Friday, March 07, 2014

Roosevelt v de Gaulle: What Was FDR Thinking?

The rest of you puzzle over Putin, I'm still trying to figure out de Gaulle.  No, not de Gaulle, but his "allies," in this case the President of the United States.  You remember FDR, the one in the wheelchair, with the cigarette holder and the benign (if icy) smile.

Here's the thing:  de Gaulle had one overvaulting purpose which was to preserve the identity of an independent French nation, aka "the Free French."  In pursuit of his goal, he stepped on toes, kicked shins, wounded egos. But he also had a clear and coherent strategy: he also understood that to achieve his purpose, his best path was to make the French indispensable to the Allied war effort (and to make sure that the Allies knew it).   Many--perhaps most--people who encountered de Gaulle during the war did not love him, but quite a few came to understand him.  Notable example, de Gaulle drove Churchill into legendary rages.   But Churchill was not one to let personal indignation blind him to pragmatic convenience: he usually found a way to accommodate himself to de Gaulle  because he understood that at the end of th day, de Gaulle was on his side.  And Eisenhower--he certainly had his disagreements with the general, but he was usually pretty good at keeping his relationships off the boil, and he seems to have understood just what de Gaulle could do for the common cause.

The puzzle is Roosevelt.  He seems to have encountered de Gaulle in a posture of sporadically contained outrage, laced with withering contempt.   Unlike Churchill, he seems never to have let down his guard.  Worse, his rancor seems to have infected those round him--Secretary of State Cordell Hull, for example, or Secretary of War Henry M. Stimson (though Hull who wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, might well have wound up in the same posture without exterior assistance).

And why?   Particularly after D-Day, when the Allies were back on Northern European soil, and when it was clear that de Gaulle, vindicated, was evolving into an authentic national hero--what was the percentage for Roosevelt in persisting in trying to marginalize, even to humiliate, him?  Why not at least tolerate--no, why not embrace someone who was clearly emerging as the authentic voice of a liberated nation?

I don't have any answer to that one.  One might be tempted to say that FDR found de Gaulle "too conservative" for his taste.  Such a conclusion might have been a mistake--de Gaulle eluded and still elude simple characterization.    But in any event, it didn't prevent Roosevelt (or at any rate, his government) from maintaining cordial relations with the quisling Vichy statelet almost to the end.  One might speculate that Roosevelt found de Gaulle too cozy with then communists.  This would surely have been a misjudgment of the man who did more than any other to thwart communism in postwar France.  And in any event, it would be pretty rich coming from someone so chummy for so long with "uncle Joe" Stalin).

One is--I am--tempted to speculate that de Gaulle brought out the inner Roosevelt: a steely-hearted loner who really didn't like anybody very much, however well he may have concealed his isolation under a gauzy exterior of charm.  One might be tempted, but then you'd have  to explain Roosevelt's apparently genuine affection for Churchill--often at least as refractory as de Gaulle, yet a man who may well have been Roosevelt's one genuine friend.  As I say, I don't have a good answer to that one.  For valuable prizes, readers are invited to set me straight.


Jimbo said...

De Gaulle was an aristocrat like FDR and he was a nationalist. FDR wasn't a nationalist because those tend to be uni-ethnic, which the USA is not. My guess (for it is only such) is that FDR saw him as a narrow nationalist, which he was (as demonstrated in the Algerian conflict and the no-NATO stance and even reluctant EC cooperation). A great statesman and leader in many ways but he had many flaws too.

Anonymous said...

Narrow nationalist? The man who ended the Algerian war?
As for NATO, he understood that in a nuclear age, the U.S. would not risk destruction to save Europe and that NATO only meant that the U.S would control european armies. And given the treatment he got from Roosevelt,who can blame him from mistrusting the U.S. policy elite?
He got on well with Eisenhower but Ike was not part of this elite.
Anyway, during the Cuban crisis he supported Kennedy. It may be apocryphal but it is believable that he refused to see photos from spy planes, saying:"Your president tells me that America is in danger.His word is enough. France will do its duty."
On a related metter, on September 11 2001, France under Chirac was the first NATO ally to invoke NATO article V. France has always supported the U.S. when it is in danger. Including when supporting meant preventing them from making mistakes.

mike shupp said...

My guess is FDR saw de Gaulle as basically a fraud. HE (FDR) had actually been elected by the people; he had opposed plutocrats and isolationists and cajoled Senators in the public interest; he had fought for workers and a better economy and given Americans Social Security and TVA and the CCC and .... And his buddy Churchill had served decades in Parliament and been a Cabinet Minister in two wars and hid risen to power by legal means. De Gaulle was a minor military officer from a defunct European state who had somehow foisted himself off as a national leader, a confidence trickster without any legitimate claims to authority, nor any signs of political competence. Where were the laws with de Gaulle's name on them? Where was his experience in national government? What years had he spent working his way up the political laddder?

In short, he grated.