Force de Frappe

Charles de Gaulle: A Biography

by Don Cook
G.P. Putnam's, 432 pp., $22.95

It is good to have a life of Charles de Gaulle once again available in English. There had been none at all since the English-language publishers of Jean Lacouture’s De Gaulle—still the most perceptive biography—let it go out of print a half-decade ago. Sad obscurity for a man who, at one time, provoked Americans into pouring good Burgundy down the gutters and, at another time, received a ticker-tape parade down Broadway, but at no time in the last forty years left Americans indifferent.

Don Cook, The Los Angeles Times’s correspondent in Paris since 1965, has written what his publishers call “the first major biography of de Gaulle written by an American from an American perspective.” The American perspective is evident in several ways. Cook has a surer hand with international affairs than with internal French politics, and, within international affairs, the France–United States relationship has central place. All his relatively rare factual errors concern domestic French politics: that Herriot and Blum led a “socialist” government in 1924 (he has confused Herriot’s “Cartel des gauches” of 1924 with Blum’s Popular Front of 1936, neither of which tried to make France socialist); or that between 30,000 and 40,000 people were killed in the surge of public and private vengeance that swept France at the Liberation in 1944. (Peter Novick showed twenty years ago that these widely cited figures come from a police report of all summary executions during 1942–1945, including the German massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane.)1

The book is all too American, also, in its editors’ tolerance for malapropisms: “prevaricate” where “procrastinate” is meant; “disbandonment” where someone has creatively elided disbandment with abandonment; “venality” describing the postwar trial of Pierre Laval where every civic failing was on display except the search for monetary gain.

The judgments are also familiarly American. There is the good General de Gaulle of 1940–1944, who resisted the Nazis, and the de Gaulle of 1958–1962, who extricated France from Algeria without setting off a civil war at home. And there is the bad General de Gaulle of 1962–1968, who displayed “obsessive opposition to all things American,” who campaigned “against the policies and against the supposed hegemony of the United States worldwide,” who “deliberately sought to move closer and closer to the Soviet Union,” and who wanted the “disappearance of the NATO military command structure in Europe.”

Not that Don Cook has written a chauvinist tract. He devotes two thirds of the book to the “good” General de Gaulle, and he places the blame for starting a long and unnecessary friction squarely upon Franklin Roosevelt’s stubborn refusal to recognize de Gaulle’s Free French officially until five months after the Allied landing in Normandy. But while Cook reports de Gaulle’s life with evident good intentions of fairness and accuracy, the image is somehow flattened. The American perspective is one-dimensional. Indeed Americans have often had trouble seeing de Gaulle in the round. No other Western leader has seemed so irreducibly foreign, so unreasonable to American common sense. Nor has any…

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