Oral History Interview with
French diplomat who served as Ambassador to the United States of America, 1944-55.
Henri Lucien Bonnet
June 29, 1970
by Theodore A. Wilson
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate
the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Opened June, 1987
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
Henri Lucien Bonnet
June 29, 1970
by Theodore A. Wilson
WILSON: You were appointed in late 1944, as I recall.
BONNET: That's it.
WILSON: Presented your credentials in January 1945.
BONNET: The first of January.
I wonder if you might begin by giving your impressions of President Roosevelt at that time?
BONNET: It would be a pleasure. I had great admiration for President Roosevelt, as did everybody in Western Europe at that time. I was grateful for what he had done for helping to liberate our countries. I was struck when I saw him, by the false impression,
unfortunately, that he was still in fairly good health. I knew that he had had two or three full weeks of rest at his country place, but he was gay, and he wanted to chat with me. Two or three times General [Edwin M.] Watson came in to indicate discreetly that people were waiting, but President Roosevelt did not pay attention. He continued asking me for information about the economic situation in France, and on various things. He'd joke with General Watson, and finally I left with the impression that he was still strong and able to face the heavy duties he had. Unfortunately, I did not have a good impression from the point of view of health, because 20 days later, for the inauguration, he looked more tired; and you know what happened later.
BONNET: Anyway, I keep a vivid souvenir of that first conversation. I left him with greater confidence still, in the way that victory would be used for the good of our two countries.
WILSON: Was he reasonable with you about American-French relations at that time? There had been some difficulty, of course.
BONNET: There had been some difficulties, but they were certainly minimized. He told me that his position had been badly interpreted concerning his feelings for General de Gaulle. He spoke, I remember, rather warmly of the French resistance inside the country against the German troops. I had really a good impression from the public declarations made some days later. In the State of the Union message he made a very strong and frank declaration that France would recuperate and fight again in the world affairs, after its complete victory. I've used the quotation several times in which he spoke very, very firmly about not only the French-American relations, but also about the importance of France in world affairs. From that point of view, I had no doubt that it would be possible to renew friendly and easy relations between the two countries. I had no illusions either, for I knew that there would be some difficulties, and that France
would need aid and help -- that would raise some problems.
The first time I met Harry Truman, he was Vice President-elect, but not Vice President. I had to pay official visits, first to the President and then to the Vice President. I paid my official visit to Henry Wallace, who was Vice President, but I asked for an appointment with the Vice President-elect. In the first days of January, a few days after having seen President Roosevelt, I went to the Senate and I had the first conversation with Senator Truman, Vice President-elect. I was very, very glad for having done that because we spoke about the war, about desecration, for perhaps a quarter of an hour, or twenty minutes. I had had twenty minutes with President Roosevelt about the same thing, and later a friendly conversation with President Truman, who spoke about the French situation. He was pleased, of course, as I was about the coming victory, and he asked me about the situation. I explained to him that France was liberated and the people were enthusiastic about the help of the American Army.
I had seen that with my own eyes, of course, but I explained also that France was bled white. There were no supplies, nothing in the shops, and thousands of the bridges and railway stations had been destroyed. He knew all that, but he was very much interested in hearing me. I had the impression that he was really in the same line of thinking as President Roosevelt from that point of view. One of the more important reasons we had to be grateful to President Roosevelt was that in early '41 he got the lend-lease bill through the Congress. In my opinion, lend-lease meant that there should be in the future, at the end of the war, an equitable and just division of the losses, that is, financial and economic losses between the Allies. That would mean we would not have again the quarrel like that of the debts after the First World War. From that first, short, casual talk I had with President Truman, I brought back a strong and just impression, that he had the same conceptions and the necessary solidarity between the Allies.
WILSON: You did have the impression that he was well-informed about these problems?
BONNET: Certainly. While we did not discuss them in detail, he realized what the situation was in Europe. I had entered the necessity of a complete solidarity, not only during the war, but for reorganizing the world. That was also the impression that I had had from the speeches given by President Roosevelt: the State of the Union and the declaration he made some days before to the Congress, on the 3rd day of January. In that speech he mentioned the situation in France and his conception of the help and the role my country would have later on.
WILSON: That's very interesting.
What was the organization of the French Embassy when you came to the Embassy? Were you also in charge of the arrangements for lend-lease in the United States, or was that a separate agency?
BONNET: No. I reopened the Embassy that had been closed for two years, and I reorganized it. But, there was
an economic mission under the head of Jean Monnet.
WILSON: Oh, yes.
BONNET: You'll see him, no?
WILSON: Yes, I hope so.
BONNET: Jean Monnet had a group of collaborators with him, and when we were in Algiers, he and I were members of the provisional government. He had been sent to the United States to discuss questions of rearming the French troops in Africa and to discuss the lend-lease affairs. Later, when I was in Washington, he was still there and was dealing with all those questions with a great competence, and he had certainly inspired full confidence in President Roosevelt and his associates.
WILSON: With whom did you deal primarily in that first period, with the United States administration? With Stettinius, I suppose, and then Byrnes as Secretary of State?
WILSON: Are there any particular people in the Department of State that you might think about?
BONNET: I cannot name all of them.
BONNET: Certainly I had a close collaboration with Secretary Stettinius, and a very close collaboration with Jimmy Byrnes, and his associate. I was a good friend of Ben Cohen for instance.
WILSON: Oh, you were?
BONNET: Yes, surely.
WILSON: He was very important.
Did you have the impression that in this period of transition, after the President's untimely death, that there was perhaps a natural confusion about the direction American policy would take, or was President Roosevelt's policy carried through pretty much without any change?
BONNET: You mean carried out by President Truman?
WILSON: Yes, and the administration generally.
BONNET: I had the impression that there was a feeling in some circles, which felt that that would not be the case; that President Truman maybe was more conservative than President Roosevelt. That's the impression I got from conversations on the day of his death, and the day after, with people important politically or socially in the United States. It was not my impression because I had had that first conversation with President Truman. Furthermore, a few days later, I had a conversation with a gentleman who was a great friend of President Truman. He was a man from Missouri, and he did not stay long in Washington. But he told me about the character, and the mood of President Truman. He told me not to believe that there was some weakness in him, just the contrary. He was very enthusiastic about him. He told me, he's a man of steel, on the contrary, very strong-willed, and you shall see that. I had been struck by that relation -- coming from one of his colleagues.
WILSON: Yes, exactly.
BONNET: I'm sure he was right, because I had many opportunities to see that he was right. So, personally, I had no great fear of a change in the political line. First, it would not have been easy, because the victory was in sight, yet not still there. There was no doubt about the patriotism of President Truman, about his determination to renewal, and he assured that later on. Concerning his political convictions, I have always been very interested in American politics, and I had the impression that he was a convinced Democrat. Consequently, he was not very different from the point of view from President Roosevelt.
WILSON: There has been considerable controversy among historians in the United States, about the origins of the cold war. Concerning the dating of the origins of the cold war, there is one view that President Roosevelt was still trying, at the time of his death, and still hopeful that there could be some understanding between the United States and the Soviet
Union. According to this view, President Truman immediately took a much harder line toward the Russians. Might you comment on that?
BONNET: That is a question that I followed as closely as I could. Undoubtedly, President Roosevelt had hoped that there could be a good understanding between the Allies after the common victory and, primarily, an understanding with the Russians.
BONNET: There is no doubt about that. If President Truman had had a different opinion from Roosevelt it would not have pleased public opinion in your country because there was a great enthusiasm. The world is right about the Russian help, and about the Russian victories. Litvinov was a very popular man in the United States. He was a genius, too, when touring the United States' great cities and giving speeches. President Roosevelt had support of public opinion and, in that respect, nobody felt that the Russians would separate themselves from the rest of the world. That was not the
question when President Truman came into power. In my opinion, that question did not exist, for everybody thought that there could be a certain amount of understanding. Of course, deeply in American opinion there was an anti-Communist feeling and there is no doubt about that, and it was very strong among the members of Congress. But, there was no question of what became the cold war.
There is a legend in Europe about the relations with Russia, that I called the Yalta legend. I wrote some articles disputing the legend that the world was divided in two parts. At Yalta, there was Stalin and Roosevelt, but the legend is not true. One has only to read the complete transcripts of Yalta to see that it is not true at all. Yalta was devoted partly to the organizations of the United Nations, and politically there was the false hope that democratic governments would be established in central Europe. The truth is that President Roosevelt, if he had lived longer, would have seen that Stalin did not keep the promises he had given. At that time, there was no quarrel between the two
big powers, thus no question of the cold war. Relations broke down little by little, during the years '45 and '46. It was a rather slow revolution. Personally, I had the conviction that the split became almost final in February '46, that is, one year after Yalta. There had been all sorts of motives of irritation during '45, even at San Francisco; but at San Francisco the understanding was maintained. There were concessions made to the Russians at Yalta with the three votes. It was exploited by propaganda and by polemics, but that did not mean anything. So, there had been many causes of irritation.
Still there was no break when Jimmy Byrnes went to Russia in '45 in the hope that it would be possible to come together on many, many points. When he came back, however, he realized that the situation in the United States as far as Russia was concerned, had become more tense. I think that President Truman at that time had strong doubts about the possibility of a good understanding with Russia. It was not before the end of February that Jimmy Byrnes gave his speech, which did not leave a great hope for a
good understanding. Also there was the Belgian affair at the United Nations a little later. I was in France during that session, because the special Ambassador had not yet hired me. I was appointed only six weeks later. But I saw finally that the Russians attempted to leave as a legion. Gromyko at that time, I'm sure, still had the hope that it was possible to maintain some understanding between the two countries, but the situation was already very bad. Moscow was still concerned about many crucial problems. So, I would say that the first six months of '46 was the beginning of the cold war.
WILSON: That's very interesting. You did not have the feeling that the Truman administration was taking an inflexible line; but that this was a reasonable response to the Soviet actions?
BONNET: It developed little by little.
WILSON: Yet, there was considerable criticism in Europe that Americans tended to react emotionally to communism in that sense, but this was a rational...
BONNET: When I think of it, no. The reaction in