SEVERAL BOOKS have been written about the stormy relations that existed during the Second World War between General de Gaulle and the American government. Strangely enough, there was no comparable study of the relations between de Gaulle and the British, even though it was from England that he launched his famous appeal for French resistance on June 18, 1940, and even though the British were the first to recognize him as the leader of the Fighting French, providing him with a base and with supplies.
This gap has been almost filled by Francois Kersaudy's excellent book. Not quite--because he concentrates on the relationship between de Gaulle and Churchill, which is not as complete a story as that of the relations between the Free French and the British. However, what the book loses in scope it gains in high drama. It is a fine contribution both to political history--the history of a period in which state relations were highly personalized--and to the psychology of two great, heroic leaders. Kersaudy is a young French historian who has lived in England, and written his book in eminently readable English. While the main outlines of the story are familiar, especially to readers of memoirs (de Gaulle's, Churchill's and Eden's above all), there is much in the book that is new and valuable. The author has used hitherto unexploited archives (mainly British ones), from which he quotes at length,r the army es and which reveal how deep the conflicts between the two men were at various moments. Moreover, thanks to these documents and to a wealth of other reports, he is able to show the self-serving inaccuracies that mar the two leaders' accounts of their deeds.
On balance, Kersaudy throws more light on Churchill than on de Gaulle. The latter's suspiciousness of British intrigues, his distrust of British intentions toward French colonial possessions or protectorates (especially in the Near East), his dislike of Churchill's voluntary subordination to Roosevelt's wishes and priorities, his intransigence and conviction that he was too poor, too devoid of power and resources to yield to the great states on whose policies France's fate depended, his relentless fight to defend French sovereignty and to harness French resistance, all these are well known (thanks largely to de Gaulle). What was not so well known are Churchill's repeated attempts to remove de Gaulle from his position as leader of the Free French--attempts de Gaulle always out-maneuvered--or the depth of anger which the general's methods provoked in Churchill, particularly during the four Franco-British crises over Syria and Lebanon (summer 1941, summer 1942, November 1943 and spring 1945). At the Casablanca Conference in January 1942, where Churchill and FDR tried to force a "shotgun marriage" between de Gaulle and General Giraud (America's favorite), Churchill was more indignant against de Gaulle than Roosevelt. Kersaudy also shows how important a role Churchill's foreign minister, Anthony Eden, played in calming down Churchill and in serving as a mediator between the troublesome general and the exasperated prime minister. And he points out that de Gaulle ultimately prevailed, largely because the course and the cause he defended were approved by British opinion, the British press and many British politicians.
Much of the book is highly entertaining: the two leaders often behaved like prima donnas (and so did FDR). The pages that tell of the many maneuvers preceding journeys or invitations--what could be called the politics of symbolic protocol--are often very funny. But there were serious stakes behind these antics. Churchill appreciated de Gaulle's great enterprise, but he wanted a more docile ally, in order to remain free to have some relations with Vichy France, and above all in order to have good ones with Roosevelt, who detested de Gaulle, and whose policy toward France was a horrid mix of highhandedness, contempt, willful ignorance and wishful thinking. De Gaulle, of course, fought in order to preserve France's assets and France's status from the constant encroachments of its big allies, to prevent an allied military government from running liberated France like an occupied territory (as Roosevelt had planned), and to restore France's position in Europe--to reverse, as far as was possible, the debacle of 1940. De Gaulle, having waited in vain for more famous French leaders to call for resistance, soon came to see himself as the only valid custodian of France's interests. Churchill, without going as far as Roosevelt in distrusting the general's motives, came to see in him a "danger to European peace" and an enemy of England. Clashes were inevitable. The two men's hypersensitive personalities made them worse.
The fascination of the story and of the two main characters is not the only attraction of the book. Kersaudy lets the story speak for itself; while he often corrects the more or less deliberate errors his two heroes made in their memoirs, he rarely editorializes, and he is scrupulously fair (as well as skillful in setting the stage in the early chapters that deal with the two men's careers before 1940, and with the drama of their meetings in the tragic weeks that preceded the fall of France). But the book incites the reader to go beyond the story, and to ask several larger questions.
One concerns the political uses and effects of anger. Churchill's was usually spontaneous, and intensely personal--focused on de Gaulle, not France which he had always loved. De Gaulle's was more calculated and impersonal. To be sure, both men, when aroused, made decisions which they later regretted or reversed, or which aides wisely failed to carry out. But de Gaulle, who proved to be magnanimous in victory, was deliberately insulting and obnoxious when his cards were poor. Time and again rudeness paid off. Kersaudy tells of a stormy meeting--just after D Day, on June 7, 1944--between Eden and de Gaulle, when Eden tried to explain to de Gaulle that pride was a drawback in national policy and stooping to conquer a virtue. De Gaulle, both by temper and by design, conquered by refusing to stoop, by retaliating against slights and by obstruction. He forced his opponents to yield, by making them fear the effects of his wrath and his appeal to their publics to support him against their own leaders.
A second and related question can be raised about de Gaulle's relentless suspicion of British perfidy in the Near East. Kersaudy shows how unjustified it was, especially in 1943 and 1945. No only did it poison his relations with Churchill, but it had a larger and more disastrous effect. De Gaulle, who had some understanding of the nationalist movements that wanted to shake off French colonial rule, turned increasingly to repression, not only because he wanted to preserve France's influence, but also because he thought that France's allies were conspiring to substitute their influence for that of France--something he would not tolerate. As a result, in the Near East (because of British plots, according to his fears), in Indochina (because of American designs, he believed) and in Algeria, he set a course that proved disastrous for liberated France, fatal for the Fourth Republic, and that he himself did not abandon until around 1953.
A third question concerns British foreign policy. It was Churchill--the half-American champion of the "English- speaking peoples"--who set Britain on another kind of disastrous course: that of becoming the minor partner of the United States, rather than acting as the leader, with France, of a revived and independent Europe. It is a course which Eden deplored ("Can't we really have a foreign policy of our own," he onced asked)--and which he tried, belatedly and clumsily, to reverse at Suez in 1956. It was also the deepest cause of disagreement with de Gaulle, who had no illusions about either Britain's or France's ability to "persuade the stronger," and who wanted the two European allies to set their own, and Europe's course, and impose it on the superpowers, "hampered by their rivalry." Forty years later, France, in this respect, remains firmly on the Gaullist path, but Britain wanders in the no man's land between a "special relationship" with America that has proved disappointing, and a membership in the European Community that remains half-hearted.