THE WALT WHITMAN SOCIETY of Long Island called on Congress in March 1943 to revoke René de Chambrun’s American citizenship. The New York Times reported on 7 March, ‘The society charged that Count de Chambrun was “the chief instrument of the pending movement to expel a percentage of the Jews in France and responsible for the establishment, now under way, of Nazi-ized ghettos”.’ Although the accusation was far-fetched, it related to another instance of de Chambrun attempting to use his influence at Vichy. A former Jesuit priest, Abbé Joseph de Catry, had asked René for an introduction to Maréchal Pétain. Chambrun arranged for de Catry to meet Pétain’s secretary, André Lavagne. The ex-priest was promoting what he called ‘Christian anti-Judaism’ to ‘restore the dignity of Judaism and to effect its concentration in a Jewish state’. For a time, Vichy considered this as a possible way around Catholic and American opposition to its collaboration with the Nazis in deporting Jews to Poland. Joseph de Catry had a Jewish ally, Kadmi Cohen, whom the Germans had released under suspicious circumstances in late 1941 from internment at the Compiègne camp. Cohen, a Revisionist or right-wing Zionist, made an appeal to the Germans similar to that made by mainstream Zionist leaders, like Chaim Weizmann, to the British: that Germany sponsor a Jewish State in Palestine, Transjordan and the Sinai peninsula that would defend German interests. De Catry’s ‘Masada’ programme required the Germans to expel the British from the Middle East, something Rommel’s Afrikakorps had failed to do at El Alamein in November 1942. André Lavagne thought the plan ‘could lift the very black cloud that hangs over [France] because of an excessively violent antisemitic policy’. When the Catholic hierarchy disowned de Catry, Pétain’s advisers lost faith in the scheme. So did the Germans, who eventually killed Kadmi Cohen at Auschwitz.
Suspicion of René de Chambrun grew in Allied circles. In July 1943, Britain’s Ministry of Economic Warfare, in a secret memo to the British Embassy in Buenos Aires, accused de Chambrun of ‘organizing a series of holding companies in order to conceal transactions carried out on behalf of the Germans, the object of which is to place looted property in security. Pierre Laval, himself, is the brains behind the scheme.’ No evidence emerged to prove the charge, but a careful watch was nonetheless kept on de Chambrun and his friend, fellow Franco-American lawyer François Monahan. Someone began supplying the American press with allegations about René de Chambrun designed to embarrass his family in Ohio, as well as his cousins, the Roosevelts.
Charles Bedaux was the subject of investigation and negotiation, not only in Washington, but in France. Although his arrest made headlines in the German-supported Paris press for only a day, both Vichy and the German occupiers had a residual interest in the millionaire. His name came up when François Monahan went to Lourdes in December 1942 to see the American diplomats interned at the Hôtel des Ambassadeurs. United Press correspondent Ralph Heinzen, who was interned with his wife at another hotel in Lourdes, believed that Monahan was representing Pierre Laval in an effort to reopen a Vichy–Washington channel after the break in relations. Monahan thought that Bedaux might act as an intermediary between Laval, who naively hoped to negotiate peace between Germany and the Allies, and Robert Murphy in Algiers.
André Enfière, a secret member of Charles de Gaulle’s Committee of National Resistance, chanced upon a German interest in Bedaux while he was in Paris seeking the release from Vichy custody of the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Edouard Herriot. Herriot’s defiant speech at Vichy in July 1940 had been praised by American Ambassador William Bullitt as ‘the single example of courage and dignity during the dreary afternoon’. Herriot had subsequently been arrested for condemning Maréchal Pétain’s award of the Legion of Honour in August 1942 to the pro-Nazi Legion of French Volunteers Against Bolshevism. Pétain, who had little regard for parliament or its members, confined Herriot in various locations, including Vittel and Nancy, far from his home in Breteil. Herriot was an old man, whose health suffered from the moves. Enfière’s concern for his well-being was combined with his respect for a man who represented the Third Republic. In his and de Gaulle’s view, the Republic’s abolition in July 1940 was illegitimate because it had been coerced by Nazi bayonets. To ameliorate Herriot’s condition and have him available to reconvene parliament when the Germans left, Enfière, to his distaste, negotiated with Vichy politicians Georges Bonnet and Pierre Laval.
It became clear that the Germans had the final word regarding Herriot, so Enfière appealed to Charles Bedaux’s friend in the Hôtel Majestic, Dr Franz Medicus. Medicus, whom Enfière believed was anti-Nazi, confessed he was powerless to do anything and advised him to approach the Gestapo in avenue Foch. Despite the fear with which all Frenchmen not in Nazi pay had of the Gestapo, Enfière went to them several times on Herriot’s behalf. But it was not until he contacted Dr Keller at the German Embassy that progress seemed possible.
Dr Keller worked in an undefined role at the embassy, described merely as ‘observer’, possibly reporting to Admiral Wilhelm Canaris’s military intelligence agency, the Abwehr. His alcohol-induced indiscretions were known even to the American Embassy in Vichy, which received a report on him from a Brazilian diplomat in 1942. Keller, in a drunken outburst at a party in Paris, revealed, ‘The Germans are going to eliminate General Weygand from Africa because he was conspiring with the United States against German interests. As soon as the military situation in Russia is stabilized, pressure will be applied to France for use of the Africa bases, with a guarantee of French sovereignty in the African colonies if permission to use the bases is conceded and a threat to take the colonies if the request is not granted.’ Keller’s gaffe gave weight to those in Washington who favoured invading French North Africa before the Germans did. Keller was nothing if not a loose cannon, but he somehow retained his job. Enfière disliked him from their first meeting. He wrote, ‘Dr Keller was a repulsive personality, while giving the appearance of an honest man, cunning, restless, ambitious, fanatic, without being a Nazi officially (so he pretended), a lecher who without shame used the most repugnant means to satisfy his lewd desires on women who wanted to save a husband or a son who had been arrested.’
Enfière used ‘flattery and alcohol’ on Keller, who arranged the transfer of Herriot and his wife from Nancy to the suburbs of Paris. But Herriot’s physician insisted that the only cure for his patient was rest at home in Breteil. Keller was willing to accede to the doctor’s wishes on one condition: ‘Dr Keller let me know that one could obtain the return of Herriot to Breteil in exchange for a person in the hands of the Allies, a person to whom the German police seemed to attach extraordinary importance and to me was totally unexpected. He proposed the engineer Charles Bedaux … Keller’s remark astonished me.’ Keller added, ‘This man is essential to us. Have him released, and we’ll give you Herriot back.’
Knowing the Americans would not release Bedaux, Enfière had no power to make a trade. But Keller’s unexpected request made him curious about the American millionaire:
I must admit that I had underestimated Mr Bedaux’s importance in world affairs. Gladstone is said to have told a young Member of Parliament, ‘The truly powerful of this world are not necessarily those the public knows.’ Was this Mr Bedaux such a man?
All of a sudden, Keller informed me the Bedaux affair faced other obstacles that he had, at first, remained silent about. An amazing amount of the finest French cognac loosened his tongue. I got information on internal struggles among the police, the German army and the diplomatic corps. If I understood correctly, it would seem the diplomatic staff and the moderate factions of both the police and the army (the factions who took it for granted that the war was lost and therefore tried to find a compromise peace) wanted at all cost to have the safety of this Bedaux. Those in favour of all-out war could not have cared less about leaving him with the enemy, if only because, thanks to his connections, he would have been able to initiate conversations likely to hasten the war’s end.
Enfière at that time could do nothing more for Herriot, who was returned to Nancy. Nor could he help Charles Bedaux. In captivity, Bedaux was unaware that the German peace camp had interceded for him. Enfière resumed his activities as agent Lamballe, reporting to Allen Dulles of the OSS, who favoured talking to anti-Nazi Germans about overthrowing Hitler and making peace, and Charles de Gaulle, who did not. Roosevelt and Churchill had settled the policy at their Casablanca summit in January 1943: the Allies demanded nothing less than Germany’s ‘unconditional surrender’.
While Charles Bedaux reminisced with his son in Algeria, the one he wished he had had, Frederic Ledebur, was being tailed by the FBI in California and New York. FBI agents there interviewed everyone who knew him, and they kept a close watch on his activities, opened his mail and reported regularly on him to J. Edgar Hoover. Many of the sources the FBI relied upon, as it delved deeper into Ledebur’s affairs, contradicted previous denunciations of him as a pro-Nazi immigrant taking pictures of West Coast naval bases. An FBI intelligence report of 8 April 1943 concluded, ‘No indication subject engaging in espionage or distributing Nazi propaganda.’ One source helpfully suggested that ‘he still wants U.S. citizenship in order to join U.S. Army’. Nonetheless, the FBI had its doubts about Lebedur: ‘Acquaintances characterize subject as improvident, lazy, immoral individual.’
Interest in Bedaux reached the highest levels of American and British intelligence. A working committee meeting in New York of the Hemisphere Intelligence Conference, which grouped together senior American and British spymasters, discussed Bedaux at length on 24 March 1943. It suggested that ‘Watchdog’, one of their most important spies in Germany, be contacted about Bedaux. The minutes of the monthly meeting listed two questions for Watchdog. The first concerned a new type of ship locater that the German navy had reportedly installed in the conning towers of its U-boats. The committee wanted to know if Watchdog, on a recent trip to the Canadian coast aboard a U-boat, noticed anyone stationed in the submarine’s conning tower. The second question was, ‘Did Watchdog, who was in North Africa at the same time as Charles Bedaux, know or hear of him there? As both Bedaux and Watchdog were allegedly associated with the German Armistice Commission, it was thought that Watchdog might produce additional evidence of Bedaux’s security activities at that time.’ Bedaux had no connection to the Armistice Commission, but a general from the commission had displaced him from his room at the Hôtel Aletti on the night of the invasion. He may have been the same Armistice Commission officer who was captured by the American army and placed in a prisoner of war camp in Trinidad, Colorado. The FBI interrogated the German in September 1943 on the case of ‘Charles Eugene Bedaux;–(Mission Bedaux); Trading with the enemy’. The FBI was nothing if not thorough in its pursuit of evidence in the Bedaux case. The main problem was that none of Bedaux’s friends in the United States, including Frederic Ledebur, had seen him since the United States and Germany went to war in December 1941.