The centenary of the birth of Charles de Gaulle in 1990 saw enhanced activity in the still unfinished business of exploring his public activities and his place in history.
It has taken nearly five years for the proceedings of an international symposium held in Paris to see the light of day and the subject has not been neglected in the meantime. But the book under review is well worth having and contains not only some interesting factual material but also ideas about how de Gaulle's policies should be assessed that suggest that the subject is by no means a closed one.
The plan of the volume is an elaborate one. Part I deals with relations between the Americans and de Gaulle from 1940 to de Gaulle's return to power in 1958, a return the Americans welcomed despite the subsequent difficulties that tend to make one forget that fact. Part II, under the somewhat question-begging title "The United States and de Gaulle's policy of grandeur" covers the de Gaulle presidency and the series of disputes with the United States over the framework for western policy, nuclear armaments and the colonial questions - North Africa and Vietnam. Part III brings together "Opinions, perceptions and misperceptions".
In each of the first two parts the main papers are chiefly the work of US historians or economists; there follows comment by other US or French authorities and these are followed in turn by the testimony of "witnesses", that is to say individuals, French and American, with first-hand experience of the events described. In the third part, witnesses such as Henry Kissinger and Pierre Messmer are heard at greater length. It seems curious that in Part I, where de Gaulle's role in the war is the subject of such detailed debate between the British and the Americans, no British scholar or "witness" is enlisted - though in the latter category there cannot be many still around.
A book with so many contributors, 33 in all, is not easy to read and the texture differs between contributions written in English by the American members of the symposium and those clearly translated from the French. But some general impressions can be derived. The first and most obvious is that de Gaulle was in Henry Kissinger's words "a truly astonishing great man". The fact that a different rating emerges from polling US professors and students of politics or in French studies does not detract from that judgement; it merely makes one wonder how European politics is now taught in the US.
The second impression is that despite Roosevelt and his collaborators being wholly and indefensibly wrong in their Vichy policy and in the permanent writing off of France which was its basis, it was not resentment that gave rise to de Gaulle's later contests with the US. It is incidentally interesting to note that the US government was fortified in its error by a large number of prominent Frenchmen who sought refuge in the US during the war but did not rally to the Free French cause. The jealousies of the Fourth Republic remained alive and were indeed continued in the Fifth.
The third impression is that there was an enormous gap in the perceptions of the world and in its likely future after the Nazi defeat between de Gaulle, Roosevelt and Truman and his men. When Dean Acheson talked of being "present at the creation", he thought of the world as being organised for its own benefit by adherence to US models and under US direction. US imperialism was the more difficult to handle because it was so unselfconscious. But it was there and all over the globe - hence the proposal for a three-nation "directorate" which so incensed the Americans with their determination to retain a nuclear monopoly. Even "European Union", while seemingly intended to bolster the European pillar of the Atlantic Alliance, was in fact, as pursued by Jean Monnet, a vehicle for US intervention in European affairs with Britain as its intended Trojan horse.
Finally, the further away from de Gaulle we get in time, the more his insights impress. The Soviet regime has collapsed in the wake of its own failures - historic Russia re-emerges on the European scene. Germany is reunited and reunification raises all the old problems of the direction into which its energies may in future be directed. The nation remains at the heart of world politics. We are all Gaullists now.
Lord Beloff is honorary professor, department of international relations, University of St. Andrews.
De Gaulle and the United States: A Centennial Reappraisal
Editor - Robert O. Paxton and Nicholas Wahl
ISBN - 0 85496 998 5 and 1 85973 066 3
Publisher - Berg
Price - £49.95 and £19.95
Pages - 433