Charles de Gaulle
Charles de Gaulle; drawing by David Levine

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 one another, the war would soon be over.

Anyway, it was interesting, in the light of this experience, to look over M. Pierre Viansson-Ponté’s Gaullist Annuaire, added, by way of appendix, to his The King and his Court. In it he provides entries of varying lengths for all the leading figures, with the addition of an ingenious system of Michelin Guide-type symbols, ranging between a dog-kennel for a cabinet or staff job in London or Algiers, and an opened pair of scissors for any “Specialité.” (The cruelest use of this last symbol is in the case of poor Captain Guy, a man almost as tall as De Gaulle himself, whom I remember as the General’s A.D.C. and shadow from 1944 onwards, and particularly in the wilderness years in the Rue Solférino. His specialty?—“Oublié.” I had assumed he must be by now at least a general. Instead, it seems, he has just disappeared.)

The two eminent Gaullists with whom I came into closest contact were Soustelle and the famous Colonel Passy. The latter, whose real name—Dewavrin—I was proud to know (name-dropping takes on an extra dimension when a nom-de-guerre is involved), with his pale blue eyes and gangster reputation, fascinated Allied intelligence officers, for the most part language teachers at schools and universities, carpet-sellers from the Middle-East, and continental salesmen of everything from contraceptives to machine tools. We thought so dashing and attractive a figure was bound to do great things after the war. Imagine my astonishment, then, to read in M. Viansson-Ponté’s Annuaire that Passy’s present Specialité is—Director of Bon-Marché. Truly God is not mocked.

Soustelle was something quite different. He was the one I really liked; indeed, like, for I have seen him from time to time in the post-war years, always with pleasure. After the fiasco of the O.A.S. abortive revolt he has gone to ground, I don’t know where, but hope most sincerely that his circumstances are not too disagreeable. M. Viansson-Ponté’s piece on him is accurate enough. It recounts his fabulous academic success as a young man, his early Left-Wing affiliations, his dogged devotion to De Gaulle through good and ill times, his volteface on Algeria after being sent there as Governor-General by Mendès-France and ultimate break with De Gaulle over the General’s abandonment of the Algérie-Française policy which, partly through Soustelle’s manipulations, got him into power in 1958.


M. Viansson-Ponté considers that the change in Soustelle’s attitude came as a result of seeing white French workers who had been massacred by Afgerian terrorists; a sight which so appalled him that thenceforth he became a fanatical opponent of Algerian Nationalism. This, with all respect, seems to me mistaken, or at any rate an over-simplification. What happened, in my opinion, is that Soustelle, against his own deepest and best instincts, took to politics, and became an addict. He was like a Puritan who takes to sex, and who, precisely because his temperament is conditioned the other way—to asceticism—makes an idiot of himself: falls for the wrong woman, catches the pox, engages in excesses, and is finally run in for exposing himself (what the London police with their rhyming slang call “flashing his Hampden”) in St. James’s Park. Soustelle is an egghead, an instinctive anarchist; a poacher, not a gamekeeper. His devotion to De Gaulle, a power maniac to the marrow of his bones, made a gamekeeper of him, with catastrophic results. Inevitably, he found himself out on his ear. An American university should now seek Soustelle out, offer him a chair of anthropology (he was, after all, assistant-director of the Musé de l’Homme at the age of twentyfive). If he accepted, some fortunate Faculty would gain a most brilliant and sympathetic addition.

De Gaulle is, of course, the exact antithesis of Soustelle, which is why sooner or later the break between them was bound to come. He is a born gamekeeper, who, even when he has been driven to snare a rabbit for the pot, has done it so majestically that rabbits scamper in begging to be caught and other gamekeepers steal away on tiptoe for fear of disturbing him. The last time I saw Soustelle he told me of an exchange with the General which well illustrates the difference between them, as well as De Gaulle’s weird, but, to me, quite irresistible, clowning. Soustelle, who had just returned from a visit to Algeria, remarked that all his friends there were bitterly opposed to the General’s present policy. “Alors, mon vieux,” De Gaulle said, “changez vos amis.” It is as though, returning to my earlier image, the puritan-lecher should have complained that a girl he had acquired in a bordello only seemed to care for money. “Alors, mon vieux,” the tall, big-nosed Madam replies, “changez votre fille.”

The account of De Gaulle himself in The King and His Court is admirable and highly diverting. The General is a cough-drop, no doubt about that, and M. Viansson-Ponté tells just the things one wants to know about him; how he conducts himself at receptions and dinner parties, in his country house at Colombey-Les-Deux Eglises, when watching television etc., etc.; the little personal points of behavior and etiquette which best convey his strange, elephantine drollery. It is interesting to note that his demagogic techniques are very like contemporary American ones. For instance, he is a compulsive hand-shaker, and when he is on tour, like Lyndon Johnson, often has to have his right mit tended, and sometimes bound up, after a day’s campaigning. And this, surely, is quite in the mid-twentieth century folksy style:

To say that he mixes with the crowd is an understatement: he plunges into it, wallows in it. One can keep an eye on him not so much because of his height, but because he is the virtual center of a whirlpool. Disappearing in one place, he pops up in another for a moment, then is lost to sight again for a long, underwater stretch, only to surface like a diver at the other side of the street…. He has been seen to emerge with three buttons missing, uniform torn, hands scratched, military cap askew, but eyes sparkling with pleasure, looking delighted to be alive…

Moreover, De Gaulle has completely mastered the essential art of telly-politics. Coached by a good man from the Comédie Française, meticulously made up, and after hours of rehearsal in front of a mirror (what a sight that would be!), his performance on the little screen is decidedly impressive. He just loves it, and goes on and on and on. No one, naturally, can cut him short. His televised press-conferences, too, though, like the current White House ones, totally fraudulent, with questions and questioners arranged in advance, make first-rate television. Not since Napoleon (the Third, I should add, to be truthful) has France had such a ruler. In American politics he would have been able to give even a Kennedy a run.


In the French edition the section of M. Viansson-Ponté’s book before the Annuaire ends with the General driving hell-for-leather to his house in Colombey, Mme. de Gaulle beside him, hospitals along the way equipped with supplies of suitable plasma just in case, police on the alert. Through the glass partition the General urges the chauffeur on: “Ne trainons pas, plus vite, je suis pressé.” In the American edition there is an additional longish section which deals with some of the General’s distinguished visitors, and with Gaullism in more general terms. I found this less interesting than the other part; a bit banal and pontifical, I thought, almost as though Mr. Lippmann had lent a hand. When M. Viansson-Ponté allows his native skepticism and sense of irony to take charge he is good; when pontificating, liable to be a bore. His attitude to De Gaulle is mixed, like that of most his countrymen. He finds the General ridiculous, but, in his inimitable way, sublime; a pain in the neck, but an historical necessity; alien to the whole tradition of republican France, but by now an integral part of the French political landscape. If only he would go! If only he would stay forever! Neither of these hopes can be realized. He will not go, he cannot stay for ever. “Vive la République, vive la France,” as he concludes his orations, and, notice, invariably in that order.

De Gaulle’s essential character was formed before he came to London in 1940, as well as his basic ideas about history, leadership, and politics (see his early writings, “Vers une Armée de métier,” “La France et son armée,” etc.). All the same, his experiences as leader of the Free, later Fighting, French, and in dealing with Churchill and Roosevelt, helped to shape his resolute and extremely effective methods of exercising authority. I know of no more serviceable account of De Gaulle’s relations with his western allies, particularly with Roosevelt, than Mr. Milton Viorst’s. It is clear, readable, full of apposite quotations and references. Why Roosevelt should have had so insensate and relentless a detestation of De Gaulle is a question, I dare say, for psychiatrists, but that he had it is, as Mr. Viorst shows, beyond question. Churchill’s instinct was, as usual, right, but he, too, found it difficult to get on with De Gaulle, tried to find a more complaisant replacement, and, in his usual feeble way, played up to Roosevelt.

The fact is that, without a trump card in his hand, De Gaulle took every trick, and made complete nonsense of Anglo-American stratagems and tricks; such as trying to put Giraud in charge in Algiers, or to prevent De Gaulle taking over in liberated France. Stalin made rings around Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta, but, after all, he had an enormous army, which was, as Churchill put it, tearing the guts out of the Wehrmacht. De Gaulle had nothing except a sense of history, his own stupendous rectitude, his towering moral superiority to the men he was dealing with. These assets proved, in their way, as decisive as did the feats of the Red Army to Stalin. Mr. Viorst’s careful account of how it all happened makes fascinating reading.

What will be the final judgment on De Gaulle? It all depends what happens. History is the propaganda of the victor, and De Gaulle may well have espoused what turns out to be in the long run the losing side. All the same, nothing can alter his achievement. Amidst the rubble of a derelict civilization, the spiritual darkness of a tottering religion, the vacuity, fantasy, and vicious folly of a moribund culture, he somehow managed to expound, if only in an illusory way, the bearing of a majestic past on a confused present and uncertain future.

The last time I saw him was in the Rue Solférino, in the early Fifties, when his political fortunes were at their lowest ebb. His following in the Assemblée had fallen to some seven or eight, led by the faithful Soustelle; all the pundits were convinced that he would never return to office. As they are always wrong, it seemed a good moment to seek an interview, which was accorded. Captain Guy showed me in. The General was sitting at a desk which seemed grotesquely too small to accommodate him. His pasty complexion gave an impression of ill-health; his head seemed tiny in relation to his huge bulk. He explained to me almost without taking breath how in due course, with an unworkable political system, a faltering economy, and pourriture (one of his favorite words) at the top, there would infallibly be a breakdown, and a call for him to take over. I managed with great difficulty to put a question. Why, when he was in charge at the end of the war, did he not ensure that a more workable and equitable system was instituted? He had the power then; unlimited power. He looked at me with the sly ferocity he reserves for awkward questioners, then roared out: “Ce n’était pas l’heure.” The monologue was resumed. At the end I meekly asked him what he proposed doing now. This time he looked benignly at me. “J’attends,” he said. It was, I decided, no bad posture, and so it has proved.

This Issue

February 25, 1965