Susan McCall Perlman. Intelligence & National Security. Volume 33, Issue 3. April 2018.
In 1946, as the cold war deepened and American officials grew alarmed by the prospect of a communist-dominated France, US intelligence analysts began to report rumors of mysterious ‘parachutages’ of unidentified containers over the French countryside. Alongside equally sensational stories about the resurrection of international brigades and discoveries of hidden arms caches, these reports seemed to provide definitive evidence for widely held beliefs about communist intentions to seize power. This article investigates these claims and reveals the influence of a transnational network of informants hoping to stoke fears of revolutionary activity in order to encourage US involvement in postwar France.
In early 1946, not long after Charles de Gaulle—then head of the postwar French provisional government—resigned from office after becoming convinced that French Communist Party (PCF) officials were maneuvering for his ouster, US intelligence and embassy analysts in Paris began to report rumors of mysterious parachutages over the French countryside. Alongside sensational stories about the resurrection of international brigades in southern France and discoveries of hidden arms caches, this intelligence captivated American policy-makers, seeming to provide definitive evidence for widely held beliefs about communist intentions to seize power in postwar France.
Fears of revolutionary activity preoccupied US intelligence officials and dominated conversations about American policy for France. While there are a number of important studies of various aspects of communist intrigue and their domestic implications for France, this article is the first to employ a transnational lens and focus specifically on American intelligence and the impact of these sensational reports on US policy for France in a deepening cold war. It concentrates on two years—1946 and 1947—the peak period of this alleged activity. It explores several related questions: What were the specific claims about the mysterious weapons drops, arms caches, and international brigades? Who were the sources of the rumors? Was the intelligence provided to US officials accurate? At the same time, this article offers more general reflection upon the challenges of intelligence assessment, its role in US foreign policy, and the impact of these reports on Franco-American relations.
Drawing upon archival research in the United States and France, I argue that rumors of parachutages, arms caches, and international brigades originated with a transnational network of sources whose ideas—and information—flowed across the boundaries of postwar Europe and stoked American fears of revolutionary activity in order to encourage US involvement in France. While is not possible to rule out communist arms drops over France or the possibility that hidden arms caches were meant for PCF militants, the reality is complicated by other explanations and the dearth of definitive proof—contemporary or otherwise—for these claims. In the immediate postwar period, American intelligence and embassy analysts failed to consider other possibilities or the agendas fueling the rumors, and their assessments served to bolster hardening policy and encourage American intervention in French affairs. Under closer scrutiny, however, this intelligence began to unravel. By early 1948, mid-level intelligence analysts in the United States, government officials in France, and the French press expressed doubts about the rumors, and with them, the very basis of American policy in cold war France.
‘An Important Revolutionary International Chain’
Buoyed by their role in the Resistance and France’s liberation, the PCF was by 1946 the largest political party in France. With Charles de Gaulle temporarily removed from the scene, and occupying six out of nineteen ministries, French communists angled for a determining role in French affairs. Non-communist officials and their American counterparts grew increasingly alarmed by the prospect of a communist-dominated France, especially as relations between the Soviet Union and the West deteriorated. The first reports of communist weapons drops, arms caches, and new international brigades began to appear within this context. To many observers, these revolutionary activities were intertwined, concrete evidence of a larger communist conspiracy. Most of these reports came from US military intelligence—most notably, the War Department’s Strategic Services Unit (SSU) and Intelligence Division, and military attaché field reports. The American embassy in Paris and the new Central Intelligence Group (CIG) also reported similar developments, based upon contact with their networks of sources. In France, this activity fell under the purview of the Interior Ministry and French intelligence, whose officials, along with a myriad of other state and private informants, maintained close contact with American authorities.
From the beginning, these reports conjured images of French government impotence and a well-organized communist conspiracy directed from Moscow. On 29 February 1946, the head of the State Department’s European Division, H. Freeman Matthews, wrote Secretary of State James Byrnes that an ‘important ex-communist’ had notified the Paris embassy of unconfirmed reports that ‘aviators flying from Germany have recently parachuted considerable quantities of arms at various communist centers’. The same report also stated that French non-communists wanting to resist any armed communist action did not believe they could rely on the government and had asked the British for weapons. This was likely a reference to an earlier embassy report from February 8, which pointed more specifically to ‘Soviet parachuting of arms into France for the benefit of the Communist Party’. The report was alarming; but it also reflected the substance of rightist appeals to the Anglo-American allies for assistance and the disillusionment of former communists whose anti-communism often exceeded any past identification with communist ideals.
When asked about rumors of Soviet arms drops to PCF militants on March 5, Marc Bergé, Chief of the French Interior Ministry’s intelligence directorate, told embassy analyst Norris Chipman ‘in the greatest secrecy’ that while he had been unable to uncover any concrete evidence of these parachutages, his staff had discovered that communist militants were seeking heavy arms, including a secret order for armored trains, now more easily procured with a communist minister of armaments. Bergé assured Chipman that he would obtain and share further details, an offer that Chipman, who had a reputation as an anti-communist zealot, was sure to exploit. In addition to working for US Ambassador Jefferson Caffery, he was one of a few ‘loyal’ Foreign Service Officers who also worked for an embryonic intelligence service inside the department’s European Division dedicated to rooting out worldwide communist subversion.
In May 1946, just as the French public prepared to vote on a draft constitutional referendum, rumors about communist activity again surfaced. PCF officials hoped for passage of the constitutional draft, which contained provisions to weaken the presidency and bolster a unicameral legislature. Ambassador Caffery, however, viewed the party’s pursuit of legal methods as illusory. His sources indicated that PCF leaders believed they would ultimately have to resort to national insurrection in order to conquer power and continued to devote energy to military matters, including the organization of new international brigades. Caffery did not explain why the PCF, after the resignation of its greatest rival, would suddenly feel that the legal path to power was narrowing.
On May 5, the constitutional draft was defeated, a major political blow for the PCF. Within days, rumors of a communist coup began to circulate. A ‘rightist source’ close to the French General Staff told SSU operatives that ‘parachuting of arms by Soviet and Yugoslav planes has been frequently noticed over France, particularly in the Paris region …’ The same source also reported the reconstitution of international brigades in southern France and considerable arms traffic into France from the Belgian border. To French military leaders, this activity suggested that an ‘important revolutionary international chain’ was forming in Western Europe around all PCF organizations, controlled by a Soviet General Staff. French officials in Paris maintained a watchful eye and complained to the Soviet embassy about ‘irregularities’ committed by Soviet agents in France. The SSU deemed this material significant and sent it directly to the State Department. Once again, the report did not address inconsistencies; why, for example, would the Soviets intervene so overtly in French affairs, a development sure to sow turmoil in France while the PCF remained an important political party and the Soviets needed peace to rebuild their military and economy after the devastation of the Second World War?
The next month, French legislative election results further buoyed US officials. Despite alarmist pronouncements to the contrary, the PCF did not enjoy sizeable gains. The success of the centrist Mouvement Républicain Populaire (MRP) meant that the PCF was no longer the single largest party, nor would there be a communist-socialist majority. However, fears of covert communist activity persisted. In mid-June, the SSU reported that an ‘anti-communist source’ in Marseille had reported that ‘rumors of parachutages, movements of men and arms by truck and other similar activities [had led] many to believe that armed penetration into Spain is being prepared’. Other possible explanations were left unexplored. The region around Marseille was home to a number of Jewish transit camps housing refugees; arms for Jewish fighters in Palestine also flowed through the port.
That summer, for example, the French press reported the discovery of numerous arms caches throughout the country, some of which allegedly had their origin in the mysterious parachutages, publicly lending credence to many of the reports already circulating in American and French intelligence circles. However, the destination for these arms remained unclear. In mid-June, French police discovered 40 tons of arms and munitions at the Château de Cambes in southwestern France. These weapons did not appear destined for communists; authorities soon surmised that the arms might have been intended for fighting in Palestine. The following day, a British Embassy source linked the discovery at the Château de Cambes to a Zionist arms-trafficking ring, which had smuggled enormous quantities of guns out of the Low Countries through France en route to Palestine.
Despite indications from French police that the arms may have been destined for Palestine, US military intelligence connected the weapons discoveries to Soviet intrigue in France. On August 7, SSU analysts reported that a reliable sub-source with valuable contacts in southwest France had told them about an arms discovery in an orphanage for children of deported Jews in Toulouse. The source linked the discovery with the recent arrival of Russian wheat ships in Marseille, alleged to be carrying arms to the PCF. The same informant, however, acknowledged that the director of the orphanage eventually admitted that the arms were intended for Palestine.
Meanwhile, Spanish officials passed intelligence on alleged communist activity in southern France to the American embassy in Madrid. They too tied it to Soviet activity, and accused French officials of complicity. Spanish communists, and not the French government, the Spanish report claimed, were the ‘real masters of the South of France’, where they were organizing 10,000 men into detachments and international brigades for an invasion of Spain with the help of the Red Army. Caffery acknowledged that the reports originated with anti-communist, pro-Franco sources, but wrote Secretary Byrnes that he agreed with their substance.
Other SSU reporting on Soviet efforts to build a revolutionary chain across Western Europe seemed to lend credence to the connections drawn among arms depots, weapons drops, and PCF plans rather than other explanations. On August 6, the SSU reported that a ‘reliable’ source ‘close to communist circles in Marseille’ told them that the Soviets were organizing parachute ground teams and sabotage units for possible operations in southwest France. Soviet instructors would allegedly train ‘reception’ teams for parachute drops, form sabotage units to prepare positions for the arrival of paratroopers, and set up camouflaged arms and fuel depots. Airborne troops would take off from Yugoslavia, Poland, and Bucovina. While it was technically possible for Soviet transport aircraft to fly from these areas of Eastern Europe to France, it was not practical. The distances approached the maximum range of most transport aircraft and would have required refueling to return to base, increasing the possibility of detection. Given the Soviet need for peace, these scenarios were not only impractical, but politically impossible.
On August 7, French General Staff officials gave SSU experts a translated copy of their report on Russian objectives. The SSU acknowledged that the information was ‘unverified and unconfirmed’ and believed it possible that the authors, anxious for tangible military aid and diplomatic backing, had intentionally prepared it ‘with the thought that it might find its way into high diplomatic and military circles in the United States and Great Britain’. Nonetheless, they circulated the report as ‘indication of the fears … now circulating in important rightist and militarist circles in France’. The General Staff report represented a clear attack on political rivals on the left and a call for American intervention, charging that ‘a vast military-revolutionary organization is being created with the knowledge and perhaps even complicity of the French government’ designed to attack across the Pyrenees into Spain and for operations in southern France in the event of a Soviet invasion. It warned that there was no time to lose to effectively counteract Soviet maneuvers in southern France and recommended reestablishing former American and British air bases and aviation equipment in the region.
In October, the SSU again reported disturbing developments in southwestern France. PCF militants had allegedly begun to organize paramilitary groups in Toulouse that had been only notional in previous reports. Using the cover of an organization designed ‘to permit the utilization of French youth with military training in … local security plans’, the real purpose was, according to SSU sources, to spread communist ideas among French military personnel, to organize ‘paramilitary cadres’ in case of an internal uprising in France, and to build a reserve for the international brigades in future anti-Franco action. Later that month, a source with a ‘very good record of credibility’ told Pond operatives that the Soviets were organizing civil war cadres throughout Europe. The ostensible pretext was to protect Europe from Franco’s Spain, and so communists were calling up Spanish Civil War veterans to reconstitute the international brigades. However, the source argued, these cadres would also allow the Soviets ‘to cover all of Europe with a network of secret organizations whose centers of control lie behind the Iron Curtain’, for use in the event of civil wars or an anti-Soviet war.
Likewise, Norris Chipman in late November reported that a former representative of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in Moscow named ‘Rossi’ had furnished him with information on PCF tactics. Chipman mentioned, but did not explain, that ‘Rossi’ was Angelo Tasca, an Italian political figure and member of the PCI and the Comintern in the 1920s until his expulsion in 1929. Tasca had settled in Paris in the 1930s, writing extensively about French and Soviet communism. Along the way, he became a supporter of the Vichy regime and a militant anti-communist. According to Rossi, PCF officials might continue a policy of ‘legality’ but they were not slowing their clandestine military preparations, including reinforcement of the international brigades. He also noted that the efforts of PCF leader (and former Black Sea mutineer) André Marty, rumored to be in charge of the brigades in France, had already borne fruit. ‘The communists’, he claimed, can ‘now count on fresh sources of recruitment for their armed groups, namely among the 200,000 Italian workers who plan to immigrate to France’.
While debates about communist intentions continued into 1947, US intelligence analysts and French officials reported activity indicating communist preparations for civil war in France or a more general Soviet offensive. As they had in years past, they described ‘international brigades’ gathering in France, for use in several possible scenarios: against General Franco’s government in Spain or the French government in southern France, or, increasingly, for action in the Greek civil war. One intelligence report from late January 1947 suggested continued liaison between Moscow and the French and Spanish parties through former leaders of the brigades. In February, French reports claimed that as many as 120,000-150,000 men of various nationalities were concentrated in southwestern France, charged with a double objective. In the event of a republican uprising in Spain, they would cross the border to help depose Franco; in the case of troubles in France, they would engage the army and other anti-communist elements suspected of supporting de Gaulle’s return to power. Farther north, French intelligence services reported to President Vincent Auriol the discovery of arms caches in the region around Paris.
By March 1947, as relations between East and West quickly deteriorated and rumors long circulating in the intelligence and diplomatic communities leaked, French and American newspapers began to focus more attention upon this alleged revolutionary action. Press coverage and public statements by the French Interior Ministry shed further light on the activity. PCF officials, aware of rumors that they had stores of hidden arms and maintained armed military formations in southern France, publicly denied the claims. Instead, they accused Gaullists of stockpiling weapons. They claimed that police had recently seized a large arsenal in Alfortville, which had likely come from a French military airfield in nearby Dordogne. Auriol, however, assumed the cache was of communist origin.
Several days later, immediately following President Truman’s declaration of American aid for Greece and Turkey and determination to resist aggressive communism, New York Times Paris Bureau Chief Harold Callender reported that the connection between the speech and the internal political situation in France had been the topic of lively discussion in French government circles. The PCF criticized the speech and pointed to discoveries of secret arms caches as signs of the mobilization of reaction ‘to destroy the republic’. At the same time, French Prime Minister Paul Ramadier issued the first public confirmation of reports of hidden arms in France.
Later that week, Interior Minister Depreux also conceded that there were secret stores of arms all over France. This was ‘intolerable’, he said, and the government would apply ‘the full rigor of the law’ to prevent another February 6, an allusion to violent riots between the extreme left and right in 1934. He further acknowledged that the man arrested in the Alfortville raid did possess a Gaullist membership, but was also a member of a communist militia. The arms had indeed come from the French army airfield at Dordogne, but it was unclear whether this had occurred under a communist or non-communist Air Ministry. The following day, Depreux was more precise, declaring that most of the arms were in ‘leftist hands’. Furthermore, he denied claims that the weapons were intended for Spanish Republicans as ‘too often a pretext’, suggesting his suspicion that the arms were designated for communist use inside France.
Rumors about the international brigades continued in the aftermath of the Truman Doctrine speech and the expulsion of communist ministers from the French government in early May. That same month, Secretary of State George Marshall sent an intelligence report to the Paris embassy for comment. The memo claimed that Romanian communists trained in guerilla fighting were bound for France to join the international brigades preparing for civil war in Spain. Not long after, CIG Director Roscoe Hillenkoetter briefed President Truman that the announcement of the Truman Doctrine had led the Soviets to support Greek communist activities and an acceleration of guerilla operations and sabotage. The French Interior Ministry had confirmed, he said, the recruitment of cadres from the brigades in southern France to serve in an international brigade in Greece. Truman and his aides largely accepted these claims, but nagging questions lingered. The spokesman of the Greek General Staff denied that Greek troops had encountered the brigade. Balkan and Near East authority M. W. Fodor acknowledged the possibility that the Soviets would encourage the formation of such a brigade, but cautioned that ‘this would certainly not help the cause of the Greek leftists. It would only cause further “internationalization” of the conflict in Greece’.
Ambassador Caffery in Paris, however, took statements by a Greek communist leader at the PCF’s Strasbourg Congress—thanking ‘the friends of Greek democracy throughout the world for what they have performed for it’—as confirmation of French Interior Ministry and private observer reports that the international communist movement was involved in arms trafficking to Greece and that French communists were recruiting international brigades. In Washington, Joseph and Stewart Alsop—journalists closely connected to the White House—reported that ‘intelligence reports so detailed they can no longer be disregarded have reached Washington … that an international brigade, under Comintern auspices, is being organized to fight in Greece’. PCF leader Jacques Duclos, they claimed, was ‘sponsoring’ the training of the brigade in southern France.
French officials privately noted reports about the new brigades. An intelligence memo in mid-July recounted rumors circulating in communist circles about the formation of brigades to fight in Greece. Publicly, however, authorities suggested that much of the talk about the brigades was the product of ‘superheated imaginations’, further underscoring divisions within the French government on these issues. These sources said that the government had neither the resources nor the inclination to prevent individuals with proper papers from leaving France to fight whomever they pleased. Rumors of mass training of communist partisans for action in Greece were rampant in Spanish refugee settlements near Toulouse. It was, they said, ‘highly improbable that any large group of volunteers destined for Greek or other fighting could have left … without official knowledge, and that no such mass movement was known to the French government’. It was more likely that young Spanish refugees and youth from the Greek colony in Marseille were leaving in small numbers to fight in Greece; these numbers were complicated by a considerable number of Jews leaving southern France for Palestine.
In August 1947, the CIG reported on the passage of Spaniards from Belgium to southern France. While they could not judge the source’s reliability, CIG analysts deemed the information ‘probably true’. The source indicated that international brigade veterans were ‘expediting the passage of recruits headed for the south of France’. However, CIG analysts did note the ambiguous use of the word ‘recruit’. A previous report had indicated that a Belgian association of Spanish international brigade veterans had facilitated the passage of Spanish refugees into France and noted Liège as a connection point on the refugees’ journey; it was also a connection in the current report’s account of the passage of recruits into France.
In reality, the Socialist-led French government felt threatened by the extreme left and the extreme right. On June 30, Depreux announced that French police had thwarted a plot by a secret right-wing organization calling itself the ‘Black Maquis’, made up of ‘right-wing resistance leaders, monarchists, and Vichy collaborators’. The group aimed to precipitate civil war between the right and the PCF, and to overthrow the government and establish a military dictatorship. In the course of the investigation, French police discovered a sizeable arms cache in Brittany at the chateau of one of the plotters, the Count de Vulpian. The forty-seven year old count was a friend of Marshal Pétain and chairman of a war veterans’ league. Arrested with him were General Guillodit, Inspector General of the Gendarmerie, and Georges Loustaunau-Lacau, an alleged member of the Cagoule, a secretive fascist and anti-communist group in prewar France. Meanwhile, the French Interior Ministry continued to report seizures of communist and rightist arms caches. For their part, French communist leaders accused the French government of secret plots to undermine the PCF. ’If [Prime Minister Paul] Ramadier wishes to know the leader of the “secret orchestra”’, Etienne Fajon thundered, ‘he need only look in the mirror’.
Pascal Girard argues that the threat posed by these right wing plotters was overblown; their ‘operations’ had less to do with concrete actions against the French government than ‘a phase of intense psychological preparation’—of believing that communists were preparing for action in order to justify defense of the state. While this plot may not have been serious, Girard acknowledges that the fear of communism shared by a large portion of the French right was, and that it was supported by a number of indicators, particularly the discovery of arms caches. For French military officials, the idea of a ‘fifth column’ parachuting arms and sowing domestic unrest served as an emotional bridge between the lessons of the last war (and the defeat of 1940) and the new cold war. On both sides, fears of secret plots—the product of propaganda and rumor—had been nourished for a long time; in the cold war, they had become a tool of political strategy.
American and French intelligence services, however, remained fixated on the threat posed by the PCF. In early September, as important elections in France approached, French intelligence reported that former resistors close to the PCF claimed that communist militants in eastern France would be armed with weapons dropped from Yugoslav and Italian aircraft into the departments of the Midi. According to the same sources, arms depots existed already in Nancy, Longwy, and in the region of Manciculles.
At the same time, the CIG disseminated two intelligence reports about the connection between French communists and the alleged international brigades for Greece. The first, from 3 September 1947, reported that Greek communist leaders had met with PCF officials, including those working closely with Greek organizers of international brigades in France. The second, two days later, described comments by members of the Yugoslav legation in Cairo, who alleged the PCF had provided volunteers and mobilized veterans from the Spanish Civil War to fight in Greece. At the end of the month, Caffery in Paris reported that ‘a source maintaining close relations with important communists here’ stated that a ‘Comintern agent’ had come to Paris to deliver directives on Greece. Some weeks later, French intelligence ‘confirmed’ the reconstitution of the international brigades, Soviet arms deliveries in the north of France, and immigration from the Low Countries, all with the purpose of assisting a communist seizure of power, charges that the Interior Ministry would repeat again in November.
French authorities in contact with US military attachés noted American preoccupation with the reconstitution of the international brigades in Europe. Rumors of the brigades, arms caches, and parachutages, one official stated, led the Americans to the conclusion that this activity was part of a grand design to organize shock troops and facilitate communist control at the opportune moment. One American representative warned his French interlocutor that ‘France … risked suffering the fate of Greece if they did not immediately move to curtail the activity of the International Brigades’.
In October, representatives of nine communist parties—including France and Italy—met in Poland to form a new Communist Information Bureau (Cominform) to better coordinate the activities of Eastern and Western European communist parties and ensure their alignment with Soviet policy objectives. From Paris, Jefferson Caffery wrote that ‘highly qualified observers’ saw this as ‘an open declaration of ideological, social, and economic war upon all countries that haven’t already succumbed … to Soviet power’. On October 10, Hillenkoetter wrote Truman about the formation of the Cominform, reiterating the substance of previous reporting; that is, the Soviets desired to strengthen control over their satellites, improve coordination, and ‘serve notice’ to the French and Italian parties that they were not independent and must adhere to Kremlin policies. The Soviets, he said, recognized that the legal path to power for western parties had narrowed; their goals now focused on preparing a core of militants capable of direct action and subversion to undermine western governments.
This development again reinforced the validity of alarmist reports about revolutionary activity in France. French Ambassador to the United States Henri Bonnet reported that US officials viewed creation of the Cominform as an indication that the Kremlin would focus in France on the creation of compact communist organizations trained in revolutionary methods, capable of immobilizing the nation. French intelligence reported that the PCF was creating a new political-military structure, directed by a Soviet official, with a military organization assembling in the south of France at Montpellier. However, Paris and Washington both failed to understand the basis for the creation of the Cominform and what had actually happened at the meetings in Poland. Originally conceived as a way for communist parties to exchange information and organize a new journal, the intent behind the conference shifted after August 1947 to creating a new organization for inter-party coordination. This was, as Anna di Biago argues, due only in part to the announcement of the Marshall Plan that summer, but also to the fact that the Soviets found themselves with limited access to information. Meanwhile, Soviet officials still deemed communist participation in coalition governments as positive. Most importantly, the criticism levied against the PCF was not a call to revolution, but an inducement to sharpen the fight for inclusion in the government through electoral successes coupled with powerful pressure by the masses in the form of strikes. It is important to note that Cominform delegates criticized the PCF for acting independently from Moscow, for excessive ‘legalism’ and compromise with other parties, and for failing to recognize soon enough American imperialist designs in France, accusations which belied claims in US and French reporting that the PCF had been intent on an illegal seizure of power for some years, and that it was merely Moscow’s puppet.
In the aftermath of the Cominform revelations, and just days before French municipal elections, the US military attaché in Paris Brigadier General F.J. Tate followed up on alleged parachuting of weapons to communists in eastern France. He wrote that his staff had failed to secure eyewitness accounts; however, it was still ‘probable’ that the drops had occurred. While the ‘basic informant’ was of ‘doubtful character’, an interview with another source—who claimed to be working with Gaullists to form an anti-communist army—inspired more confidence. This informant said his sources claimed to have seen containers dropped to waiting communists in the same region; while the contents were unknown, they believed them to contain sub-machine guns. Interior Ministry intelligence officials had been informed, but it inexplicably took them two weeks to investigate the matter. When they returned to the drop zones, they found only broken tree branches, trampled earth, and Russian-type cigarette butts.
One week later, Tate again reported alleged parachuting of arms to communist militants, this time in France’s Ardennes region. His source was a British journalist who relayed information from an Interior Ministry official claiming to have witnessed the delivery of unidentified items on the night of October 12. He stated that the ministry knew about the drops and where the materials were hidden, but had chosen not to interrupt the activity or seize the caches in order to protect their network of informants inside the communist groups that retrieved them. Neither the aircraft nor the contents of the packages had been identified, but Tate believed it ‘obvious that the materials are undoubtedly either arms, ammunition, or funds to support communist party activities’. As with similar reports, this intelligence could not be corroborated.
On 12 November 1947, serious unrest erupted in Marseille, another apparent confirmation of French and American officials’ worst fears. US Consul Cecil Gray reported that the disorders were communist-led and inspired by recent communist agitation in the press. Rioters ‘obviously organized and directed by trained agitators’ had seized the Palais de Justice, broken into the city hall, and ransacked offices, nightclubs, and bars. Shots had been fired, wounding 30 and killing one. American and British flags, on display for Armistice Day, had been torn down. While there was apparent calm in the streets the next morning, strikes had been called among port, metallurgy, construction, and chemical workers. In Paris, French intelligence reported that communist circles claimed the PCF had reconstituted its clandestine organization under the supervision of a Russian officer, in order to be ready for any eventuality.
Days later, the French Interior Ministry released a statement disclosing the discovery of three arms caches in southern France. The official statement gave ‘no indication as to what faction in French politics these hidden arms may serve’, but the fact that the government had released the information at a time when France was threatened by unrest seemed to confirm reports that the arms were intended for PCF revolutionaries. Meanwhile, Franco-Soviet relations worsened. French authorities expelled Soviet officials from the repatriation facility at Camp Beauregard, prompting a violent reaction from Soviet leaders who questioned the continued viability of the Franco-Soviet pact. While French officials publicly stated that the raids on Beauregard were to rescue three children from forcible repatriation to the Soviet Union, Interior Ministry officials privately told US officials that they believed there were considerable stocks of arms in the camp. Other French reports linked Soviet officials to the international brigades and leadership of the communist movement in France. Communist-led strikes soon followed. Viewed alongside rumors of arms cache discoveries, alleged weapons drops and new international brigades, the strikes seemed like a prelude to insurrection.
By January 1948, an uneasy calm prevailed in Paris. PCF leaders called off the strikes in mid-December, but French sources urged vigilance. The wife of Pierre Massenet, the Interior Ministry Inspector General who had a role in taming the Marseille riots, told Gray that though PCF militants had not been armed in the last confrontation, the next time they would be; they would attempt to inflame the masses, sending them ‘charging into the streets with results that no one could foresee’. Interior Minister Jules Moch also warned a US embassy official that the government victory over the PCF was not final; another showdown would soon follow.
‘Une Affaire Rocambolesque’
Were tales of communist arms drops, hidden weapons caches, and new international brigades plausible? It is possible that transport aircraft could have flown from the Soviet zone of Germany, Poland, or Yugoslavia undetected by the French military. The first postwar air defense radars would only become operational in the 1950s. It is also possible that hidden arms caches were intended for PCF militants. Hundreds of thousands of weapons remained hidden at the end of the war; many had been designated for the Resistance, in which French communists had played an important role. There is also some evidence of conspiratorial activity among local communists who desired a more robust response—even leading to revolution—to government repression of their party. While there were large concentrations of Spanish refugees and an important base of PCF support in southern France, it is less likely that the reconstitution of the international brigades was possible without government knowledge. These rumors seemed possible mostly because they fit the prevailing—and hardening—cold war narrative about French weakness and communist intrigue. However, there were factors that militated against these possibilities and other plausible explanations for the activity. There were also serious flaws that undermined the credibility of this intelligence.
First, investigations into the alleged activities failed to yield one case where the intelligence reported could be definitively confirmed with first-hand eyewitness accounts or other intelligence sources. In early June 1947, for example, local police and communist leaders in southern France stated that they knew ‘absolutely nothing of international brigade headquarters’ in the region that was allegedly directing training for guerilla operations in Greece. Some weeks later, a British Foreign Office spokesman revealed that Britain was investigating Greek reports about international brigades, but had been unable to ‘prove or disprove’ them. Further, the French Foreign Ministry denied that volunteers for such a brigade had been recruited in southern France. A United Nations investigation team reported that it had received ‘little first-hand evidence’ that detachments from an international brigade were battling in Greece.
CIA analysts also warned that intelligence coverage of the international brigades had been a ‘fiasco’ and should be a warning to those concerned with communist activity. Between March and November 1947, they wrote, a stream of reports had come in describing the ‘recruitment, training, and movement of international brigades’ to assist Greek guerillas fighting the government. In 1946, an ‘almost equal volume of intelligence’ reported on international brigades in southern France. It was now accepted, they argued, ‘that both series of “brigades” were notional’. There was no evidence that international brigades saw action in Greece. The only brigades in southern France were the legions of Spanish refugees exiled after Franco’s victory over the republicans.
The French press and CIA analysts also came to question to veracity of rumors about communist parachutages over postwar France. In some cases, pranksters or other benign activity could explain the rumors. Le Monde discovered that alleged ‘signal lights’, which had so intrigued the public were actually the work of hoaxers. Other activity could be attributed to a soldier on leave who enjoyed setting off fireworks. In some cases, it was proven that an incident simply never happened. These rumors had circulated and, exploited by one group or another, had found credence. ‘As if the real perils [facing France] do not suffice’, one writer lamented, ‘the French learn each day about the existence of conspiracies which make the secret activities under the Occupation look like child’s play’. These were troubled times, and they allowed this kind of information to flourish. In an age of ideological fervor, falsehoods had become an effective response to the other side. ‘In a suspicious world, no one lingers to unravel the threads of the fable … from shadowy pseudo-dangers, we thus help to create authentic peril’.
Privately, CIA analysts also admitted that they had been unable to verify reports concerning unidentified aircraft parachuting arms to French communists. A pro-American French prefect confirmed as much: ‘so far’, he said, ‘security agents and police [have] been unable to find a single person who had actually seen such a parachuting’. In his opinion, these reports were ‘a complete fabrication of communist origin’. Whether invented by the PCF to scare the French public into acquiescence or by other factions to encourage American financial and military assistance, the prefect’s statement raises serious questions about the efficacy and sources of US intelligence; it also undermines assertions that intelligence officers concerned with France were not relentlessly anti-communist and ‘performed fairly well’ on the matter.
Press reporting also suggested that the presence of arms caches were not all indicators of communist intrigue. France, occupied by the Germans and ravaged by war, was awash in weapons. Local reports gave a number of explanations: some citizens had kept the arms they had during the German occupation and failed to turn them into the police; others may have intended to sell them on the black market; some of the weapons may have been destined for Spain or Palestine; some belonged to right-wing groups. As the Washington Post recalled, discoveries of arms caches had ‘given rise to reports that both the right and left were receiving arms from abroad’. Spanish fascists, Italian arms traffickers, and rightist elements in the French occupation zone of Germany were possible sources of arms for French rightists, while PCF militants could look to the Soviet zone of Germany for weapons. One official reportedly lamented, ‘During the war we had one Maquis—now we have two of them arming against each other’.
Le Monde warned about accepting stories of arms depots without reflection and encouraged skepticism; one must await investigation results before knowing if a cache even existed. A subsequent story in the New York Times in March about the seizure of five tons of arms destined for Jews in Palestine reminded readers that it was the latest in a series of discoveries of hidden arsenals. ‘In several instances’, it said, ‘the police have later found it necessary to revise the figure of the amount of arms found and the statements of the purposes for which they were gathered and hidden’.
Subsequent CIA analysis observed more generally that chatter among French police, government, and lay circles of ‘directives from Moscow’ reported by ‘highly reliable sources’ had not held up under critical inspection, and they warned that ‘more fabrications are likely to pop up in areas where communist capabilities produce serious apprehension as to their “illegal” intentions’. Intelligence analysis of the general threat posed by communism, they said, had been confused by ‘countless preconceptions, uncritical generalizations, and sensational nonsense’. The postwar period had produced a significant trove of ‘uninformed or fabricated reportage’ on the subject, usually from ‘highly unobjective anti-Soviet sources and professional intelligence merchants’.
In fact, the sources of US intelligence on this revolutionary activity came largely from informants in the French Interior Ministry and transnational network of right-leaning observers and ex-communists now hostile to the PCF, whose own information was often the recycled product of rumor and anonymous sources. As Francis Balace has documented, many of the fantastical stories that had so intoxicated allied officials and intelligence services originated with a single Belgian source known to be viscerally anti-communist; his reports were later dismissed as ‘une affaire rocambolesque’, pure fantasy. A 1946 War Department intelligence plan acknowledged as such: ‘the great preponderance’ of reports on communists had come from ‘the large number of anti-Communist groups and individuals … ranging from … Socialist[s] and right-wing parties, government officials, and business and clerical figures to anti-Soviet émigrés and professional informants’. Some of them had been plucked from French prisons, guilty of collaboration and working for German intelligence in the last war, but possessing desirable skills in a new cold war. Many hoped to encourage American involvement in French affairs to their benefit; others hoped to convince their counterparts of the necessity for immediate financial and military assistance in order to stave off communism in France and rebuild the French military as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism in Western Europe. While there were some cases in which US intelligence and diplomatic officials acknowledged their informants’ possible motives, serious reflection on the personal and political objectives of these sources—and their impact on American assessments of the situation in France and US foreign policy—was rare; as a result, their significant influence remained hidden, cloaked within the secret dossiers they passed to US officials.
Part of the problem lay in the growing ideological rigidity of the American analysts. Most State Department officials concerned with France, including US Ambassador to France Jefferson Caffery, were ardent anti-communists. Military intelligence officers and attachés largely shared the same anti-communist outlook. Other observers, like Norris Chipman and John Grombach, verged on hysterical anti-communism. Almost all viewed communist activity in France as naturally part of a larger, worldwide conspiracy. As a result, these embassy and military analysts failed to consider other courses of action or important factors in France that militated against worst-case scenario assumptions. The combination of sources with agendas and access to American intelligence and diplomatic officials, and the ideological inclinations of their American partners, ensured that one, dark version of events in France prevailed.
Rumors of communist conspiracies—even though largely unproven—meant that the narrative of French weakness and revolution persisted without any real challenge to the flawed assumptions upon which it was based. As Robert Mencherini has observed, the heightening of international tensions, the renewal of strikes in France, and the expulsion of communist ministers from the French government created a favorable atmosphere for rumor, even if it contradicted other reports that suggested moderation on the part of the PCF and the Soviets. These rumors took flight on the whispers of sources across Europe. This intelligence sustained a psychology of fear, which meant, for the foreseeable future, that communist activity in France could only be viewed in relation to alarmist reports of communist preparations to seize power. This only increased the gulf dividing French workers with legitimate grievances and a government charged with French security and order. Across the Atlantic, intelligence bolstered hardening American policy, rather than offering US officials what it should have: exhaustive examination of the situation, impartial analysis, and alternative explanations to difficult policy problems. Intelligence expert Paul Pillar has noted that it is unlikely that specific pieces of intelligence or individual reports drive policy. This study of intelligence on revolutionary activity in France demonstrates that streams of intelligence can have a cumulative effect, and that it is, in fact, a major source of the images that over time drive American decision-makers in their consideration of US policy options. Rather than moderating the views of American officials on the ground or keeping policy arguments in Washington honest, alarmist reports heightened fear and fed existing narratives.
French officials privately noted that rumors of communist conspiracies deformed American images of France, fostering the belief that there existed in France a state of open warfare between communist and anti-communist forces, and relatedly, that France could not be counted as a trusted ally. They also understood that reports of revolutionary activity contributed to the American belief that the PCF and Soviets had determined that the time had come to begin action in France. Awareness of American sensitivities encouraged decisive action by the French government and rival factions to demonstrate their legitimacy and outmaneuver political rivals in order to convince US officials that they could meet the communist threat, with some assistance. Secretly, they carefully managed American perceptions through their exchanges with US intelligence experts and diplomats. Publicly, this took the form of anti-communist rhetoric and measures by French authorities, including most famously, the dismissal of PCF ministers from the government in 1947. Ultimately, it also fed the paranoia of communist leaders and their Stalinist turn. In the years to come, the PCF—no longer a party of government—became a party of obstruction, suspicion, and bitterness.
After all of the reporting of communist military formations, weapons caches, and preparations for insurrection, there was no uprising after PCF setbacks in France or amidst increased cold war tensions, nor was there any communist invasion of Spain. Whether the sensational reports about communist plots and revolutionary activity were much ado about nothing or much ado about something, the absence of any armed action by French communists at least puts these claims into perspective.