The institution which was most disturbed by de Gaulle’s resignation was the officer corps. There was nobody left to defend the armed forces from cuts in the military budget, and many officers feared that General de Lattre de Tassigny might take advantage of the situation. The Allies too had heard rumours that de Lattre viewed himself as de Gaulle’s replacement.
De Lattre was a controversial character. His vice-regal style when commanding 1st Army from Lindau on Lake Constance, where his headquarters received some touches worthy of Versailles, led to the names of ‘Le roi Jean’ and ‘Le général soleil’. His flamboyant manner, combined with a new affinity for left-wing writers – Aragon, Elsa Triolet, Claude Roy and Roger Vailland were all invited to visit himin Germany – prompted another nickname: ‘Général le Théâtre de Marigny’.
For all his intolerance and impatience, de Lattre was undoubtedly a great military leader. A brilliant mimic, he was excellent company, and his wife was universally admired and respected. He got things done quickly, sometimes with spectacular fits of anger. But the theatrical side of his character probably had something to do with his bisexual nature. A number of officers referred to him as ‘cette femme’. General du Vigier, when asked by the Canadian military attaché how he got on with de Lattre, replied: ‘Very well indeed. I know how to handle women.’ Yet Pastor Boegner said: ‘The severe judgements made of him do not stop him from being prodigiously interesting.’
The fears of conservative French officers and the Allies centred on de Lattre’s ambition and political promiscuity: he had moved from the extreme right before the war to being a suspected fellow-traveller after it. And his resentment at having been deprived of his command in Germany to be given the empty appointment of Inspector-General seemed to magnify the risk. At a dinner in Strasbourg in November 1945, he had complained angrily to the British ambassador that he was ‘unemployed’ and did not even have an office. ‘I said, half in fun,’ Duff Cooper wrote in his diary, ‘that I heard he got on very well with the Communists these days. He didn’t deny it, and said that with the Communists one at least knew where one was.’ A high official in the Ministry of the Interior told the American Embassy that de Lattre had officially joined the Radicals, whom the Communists were trying to take over. There was a rumour that Thorez had offered de Lattre the Ministry of War, but that General Revers had warned him off. In December 1945, the Canadian military attaché told his British colleague that ‘the Communist Party had paid de Lattre’s debts, amounting to some 2 million francs. He said de Lattre was wildly extravagant and had got into serious financial difficulties.’ The rumours gathered pace after de Gaulle’s departure. On 20 March, de Lattre called on the British ambassador to say that word was going round Paris that the embassy had in its possession a Communist Party membership card in his name. Duff Cooper assured him that no such rumour had emanated from the embassy and that he would contradict it.
Like many political affairs, this one was more heavily influenced by a clash of personalities than of ideologies. Generals Juin and Lattre had loathed each other since they were at the École de Guerre together, and de Lattre wanted Juin’s job as chief of the National Defence General Staff. The two rivals, on the other hand, did agree about fighting the proposed budget cuts to the army. De Lattre told Brigadier Daly how proud he was at having ‘kept all the solid furniture in the military house, despite having lost some carpets and good pictures’. During the same meeting, there was a telephone conversation with the commandant of Saint-Cyr military academy: ‘How many pupils do you have at your school now?’ De Lattre demanded. ‘1,800 you say. Reduce them at once to 1,200. Ultimately I intend to have only 600 of the very best students, and they will be reduced gradually fromnow on. Get rid of 600 at once and explain to the boys that it’s in their best interests that they should go now. You didn’t quite hear me, you say. Well, get rid of your telephone officer for having such a bad telephone.’
General de Lattre proved that he was not in the Communist Party’s pocket by vigorously opposing their demands for a popular militia led by a very small regular cadre. Yet the wild rumours about him confirmed SHAEF in its reluctance to trust the French with intelligence. The ‘thirteenth card’ – Ultra intelligence based on intercepts of German signals traffic – had been kept from them, even though they had been closely involved in the original attempts to crack the code with an Enigma machine.*
Following de Gaulle’s departure, the spring of 1946 was a time of deep unease. The new Prime Minister, Félix Gouin, found life uncomfortable with the General’s brooding presence at Colombey-les-deux-Églises. Gouin, a Socialist lawyer from Marseilles, had defended Léon Blum when Vichy put him on trial in 1942. After the Liberation, he had become President of the Assembly and his reputation for conciliation had meant that the Communist Party did not oppose his candidature as head of government. De Gaulle despised him as a complete nonentity and referred to him as ‘le petit père Gouin’.
Over the next six months, Gouin’s administration dismantled a number of the General’s creations and proceeded with the socialist programme generated by the Liberation. The nationalization of the coal-mining industry was voted through in an hour and a half, the nationalization of the largest banks took a whole day. This was the era of tripartisme, the uneasy power-sharing of Communists, Socialists and the Christian Democrat MRP; and the first political objective of the left was the approval of a draft Constitution for the future Fourth Republic.
The Socialists, partly influenced by their traditional and visceral anti-clericalismon the subject of education, aligned themselves with the Communists against the MRP. This was a dangerous development, especially when they were still trying to establish their independence from the Communists. As a result the referendum to be held on 5 May 1946 took on a far greater significance than the issue at stake, and its unexpected outcome strongly influenced the subsequent elections planned for 2 June. The country, and the Communists themselves, began to see this plebiscite as a vote of confidence in the French Communist Party.
The spring of 1946 saw an upsurge of activity on the right. As early as 4 February, General Billotte approached Duff Cooper, hoping that His Majesty’s Government would back a ‘new political movement, a kind of centre party mainly with a view to fighting socialism’. Billotte’s use of the phrase ‘centre party’ rather strained the usual understanding of the term.
Representatives of new right-wing parties also hurried round to the American Embassy. ‘I have the honour to report,’ wrote Caffery, with a hint of acerbic relish, ‘that the Embassy has been approached by various groups, all, according to the promoters involved, enamoured with the United States. However, in each case it has developed during the course of the conversation that what they specifically had in mind was a subvention in one shape or another from the State Department.’
In electoral terms, the new right-wing parties amounted to very little. The largest was the Parti Républicain de la Liberté, an ‘anti-Communist vehicle’ to bring together elements from the pre-war right and supporters of Marshal Pétain. It had a following in Paris, but was very weak outside the city.
At this time when, in Caffery’s words, the situation was becoming ‘favourable to chaos and to men on horseback’, royalist hopes swelled. The Comte de Paris believed that he could unify the nation. Posters appeared on the walls in Paris: ‘Le Roi… Pourquoi pas?’ – a curiously diffident message in an age of political passion.
Colonel Passy was strongly against the idea of Americans or British helping right-wing groups. At a dinner with Brigadier Daly, he rightly identified the Socialist Party as the best political force to resist the Communists. But on other matters he was less prescient. The chief danger to France at the time consisted of right-wing coup attempts, which, however amateur and unlikely to succeed, risked playing straight into the hands of the Communists.
The main danger of trivial events getting out of hand stemmed from the fact that in France everyone in military and official circles seemed to be spy-obsessed. It was a legacy of the Occupation and the Resistance. ‘C’est la clandestinité qui mène l’affaire,’ a French intelligence chief acknowledged to a British colleague.
But the real problems being faced by British intelligence were in London. In 1944 Kim Philby, who later turned out to be one of the Soviet Union’s star spies, had been put in charge of the new anti-Soviet department in SIS. When Muggeridge sent back to London a report, passed to him by a ‘Colonel A’ (presumably Colonel Arnault) on the extent of Communist infiltration in the French government, an instruction came back from Philby to disregard any material from this clearly unreliable source. Philby then sent Muggeridge a questionnaire on the measures being taken by the French against Soviet infiltration. Ironically Passy’s organization, then under attack as an anti-Communist stronghold, thought it wiser not to cooperate. Even so, Passy considered most of the questions ridiculously simple – some of the answers, he said, could be found in the telephone directory. He and Soustelle suspected a British double-bluff.
Philby came to Paris at least twice. He came first in the winter of 1944–5 to visit Muggeridge, and stayed with him at the Avenue de Marigny. He paid another visit in May 1946. ‘Philby, the Communist specialist of MI6, came to see me,’ recorded Duff Cooper. ‘He hadn’t much to say that I didn’t know already.’ Yet Philby muddied the waters once more. Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, who had revived part of her ‘Ark’ intelligence network from the Resistance for use against the Communists, had kept in touch with John Bruce-Lockhart, the SIS representative in Paris. She had shown him transcripts of the most recent French Communist Party politburo meetings, and explained that she needed a substantial sum of money each month if this source was to continue. The SIS representative was convinced that the transcripts were genuine, and the senior director in London, Kenneth Cohen, who had supervised Marie-Madeleine’s operations in the war, also believed in them. But the final decision lay with the head of the section dealing with International Communism – Kim Philby. He declared that the transcripts were forgeries, mainly on the grounds of what he claimed was unconvincing Marxist-Leninist phraseology. Since he was the expert, SIS chiefs in London were not prepared to override his opinion. Fortunately, Marie-Madeleine had concealed her source well and Philby was never in a position to betray it.*
The Americans fared little better in the spring of 1946. The flood of rumours made it impossible to identify real threats. A report even circulated that the Russians were ready to invade France by parachute: D-Day would take place on 26 March. At the same moment, General Revers warned the British military attaché that ‘the Communists would create incidents on the Spanish frontier’ to force a war with Franco and get the Russians to intervene. Revers, a fanatical anti-Communist, may also have been the source of a later rumour about international brigades training near the Pyrenees to fight in the Greek civil war. In fact, the danger in the area came from the opposite direction: extreme right-wing elements within the French army had been hoping to get the Spanish army to strike across the border at Communist maquis groups.
The American ambassador passed back such stories to Washington in a weary tone. ‘The circulation of alarmist reports,’ he wrote, ‘is facilitated because the average Frenchman after the years of German occupation is prone to believe and to repeat as gospel almost any rumor no matter how fantastic it may seem. Indeed, since the Liberation stories have circulated with varying degrees of intensity that “a Communist coup is planned for next month”; often specific dates are mentioned.’ American military intelligence staff in Paris, with the honourable exception of Charlie Gray, were far less sceptical.
There can be little doubt that American intelligence in Europe was hopelessly ill-informed. A briefing on ‘Clement [sic] Fried the principal agent of Stalin in France’ warned that Fried was still very elusive. ‘Prior to the war he seldom slept in the same domicile for more than a few nights and was not known to more than eight or ten members of the French Communist Party.’ Fried – whose name was Eügen, not Clement – had indeed been the French Communist Party’s Comintern controller and Maurice Thorez’s mentor, but there was a very good reason for his elusiveness in 1946: the Gestapo had shot him dead in Belgium three years before.
It is greatly to Jefferson Caffery’s credit that he resolutely continued to discount the growing rumours of an impending Communist coup in the lead-up to the referendum of 5 May. ‘While it is difficult to state with certainty the origin and purpose of such reports, they are being circulated in American military and other circles particularly by anti-Communist French elements.’ All too often the very people circulating these reports ‘subsequently approach us informally with a view to obtaining financial or other assistance for the coming elections’.
He further argued that ‘an armed Communist uprising would not seem probable in the immediate future since the Communists would stand to lose much more than they might gain by such a gamble’. On the other hand, the Communists would certainly profit from an ‘abortive attempt’ by the ‘lunatic fringe of the Right’. This would enable them to pose as ‘the defenders of democracy against an attempt at dictatorship’.
Unfortunately, the War Department refused to heed the ambassador’s warnings that all these rumours leading up to the referendum on 5 May should be ignored. It had received a report that the Communists planned to stage a coup d’état after fomenting trouble on Monday, 6 May, the day after the referendum.
In the early hours of Friday, 3 May, the War Department sent a top-secret ‘eyes only’ signal to General MacNarney, Commanding General of US Forces European Theater, based in Frankfurt. This gave him formal authority ‘to effect movement into France in case of serious disturbance there provided that such a move in your opinion is essential to provide for security repeat security of US Forces or to secure supplies essential to them’. A reconnaissance by selected officers was permitted before the referendumof 5 May.
A signals officer in Washington, recognizing the telegram’s potentially explosive nature, contacted the code room of the State Department, suggesting that the message should be cleared on their side. An urgent meeting was called by the European department’s senior experts, John Hickerson and James Bonbright, who took the representatives from the War Department to see Dean Acheson, the Assistant Secretary of State. They reminded him that, whatever the right-wing rumour-mongers in France might be saying, a Communist coup was most unlikely.
Acheson and his colleagues expressed a very strong view that ‘General MacNarney should not be given discretionary authority to move troops into France’. They pointed out that ‘US troops moving into France to widely scattered places, in the event of civil trouble might well be misunderstood, give rise to incidents involving them, and, at the worst, might even cause the Communists to appeal to the Soviet Union and send for help on the grounds that the United States had intervened’. Not even Acheson and his subordinates in the State Department appeared to be aware of articles 3 and 4 in the Franco-Soviet pact signed by Bidault and Molotov in December 1944. That obliged either France or the Soviet Union, in the event of a threat, to take ‘all necessary measures to eliminate any fresh menace coming from Germany’. The nationality of the menace had not been specified.
The State Department team drafted an alternative set of instructions which they took to a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at 1.30 p.m. The Joint Chiefs were only prepared to make minor modifications to the original instruction to General MacNarney. Neither side would compromise further, so that afternoon Admiral Leahy, the former ambassador to Marshal Pétain, took both drafts to the President for his decision. Truman, to Acheson’s appalled disbelief, backed the War Department.
Acheson drafted a telegramto Caffery in Paris. He warned himof the situation and told him that their attempts to stop the War Department instruction had failed – but then he cancelled the signal before it was sent. This is surprising since, to the State Department’s dismay, MacNarney’s authority to move troops into France remained in force, even after Monday, 6 May, passed off without any disturbances. If Caffery ever heard of the War Department instruction, from either Acheson or anyone else, he certainly did not tell any of his colleagues.
The only satisfaction the State Department could extract from this deeply disturbing episode was in a later communication debunking the cries of wolf in Germany which had led to such an extraordinary state of affairs. On 5 June, a top-secret signal was sent to Robert Murphy, the President’s representative in Germany: ‘As you may already know the information planted… is entirely phony. The source belongs to an extreme Right Resistance group in France desiring to stir up trouble and obtain American arms and funds.’