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 other European leader since Hitler and Stalin aroused such visceral hostility. Why?

It was not simply that he did more things Americans disapproved of than anyone else. Clement Attlee recognized Communist China; Franco gave economic support to Castro; Edmund Heath and Harold Wilson resisted European supranationality as vehemently as de Gaulle did; Willy Brandt launched an Ostpolitik that undermined the European status quo in unpredictable ways; Olof Palme and Pierre Elliott Trudeau sheltered young American opponents of the Vietnam War, as de Gaulle never did; Mrs. Thatcher and Messrs. Schmidt and Giscard d’Estaing traded enthusiastically with the Soviet Union. While these actions earned official frowns in Washington, no one in America poured sherry or stout or schnapps down the drain in protest.

Perhaps de Gaulle’s style explains the emotion of Americans’ response. His arrogance, his capacity to wound, and his penchant for sudden faits accomplis were legendary, and he employed them theatrically for the greatest possible political impact at home. Even Raymond Aron thought that de Gaulle’s “positive results could have been won…without exasperating our partners and allies.”2

A fuller explanation may lie deeper still. De Gaulle’s understanding of world politics violated fundamentally what George Kennan identified a generation ago as the “legalistic-moralistic” approach to foreign affairs.3 Americans still commonly have a historical-religious vision of themselves as a chosen people making a new start outside Europe’s corruption. This outlook perceives allies as an army of the righteous in which one enlists once and for all, as in an act of personal salvation. Once alliances are tied up in some legal covenant, diplomacy—the crooked old game of interest politics—can cease. Thus wars are fought to end war, and alliances are perpetual contracts.

De Gaulle, by contrast, was in recent European history the boldest and most unsentimental practitioner of traditional national-interest diplomacy. Americans could tolerate a backslider, but not an unblushing apostate. What wounded Americans most was that de Gaulle doubted their good intentions. Taking it as normal that all states seek their own interests, de Gaulle saw and proclaimed American self-interest where Americans wanted to see their own idealism and generosity. This was more than a disagreement; it was a moral affront.


Insult is in the mind of the receiver, and Americans may be less ready to receive moral lessons from Frenchmen than from anyone else. Since the XYZ affair at the end of the eighteenth century, and certainly since the first soldiers and tourists reached Paris, many Americans expect the French to behave more deviously than other Europeans. It is almost laughable that a whole generation of American security officials withheld nuclear technology from the “unreliable” French while sharing it open-handedly with the colleagues of Philby, Burgess, MacLean, and Sir Anthony Blunt. Since Pershing’s arrival on French soil in 1918, some Americans have seemed to expect more gratitude from Frenchmen than, from others. It was irritating, too, to find someone helping to push when Americans first discovered in the 1960s that their factitious post–World War II preeminence was slipping. There was, finally, the anger aroused among some American Jews by de Gaulle’s characteristically abrasive shift to a pro-Arab alignment in 1967.

The American perspective that George Kennan identified leads easily to a Manichaean image of world affairs as a Soviet-American confrontation. Happily, Cook is too sensible to translate anti-American attitudes into pro-Soviet ones. There is nothing here as crude as the Australian journalist Brian Crozier’s assertion that by the middle 1960s de Gaulle had become a crypto-communist.4 Cook attributes de Gaulle’s strivings to something less ideological and more pointless: “There is but one theme in the life of Charles de Gaulle, and that is power.”

There is irony in this assertion, for de Gaulle never had great power at his command. But he was an artist at making the most of limited power. In 1940, he possessed nothing but his voice, a handful of followers, and an uncompromising conviction that he represented a historic “France réelle” that Pétain’s “pays légal” was incapable of representing. He soon learned the weak state’s capacity to “force the great power to choose between concessions and the use of force.”5 Even during 1958–1969, disposing of the most unchallenged French internal authority since the first Napoleon and of the world’s third-largest nuclear force, he became expert in grasping for the limits of what a middling power can accomplish. It would make an amusing parlor game to guess how de Gaulle would have acted with a superpower’s resources at his command. Arrogant and willful he was, but, equipped with a clear sense of power’s limits, he played an essentially responsible power game.6 He never toyed with border realignments in the manner of Napoleon III, and never took any serious action to follow up his incendiary speeches in Pnom Penh (American intervention in Vietnam is “ever more menacing to world peace”) or in Quebec (Vive le Québec libre!). His greatest accomplishment as president of France was to dismantle formal power in black Africa and Algeria in such a way as to perpetuate informal French presence there. While intransigent about the respect due his office, he sought neither pomp nor perpetuation of power nor even popularity for himself. He carefully calculated his own departure from power in 1946 and in 1969. There was no trace of a dictator’s megalomania in him.

It is even possible to argue that anti-Americanism was a tactic but not a fundamental aim of Gaullist foreign policy. When the Soviet danger was mainfest, de Gaulle was the first to side resolutely with the United States: over Cuba, over Berlin, and again after the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968, as Cook shows. But de Gaulle’s unsentimental assessment of interests showed him that the United States would be obliged to defend Western Europe against a Soviet advance anyway. American protection was not something that he needed to buy. That perception freed him to seek maximum liberty of maneuver between the superpowers, and he exercised that liberty between 1962 and 1968.

Even then, his game presupposed American strength. The French nuclear force de frappe, as both Stanley Hoffmann and Henry Kissinger have pointed out, is probably best understood as a device for obliging the United States to come early to Europe’s defense, for de Gaulle, like many other Europeans (the General was never as alone as Cook says), came increasingly to doubt that the United States would risk its own cities for Europe as Soviet-American nuclear parity approached.7 He pulled out of the NATO command system in 1966, but there is not the slightest evidence that he wanted anyone else to do so. De Gaulle wanted to exploit the space that was already opening up beneath the superpowers’ nuclear stalemate, and widen the possibilities of autonomy within both blocs.


Don Cook comes closest to de Gaulle’s multidimensional conception of world politics when he calls it a “planetary system,” but even that metaphor gives each planet one orbit. A better image might be a three-dimensional chess game in which the French queen can move in all directions. “International life,” said de Gaulle, “like life in general, is a battle.”8 Its participants are those peoples whose sense of historic identity is sufficient to permit them to be mobilized for grand enterprises. These included the German people and the “great Russian people” (de Gaulle never called them “Soviets” because he believed that all ideologies are transient and that communism’s force was spent) as well as the French. Willy Brandt recalled that de Gaulle referred to the German Democratic Republic as “Prussia” until, after Brandt’s cautious correction, he switched to “Prussia and Saxony.”9

In this permanent battle, de Gaulle planned each day’s move afresh, the captive of no single strategy. Like most biographers, Cook deals with de Gaulle’s foreign projects according to periods: the Algerian settlement, then the anti-American period, then the rapprochement of 1968–1969 with Nixon and Kissinger. One comes closer to reality by supposing that de Gaulle kept a cluster of policies going at all times, adjusting their inevitable inconsistencies, and shifting their emphasis as threats or opportunities changed. Thus protection from Russia, neutralizing the natural weight of Germany, gaining freedom of maneuver from the American colossus, and exploiting special relations with Africa and the Near East all coexisted in his daily calculations. “Policy always runs on several tracks.”10

Once one grasps this perspective, it becomes pointless to ask, as even Raymond Aron did, whether de Gaulle wanted to dissolve the blocs into which the nations were divided. Blocs, for him, were as transient as ideologies. Only nations remain, pursuing their own interests as best they can. From a Gaullian perspective, the natural weight of Russia was one of the basic realities, and it is certain that his most daring suggestions to the Russians in 1966 of a neutralized “European Europe” were meant to provide a stronger. Western counterweight to the Soviet Union and a rollback of Soviet forces. Henry Kissinger, predictably (along with George Kennan) the least unnerved by de Gaulle of any American public official, felt that on balance de Gaulle had helped American interests more than he harmed them. A self-confident France, as long as it based its policy on a realistic calculation of interests, would in the long run side more firmly with the United States in an emergency than would a mere vassal, Kissinger thought. 11

A deeper reproach taxes de Gaulle with cynicism and with lacking any ultimate world vision. Was the journey all, the destination nothing? Don Cook does not venture very far into this sort of speculation, but it lies at the heart of the American charge of amorality. Even the friendliest commentators admit that de Gaulle’s successes depended on the assumption that his neighbors and third-world protégés would not emulate him. It is at least arguable, on the other hand, that a multipolar world run by statesmen who practice realistic national-interest politics would be both more stable and more legitimate than the bipolar world in which we now cower, especially a bipolar world run by “idealistic-legalistic” statesmen with their blind crusades followed, too late, by agonizing reappraisals.12 That assumes, of course, that the interest-politics statesmen all have the lucidity and basic moderation of de Gaulle.

De Gaulle was not taciturn, but he used his words with such theatrical calculation that they tell us less about his real aims than do reasonable deductions from his acts. Raymond Aron, who, like many French Atlanticists, reproached the General for making anti-Americanism respectable and for “getting the French used to [seeing] the wrong enemy,” nevertheless considered de Gaulle’s “aggressivity…toward the United States more verbal than active.” 13 Indeed the ultimate aim of de Gaulle’s quest for grandeur may have been more internal than external. On the face of it, his external projects led to rather little, while his internal project—the restoration of French unity, stability, and self-confidence—succeeded so triumphantly that only now, after years of economic depression and of divisive Socialist experiment, it is beginning to unravel.

Beyond that, his most ambitious visions (an independent Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals) have more the quality of incantation than of working proposals. Perhaps his main goal, after all, was what he said it was in the celebrated opening passage of his war memoirs: to “compensate for the ferments of decomposition” in the French people by giving them “vast enterprises.”14 He wanted to make the French people outreach themselves. At the very least, he was so acutely conscious of the reciprocal interplay of foreign success and domestic national will that one must, if one is to present him fairly, spend more time on de Gaulle as a national leader than Don Cook does.

From this perspective, the “central theme” of de Gaulle’s life looks less like the “power” that Cook proposes than the intensity of individual and national will that makes power possible. De Gaulle’s hatred of mediocrity and slackness recurs from childhood, as Stanley and Inge Hoffmann perceived in their speculative but admirable study of the three personalities: Charles, the general, and the historic personage to whom de Gaulle often referred in the third person.15 As a reader of Bergson and Nietzsche (the latter a more lasting influence than Maurras, whom Cook mentions), de Gaulle was profoundly influenced by the nationalist and activist spirit of his late adolescent years before World War I. De Gaulle is simply incomprehensible unless one gives close attention to these beginnings, just as he is incomprehensible if one lacks an imaginative capacity to grasp what the French decline and abyss of the 1930s and 1940 meant to such a personality. De Gaulle refused defeat in 1940, and he continued to refuse with a strength of personality that only Stanley and Inge Hoffmann have so far begun to explore.

If de Gaulle’s background is one essential piece of his life, so his transcendence of it is another. That background produced more than a few right-wing diehards. De Gaulle neither rebelled against that values of his Catholic, monarchistic parents (the early correspondence shows a close-knit but open-minded family) nor was he limited by them. He transcended them with breathtaking freedom. He violated mere military discipline when he went to London in 1940, mere nationalism in Algeria between 1958 and 1962, and mere traditionalism in his encouragement of scientific and industrial expansion after 1958.

Did de Gaulle understand that the French economic power that his foreign policy demanded also obstructed that policy? Not only did a consumer society respond more readily to profits and losses than to appeals to national grandeur; France became more entangled in the international economic web. De Gaulle needed the European Communities’ agricultural subsidies even as he fought their emerging supranationality. His last conversations after withdrawal from public life, reported by André Malraux in Fallen Oaks, reflect a pessimistic view that his effort “to raise France against the death of a world” would have to be repeated again and again, without ever really succeeding.

De Gaulle’s dark sense of history is a final way in which he has been incomprehensible to many Americans. He did not undertake his grand projects on the easy assumption that hard work usually makes the world “better.” De Gaulle undertook to roll the stone of French greatness up the hill one more time with a stoical conviction that the work would be undone, but that his example might last.

This Issue

April 26, 1984