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Reflections on Charles De Gaulle, and Why Americans Are Told to Hate the French

I recently read a book by an apparently popular English author, Douglas Boyd(to any Brits out there, correct me if the jacket was wrong) called De Gaulle: The Man Who Defied Six US Presidents.

It was a quick read, but I was not all that impressed. Boyd does have an agenda, to which he readily admits, to use De Gaulle as and example to his compatriots to show that it IS possible for a European democracy to stand up to the United States in order to protect its own interests. He does a pretty good job of chastising recent and current British leadership for saying “How high?” whenever an American Administration says “Frog,” and holds up De Gaulle as the best example of such defiant European leadership.

Unfortunately, he has an annoying tendency to get his facts wrong, such as an allegation that Douglas MacArthur ran for president in the Republican primary of 1944.  Kind of hard to do while directing a war from Australia and the Phillipines. He also got some dates wrong which, for a historian, is just plain sloppy. Sometimes I found his sources questionable, but he DID have access to recently declassified American State Department cables from the World War II era.

Those make a damning case that Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration were bound and determined to militarily occupy the liberated countries of Western Europe until such time as a pliable government could be installed which would both tow Washington’s foreign policy line and to allow American businesses full access, up to and including domination, of their domestic markets.  Boyd alleges that FDR wanted to carve out another country from the Benelux countries and northeastern France to serve as a buffer between what was left of France from Germany, and just assumed there would be an Anglo-American occupation of all of liberated Western Europe.

There was this one, wee problem. There was this big-nosed French guy who had refused to surrender to the Nazis in 1940, refused to even recognize the legitimacy of the collaborationist Vichy government, did a fair job of persuading many overseas French colonies to declare for Free France and fight against the Axis, and who was instrumental in fanning the flames of French resistance to the Nazi conquest. Because of that, De Gaulle was a hero to most British and American citizens at the time, a fact that he repeatedly exploited in his dealings with Churchill and Roosevelt.

There are four things about Charles De Gaulle that I think are indisputable: 1. He was a strong French nationalist. 2. He considered himself a French patriot, and his goal during and after World War II was to restore France to it former position in the world or better, and to take its rightful place in the councils of the great world powers. 3. He succeeded. It took a few decades, but he succeeded. 4. He was personally courageous. He had fought in World War I  and taken been taken prisoner. He also fought during the 1940 campaign, leading an armored brigade in one of the few French victories over the Germans that year.

When it came to the Americans and the British, De Gaulle never wavered in his goal of the full restoration of France, and he drove both Churchill and Roosevelt nuts. He stalled, he bluffed, he outright refused to endorse any Allied policy that would violate full French sovereignty over its own soil after the war. He insisted that Free French forces be the first into Paris. He insisted on the French occupying part of Germany, and won. France emerged from the war heavily damaged but still intact as a polity. He was for NATO on general principles, but insisted on French consent before any American nuclear weapon based in France could be used, and that American servicemen in France should be required to obey French civil law. When, after he was returned to power in 1958, the Americans refused to do agree to either demand, he kicked all of their armed forces out of France.

That’s the real reason, I think, why generations of Americans have been propagandized to believe that the French are a bunch of cowards and born collaborators who can’t fight worth a damn, anyway, and are ungrateful to America for saving their sorry asses not once, but twice. So goes the narrative. I’ve always thought it manifestly unfair. For one thing, the United States would not even exist had it not been for French intervention in the American Revolution, for another, some 1.3 million French soldiers died in World War I, and another 85,000 or so of them did during the German invasion of 1940, which lasted only six weeks.

That hardly sounds cowardly to me. In 1940 the French soldiers fought as hard as they could, at least for the first few weeks, but they had horrendous leadership, no air support, no preparation or training for the tactics which were employed against them, and just plain whupped. But they did not give up without a fight.

As for De Gaulle’s conditions for American bases and troops remaining in his country, were they really that unreasonable? Would Americans tolerate the reverse?

De Gaulle also understood that Stalinism was NOT real Marxism, that Stalin was just using Communism for his own purposes and for expanding the Russian Empire in the same manner as the czars. He repeatedly told FDR this, but FDR liked Stalin and some of the workers’ rights rhetoric that Stalin lied about believing in. He told Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson the same thing. Maybe he was frustrated because none of the American leaders grasped what should have been obvious.

De Gaulle was capable of learning both from his own mistakes and the mistakes of others. When the new Fourth Republic formed after WWII without a strong executive, just like the Third Republic which fell in 1940, De Gaulle left government. He was convinced that France needed a powerful executive to ever get anything done when the legislative branch was quite rightly and democratically divided by multiple political parties. He only became president of France again in 1958, when France was teetering on the brink of civil war largely over the Algerian War for Independence which was bleeding France dry, and that was just because of his reputation with most of his own people. Well, France had no civil war, and De Gaulle shocked lots of people by understanding that the French could not win the war with any tactic other than genocide, and negotiated Algerian independence.

Not only that, but he let the French voters decide what to do. He held two referendums, the first on whether to make peace with the Algerians and end the war in principle, and the second on whether or not to accept the treaty De Gaulle had negotiated. Both passed overwhelmingly.

When was the last time American voters got to decide whether or not they should continue to fight a war? Makes De Gaulle look downright populist.

He’d learned from watching the earlier events in Indochina that it is impossible to occupy a country when the vast majority of its inhabitants really, REALLY want your ass out. So he got the hell out of Algeria, and pissed off several million French citizens whose families had been living in, and exploiting the “native” labor, of that country for over a century. Former colonial military officers tried to kill him multiple times(great movie about that time, Day of the Jackal) but De Gaulle refused to change his public schedules.

De Gaulle  pushed France’s nuclear weapons and energy program because he thought it was necessary in order for France to regain great power status. He spurned American offers of nuclear protection on the grounds that America might choose to sacrifice Europe in a nuclear confrontation with the Soviets in order to save itself. In fact, that very scenario was one of the Pentagon’s contingency plans. Long after his death in 1970, France did in fact achieve total nuclear independence, with its own very effective nuclear deterrent, for better or for worse. And now France, like all of the other nuclear powers, has weapons that simply can never, ever be used, so nobody can bully it too much.

It also has a history of sometimes saying “No” to American administrations who want it to join them in doing some truly boneheaded things, like the conquest and occupation of Iraq. Unfortunately, IMO, French governments also often say “Yes,” such as they did recently with Libya and Syria, far too often.

De Gaulle definitely had his major flaws, and politically I find myself in disagreement with him quite a bit–for example, he had no problem with capitalism’s continued dominant existence with just a few checks on it–but he was neither a fool nor a coward. And he did successfully stand up to the American Empire on several occasions. If the French can do it, so can other Europeans.

And they’d damned well better. It’s in their own best interests, and in the interests of the American people themselves, as well. Better Charles De Gaulle than Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair.

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