- - Monday, October 10, 2011


By Charles L. Robertson
University of Massachusetts Press, $24.95, 235 pages

One of the more contentious relationships of World War II was that between French Gen. Charles de Gaulle on one side and President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on the other. Indeed, scorn for de Gaulle was so deep at one point that Roosevelt and Churchill considered a military occupation of France at war’s end - pending free elections - rather than putting the country into the hands of de Gaulle.

But how close did this plan come to fruition? Charles L. Robertson heard the “occupation” bruited over a Paris dinner table in 1979 by a former member of de Gaulle’s wartime entourage. The elderly Frenchman claimed that he and colleagues had stood on a quay and turned back a ship carrying U.S. officers “destined to establish an American-run military government in liberated France.” Mr. Robertson, who specializes in international diplomatic history, had never heard of such a plan, and he filed the remark away for future research.

He found that in a nation where contriving conspiracy theories is a popular pastime, especially those supporting chronic anti-Americanism, belief in a planned military occupation “has continued to flourish.” Indeed, a prominent Marxist historian wrote in a foreign affairs journal in 2003 that once the war ended, Churchill and Roosevelt planned to recruit Germany and Japan into an anti-Soviet alliance, using France as a base for operations.

That the United States and Britain had reason to distrust the French was no secret. France had been in political and moral turmoil since 1917, when the army mutinied. (An account of the painful subsequent decades is vividly related in Richard M. Watt’s 1963 book “Dare Call It Treason.”) And although France had a larger army and air force than did Germany, Wehrmacht intelligence accurately predicted that its defensive posture was flawed. The French military quickly capitulated, and what remained of its political “leadership” formed a government that collaborated with the Nazis. Fearing that the powerful French fleet would fall into German hands, Churchill ordered it sunk, killing 1,297 men and injuring 351 others.

When the war began, de Gaulle was a relatively obscure officer temporarily holding the rank of brigadier general. The French high command considered him “an irritating heretic” because of his insistence on developing tank warfare. (De Gaulle proved his point when his armored division fought a successful battle in the first days of the war.) He argued that remnants of the defeated army should regroup in North Africa and continue fighting. His plea failed. When he fled to London, he was cashiered, tried in absentia for treason against the Vichy government and sentenced to death.

Through the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), Churchill gave de Gaulle enough money to set up headquarters in Algiers and try to rally support for resistance. Initially, few in the French military chose to join him, remaining loyal to the collaborationist government based in Vichy.

What infuriated Roosevelt and Churchill was de Gaulle’s insistence that he be considered an equal. De Gaulle resorted to historical analogy to justify his position as the leader of all the French, “even if he had not been invested with this authority by any existing government.” He strode stiffly into a meeting with Roosevelt and proclaimed, “I am Joan of Arc!” (FDR commented to an aide, “I almost laughed in his face.”) De Gaulle’s point was that he had stepped into a vacuum, one of the few French who actively opposed the Germans.

As plans developed for the invasion of Normandy, de Gaulle refused to endorse a speech by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commander, calling on the French people to follow his orders in resisting the Germans. When de Gaulle wrote a speech demanding that his orders be followed, he was barred from the airwaves. Both the United States and Britain banned the use of the words “provisional government” when speaking of de Gaulle and his followers. De Gaulle was denied access to intelligence. When he balked, leaving London after the Normandy invasion and returning to Algiers, Churchill demanded that he be transported “in chains if necessary.” He called de Gaulle “a ballerina on stage who thinks only of his own political future … a tub of lard.”

What Roosevelt and Churchill were slow to realize was that de Gaulle’s anti-Nazi stance struck a chord with the French people, who were eager to rally behind someone willing to stand up to the invaders. In his research, Mr. Robertson discovered that in 1942, Roosevelt indeed had ordered a contingency plan for imposing a military occupation in France pending elections for a national leader. He cabled Churchill that such a route was “appropriate” given the lack of an elected government. But this plan was abandoned when they realized the depth of French feeling for de Gaulle.

Mr. Robertson contends that Gaullists kept the “occupation” subject alive for political reasons - to create “an external common enemy” that would meld the populace behind his movement. The message was that “only due to de Gaulle’s effort” was France saved from Roosevelt and Churchill’s machinations. “If it was necessary to exaggerate, distort somewhat, or enhance their accounts of what happened, so be it.”

As subsequent American presidents would learn, de Gaulle was an uneasy bedfellow. But he did pull France out of the moral abyss of defeatism.

Joseph C. Goulden’s revised edition of “Spy-Speak: The Dictionary of Intelligence” will be published by Dover Books later this year.

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