While France gave up most of its once-expansive North American holdings in the 18th and 19th centuries, it has retained two small islands off the coast of Newfoundland, not very far from Maine. These islands were the subject of a bizarre and troubling episode in World War II history, which took place shortly after the U.S. declared war on Germany. Rafael Medoff writes:
On December 24, 1941, the Free French—the government-in-exile headed by General Charles de Gaulle—sent a naval force that ousted the islands’ Vichyite rulers. A plebiscite held the following day found 98-percent of the islands’ inhabitants supported the overthrow of the Vichyites. Rather than celebrate this small but symbolic victory over Axis occupiers in the Western hemisphere, the Roosevelt administration denounced De Gaulle’s “arbitrary” action and tried to convince the Canadian government to restore St. Pierre and Miquelon to Vichy’s control.
The “nasty little incident,” as Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle called it in his memoirs, threatened to upset the administration’s policy of tolerating Vichy rule over French colonies. Washington hoped its policy would persuade the Vichy to be less pro-Nazi. Like other attempts at appeasing dictators, it did not turn out as hoped.
Vichy officials praised the Roosevelt administration’s stance on the islands as “a severe lesson to the dissidents.” . . . After months of floating rumors that the Free French would agree to leave St. Pierre and Miquelon, the Roosevelt administration finally dropped the issue, when it became clear that neither De Gaulle nor the inhabitants of the islands were willing to surrender to Vichy.
Washington’s policy of appeasing Vichy, however, continued. After the Allies liberated North Africa from the Nazis in November 1942, President Roosevelt agreed to leave the Vichyite Admiral Francois Darlan in power.