The King and His Court
by Pierre Viansson-Ponté
Houghton Mifflin, 250 pp., $5.00
Hostile Allies: FDR and Charles de Gaulle
by Milton Viorst
Macmillan, 280 pp., $6.95
I was asked the other day who I thought were the three outstanding men of action of our time, and answered without thinking: Gandhi, Stalin, and De Gaulle. On reflection I am inclined to stand by my choice. Most Englishmen would have begun with Churchill, but to me he has always been a slightly ridiculous figure, mouthing the rhetoric of a past age to sustain the fantasies of the present one. It was precisely this, admittedly, that was required in 1940 to maintain the pretense, while waiting for Russia and America to come into the war, that we English were continuing to wage it. Once they were in, Churchill’s role was exhausted. A good many Americans would likewise, I suppose, have begun with Roosevelt, manfully overlooking the appalling banality of his thoughts and utterances in the light of his practical achievements in counteracting the Depression and as a war leader. Sooner they than I. Leftists of all categories, again, would doubtless play it safe and opt for Lenin, whose writings—some ten million words of them—I find unreadable, and whose brief appearance on the stage of history ended in the New Economic Policy, the negation of everything he had ever ostensibly believed in or advocated.
Of my three men, Gandhi, without disposing of so much as a popgun, got us out of India, where Churchill had said we must remain for many a year to come. No one who saw, as I did, the fabulous following he had among the poorest of the poor in India could doubt the reality of his influence, unsupported, as it was, by any sort of ceremonial trappings or material resources. As for Stalin, he managed with unspeakable brutality to get rid of the revolutionary riff-raff that Lenin had bequeathed him, and in a matter of twenty-five years or so transformed Russia from a shambles into a larger, stabler, and more powerful empire than ever it had been before. Those overturned monuments of him, you may be sure, will be set up again when the very names of Khrushchev and his successors are forgotten.
Then De Gaulle; in some ways the most extraordinary, certainly the most bizarre, of the three of them. Who would have believed in those far-off wartime days in Carlton Gardens, not only that he would take over in liberated France (that, after all, was always in the cards), but that he would become a dominant, if not the dominant influence in post-war Europe? The first glimpse I had of him was in the Connaught Hotel where he stayed in great modesty; a tall, lugubrious, but somehow splendid figure in blitzed London. I knew quite a number of his entourage and followers through doing a liaison job with the French Intelligence, then, as now no doubt, a battleground for every sort of internecine feud and faction. If only, I used to reflect, we could manage to fight the enemy with the same zest, fury, and low cunning that we do …
The Wagner-Jauregg Axiom May 6, 1965