The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
As the last of more than 300,000 overwhelmed Belgian, British, and French troops were evacuating Dunkirk, the Luftwaffe bombed Paris for the first time. In broad daylight on June 3, 1940, a thousand bombers and fighters struck French airfields, aircraft, munitions factories, and the morale of the rapidly dwindling number of Parisians who had not already fled the capital. That raid 75 years ago this month remains the most devastating aerial bombardment in the city’s history. It left 254 dead and 652 injured.
The sirens sounded 18 minutes after William Christian Bullitt Jr., the U.S. ambassador to France, arrived for a 1 pm lunch at the Air Ministry. “Heavy bombs fell on all sides,” Bullitt wired his confidant and fellow Francophile, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “and we went down to the air raid shelter amid flying glass and plaster.” One bomb landed on the roof of the reception room he, armed only with a glass of sherry, had just left. It was a dud. Two vehicles were destroyed by other bombs, Bullitt reported, but “my own car was untouched and I am entirely uninjured and lost only my hat and gloves, which are sitting at this moment close to the unexploded bomb.”
The Luftwaffe had already obliterated Warsaw and Rotterdam, but Paris was sui generis. There, the Reich was being more judicious. “From the propaganda point of view, we don’t intend to do anything regarding this first attack,” Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis’ information minister, confided to his diary. “We shall see what the enemy does.” (The Nazis insisted publicly, though, that the U.S. ambassador himself hadn’t been a target, and surely not of defective munitions. “It is not characteristic of German bombs not to explode in decisive moments,” the Hamburger Fremdenblatt huffed.)
Within a week of the air raid, German tanks, armored cars, motorcycles, and infantry would thunder into the outskirts of Paris. Well before they arrived, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had reminded the French of “the enormous absorbing power of the house-to-house defense of a great city upon an invading army,” and French Premier Paul Reynaud had vowed to defend the capital at all costs. But, in the event, the only thing that the fractured French government could agree to do was to get out of town. One week after the raid, on the night of June 10, Reynaud declared in a radio address that he was departing for the front; instead, he and his cabinet headed south. The U.S. State Department ordered the U.S. ambassador to follow them, in hopes that he could persuade a reconstituted government to pursue the war from North Africa. Bullitt stubbornly refused.
“It may be that at a given moment I, as the only representative of the Diplomatic Corps remaining in Paris, will be obliged in the interests of public safety to take control of the city pending arrival of the German army,” he wired Roosevelt. “I shall do my best to save as many lives as possible and to keep the flag flying.” The embassy was armed with two revolvers and 40 bullets; Bullitt requested 12 Thompson submachine guns. He did not specify how he planned to defend Paris with that puny arsenal. He closed by expressing his deep thanks to the president for the unusually intimate friendship the two fellow patricians shared, “in case I get blown up before I see you again.” Then, with characteristic brio, he proclaimed, “J’y suis. J’y reste.” Here I am. Here I stay.
Years later, the aristocratic German General Dietrich von Choltitz would be immortalized in historical fiction as the savior of the City of Light. According to the cinematic version, he valiantly defied Hitler’s interrogatory, “Brennt Paris?”—“Is Paris Burning?”—and, when he retreated in 1944, left the capital largely intact. His magnanimity may have been intended to compensate for his earlier razing of Rotterdam and to preclude his prosecution for ordering the extermination of thousands of Russian Jews. Whatever his motive in sparing Paris, his funeral two decades later was graced by an honor guard that included two French generals.
What the movie version overlooks, however, is that there might not have been a city worth saving without Bullitt. His valor—or bravado—at that pivotal moment has been largely obliterated by the intrigues and disappointments of his later career (one Bullitt biography is titled So Close to Greatness). But on this 75th anniversary of the Fall of Paris, a close reading of his private papers, many of which have never been available to biographers before, and the personal accounts of several of his most intimate confidants, demonstrate conclusively that the characteristics that grated most on his critics—his cavalier cocksureness, his ambition, his relentless fraternizing with the French, and his unflagging faith in America’s global obligations—were exactly what the moment demanded.
In the paralyzing uncertainty of the 11 days between the bombing of Paris and its surrender to the Germans by Bullitt as the de facto mayor of Paris, he and his unorthodoxy won the debate that saved the city.Bullitt “never tastes the peace of indifference,” Janet Flanner wrote in a 1938 The New Yorker profile, in that “some of the harshest things are said about him by his friends, some of the kindest by his enemies.” She characterized him as “headstrong, spoiled, spectacular, something of a nabob”—he always wore a red carnation in his buttonhole—“he has complicated ambitions which are a compound of his devotion to his own notions of idealism, his interest in his career, and his faith in the ultimate fate of the human race.” Robert D, Murphy, Bullit’s highly-regarded embassy counsellor, later recalled that if Bullitt erred, it “was yielding to a subjective approach, perhaps not sufficiently aloof from local pols.” You don’t need a foreign policy diploma to parse Murphy’s diplomatic addendum: “But, this was an extraordinary time demanding unorthodox methods.”
In the paralyzing uncertainty of the 11 days between the bombing of Paris and its surrender to the Germans by Bullitt as the de facto mayor of Paris, he and his unorthodoxy won the debate that saved the city.
GOING TO HELL
As a fledgling diplomat, Bullitt had predicted World War II exactly 20 years before it began—not only in this same capital city, but in the very hotel, the Crillon, across from the U.S. embassy, where in June 1940 he would dutifully pay his respects to the monocled German general who was presiding over the transition from a democratically-elected, if dysfunctional, dominion to a foreign autocratic occupation. In 1919, he had been Woodrow Wilson’s secret envoy to the Bolsheviks and the fair-haired boy of Wilson’s alter ego, Colonel Edward House. Bullitt had plotted his own version of a just and lasting conclusion to the Great War (which included a precarious truce that he personally negotiated with Lenin). But because his elders at the Paris Peace Conference had subsumed reconciliation and economic justice to vengeance, he warned that the emergent Treaty of Versailles would instead precipitate “a century of wars.” His subsequent testimony in Washington would be credited, or cursed, for almost singlehandedly derailing ratification of the treaty by Congress.
As he precipitously left his hotel in Paris in 1919, puzzled reporters demanded to know where he was headed. “I am going to lie in the sands of the French Riviera,” he famously replied, “and watch the world go to hell.”
“He did,” the Cornell historian Walter LaFeber later wrote, “and it did.”
Bullitt’s veins might have pulsed with the blue blood of the Riviera, but he was too adrenal to sit still for passive sunbathing. Only 28 in 1919, he was already cast for a flamboyantly folkloric role. A Main Line Philadelphian and heir to a coal and railroad fortune, he was a proud descendant of Haym Salomon, Patrick Henry, and Pocahontas and a relative of George Washington. He and Cole Porter were pals in the Mince Pie Club at Yale. As a correspondent for the Philadelphia Daily Ledger, Bullitt covered Henry Ford’s credulous peace mission to Europe in 1915, skewering the hapless shipboard passengers in an early twentieth-century version of Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad.”
Characteristically, Bullitt made a splash. In Moscow’s perpetual twilight and even later in the City of Light, it was not for nothing that he would become known as the “Champagne Ambassador.”Returning to Paris as a goodwill ambassador for Famous Players–Lasky Corp., he divorced the socialite Aimee Ernest Drinker and in 1924 secretly married Louise Bryant (think Diane Keaton in “Reds”), writer, suffragist, feminist, practitioner of free love, and former wife of John Reed, the American journalist whose memoir of the Russian Revolution earned him (or, literally, his corpse), a niche in the Kremlin wall. (Bullitt had invited her on a date after reading her exclusive interview with Mussolini for Hearst’s International News Service.)
Their only daughter, Anne, was born eight weeks after the wedding. “Billy phoned me,” their friend Lincoln Steffans reported, “and said that it was not merely a girl; it was a terrible, dominant female.” (They divorced in 1930 after Bullitt discovered that Bryant, six years his senior and suffering from elephantitis and what Sigmund Freud diagnosed as schizophrenia, was having an affair with a female sculptor.) Already snubbed by his political patrons after publicly renouncing the Versailles Treaty and excised from the Social Register once his marriage to a Communist became public, Bullitt managed to dissect his remaining Rittenhouse Square friends in a caustic, barely-fictionalized account of his hometown called It’s Not Done. The New York Times called it “a propaganda novel, directed against a single institution, the American aristocratic ideal, and whose defect is that the smoke does not quite clear away so that one can accurately count the corpses.”
Bullitt had surmised that his outburst at Versailles would consign him to diplomatic exile for a full two decades, but in 1933, opportunity knocked surprisingly soon in the form of a new president. Bullitt enlisted House to lobby Franklin Roosevelt, whom Bullitt had befriended when Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the Navy, for a ministerial post. Rescuing Bullitt from professional oblivion, FDR appointed him special assistant to the secretary of state and, with Acting Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, he covertly negotiated formal recognition of the Soviet Union. The skittish Russians, recalling Bullitt’s conciliatory mission in 1919 and his communion with Lenin, embraced him, if not his agenda: To advance Washington’s economic objectives, curb Japanese expansionism, terminate Soviet support for communist subversion in the United States, and honor Czarist debts.
Characteristically, Bullitt made a splash. In Moscow’s perpetual twilight and even later in the City of Light, it was not for nothing that he would become known as the “Champagne Ambassador.” At his Spring Ball of the Full Moon at Spaso House, the ambassador’s official residence, the champagne flowed so plentifully that even the Russian bear he invited was feeling no pain. (It was no coincidence that the excavation of Sybaris, the iconic Greek city symbolic of Hedonism, would eventually be subsidized by Bullitt’s brother. In Paris, the ambassador’s annual salary of $17,500 and government entertainment allowance of $4,800 paid only a fraction of the $75,000 or so he spent a year from his personal fortune.) For a florid, prematurely bald man in his 40s, Bullitt was remarkably magnetic. After divorcing Bryant, he was said to have been briefly engaged to Missy LeHand, Roosevelt’s personal secretary, but their romance formally ended when she visited Moscow and discovered that he was having an affair with a Soviet ballet dancer.
Bullitt, not a man to linger very long in ambivalence, soon soured on the Soviets. Their broken promises, duplicity, and capricious purges soon embittered him toward the comrades he had been so willing to believe as Wilson’s envoy. He wanted out. In 1936, he was posted as the U.S. envoy to France as Europe stumbled into another war—the very one he had predicted in 1919.
THIN WITH WORRY
On September 1, 1939, Bullitt awakened FDR with the news from Paris that his two-decade-old prophecy had been fulfilled. Just as he had predicted, the world went to hell at 4:40 am local time when Germany, claiming it had been provoked, invaded Poland. But until the bombing of Paris June 3, 1940, the blitzkrieg into Poland was followed by a quiescent sitzkrieg (or drole de guerre, as the French dubbed it). While the Germans sent mixed messages about peace overtures, the West just waited for the next jackboot to drop.
Parisians suffered shortages of fuel and coffee—“people got thin worrying,” the American journalist A.J. Liebling wrote. Hot baths were supposed to be rationed to only three times a week. Streetlights were painted over in a funereal blue color to thwart air raids. Rightists and defeatists wistfully envisioned an accommodation with Hitler, who adroitly stoked French ambivalence about the British and their self-serving agenda. “How widely the poison engendered by the Nazis had already seeped into Western Europe” became apparent to Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles that March. Thousands of Frenchmen bombarded him with complaints that he, just by conferring with the leftist former Prime Minister Leon Blum in Paris as FDR’s personal envoy, had unnecessarily dignified a Jew.
“The German tanks had crossed the River Meuse as if it did not exist,” he informed President Roosevelt. The ambassador ordered embassy employees to evacuate their spouses and children to Bordeaux and to begin burning secret codes. As the Germans smashed through French defenses at Sedan, Reynaud woke Churchill at 7:30 am on May 15. “We have been defeated!” he declared.On May 9, at a dinner party Bullitt hosted in honor of Reynaud, French Armaments Minister Raoul Dautry revealed that he was basing his procurement timetable on the assumption that the inevitable German invasion was still a year away. To which Pierre Fournier, the governor of the Bank of France, declared, “If that is your theory, then we are in greater danger than I suspected.” Dinner ended at 11 pm. Guests retired for aperitifs at the Hotel Meurice apartment of Dorothy Thompson, the Herald Tribune columnist and NBC radio correspondent. By the time Arthur Barratt, commander of the British air forces in France, returned to his headquarters at Compiegne, where the galling armistice would be signed just five weeks later, the German offensive had already begun.
Circumventing the supposedly impregnable Maginot Line, Germany invaded France through the Low Countries. The Wehrmacht pierced Allied defenses in a lightening drive that sent the invaders hurtling toward the capital. Bullitt was at the War Ministry when the fateful call came from French army headquarters. “The German tanks had crossed the River Meuse as if it did not exist,” he informed President Roosevelt. The ambassador ordered embassy employees to evacuate their spouses and children to Bordeaux and to begin burning secret codes. As the Germans smashed through French defenses at Sedan, Reynaud woke Churchill at 7:30 am on May 15. “We have been defeated!” he declared.
Even in those last few weeks of freedom, though, the enchanting city continued to cast a seductive spell. War was hell, all right, but until the first bombs fell on June 3, Paris was a far cry from purgatory. Churchill himself, on an overnight visit to rally French resistance, blithely paused to register his umbrage at the charred smudges in the British embassy’s lawn left by bonfires of secret documents the staff had burned as they decamped.
Meanwhile, Bullitt was busy foraging for a chef to replace Joseph Lakotos, who was returning to his native Hungary where he had cooked for the king. The ambassador personally ordered 124 bottles of 1924 Chateau COS d’Estournel MC for his celebrated cellar, assuming that he would still be around to consume to them. He attended the opera with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (flouting British Foreign Office protocol, he always insisted on referring to the duchess as her royal highness in all official correspondence and even on place cards). He refurbished his tennis court at Chantilly. His personal papers and his diary refer mysteriously to five appointments for “electric treatments” at the American Hospital in Paris. (The patient is not identified, but Bullitt himself was psychoanalyzed by Sigmund Freud, whom he helped rescue from Vienna two years earlier and with whom he would collaborate on a scathing takedown of Woodrow Wilson.) In his incessant correspondence with the White House, he importuned the president repeatedly for a cabinet post, gossiped with FDR that Reynaud’s mistress held too much sway, and complained about his defeatist counterpart in London, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.
As his diary also reveals, after narrowly escaping the bombing at the Air Ministry, Bullitt hunkered down, although in characteristic style. He converted his sumptuous wine cellar into a shelter for himself and his closest confidant, Carmel Offie. Although not bombproof, the shelter was festooned with Turkish and Bokharan embroideries that had hung in Bullitt’s house on the Bosphorus. He wrote FDR, “When the bombs begin to drop you may imagine Offie and myself tucked away in a Selamlik! Our motto is: ‘We don’t mind being killed, but we won’t be annoyed.’”
Over that first weekend in June, according to one account, Reynaud and Albert Lebrun, the French president, broached with him for the first time the possibility that Paris might not be defended. And if Paris were declared an open city, they asked Bullitt to oversee the transition to German occupation. By then, Bullit was conferring with Reynaud and his predecessor, Edouard Daladier, now the defense minister, several times a week, He spoke with Reynaud so frequently by telephone and in person that they appear to have left no written record of the communications between them. But the thrust, as verified by Robert Murphy’s authoritative account and corroborated by Bullitt’s own papers, was twofold: To persuade the French to prosecute the war from North Africa or another foreign base and to spare Paris.
Bullitt succeeded in stiffening Reynaud’s resolve to save the city, but his simultaneous pleas to Roosevelt went largely unheeded. He besieged the president with cables demanding military supplies and innovative ruses to transport them by circumventing the progressively porous Neutrality Acts. “At this moment words are not enough,” he warned. “Indeed unaccompanied by acts they are rather sickening.” FDR, although sympathetic, dismissed Bullitt’s relentless appeals for naval support as daydreaming in wonderland: “I am sorry you keep referring to the Atlantic fleet because such talk reminds me of my mother Alice who met a rabbit,” he wrote. “I cannot of course give you a list of the disposition of our ships but if you knew you would not continue fantasies.”
Bullitt did manage to commandeer an American cruiser and destroyer escorts to convey 650 tons of French and Belgian gold reserves abroad from Bordeaux. And, as the ranking foreign ambassador remaining in the French capital, he assumed responsibility for the lives and property not only of the remaining Americans, but other foreign nationals still stranded there or refusing to leave until the last minute (among them, Josephine Baker, the chanteuse; Sylvia Beach, who owned Shakespeare and Company; and Sumner Jackson, the courageous chief of surgery at the American Hospital). He advised stragglers in the several-thousand-strong American expatriate community through an advertisement in Le Matin that they could return home on the SS Washington, which was leaving from Bordeaux. (On June 15, after frantically signaling its identity, the ship narrowly escaped sinking by a German U-boat.)
For most Americans, the prelude to Paris’s fall to the Nazis remains an indelible reverie captured in a celluloid flashback from a nighttime rendezvous in Casablanca: Wehrmacht field artillery boomed from a distance, jolting Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund into the hic et nunc as they were about to uncork the second of three bottles of champagne at La Belle Aurore in Montmartre. (“Was that cannon fire or is it my heart pounding?” Ilsa asks.) If anything provoked panic, though, it was not the sound of the guns. It was the sound of silence, the void left by the French government’s decision to abandon the capital.
The U.S. State Department had summarily ordered Bullitt to follow the French cabinet. He had hinted to Roosevelt months before, though, that he would be reluctant to abandon his post. “My deepest personal reason for staying in Paris is that whatever I have as character, good or bad, is based on the fact that since the age of four I have never run away from anything...”In the final days before the Paris fell, confusion still reigned over whether the capital would be defended. Churchill, for one, was willing to sacrifice Paris to the fate that befell Warsaw and Rotterdam, both to divert and drain an enemy whose next objective was the United Kingdom and to underscore the wantonness of Nazi barbarity. (The June 3 air raid had already prompted The New York Times to proclaim: “When Paris is bombed, the civilized world is bombed.”) On June 10, Reynaud vowed in a radio address to fight in front of Paris and fight behind Paris, but he pointedly neglected to repeat Georges Clemenceau’s unequivocal pledge in 1918, which included a commitment to fight in Paris. Earlier that day, General Maxime Weygand, the supreme military commander, had declared Paris an open city to spare his army from engaging in street combat and to safeguard a defenseless population. He neglected to inform the population though.
As Reynaud fled Paris, Bullitt was circling back. He was returning from a one-day visit to Domremy, 150 miles to the east, where, even with the Germans advancing, he was audaciously fulfilling a commitment to dedicate an altar donated by the Americans at the village church where Joan of Arc had worshipped five centuries before. In Roosevelt’s name, he placed a white rose at the foot of the saint’s statue. Then, speaking as the ambassador from an ostensibly neutral nation, he delivered a highly-provocative invocation. “From one end of this earth to the other every civilized man is praying, after his fashion, for the victory of France,” Bullitt declared. “Americans know on which side stand right, justice, and Christian decency and on which side are wrong, cruelty, and bestiality.” The other side, the Germans, reached Domremy the next day.
The U.S. State Department had summarily ordered Bullitt to follow the French cabinet. He had hinted to Roosevelt months before, though, that he would be reluctant to abandon his post. Bullitt invoked private and historical precedents involving his predecessors as ambassador. “My deepest personal reason for staying in Paris is that whatever I have as character, good or bad, is based on the fact that since the age of four I have never run away from anything however painful or dangerous when I thought it was my duty to take a stand. If I should leave Paris now I would no longer be myself.” He cited the steadfastness of peg-legged Gouverneur Morris, who remained in Paris during the terror of the French Revolution; Elihu B. Washburne, who stayed put in 1870 during the Franco–Prussian War (the last time the Germans had seized the city) and the siege of the Commune; and Myron Herrick, who held firm as the Germans threatened the capital in World War I. Now, he informed the president, he had been specifically asked to remain in the capital by Reynaud, Hering, Interior Minister Georges Mandel, Military Governor Henri-Fernand, and Roger Langeron, the prefect of police. In his memoirs, Robert Murphy unequivocally declared that Reynaud and Mandel made Bullitt “provisional mayor.”
With other nations already embattled, the U.S. embassy remained a sanctuary for Europe’s war-beset refugees. Bullitt, poisoned by his bitter Moscow disillusionment, credulously trusted every whisper of a Communist plot. He even assumed the Nazis would tolerate a red rampage against French rightists before restoring order, predicting that the government’s place “would be taken by a communist mob.” Without elaborating, he added: “The fact that I am here is a strong element in preventing a fatal panic.”
There was no panic, in part, because so few people were left. “There never has been anything like the eerie atmosphere in Paris during the two days between the departure of the French government and the arrival of the German troops,” Murphy would later recall. “One day the vast metropolis was more active than ever, as its agitated population and refugees churned around not knowing what to do. Then they were gone, many of them to their death on congested highways. The Paris from which they fled was left almost empty.”
At least one in three Parisians had joined refugees from Belgium and Holland, and Jews and Communists from elsewhere in Europe, besieging railroad stations and jamming southbound roads with vehicles (some hijacked at gunpoint), horse carts, wheelbarrows, wagons, baby carriages, and on foot. Windows had been blacked out or shuttered. Viscous black smoke belching from Standard Oil’s suburban petroleum reserves, which were deliberately set ablaze, with Murphy’s blessing, to keep the fuel from German tanks, wafted so thickly over the capital that Walter Kerr, the Herald Tribune correspondent, reported that from the Rond Point midway along the Champs Elysees that it was impossible to glimpse either the Arc de Triomphe or the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde. In the vacuum, incongruous images spoke volumes. Hundreds of buses were parked at 50-yard intervals along the broad avenue to preclude enemy troop transport planes from landing. A herd of cows from a farm at Auteuil roamed around the Place de L’Alma and another wandered down the Rue Royale past Maxim’s.
On Wednesday, June 12, Bullitt attended a national prayer service at Notre Dame. He wept. He conferred repeatedly with Roger Langeron, the police prefect, and lunched that week with Maurice Bunau-Varilla, the virulently anti-Communist owner of Le Matin. With few newspapers still being published, Parisians were finally informed on June 13—by wall posters—that the city would not become a battleground. But in the void left by the government’s evacuation, they were dubious: Bizarre, n’est-ce pa, that the two generals whose signatures were affixed to the official declaration, Hering and Dentz, had Germanic surnames! Had the decision not to defend the capital been publicized days or weeks earlier, fewer Parisians might have fled. Even the June 3 bombing might have been averted. And the strikingly indifferent front-page headline with which Le Matin greeted the ensuing occupation—LA VIE CONTINUE (Life Goes On)—might have been fulfilled. “I doubt whether there was a city in the world that knew as little about the fate of Paris,” Sherry Morgan, the Life magazine correspondent, later wrote, “as Paris itself.”
As the city felt the hot breath of battle, Bullitt worried about losing contact with the outside world. He suggested that coded messages could be transmitted to Paris from the United States by commercial shortwave radio stations at the end of their regular broadcasts, preceded by a prompt like, “The following is from Pearl Smith to her mother, father, etc.” His concern proved well-founded. By Thursday, June 13, the front lines had shifted as far south as his chateau at Chantilly. Communication between the capital and the outside world was severed. The Germans, oblivious to the official intentions of the feckless and forsaken French government, were literally at the gates of the city. Fortuitously, that morning, a random telephone call got through to the embassy from the U.S. legation in Berne. Bullitt seized the opportunity. He appropriated the open line to urgently relay to Berlin the first formal word that the French did not intend to defend Paris. His message was transmitted from Switzerland to the U.S. embassy in Berlin, which delivered it to the acting secretary at the German ministry of foreign affairs at 2:15 pm local time:
Paris has been declared an open city. General Hering, military commander of Paris district, is withdrawing his army, which has been defending Paris. All possible measures are being taken to assure the security of life and property in the city.
Gendarmes and firemen would remain on duty and ambassador Bullitt would “be of any assistance possible in seeing to it that the transfer of the government of the city takes place without loss of human life.”
Murphy would recall that the ambassador also asked the Germans to delay their arrival until the last bedraggled French soldiers could straggle out of town and requested a peace parley for early the following morning. Two hours after Bullitt’s message was received, at 5:10 pm local time, the German High Command responded by radioing the Paris police. The Germans said that an envoy flying a truce flag would drive from Moisselles north of Paris to Saint Denis at 6 pm to meet with a representative of Dentz. But Dentz, in still another sign of the government’s ambivalence, balked. Even by then, he was uncertain how much territory he was empowered to surrender: Paris proper, or the environs, too?
The first notation in Bullitt’s appointment book for June 14 is at 7 am: “Entry of Germans on Place de la Concorde.”Sweltering from a heat wave, the city was out of air. Bullitt and his fitful staff bunked in the embassy. Around midnight, Murphy left for a walk. Julien Weill, the grand rabbi of Paris, greeted him at the gate. Weill had valiantly remained at his post, but now that the government was gone he belatedly decided that it would be prudent to leave for Bordeaux. Murphy graciously but gloomily commandeered an embassy car, but, just as he expected, the rabbi and his wife only got as far as the city limits where they were turned back by a German armored division.
At 2:20 am on June 14, the Germans angrily radioed again to report that a French sniper had shot their envoy. General Georg von Kuchler demanded that the French meet at 5 am at Sarcelles or face a full-scale assault at 8. That meeting, too, also failed to materialize after French Senegalese troops mistakenly fired on the German delegation. “Continued silence on my part could have resulted in a catastrophe for Paris,” Dentz later recalled. If Bullitt played a role, there appears to be no written record of it, but since he slept only four hours on a normal night there is every reason to believe he was available and inclined to weigh in. Negotiations finally began around 6 am at Ecouen on the road to Chantilly. Dentz’s emissaries, accompanied by a bugler, signed the surrender. Von Kuchler cancelled the bombardment.
The first notation in Bullitt’s appointment book for June 14 is at 7 am: “Entry of Germans on Place de la Concorde.”
German military vehicles and infantry began rumbling into Paris through Neuilly in the northwest, the first time the capital had been occupied by foreign troops since 1870. Parisians awoke to a baffling dichotomy: formidable mud-caked Panzer tanks followed by caissons pulled by mules. “After the blood-chilling mechanized speed of the German advance, Parisians would hardly have been surprised to see columns of marching robots with gray, hungry, steel faces. Instead there came mile after mile of rosy-cheeked Bavarian and Austrian farm boys on sleek horses,” Sherry Morgan wrote in Life. “If anything was inhuman it was the Germans’ efficiency in taking over.”
The Hotel Crillon, next door to the U.S. embassy, was appropriated as German headquarters. A soldier, probably terrified of his impatient superiors, threatened to shoot a caretaker if he didn’t crack open the padlocked front door. At 10:30 am, Murphy, accompanied by two U.S. military attaches, visited Major General Bogislav von Studnitz, who would become the provisional military governor. Over brandy, von Studnitz confidently predicted that once the French surrendered, the British would no longer resist. The war would be over by the end of July. Returning to the embassy, Murphy couldn’t help but wonder whether von Studnitz might be right.
At 1:30 pm, von Studnitz paid a ten-minute courtesy call on Bullitt at the embassy. According to protocol, Bullitt made his perfunctorily, if tortured, return visit to the general. The only surviving written record of their conversation was left by a German military historian who had done his homework thoroughly enough to appreciate the ambassador’s ambivalence that his Treaty of Versailles prophecy had been fulfilled. “What could have been the feelings of Bullitt in this Hotel Crillon,” the historian wrote, “which, 20 years earlier—tempora mutantur—after the German defeat in the First World War, had served as President Wilson’s residence and where Wilson had his first talks—which eventually turned out so badly—about the creation of the League of Nations?”
Von Studnitz invited Bullitt to join him in reviewing the victory parade; the ambassador begged off. Instead, he assigned Murphy the mortifying role of posing before newsreel cameras with a German general. Nor was Bullitt at all forgiving when German soldiers gracelessly intruded on embassy grounds to string telephone wires. He ordered them to leave immediately and threatened to personally shoot them if they returned. But prophetic signs of German mechanization, as Morgan called them, were already proliferating in Paris, literally. For one, “Amerikanische Botschaf,” had been posted in front of the embassy itself, helpfully informing the conquerors that this building was off limits. Street signs were also complemented with Germanic versions. Facial expressions needed no translation. “Victory was written across every German face,” Simone de Beauvoir would write, “while every French face proclaimed defeat aloud.” On von Studnitz’s orders, one (subtler but equally synchronous) sign of German efficiency shortened the pain of that first day of the occupation by 60 minutes. The last entry in Bullitt’s diary for June 14 read: “Turned clock one hour ahead to go on Berlin time.”
The surrender was signed on June 22. Author Rebecca West would call the fall of France a tragedy that “ranks as supreme in history as Hamlet and Othello and King Lear rank in art.”
A Shakespearean arc also characterized Bullitt’s post-Paris career. Too eager to succeed Cordell Hull as secretary of state, he helped expose his rival, undersecretary Sumner Welles, as gay. “Bill ought to go to hell for that,” Roosevelt supposedly told Vice President Henry Wallace. Bullitt ran for mayor of Philadelphia in 1943 and, covertly doomed by FDR, was defeated. In 1944, he volunteered for military service—in the Free French Army. He was appointed a major on the staff of General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, whose forces landed in Provence on August 16. On August 25, Paris was liberated. Bullitt arrived not long after. (He had hitched a ride on a U.S. bomber, which he confidently offered to navigate, but, thanks to his guidance, the plane overshot the capital and veered within range of enemy artillery.) Accounts vary, but by one (his), he personally unlocked the chancery gates, mounted the balcony, and delivered a victory oration in his fluent French to a grateful crowd, which greeted him with a thunderous ovation. Apparently, Parisians mistook the uniformed figure with the bald pate for General Dwight Eisenhower.
On July 14, 1945, as Parisians celebrated their first Bastille Day in six years as free French, Bullitt’s car was third in the parade procession on the Champs Elysees, just behind General de Tassigny. The novelist Andre Chamson, a fellow army commandant, later imagined that Bullitt’s “passage across Paris in all the intoxication of victory” that day had finally expunged the ghosts of Versailles who had evoked his two-decade-old bittersweet I-told-you-so prophesy as he walked from the embassy in June 1940, as the provisional mayor of Paris, to formally receive his German successor at the Crillon.
Ultimately, Murphy delivered the most convincing verdict on Bullitt’s role in preserving the city he bolted from in 1919 and refused to abandon two decades later.
Nowadays, whenever I return to Paris, I reflect with satisfaction upon one contribution which Bullitt and his staff were able to make in 1940 by remaining in the city. That Paris survives in all its glory today seems a miracle when I recall how we in the embassy assumed that the capital would be ground to rubble when the German armies were approaching, and Reynaud proclaimed that the French would fight from street to street and house to house. Churchill and De Gaulle both record in their memoirs that they urged such suicidal resistance. It was only at the very last moment that Reynaud asked for the U.S. Embassy’s intervention in making Paris an open city. Bullitt was in constant touch with the French premier and doubtless had some influence in his decision.
Murphy wrote that most military experts concluded that a destructive battle in the streets of Paris “would have been merely a delaying action of a few days which could not have affected appreciably the course of the war.” Churchill, though, “felt, consciously or subconsciously, that the brutal destruction of Paris, the city so many Americans love, with inevitable bombings, conflagrations, and disappearance of celebrated monuments, might so outrage the American people that we would be precipitated into the conflict, or at least moved closer toward declaring war against Nazi Germany,” Murphy continued. “However, Churchill admits in his memoirs that he underestimated how widespread, in 1940, was American resistance to entering the war. Bullitt and his staff never had any illusions about that, and we could see no good reason why Paris should be uselessly sacrificed.”
After June 14, 1940, with Paris spared, Bullitt prepared to return home to an uncertain future. He visited Chantilly to console himself that his chateau had survived. He played tennis. He splurged on a shopping spree. Finally, at 7 am on June 29, he departed for Madrid with an entourage that he was smuggling out of France. His companions included Dudley Gilroy, a retired British army officer who had managed the racetrack Bullitt frequented at Chantilly, and his wife, Frances, one of the ambassador’s childhood friends. The Gilroys were unconvincingly posing as the ambassador’s butler and maid. Frances was so elegantly dressed that an alert Spanish border guard challenged the couple’s identity. “She is not a maid,” the guard sniffed. As usual, the quick-witted Carmel Offie saved the day. “Of course not,” Offie confided. “Don’t you understand that the ambassador has a mistress?”