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When Admiral William Daniel Leahy retired as U.S. chief of naval operations in August 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal. “Bill,” the president said as he pinned the medal on the admiral’s uniform, “if we have a war, you’re going to be right back here helping me to run it.”

Leahy was 64. Balding, with a narrow, firm mouth under a small beak of a nose, he looked steadily out at the world from deep-set eyes. An old battleship skipper and World War I veteran, he doubtless was grateful for Roosevelt’s kind words that day, but he had been around long enough to know that politicians make lots of promises. So when war came and Leahy was recalled, as expected, he probably wasn’t too surprised that he was asked to serve as governor of Puerto Rico.

Then in November 1940, while Leahy was breakfasting with his wife Louise at the governor’s residence, a courier arrived with an urgent request from the White House: Would Leahy go to France as ambassador to the new Vichy regime?

To Leahy, this must have confirmed that his operational naval career was over. In fact, as the Vichy ambassador, he would be even farther away from the Navy’s center of gravity. Still, a presidential request was difficult to ignore, and Leahy was a man whose general outlook was dictated by a lifetime of service. He had to accept.

When the Vichy government was instituted following France’s surrender in June 1940, the U.S. ambassador was political appointee William Bullitt, who without authorization left the embassy in the hands of career staffers and returned to Washington to lobby for a new position. Roosevelt genially but firmly shelved Bullitt and offered the Vichy ambassadorship to retired General of the Armies John J. Pershing. An old friend of Vichy leader Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain, as war was breaking out in Europe, “Black Jack” had gone on the radio and urged military preparedness for the United States. But the famous WWI commander, nearly 80, was frank with Roosevelt about his fading stamina and declined the offer.

The president then turned to Leahy, whom he had known since his days as assistant secretary of the Navy. It would be Leahy’s job to prevent France from helping Germany more than required by the armistice, and he needed to convince Pétain and Admiral François Darlan, commander of the French navy, that France’s interests lay with the Allies. Leahy was to report directly to the president via encrypted letter.

France had been separated into halves following the armistice: the zone occupée, which included Paris and most of northern and western France, and the zone libre, with the resort town of Vichy as its capital. Vichy was technically not a Nazi puppet regime but rather a government of leaders opposed to parliamentary rule who hoped to improve their country’s stance in a presumed German-dominated new world order. By the time Leahy arrived at his new post on January 5, 1941, approximately 40 nations maintained diplomatic relations with Vichy.

The speed with which Germany had overwhelmed French forces in May and June 1940 was shocking. In July, after the armistice had been signed, votes of 569-17 in the National Assembly and 225-1 in the Senate dissolved the Third Republic.

Roosevelt and many others accepted the new État français as the Third Republic’s legal successor, with the president believing that only the French could determine France’s government. He decided that the United States would not act against Vichy, or support those who did, and would work with Vichy authorities in French territories liberated by the Allies. Many argued against this policy, but even French exiles in America were bitterly divided about the alternative.

On Leahy’s embassy staff were 25 career State Department employees, including Douglas MacArthur II, nephew of the U.S. general, and longtime diplomat Robert Murphy, who had opened the post the previous year. They painted a discouraging picture for the admiral. Pétain, with an indulgent smile, had made it clear to Murphy that to continue to resist Germany would be “insanity.”

Today, Pétain appears a tragic figure at best, pathetic and shabby at worst. But in 1940, he was still the hero of Verdun, the friend of General Pershing and a man who made no secret of his fondness for the United States. He did hold almost mesmeric power over Roosevelt and many of his contemporaries.

Leahy, too, initially wrote the president that Pétain was alert, vigorous and friendly. At a meeting the next day, however, Pétain let his staff do the talking and struck Leahy as being a “tired, discouraged old man,” with neither the physical stamina to run a government nor confidence in his pro-German cabinet, which seemed to prefer a system like Fascist Italy’s without expansionist designs.

Early on, Leahy’s mission went well. Darlan, made prime minister by Pétain in February 1941, was friendly to the ambassador but rabidly critical of the British. Leahy privately nicknamed him “Popeye.” On March 3, Leahy secured an agreement from the Vichy government to deny the Axis any oil from French North Africa. The following week, he received the elderly General Maxime Weygand, who had been called out of retirement as France fell. Now commander in chief in North Africa, Weygand was pro-Allies to a degree that made the Germans nervous, and said he “would oppose an attack on North Africa by anybody.”

A few days later, under Leahy’s authority, Robert Murphy negotiated the Murphy-Weygand Agreement, beginning U.S. economic assistance to French North Africa and providing an excuse to station American officials there. The agreement also strengthened Weygand. Leahy wrote to Roosevelt that “[t]he only two persons here who have impressed me as completely devoted to France…are Marshal Pétain and General Weygand.”

Leahy’s first test came in April, when under an earlier agreement Italy demanded 5,000 tons of Algerian gasoline. The ambassador reminded Darlan of their March agreement, so Darlan sent gasoline from occupied France instead. That same month, Leahy journeyed to Marseilles to meet a Red Cross vessel carrying relief supplies. He was deeply moved by the sight of the “frail, gray and undernourished” children.

Leahy reported to Roosevelt that Pétain was very friendly, and the president asked him to visit the marshal often. Pétain seemed to want sympathy, and Leahy glumly concluded that “demands…by the Germans will either be granted…or permitted without active opposition.” The ambassador could not see Pétain alone, and wrote that “as the Marshal retains the authority of an absolute dictator, it is possible for him to take charge…but at the age of eighty-five such action appears improbable.”

In August, Darlan quietly informed Leahy that the Nazis had broken the State Department’s codes, and Leahy switched the embassy to the code system of the U.S. Navy. Leahy noted that the French navy remained neutral and that the Axis still did not have access to French North African bases. Asia was different—on July 15, Darlan advised Leahy that Japan would place forces in Indochina, leaving the French colonial administration basically intact. Leahy also reported that Darlan had probably promised North African bases to the Germans but that Weygand was likely resisting this move.

The next month, Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter authorizing a Lend-Lease arrangement between the United States and Britain. At the same time, Pétain decreed an end to political parties within Vichy France, the curtailment of civil liberties and an increase in the country’s police force. Persecution against Jews also continued.

Rumors began to reach Leahy that in the face of intense German pressure, Weygand (now a marshal) was to be retired. The ambassador met with Pétain and argued that the 1940 armistice did not allow Germany to dictate personnel decisions. If Vichy retired Weygand, the United States might cut off assistance and consider a policy “readjustment” between the countries—a serious diplomatic threat.

In response, Pétain described himself as a “prisoner” and said nothing could be done. Weygand was retired two days later, and French forces in North Africa were thereafter controlled directly from Vichy.

Leahy boiled over in his report to Roosevelt, saying that “the Government…[is] headed by a feeble, frightened old man surrounded by conspirators devoted to the Axis.”

News of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was especially painful for Leahy, a career Navy man. The battleships Nevada and California and the minelayer Oglala had been sunk, and the cruiser Raleigh was badly damaged. Leahy had served on Nevada as a commander, on Oglala as its captain, on Raleigh as a rear admiral, and on California as a full admiral. Virtually his entire naval career now lay at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.

The next morning, worried that the Germans might have their Vichy puppets make random arrests, Leahy reexamined escape and document destruction plans. The embassy officially informed the Vichy government of America’s declaration of war on Japan. Leahy also wrote Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles and said he was prepared to return to active naval service.

When Germany declared war on the United States shortly thereafter, Leahy told Pétain and Darlan that further French concessions to the Axis would be considered belligerent acts. The Vichy officials responded that their government wished to stay neutral but was powerless to resist German demands. Leahy was ordered to transfer 85 important officers and several files to the U.S. embassy in Switzerland. He also arranged for the Swiss to assume U.S. representation in Vichy should the embassy close.

On Christmas Eve 1941, forces loyal to Charles de Gaulle’s Free France movement forcibly liberated St. Pierre and Miquelon, two French islands near Canada, and gained the population’s endorsement in a subsequent election. For U.S. officials, it was a touchy diplomatic situation at first. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, hoping to appease the Vichy government in France, condemned the action and demanded a return to the status quo on the islands. But Roosevelt, despite his dislike of de Gaulle, was savvy enough to ultimately not argue with the results.

Still, the president wanted a better sense of the various factions within France and turned to Leahy. In a report to the president, Leahy noted that French politics revolved around five individuals. First, there was Pétain, pro-American but powerless. Lurking in the background was Pierre Laval, a pro-German. Third was Darlan, the consummate opportunist. Fourth, de Gaulle, dismissed by Leahy as “thirsting for power” and “little different” politically from Vichy. Finally, there was the forcibly retired Weygand, whose resistance against Germany, though less than de Gaulle’s, seemed to count for more with Roosevelt and Leahy.

On January 12, 1942, U.S. diplomat Henry Leverich arrived at the embassy with instructions from the president. Leahy was to approach Weygand and propose that he return to North Africa, take command of French forces there and create an anti-German resistance with U.S. backing. Unable to escape surveillance, however, Leahy asked Douglas MacArthur II to meet Weygand in Nice.

The outcome was not satisfactory. “[Weygand] will have nothing to do with the proposition and…will not offer a suggestion of any other person who might be interested,” Leahy reported. Weygand had affirmed his loyalty to Pétain and had ruled out the possibility of taking his place.

It proved a serious setback to American plans. A further blow came on February 9, when Darlan admitted the existence of the Delta Plan, under which Vichy had supplied Axis forces in Libya. Furthermore, Leahy’s contacts reported that three German warships had docked at Brest and were repaired, resupplied and redeployed. Also, a U-boat had received similar services at Martinique in the West Indies.

In March, Leahy learned that Pétain had met secretly with Laval. Pétain was increasingly “confused and fatigued,” according to the ambassador. At one meeting, in fact, the elderly marshal asked how long the war would continue, and when Leahy predicted two years, Pétain replied that was “a very long time for France.” The same month, Leahy was informed that there were more than 100,000 ex-soldiers in unoccupied France who would rally to an Allied invasion, and the United States also recognized de Gaulle’s control of French Equatorial Africa. On March 27, Welles informed Leahy that the United States would continue to engage Vichy but would also recognize Free France in the territories it controlled. “The time may come…when these two policies are no longer compatible,” he said.

Leahy, however, was worn out by the diplomatic intrigues that surrounded him. “After more than a year in this defeated country where not only the material necessities…but also the spiritual values had been destroyed by an invasion of barbarians,” he wrote, “the thought of returning to a free, undefeatable country was pleasing beyond the power of words.”

As Leahy was planning his departure, Pétain announced that a new government was forming under Laval. Then, on April 21, the ambassador’s wife died suddenly from an embolism. The loss, he said, “left me in an abyss of emotional distress from which no outlet could be seen.”

In his last days at his post, the admiral was visited by prewar French political leader Edouard Herriott, who warned Leahy and the Americans against trusting Laval and said he would not serve in his government. Leahy later had his first and only meeting with Laval, where the Vichy chief made it clear he would enthusiastically collaborate with Germany.

Leahy had his last meeting with Pétain on April 27, with the marshal assuring him of his continued comradeship and his desire for the United States and France to remain friends. Darlan said much the same in his final meeting with the admiral, pledging that Vichy forces would never act against America.

On May 1, Leahy began the long journey home. The embassy was placed in the hands of a charge d’affaires, with no new ambassador on the way—a sign of American disappointment. Those left behind continued to serve, but without an ambassador of Leahy’s ability there was little that could be accomplished in the face of the Vichy regime’s lack of resolve and Laval’s decidedly pro-Axis stance.

Shortly after Allied troops landed in French North Africa in November 1942, Vichy police interned the embassy’s remaining American staff. When the Germans invaded their Vichy ally, they moved the U.S. diplomats to house arrest at Baden Baden, until they were exchanged for German diplomats in March 1944.

Back in the United States, Leahy buried his wife at Arlington National Cemetery. He then compiled some reports, testified before the Senate, visited the frail General Pershing at Walter Reed Hospital—and returned home and sat idle. While Leahy was in Vichy, the world had moved on. A new generation of admirals Leahy barely knew was leading a new Navy centered on aircraft carriers.

Only a visit with General George C. Marshall rescued Leahy from anonymity. The Army chief of staff explained to Leahy that he believed the new Joint Chiefs of Staff structure needed a neutral coordinator or chairman, and he wondered whether the admiral would be interested in the position. Roosevelt and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King also liked the idea, so, at the age of 67, Leahy put on a uniform once again and reported to duty as chief of staff to the U.S. commander in chief.

A new world opened for Leahy. He chaired the Joint Chiefs and, more important, acted as Roosevelt’s national security adviser. With a small staff in the White House, Leahy monitored war-related developments throughout the world. He was at Roosevelt’s side at all the wartime conferences—from Casablanca to Quebec, from Tehran to Yalta.

In December 1944, Congress created a five-star rank for Leahy, Marshall, King, Douglas MacArthur, Chester Nimitz, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Army Air Forces General Henry Arnold, in that order—making Leahy the senior officer in the U.S. armed forces. The president had kept his promise, after all.

Leahy served Roosevelt until the president’s death on April 12, 1945, and remained in his post under Harry S. Truman. He served Truman until March 25, 1949, before retiring. He died on July 20, 1959, and is buried next to his wife in Arlington National Cemetery.


Originally published in the November 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here