Tuesday, June 01, 2021

De Gaulle and the Americans: II

French-US relations took a dive after the Second World War and it needs to be understood as not a particularly "de Gaulle thing".  The French and American approaches world views were fundamentally different,  of which de Gaulle represented one pole.  I've edited this excellent article by Bernard Fall, which appeared in the New York Times in the '60's. It goes over some of the issues which chafed and is written by an American with an intimate insight into the French perspective.


IN December, 1942, a few weeks after the liberation of North Africa, the late Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, arrived in Algiers. One of the problems he had to deal with concerned the Free French minister for finance. “About this man,” said Morgenthau to Ambassador Robert Murphy, “I think, we should get rid of him.”Murphy, who knew the man's services to the Allied cause and his pro-American sentiments, eloquently objected, but Morgenthau was adamant and the Free French were told that one of their key civil servants was “unacceptable.” He was summarily dismissed.

Today, that official, Maurice Couve de Murville, is Foreign Minister of France and a key figure in French American relations.

In July, 1945, a French lieutenant-colonel.was parachuted into Japanese held North Vietnam as the new governor‐designate. Captured by Communist Vietminh guerrillas, he was beaten and tortured, and his aide was murdered by poison. American liaison officers with the Vietminh refused to help, arguing that the Potsdam Agreement did not provide for the return of French control to Indochina.

Today, that French officer, Pierre Messmer, is Minister of Defense, and a key figure in France's disagreements with the United States over NATO and the Multilateral Nuclear Force (M.L.F.). At least two other members of President de Gaulle's cabinet were also imprisoned in Hanoi while American military missions were there.

AND then, there were the wartime relations between the Free French leaders and the United States. “I am sorry,” Roosevelt confided to Winston Churchill on May 8, 1943, “but it seems to me the conduct of the Bride continues to be more and more aggravated. His course and attitude is well‐nigh in- tolerable. ... de Gaulle may be an honest fellow but he has the messianic complex. Further, he has the idea that the people of France itself are strongly behind him personally. This I doubt.

On the other hand, America's relations with the Nazi's French puppets at Vichy were discouragingly “normal” until late in the war. The United States maintained an embassy there until almost one year after Pearl Harbor—in fact, until Pierre Laval (later executed for treason) expelled the American mission after the North African landings. When the Free French liberated two tiny Vichy‐held islands near Newfoundland, Washington indignantly demanded their return to Vichy; and in North Africa, Americans at first insisted on dealing with Vichy officials who were universally despised.

Having failed to Impose them as leaders on the Free French (it is amusing, with the benefit of hindsight, to  see wartime American diplomats refer to de Gaulle as a “British puppet”), Washington became the last of the Allied nations to treat the de Gaulle administration as the legal government of France. This happened five months after France was liberated—and only after America had failed to impose an Allied Military Government, which would have issued uncontrolled amounts of “liberation currency”—something not even the Nazis had done.

From then on, French‐American relations went downhill. Only the openness of disagreement changed from time to time. Washington would tend to “go easy” on France whenever French acquiescence was required; and conversely, Paris would rein in its temper whenever it needed American economic and military support. But neither side was ever really fooled by the other.

As seen by France, the United States was first of all (but to a lesser extent than Britain) “guilty” of allowing Nazi Germany to become a military Frankenstein. The “Anglo‐Saxons,” for the sake of “peace,” had leaned heavily on France in 1936 when Hitler's troops entered the Rhineland in violation of the Versailles Treaty. France again yielded to Anglo‐American pressure when she stopped helping the Spanish Republic against the Fascists, and when “peace for 20 years”, was bought at Munich by selling out Czechoslovakia. And France was left almost alone to face the onslaught of the Nazi Wehrmacht in 1940.

In 10 months of “Phony War,” Britain contributed five infantry divisions (as against 103 French) and hardly more than an armored brigade (as against France's three divisions). The The Germans fielded 126 divisions (including 10 armored) and the result was the bloody débâcle of Dunkirk.

Dunkirk, a name which stands almost as a victory for “Anglo‐Saxons” since more than a quarter‐million Britons were saved, is still a synonym for betrayal to the French. To this day, everybody remembers the gallant Britishs ships at Dunkirk; the fact that 10 French destroyers were sunk defending the evacuation (as against six British) is usually forgotten. Echoes of the fear of another “Anglo‐Saxon” Dunkirk may well be heard in de Gaulle's speeches about a French national nuclear striking force.

Senator J. W. Fulbright, in his “Old Myths and New Realities.” assures France that a “third World War could not possibly follow the pattern of 1914 and 1939, in which France was attacked while the United States remained temporarily unscathed . . .” To de Gaulle and millions of his countrymen, however, it did happen—twice in their lifetimes—and the tragic consequences of American lateness are writ large on French tombstones. In war dead, France lost 1,357,800 men in 1914-1918, compared with Britain's 908,371 and America's 126,000. From 1939-1945, the totals of dead and missing were 580,000; 412,000 and 325,000 respectively.

The collapse of France in June, 1940, however, revealed the fragility of her military edifice and political fabric. From then on, despite sympathy for the plight of the French people and admiration for the gallantry of the Free French, the United States never took France quite seriously again. After the war, France was regarded as a sort of king‐sized “banana republic” whose continual changes of government and chaotic finances inspired a stream of books and articles written in the vein of bedroom farce.

France then was fairly easy for American and British statesmen to handle. If the reigning Government coalition balked at a given policy, they could be fairly sure that another one would be along, like the proverbial street car, that would probably accept it. Whether it was over the Indochina War (the French were ready to negotiate in 1952 but were told to keep fighting to ease the pressure in Korea), or the ill‐fated Suez expedition, the French were in no position to uphold their views even in matters affecting them vitally. De Gaulle—with grating effect—dubbed this the period of “American hegemony.” It ended with the birth of the Fifth Republic.

Today, the really important question is: Do American and French interests really collide throughout the world — from NATO to Vietnam, Peking, Latin America and the United Nations—or is there merely a conflict in “styles?”

HERE again, there is a clue in the wartime relations between France and the U. S. Both de Gaulle and Washington agreed that France's fall in 1940 was due as much to moral decay as to military defeat. Hence, in de Gaulle's view, the rebuilding of a French mystique was an immensely important factor in putting France back into the war on a large scale. Roosevelt, too, was interested in getting the French back into the war, but merely as soldiers —not with a French Government (and, above all, not with a mystique).His representative in Algiers expressed that point of view to de Gaulle in these terms: “The United States Government and people are not thinking politically about France, but are thinking solely in terms of getting on with the war and defeating Hitler.”

This difference in attitude is essentially what is wrong with American‐French relations today. The Americans, practical and pragmatic as ever, are constantly “getting on with the war,” whether against poverty at home or the Vietcong in South Vietnam. The French, on the other hand, want to see Europe united and Communism contained on a more lasting political basis than a precarious balance of military power. The difference, therefore, is not so much in the aims of policy as in the range of policy.

THE French feel that alliances .constructed under enemy pressure tend to disintegrate when the immediate threat recedes. This is what happened to the anti‐German alliances of 1914-18 and of 1939-45—and it may well be the fate of NATO unless it is given meaningful political underpinnings.

The United States, however, feels that Europeans are too steeped in their “petty quarrels of the past” and, at the same time, “unrealistic” when they call the American‐Cuban dispute, for example, a “petty quarrel.” De Gaulle's lack of tact in expressing his differences, which are more apparent than real, is particularly wounding because tactlessness seems such an “un‐French” attribute.

Washington hardly needs a reminder from Paris, for example, that its attitude toward China is somewhat rigid; that the war in Vietnam is not going according to plan; that the collapse of Castro is not imminent, or that the Congo, four years and $400 million dollars later, is at best exactly where it was. American reactions to French doubts or advice, however, were typified by President Kennedy in a television interview after de Gaulle's first resounding statement on Vietnam:

“[France] doesn’t have any forces there or any program of economic assistance, so while these expressions are welcome, the burden is carried, as it usually is, by the United States and the people there...we are glad to get counsel, but we should like a little more assistance, real assistance....”

De GAULLE must have read that statement with a sardonic smile (if he read it at all), for it embodied precisely the same kind of reproach as the French have often addressed to their American ally : If you can’t help me, at least don’t bother me. In fact, the French aid program to South Vietnam is still larger than that of all other nations combined (except for the United States). Worldwide French foreign aid—thanks to France's own réhabilitation through the Marshall Plan—is today second only to America's in dollar value and, as a percentage of gross national product, far greater—2.2 per cent as against 0.9 per cent for the United States.

Yet there is no disguising the fact that today the United States and France are out of step. Many Americans seem to believe that the divergence began with de Gaulle and will finally be burled with him, but that will prove as much an illusion as the hope that aggressive Communism would be buried with Stalin, who never challenged the United States as directly as Khrushchev did with his missiles in Cuba.

It was not de Gaulle who began building the French nuclear arsenal, but the French Socialist Premier Guy Mollet. It was not de Gaulle who excluded Britain from the Common Market as much as the accumulated rancor built up by Britain's attitude toward the Common Market in its early days under the Fourth Republic. And it was not de Gaulle who turned down the idea of an‐integrated European army but the French Parliament under Prime Minister Mendès France.

Yet again, conflicts of “style” have counted for much. French leaders were deliberately (and often humiliatingly) excluded from conferences at Casablanca, Cairo, Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam. President Kennedy called British Prime Minister Macmillan to Nassau first,and then made a joint offer to de Gaulle of an inter-allied nuclear force. Coming from an American leader, who, like F.D.R., could rightfully take pride in his “style,” this smacked of deliberate insult. Even to have attempted to make the strategic control of nuclear weapons the subject of a unilateral Anglo‐American decision vitiated the whole idea for the French, regardless of the intrinsic merits of the project.

It is precisely because the Franco‐American rift is not a “Gaullist challenge”—as Senator Fulbright describes it—but a deep‐seated crisis of mutual confidence that restoring the entente cordiale between the United States and her oldest ally will require a great deal of give and take on both sides.

DISAGREEMENTS with the United States over the Common Market or the Multilateral Force are symptoms of a need for what the French like to call “mutual respect.” It merely confirmed their belief, for example, that Britain's potential role in the Common Market was as an American “Trojan Horse” when de Gaulle's veto on Britain's entry was greeted with louder howls of indignation in Washington than in London. Or, when after being told at least once a week that the United States treats all her allies “equally,” France is confronted with what she fancies to be further evidence of a “special relationship” between Washington and London — as in the Nassau agreement on nuclear arms. France is not content to be treated on a footing of equality with Luxembourg, Iceland and the former enemy states.