The single most important country in Pétainist imagination was the United States. The Rue des États-Unis ran past the Hotel du Parc and, unlike some Vichy streets, it kept its name throughout the period from 1940 to 1944. France’s self-image in the inter-war years had often been defined in contrast to America. Pétainists had often seen Americanization as a threat to French traditions. Pétain’s adviser, Lucien Romier, had published a book in 1927 entitled Who Will Be Master, Europe or America? Yet after 1940 Pétainists knew that America mattered hugely to their country. It was the most important of their diplomatic partners. It mattered, first, as a source of food and then as a potential broker of a compromise peace (a few at Vichy continued to believe in the possibility of such a peace until the summer of 1944).
The American embassy in Vichy was a strange place and became all the more so after Hitler declared war on the United States in December 1941. Men such as ‘Woody’ Wallner, and ‘Doug’ MacArthur II, the nephew of the general, spent their time swimming, playing tennis or drinking cocktails. Wartime Vichy was excruciatingly dull for east coast patricians who had spent most of their career in European capitals. After April 1942, the embassy was run by Pinkney Tuck, the chargé d’affaires. Tuck, a career diplomat, was a conservative and seems to have been anti-Jewish (he opposed American recognition of Israel). However, like many French anti-Semites, Tuck was appalled by evidence of Nazi atrocities against the Jews in the autumn of 1942 and tried to get American visas for Jewish children in France. His efforts were thwarted by the German invasion of the southern zone. By the time the Germans arrived at Vichy, the American embassy contained only a couple of junior officials who had been left behind to shut up shop before being interned in Baden-Baden.
It is probably wrong to look for much ideological coherence in American attitudes to Vichy. The general tone of American policy can be deduced from the code names that Americans used for French affairs: Pétain was ‘Popeye’, Laval was ‘black Peter’ and France in general was ‘the Frog pond’. American policy was mainly directed towards the practical matter of ensuring that French resources were not deployed against the Allies, and bolstering what the Americans took to be anti-German elements at Vichy. To this end, they sent William Leahy, a sixty-four-year-old admiral, to be their ambassador to Vichy. Leahy was a brisk conservative who spoke almost no French and judged men mainly on whether or not they looked their interlocutors in the eye. Leahy’s particular concern was to prevent the remainder of the French fleet from falling into German hands. The Americans also wished to persuade some eminent French figure to establish an anti-German government in French North Africa and, initially, they hoped that Weygand might undertake this task.
Pétain was believed to have had good relations with American soldiers during the First World War and had been well received during an official visit that he made to the United States in 1931. The only interview that Pétain accorded to a foreign newspaper during his time as head of state, scripted by Du Moulin de Labarthète, was given to the New York Times. His admirers believed that his opinions would still be taken seriously in Washington. An important part of Pétainist thinking revolved around the idea that there was a gap between the British and the Americans and that Pétain would be able to exploit this gap. This belief persisted even after the Americans invaded French North Africa. In his 1943 biography of Pétain, René Benjamin recognized that the Marshal faced many problems, but implied that good relations with America might provide him with an escape from some of these: ‘The Marshal thinks of Admiral Leahy.’