follow and the state of French military preparedness. It seems to be very generally assumed in this country that war would mean the early occupation of France by the Soviet Armies, that, at any rate at the beginning, it would be waged by the United States primarily by means of air bombardment and the use of the atomic bomb. Whether such a conception of the war is tenable is for the moment beside the point. The important - and unfortunate - thing from the point of view of French morale is that it is widely held. Most French people would agree, I believe, that the United States would eventually win a war against the Soviet Union and that France would in the end be liberated. But this is a remote consolation.
6. The reports of our Service Attachés, based on information from French military and air sources, and the conversations which I have had with members of the Government and responsible officials, give the measure of French military weakness. The fact is that if war were to break out now the French authorities do not consider that it would be possible to defend the soil of France for more than a matter of weeks or, in the view of the more pessimistic, of days. I do not propose here to go into details concerning the weakness of the French in arms and equipment. Suffice to say that there is an appalling shortage of tanks, guns and ammunition and that little or no progress has so far been made in standardization of weapons between the British, French and Americans, so that the French could not be readily supplied from British or United States sources. The condition of the Air Force is deplorable. Almost all the planes are obsolescent and there are too few even of these. It would take months or even years to divert French factories to the production of equipment, ammunition and aeroplanes. In addition to the dangerous weakness of her defences, France suffers from the presence inside the country of a fifth column which in the event of war with the Soviet Union would be immeasurably more numerous and very much better organized than any which the Nazis could count upon in 1939 and 1940. The Communists gained first-hand experience of underground fighting in the Resistance. They are well trained in sabotage, expert in defeatist propaganda and in the technique of terrorism. It is more than probable that as the Soviet Armies advanced across the French frontiers or their airborne troops descended upon French cities, the Communists would rise, according to preconcerted plans, in all the principal centres of France. It is certain that in the event of Soviet occupation a French Communist Government would be installed in this country. The fate of France under Soviet occupation and with a Communist puppet regime in power is painful to contemplate. It is very doubtful whether France could ever recover from such a further ordeal. Certainly it would leave behind it a prostrate country in which divisions between Frenchmen had been intensified by all the horrors of ruthless class warfare.
7. I have emphasized the darkest possibilities in order to bring into relief the fears which haunt the French people when they contemplate the possibility of war. It is a remarkable fact that knowing the extent of their own weakness the French Government should have taken so firm an attitude in the face of recent Soviet pressure and they deserve a good deal of credit for their courage in doing so.
8. The only conclusion that one can draw from the present situation is that the French in their present state could not be effective allies in any war waged in the near future. Speedy rearmament and re-equipment of the French forces is therefore an urgent necessity, but decisions as to timing do not depend on the French Government alone. No Frenchman deludes himself that the Treaty of Brussels has any value as a weapon of defense against Soviet attack without the military backing of the United States. In fact, as M. Bidault said to me when I saw him on March 11th (see my Secret telegram No. 152 of that date) , &dagger without the support of the United States the Treaty might appear to be provocative without having sufficient backing to be effective. Meanwhile, it is of course all to the good that the staff talks between France, the Benelux countries and the United Kingdom provided for in the Brussels Treaty should go forward, that plans should be laid down, that the standardization of weapons in so far as tins is practicable should be achieved and that the integration of defensive strategy should be arrived at. All this, France and the other Western European nations can do for themselves. But every month which Ieaves France and the other nations of the Western European Continent totally exposed to Soviet invasion is dangerous. The present situation presents a standing temptation to the Soviet Union to attack while there is nothing to block their path. There is no doubt that the formal adherence of the U.S. to the Brussels Treaty would be a valuable gesture of political and moral solidarity but the really important thing, from the point of view of the French, is that they should be furnished with the resources which would enable them to make a stand on their own frontiers and that they should know that the Americans will fight side by side with them in Europe to defend French soil from invasion.
9. The question of the future of Germany is so intimately linked with that of France that it is impossible to discuss one without considering the other. The French, as we all know, are still very frightened of the possibility of German military revival. They thus have a double cause for fear - from the Soviet Union and from Germany. In this, their position is different from that of the United Kingdom or the United States where there does not seem to be much real fear of Germany left. The pattern of French thought regarding Germany has come out again and again in conversations which we have had with members of the French Foreign Office. They dread the possibility that the United States and United Kingdom Governments, obsessed with the threat which the Soviet Union offers, will re-create a centralized and militarily powerful Western German state as a buffer against the Soviet Union. This possibility alarms the French for several reasons. In the first place, they fear that if the Germans once recovered their independence of action and their industrial and military power they might betray the cause of the West and ally themselves with the Soviet Union, as Hitler did in 1939. This is their more remote cause for alarm. In the more immediate future they are worried lest the recreation of a powerful German state should prompt the Soviet Union to immediate counter-measures. On several occasions recently Frenchmen in responsible positions have expressed the view that the rearmament of Germany, if it ever occurred, would precipitate a Soviet attack on the West. Added to these two preoccupations about Germany which are in a sense contradictory, the French have a third source of anxiety. They are concerned lest a revived Western Germany should be favoured at their expense by the United States. French fear of Germany, however well justified, inevitably makes for divided aims in their long-term strategic thinking, for they cannot concentrate their whole attention on the Soviet danger so long as they are thinking in tenus of the German menace also. Moreover, the German question has important repercussions in French domestic politics as it affords the Communist Party the opportunity to play on French fears of German revival and to represent the Anglo-Saxon countries as putting the interests of Germany above those of France. For all these reasons it is most desirable that the French point of view over the form of the future German Government should receive sympathetic consideration in London and Washington. Even if it does not prove possible to fall in with the main French demands (the French Government have already made very extensive concessions) every effort should be made to save the face of the French Government and not expose them to damaging Communist attacks on this sensitive subject.
10. Among the factors involved in French preparedness either to face the threat of war or to play their full part in a defensive alliance, not the least important is the political one. The reactions of the main French political parties are becoming more and more clearly defined as the crisis deepens, for the middle of the road attitude which sought to strike a balance between the United States on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other in foreign affairs, and between General de Gaulle on the one hand and the French Communist Party on the other in domestic affairs, becomes more and more impossible to maintain. Every stage in the deterioration of relations between East and West strengthens the extreme elements in French politics to the disadvantage of the Troisième Force. This development accourus for the importance of General de Gaulle and the R.P.F.11 in French political life. There is a. strong probability that in the event of war, or even of an international situation. which contained the direct threat of war, General de Gaulle would come to power in France. This is a prospect which certainly does not appeal to the United Kingdom Government nor, I should suppose, to the Government of the United States. General de Gaulle and the R.P.F. have had a bad press in Anglo-Saxon countries. [ do not think that the United States or United Kingdom Embassies in Paris have much direct contact with R.P.F. circles. In this Embassy. however, we have made a point of keeping in discreet touch with members of the R.P.F. and, as you know, have reported at some length on the policy and personalities of the movement. Because they disapprove of much of General de Gaulle's political programme and of many of his entourage it would be unfortunate indeed if London and Washington were to underestimate the importance of the R.P.F. or the possibility of his coming to power in the event of an international crisis. For we may all find ourselves obliged one day to cooperate with General de Gaulle as the head of a French Government. The essential point about General de Gaulle's policy is that it is an emergency or war policy. His concentration on the idea of national unity, his appeals vo French pride and patriotism, are intended to strengthen the will of France to resist Communist infiltration or invasion. This obsession may also account for the notorious weaknesses of the R.P.F. programme in its more constructive aspects. Granted his own premise - the inevitability of the struggle with Communism - the most damaging criticism that can be made against General de Gaulle is not that his policy is weak on the side of economic and social planning or even that it exalts the power of the executive, for in war long-term constructive planning must go to the wall Gand the executive inevitably takes on additional powers. The real question is whether General de Gaulle would be able to unify France in time of crisis or whether his presence at the head of the Government would not rather intensify existing divisions and make national unity even more difficult to attain.
11. General de Gaulle is no doubt fully informed of the weaknesses of the French military position. He is also evidently perturbed at the pessimistic attitude with which many Frenchmen regard the fate of their country in the event of war. With reference to the conception that war will mean the occupation of France and 'the departure of the French Army for North Africa, he said in a recent speech at Marseilles, "Nous tiendrions pour criminelle une politique et une stratégie qui sous prétexte qu'il existe ailleurs de foudroyantes bombes atomiques, abandonneraient délibérément le sol de la métropole d'abord à l'invasion des uns, puis aux bombardements des autres."
12. The significance of this statement is that General de Gaulle protested openly against the fatalistic acceptance of the idea of Soviet occupation in the event of war and demanded that plans should be made now for the defence of the soil of France. As you know, M. Teitgen,12 the Minister of National Defense, shares this view that the battle for Europe must take place in Europe itself and East of the Rhine if possible, and not in North Africa.
13. The M.R.P.13 members of the Government need no prodding from General de Gaulle to realize the gravity of the present situation nor do they lack clear-sightedness in facing its implications. You will recall that in my Top Secret despatch No. 16 of the 12th Januaryt I gave an account of a talk which I had had with M. Teitgen, in which he put the essentials of the problem with remarkable frankness and clarity. You will remember that he went straight to the point by saying that the United States must answer the question "do you mean to meet the Soviet attack in Germany itself or, if not in Germany, will you fight in any event on the Rhine?" M. Teitgen followed up his analysis of the situation with a series of suggested steps, some of which seemed bold and even startling at the time although since then the Western European powers have moved a long way in the direction which he indicated.
14. Unfortunately the Socialist Ministers in the Government do not show a similar degree of realism. Under pressure from the rank and file of their party they are still opposing the 18 months period for military training and their attitude on defense problems in general is less firm than that of their M.R.P. colleagues. In all probability the Socialist members of the Government appreciate the realities of the situation clearly enough but the fissures within the party are serious. In the event of a real show-down with the Soviet Union it seems very likely that the Socialist Party would split. The party leaders and M. Blum, foremost among them, have not yet dared to look the possibility of war in the face. It is symptomatic of this state of mind that in the last Socialist Congress the Party committed itself once again to a resolution condemning the Communist Party and General de Gaulle's R.P.F. movements as equal dangers to France. It is natural enough that British Socialists should have a special regard for the French Socialist Party - the leaders of the two parties have a long tradition of comradeship and share the same political ideals. It is to be hoped that this does not blind the United Kingdom Government to the increasing divisions in the French Socialist Party. It would be a mistake to lean too heavily on the French Socialists for support for they are apt to prove - if not a broken reed - a reed which would break under any undue strain.
15. I have already discussed the Communist attitude in the event of war. I need only add that every element of weakness and disunion is grist to the Communist mill.
16. If it is possible to draw any general conclusions from the above, I should like to emphasize that:
(a) France has perhaps never in her history been more helplessly exposed to foreign invasion as she is at the present;
(b) war in the near future might find the mass of the French people passive and acquiescent as they might feel that resistance in such conditions was an impossibility;
(c) the continuance of this situation is acutely dangerous;
(d) only the knowledge that the United States are prepared to arm and equip the French forces for the defense of French frontiers and to fight side by side with them to defend the soil of France from occupation will create a firm will to resistance in France;
(e) in the event of war it is probable that General de Gaulle will be at the head of the French Government whether we like it or not and that his importance and that of his movement should therefore not be under-estimated.
17. I have not touched on the part which Canada might play in strengthening the defensive alliance of the Western European powers against the danger of Soviet aggression. This is of course a matter of high policy but any indication which you might be able to give me from time to time of our Government's intentions in this respect would be of the utmost interest.
18. I am sending copies of this despatch to our Missions at London, Brussels and The Hague.
I have etc.
11Rassemblement du peuple français.
12Paul-Henri Teitgen, ministre des Forces armées de France. Paul-Henri Teitgen, Minister of Armed Forces of France.
13Mouvement républicain populaire.