The Lesson of France


By ANDRE MAUROIS, French Author

Delivered at the 45th Annual Convention of the National Association of Manufacturers, Waldorf-Astoria, N. Y., December 12, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 236-238.

IT may seem strange at first sight to find an Association of American Manufacturers asking a French writer to address them on the subject of national defense, but your choice is perhaps less surprising than it looks. No one is today more passionately interested than a writer in the defense of all free countries, for his profession is one that can breathe only in an atmosphere of freedom. No one understands better than he does the necessity of an intensified production of armaments, for he knows that it is because planes and tanks were not produced in time that European culture is today banned from most European nations.

And it is also natural enough that, choosing this year a writer, you should want this writer to be French. Your problems are in many ways similar to those of France a few months ago. Your political institutions are very nearly what ours were before this war. You defend a way of life which was our way of life. You know we entered the war without an adequate preparation. Yes, it is quite natural that you should ask yourselves why we were not ready, and that you should attempt to avoid our costly, our fatal mistakes.

That grievous mistakes have been made by some of our past leaders, I shall not for one moment attempt to deny. First because I seek here nothing but the truth, and the security of a friendly country, and also because it seems to me that the best way to clear the honor and maintain the self-respect of the French people is to show that the faults of their government had deprived them of all chances of victory and that they were beaten, not for lack of courage, but for lack of moral and military preparation.

To what extent the lack of armaments, in France and in England, was complete and tragic, is difficult to realize for those who have not witnessed, as we so often have before and during this war, the despair of our best soldiers. Many of them knew that the country was in mortal danger. I remember that, at the time of the Munich Conference, I had a long and painful conversation with a brilliant Colonel in the French Air Force, who was in command of a regiment of bombers. "If there is a war," he said, "we shall die bravely, my men and myself. . . . That is all we can do. . . . For more than two years we have been completely out-distanced, both in speed and fire-power, by the German Air Force."

At that time, September 1938, Germany possessed 3,500 fast and modern planes, and produced at least 500 more every month, while most of our planes were hopelessly obsolete, and our production 50 a month. During the year 1937, our total production had been 460 planes, a monthly average of 37, which means that we produced less machines in one year than the Germans in one month. Even in 1938, we never had more than 50,000 workers in aviation factories, working forty (and later forty-five) hours a week, while the Germans had 150,000, working sixty hours a week.

And what was true of planes was also true of tanks and guns. Just before the German offensive, a General commanding one of our crack colonial divisions told me: "My men are just as brave as men can be, but they can not stop tanks with their bare bodies. If they are not given anti-tank guns, I can not answer for them. . . ." In England, the shortage of tanks, of guns, of rifles was such that therewasn't even enough to train the young soldiers. In the maneuvers, many of the most important weapons had to be represented by flags and discs, and the searchlight companies, before the war, were doing their exercises as well as they could, without searchlights.

It seemed incredible that two great nations, possessing an enormous capacity of industrial output, and knowing that the most terrible danger threatened their very existence, should allow such a perilous state of affairs to continue. In both Parliaments, the wisest statesmen were anxious and indignant. In the House of Commons, as some Cabinet minister had explained that he could not equip the British Territorials at the same time as the regular army, for lack of industrial capacity, Winston Churchill thundered: "Just think of that! Why? These two forces put together are only one quarter of a million men, and we are told that our vast, flexible, rich, fertile, adaptable British industry is incapable of conducting the equipment of these two comparatively small forces simultaneously! . . . I refuse to believe such a thing."

In France, the complaints from a few well informed men, who realized the changes in the technique of modern warfare, were the same, but the government never took any of the necessary steps. In spite of the deplorable situation of the Air Force, the appropriations remained incredibly inferior to those in Germany. How can it be explained? Did the French and British ministers believe that soothing words and platitudes would give us the mastery of the sky? No, but they allowed political expediency to take precedence over security. "What could I do?" Mr. Baldwin asked the House with his shrewd and disarming frankness, "what could I do? There was a strong pacifist feeling running through the country. Suppose I had gone to the electorate and said the Germans were rearming and that we must rearm. Does anybody think that this pacific democracy would have rallied to that cry at the moment?""I hope," growled with just irritation Winston Churchill, "we shall never accept such a reason as that."

Winston Churchill was right, for it was not true that public opinion, in France and in England, would have refused to work or to pay for the security of the country, Never did the French or British Parliament refuse an appropriation for the Army or the Air Force. Never was public opinion really and forcibly informed of the danger. The truth is that the government never dared ask what was necessary. It is not democracy, it is not Parliament that should be blamed; it is not public opinion: it is lack of leadership. The great men who built the French and British Empires, the great men who founded your Commonwealth did not abandon public opinion to the ebb and flow of its vague and wishful dreams. They had been chosen by the people to represent the nation, and they did represent and lead the nation.

The principles of representative government have been admirably summed up by Edmund Burke, at the end of the eighteenth century, when he wrote to his constituents, the electors of Bristol: "It ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union with his constituents. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasure, his satisfaction to theirs, but his unbiased opinion,his mature judgment, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment, and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

A noble letter. . . . No government of the people is possible if the people are not told the truth and a statesman betrays his countrymen when he sacrifices their security, their freedom, and the very existence of the country, to their opinion, and to an opinion he has not even attempted to inform or to reform.

The credits voted in France and in England for the national defense were inadequate, the magnitude of the effort hopelessly insufficient, because the governments did not face the awful reality and did not trust their public opinion. Both in France and in England, they under-estimated their countrymen. Do you believe that, if French and British workmen and businessmen had been told: "You have at present a neighbour who is building the strongest war machine ever built by a man. In two years, starting from nothing, he has equipped an Air Force as strong as that of France; in another two years he will be able to bomb, unopposed, your factories and your cities, in another two years, unless you throw at once your whole weight in the scales, he will be able to defeat you in such a way that he will deprive you of your traditional freedom and make you pay, for his armies of occupation, ten times, one hundred times as much as you would pay today to build an air fleet equal to his," do you believe that if such an appeal had been made, by the heads of the nation and the chiefs of the army, public opinion in France and England would not have responded? I know the patriotism and common sense of British citizens; I know the patriotism and common sense of Frenchmen and I have not the slightest doubt that the answer would have been: "Go ahead!"

Therefore, the first fault of our governments was a lack of political courage; they did not dare face an unpleasant truth and tell it to the nation. But even an inadequate program of rearmament, if it had been well conceived and executed in time, might have provided us with some sort of defense. Alas! it was neither well conceived, nor executed in time. While in Germany the lag between the acceptation of a blueprint and the first flight of the plane was very short, with us months and sometimes years elapsed before mass production began. A program accepted by the General Staff went from committee to committee, slowed down by the jealousies of rival firms. The red tape of bureaucracy and the red tape of parliamentarism intertwined. Strikes, sometimes engineered by our potential enemies, closed key factories at the most critical moments. The machines became obsolete even before they were built.

And why were red tapes and red flags allowed to stop production. Because our ministers had failed to understand that in war, as in all forms of action, time is the all important factor, and that the fate of a great empire may be settled because a certain order was given a few hours too late. One of your newspapers wrote the other day: "What the United States needs is a Secretary of Time, able to make every official, every citizen realize that every minute is priceless." I do not think any nation needs a Secretary of Time, because the first achievement of a new department would be to make all other departments lose more time, but all nations need, in a period like this, a great respect of time, a religion of time.

A program of rearmament is nothing without a time table. When our Intelligence Service told us (and they did tell us) that the Germans had, in two years, acquired the finest air fleet in the world, we should have said: "What they have done in two years, France and England together can do too. What do we need to do it? How many factories? How many machine tools? How many dollars to spend abroad? Expense

doesn't matter. Labor is plentiful. Money and men we shall always have, but Time once lost can never be replaced." Then perhaps we should not be today in such a painful situation. Of course it was a big job to overtake a powerful nation that had taken such a start in production, but it is precisely because it was a big job that it had to be undertaken without delay. I remember that I once accompanied Marshal Lyautey, who was the greatest man I have ever known, on a tour of inspection in Morocco. In some place, he found that a great forest of cedars had been destroyed by a hurricane. He called the Director of Forestry and said: "See . . . . You will have to plant new cedars here. . . ." The Director smiled: "Cedars, sir," he said, but it takes two thousand years to grow a cedar!" The Marshal at first looked surprised, then he said: "Two thousand years? . . . Two thousand years! . . . Well, then, we must begin at once."

Unfortunately we had, before this war, no Lyautey at the War Office, the work was not begun at once, and now all we can do is to tell our American friends: "Remember what happened to us. Do not wait. Organize your defense in time. You are in a better position to do it than we were, because you are a more united nation." I have been very much impressed, on the day following your presidential election, by your manifestations of national unity. They were very timely and welcome, for self-government, in order to function properly requires political passions to be kept within reasonable limits. Kipling once said that there are two ways of governing men, one is to break the heads, the other to count them. Democracy prefers to count them, but this can only work, if, once the count is honestly taken a "loyal minority" accepts to be governed for a fixed time by the majority, and to cooperate with the chosen leader.

It is a wise method. Obviously it is not practicable unless, as is the case in your country, the minority is sure to be treated with justice and fairness by the majority, and if they share a measure of common beliefs. This is no longer the case when the majority announces that, once it is in power, its purpose will be to destroy the minority. In France, during the years before the war, the Communist party was part of the majority. Everyone knew, since the party made no mystery of the fact, that it was hostile to freedom, favored a dictatorship of the proletariat and was determined to eliminate its opponents. From that moment the violence of the extreme-Left, and the violence of the extreme-Right, were fatally to lead to the destruction of French democracy.

How could industry produce rapidly large quantities of armaments when workers, engineers and owners were at daggers drawn, when the leaders of industry did not know the intentions of the leaders in politics, when authority was no more allowed to go hand in hand with responsibility, when part of the workmen in the armament factories disagreed with the government on the very policy these armaments were meant to uphold? How could production be well organized when all decisions related to it were taken, not because the necessities of national defense commanded them, but because they agreed or not with an official ideology.

Take, for instance, the question of airplanes. Should the state help the existing private factories to increase their production, or should it undertake the construction of an Air Force. Nothing was more legitimate than to ask such questions, provided they were solved without passion, objectively or, as Lord Salisbury would have said, "chemically," and with no other bias than the love of one's country and the desire to ensure its defense, but such was not the case. The question was asked and the answer given, not for reasons of national defense, but for reasons of ideological pride, and each successive minister destroyed the work of his predecessor when he did not share his political faith.

It was the same with the devaluation of the franc; it wasthe same with the question of war profits. What profit was it wise to leave to industries working for national defense? Here again it was quite legitimate to ask the question if the answer was given in a spirit of justice, and with an eye on production, but such was not the case. Too often the answer was given in a spirit of defiance or hostility. What became, in 1936, such a mortal danger to France was not a program of social reforms. On the necessity of these reforms, with the exception of a very small number of bad employers, most Frenchmen agreed. It was the aggressive and hasty manner in which such reforms were administered. Businessmen and workmen do not live by profits and wages alone. They have their feelings, their pride, their honor. Many of them were ready in France to sacrifice a great deal if they had been tackled the right way, but the majority of the time forgot that, if it is always easy to compromise with self-interest it is always impossible to compromise with self-respect. Very soon political hatred became so fierce that the country was cut in two parts, incapable of working together. Envy and Fear are both members of the Fifth Column, in any country. Though they seem to belong to different camps they work together, and together succeed in killing wealth and strength, which is what they did in France.

But they did not kill France. I have spoken to you, with the complete frankness one owes to friends of long standing, of our past mistakes. I must, before I leave you, mention our future hopes. In spite of its present grievous plight we believe, with desperate faithfulness in the future of our country. We know that forty million hard-working, gifted men and women, can not have changed overnight because their leaders did not build in time ten thousand planes and six thousand tanks. Frenchmen and Englishmen have paid, and pay, a terrible price for their sins of omission. I am sure if you could receive the letters we receive from home you would feel, as we do, infinite pity and infinite sympathy.

I was once, many years ago, as you are today, responsible for the leadership and management of a great industrial concern. I realize what must be the despair of the French manufacturer to whom his family concern is part of his flesh and blood, and who sees it dying out for lack of fuel and raw material. I can picture him walking sadly amongst the silentlooms and exchanging kind, anguished words with his idle workmen. They beg him to reopen the plant; he longs to help them and to work himself; but what can he do as long as an army of occupation starves and strangles his country?

Very seldom has a more painful situation arisen in history, but very seldom, I hope and trust, has a terrible lesson gone home to hearts more worthy of understanding it. We had been spoiled and softened by victory; we shall be braced and hardened by disaster. And who knows if our children will not turn our military defeat into a moral victory? I trust them. These young lieutenants of the Maginot Line, these young pilots of the French Air Force, so brave, so keen, and who were never given a chance to show their metal, yon will see what a generation they will build for France. Yon will see how, thanks to them, the name of France will once more be pronounced lovingly and admiringly by your children. You will see that the old tree will, next spring, blossom again.

Perhaps some of you remember Kipling's beautiful poem written after the Boer war, and whose each stanza ends with the refrain:

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget, lest we forget. . . .

If all free nations have learnt the terrible lesson of our disaster; if they have learnt that there is no liberty without security and no security without unity; if they have learnt that freedom, born of discipline and strength, can be saved only by disciplined strength; if they have learnt that a common faith is the condition of a common victory; if they have learnt that you can not fight planes and tanks with words and strikes; if they have learnt to lay aside, in times of national danger, the "comfort and smoothness," the rivalries and greeds of ordinary life; if they have learnt "to fill the unforgiving minute" with sixty seconds of efficient work; if they have learnt the full and sinister meaning of those two words, the most tragic in any language: too late, then we have not suffered in vain, then France once more, at the cost of her blood and tears, has saved the world from darkness and servitude, and that is why, however painful the duty was to me, I have accepted to tell you today of our faults, pains, and hopes, lest you forget, lest you forget.