H-Diplo Article Review 814 on Susan McCall Perlman. “US Intelligence and Communist plots in Postwar France.”

George Fujii Discussion






Article Review

No. 814

11 December 2018




Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse

Web and Production Editor: George Fujii


Susan McCall Perlman.  “US Intelligence and Communist plots in Postwar France.”  Intelligence and National Security 33:3 (April 2018):  376-390.  DOI:  https://doi.og/10.1080/02684527.2017.1404292.


URL: http://tiny.cc/AR814


Review by Alessandro Brogi, University of Arkansas




How many intelligence informants does it take to screw up a potentially good alliance between two countries? Dozens, perhaps hundreds, according to Susan McCall Perlman. And what kind of sources? Official, semi-official, individual, or organized; the roster of these transnational forces was quite big, originating within and outside the boundaries of the French nation, into Belgium, Spain, Italy - all of them with a clear, prejudiced anti-Communist and anti-Soviet agenda. And most of the reports Perlman unearthed for the first time were then gathered and transmitted to the U.S. Embassy in Paris and to Washington by the War Department’s Strategic Services Unit (SSU), the Central Intelligence Group (CIG), and the Interior Ministry and French intelligence. The article is rich with evidence, from multiple French and U.S. archives, complemented with extensive press media and a mastery of secondary literature, especially from France.


This intelligence failure may not have had the magnitude and consequences of those that plagued U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East in recent decades; but it certainly affected the already troubled relationship between the United States and its oldest friend and ally: France. If mere, unsubstantiated rumors of arms caches or parachute deliveries aimed at resurrecting international brigades and preparing a Communist insurrection were enough to set Washington on a frenzy about the prospect of a Communist-dominated France, we are led to wonder about the ease with which unreliable sources could influence U.S. diplomacy throughout its history, counting on the existing prejudice and flawed assumptions of its practitioners.


This is a story set in the key transition years for France from its post-World War II provisional government to the establishment of the Fourth Republic and, soon afterward, the expulsion of the Communist party (PCF) from the government in May of 1947. Focusing on the transnational network of informants that appealed to prejudices about Communism among American diplomats and policy-makers, nourishing their already existing “psychology of fear” (386), Perlman argues that the reports helped rekindle alarms about imminent revolutionary activities—furthermore, activities supported by Moscow, despite clear signs that the devastated Soviet Union remained moderate and circumspect in its support of Western European Communists. The international network—these informants reported—extended its plots to support Spanish refugees in Southern France and train international brigades to be dispatched to the Greek civil war. In general, Perlman contends, these reports helped set the stage for U.S. political intervention in France, confirming an American “narrative of French weakness and revolution” (385).


Further investigations, first conducted by the newly created CIA, showed no confirmation of the evidence reported by intelligence sources. Indeed, one CIA report late in 1948 concluded that these were largely “fabrications […] sensational nonsense […] usually from highly unobjective anti-Soviet sources…” (385). And yet, the basic American assumptions on France’s instability and vulnerability to Marxist subversion and revolution had set in, thanks in part to the PCF’s virulent campaign and insurrectionary strikes opposing the policies associated with the Marshall Plan, and, even more, thanks to the visceral anti-Communism of embassy officials such as Ambassador Jefferson Caffery and analyst Norris Chipman.


Although implicit in this narrative on transnational networks, the now seasoned argument about an ‘invited’ U.S. hegemony—or even ‘empire”’—in Europe can be surmised from some of the evidence offered here. As was the case with many such invitations, the agents, informants, from the extreme right to the disenchanted former Stalinists, “hoped to encourage American involvement in French affairs to their benefit” (385). As the literature on transnational networks expands our understanding of the various forces shaping international relations, we get to comprehend better how government decisions (such as invitations for U.S. greater involvement in their affairs) were matched by other, legitimate or not, forces as well.

In its core conclusion, Perlman’s argument seems more speculative than grounded in evidence. Surely these intelligence reports may have had a “cumulative effect,” feeding “existing narratives” on France’s weakness, and leading the United States to intervene more strongly in its internal affairs (386). But one could also argue that precisely the discredit soon earned by those sources in fact helped the U.S, mitigate the immediate post-war alarms, and moderate its interference in France—at the same time that it was redirecting its attention to the more powerful and insidious Italian Communist Party (PCI). Ambassador Caffery was among the first to claim, through secret dispatches, that he had nothing to do with the PCF expulsion from the government in May of 1947.[1]


For all the Manichean mode of confrontation against Communism in the Western sphere of influence, American diplomats often paused, before adopting rash, ill-advised actions. Consider George Kennan’s suggestion in March of 1948, shortly before the first Italian national elections, to press the Italian government to outlaw the PCI, a move he recognized would prompt a Communist insurrection, giving the U.S. a pretext for military occupation and countermeasures.[2] What came out of this proposal? Niente. If the advice of a prominent expert on Soviet affairs at the peak of his fame and influence was so easily discarded by the new National Security Council, how can we then infer that uncredited informants had such a significant role in shaping US perceptions and actions?


The sinews of Communist power were multiple – including bureaucratic penetration of the state apparatus, economic leverage through their trade union organizations, cultural influence through their strong intellectual appeal, nationalist propaganda through their record in the Resistance and now opposition to American dominance – and Washington calibrated its anti-Communist policies in tune with all these dimensions. Fear of Communist insurrection and the alleged military apparatus of the PCF were only two aspects informing the decisions of U.S. diplomats. To be sure, ideological rigidity often characterized these decisions; and yet, U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials learned to adopt a flexible approach in a relatively short time, though not without difficulties. 


Surely, a crusading impulse often dictated radical, unnecessary, and often counterproductive measures. The scope of ‘psychological warfare’ tactics, including, in 1951, the creation of a Psychological Strategy Board (PSB) as an annex to the National Security Council, and specifically targeting Communism in France and Italy, indicates that the ‘psychology of fear’ prompted many U.S. actions for most of the first postwar decade – and Perlman’s article would have benefited from showing more explicitly these long term consequences of the immediate postwar alarmist reports. Still, the Truman, and then the Eisenhower administrations soon learned that aggressive tactics against the PCF and PCI often backfired, and that the French and Italian ruling coalitions resisted the PSB’s pressures to basically outlaw the Communists. The PSB itself stated (surely with quite a patronizing tone), in one of its 1953 reports on France: “we do not require subservience nor love, but the cooperation of partners, and the French need from time to time a verbal test of their coordinate rather than subordinate position in the Western alliance.”[3]


An image of French weakness and political instability endured among U.S. diplomats; but it was not confined to paranoia over Communist intrigue. In fact, by the mid-1950s, the focus of U.S. fears shifted more to right-wing, not left-wing conspiracies in France. And, by 1958, at the peak of a political crisis centered on the Algerian War, Washington even came to consider as contentious leader as Charles de Gaulle a better alternative to all of the prospects from the moribund Fourth Republic; the General, in American eyes, ultimately became a ‘savior’ against right-wing plots aimed at sustaining old imperialist aims and undermining political pluralism in France.


Finally, hindsight and availability of documentation from the East can now enlighten us on the moderation (at least in Western Europe) which characterized the creation of a new Cominform led by Moscow. And while the minutes of those conferences (included by Perlman as counter-evidence) now belie “claims in US and French reporting” on the PCF’s “intent on an illegal seizure of power for some years” (382), diplomats and intelligence officers did not have the benefit of that knowledge then. Their prejudice could run wild, not just because it relied on poor, manipulative sources, but also because of the sparse, circumstantial evidence they could gather from the East.


While Perlman may have overstated the impact of informal intelligence sources on U.S. policy-making, her article remains enlightening and fascinating. It certainly invites further exploration of the transnational networks that complemented, and at times deeply shaped, perceptions, tropes, and cultural notions on which certain bilateral or multilateral relations were founded. The United States’ poor knowledge of the political cultures of other countries, even those with the closest and most enduring ties to America, certainly opened the door to perhaps just as oblivious, or manipulative, groups. And Perlman deserves credit for unveiling this evidence with a persuasive if not always compelling analysis.


Alessandro Brogi is Professor of History at the University of Arkansas. His most recent book is Confronting America: The Cold War between the United States and the Communists in France and Italy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011, 2014), winner of the Charles Smith Award, by the Southern Historical Association. He is currently working on a project on Senator J. William Fulbright and the transatlantic dialogue on liberal internationalism.


© 2018 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License



[1] See, for example, Jefferson Caffery to Secretary of State, 6 May 1947, 851.00, Record Group 59, National Archives, College Park, Maryland.

[2] George F. Kennan to Secretary of State, 15 March 1948, Foreign Relations of the United States, vol. 1948 III, 848-849.

[3] PSB memo D-37, February 9, 1953 (pp. 16-17), White House Office Files, NSC Staff Papers, PSB, box 14, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kansas.