By Antoine Capet
28TH INTERNATIONAL CHURCHILL CONFERENCE, LONDON, ENGLAND, OCTOBER 2011
The complexities and ambiguities of the three-cornered special relationship between Britain, France and the United States were nothing new in 1940. Arguably they can be traced to the American War of Independence, when the King of France, no friend of liberty, supported the rebels with the obvious intention of being nasty to the King of England. The Lafayette mythology conceals unavowable motives, and the discrepancy between professions of altruistic friendship and the realpolitik of selfish national interests was always present after 1783. Its main manifestation before the period we consider here was the Paris Peace Conference in 1918-19, with two of the three countries having borne the brunt of the war, and one the greatest devastation of its national territory.
Churchill, Roosevelt and de Gaulle drew totally different conclusions from the proceedings of the Conference; its outcome, the Versailles Treaty of June 1919; and the failure of the United States Senate to ratify it in March 1920. Rightly or wrongly, Charles de Gaulle drew at least four important conclusions from the episode, and they remained ingrained in his mind until his death.
1) The close military alliance between Britain and France during the War, born of the Entente Cordiale beginning in 1904, was something of the past; yet France would never again be able to dispense with Britain if German power was to be contained.
2) There had been clear collusion between the American President and the British Prime Minister, twisting Clemenceau’s arm until he withdrew his proposed clause on the annexation of the Rhineland in exchange for a dual guarantee protecting France against renewed German invasion under President Wilson’s pet idea, the League of Nations.
3) The vote in the United States Senate left France without the promised guarantee, especially when Lloyd George then said that his own commitment was de facto null and void, and proved to him that one should never entrust one’s safety to allies.
4) National interests—real or perceived—were now the foundation of international relations, based on the military balance of power more than brave proclamations of internationalism and pacifism.
Now let us compare that with Churchill’s famous theme of the first volume of his war memoirs, The Gathering Storm (1948):
How the English-speaking peoples
Through their unwisdom
Carelessness and good nature
Allowed the wicked
Churchill’s specific reference to “the English-speaking peoples” in a way vindicated de Gaulle’s perception of what had taken place at the Paris Peace Conference, and more generally in the inter-war years. In 1939, observing the impotence and ultimate failure of the League of Nations—in which he never believed (nor in the United Nations after it), de Gaulle did blame what was not yet called the Special Relationship for having “allowed the wicked to rearm.” But he did not believe in their “good nature.” For the reasons already indicated, he thought that great powers have no transcendent morality: the only rules they knew were those of sheer force.
Once caught, twice shy. During the “Phoney War,” in which he served as a tank colonel, de Gaulle’s attitude towards “the Anglo-Saxons,” as he liked to call “the English-speaking peoples,” was twofold: Trust in Britain’s resilience, thanks to its vast Empire and seemingly invincible Navy, which he both admired and envied; and a conviction (shared by Chamberlain) that nothing useful could be expected of the United States. Contrary therefore to French Premier Paul Reynaud in May-June 1940, de Gaulle never pinned his hopes on a last-minute miraculous American intervention on the side of “the democracies,” as the U.S. press referred to them.
When President Roosevelt recognised the Vichy régime as the only legitimate government of France and sent his personal friend, Admiral Leahy, as Ambassador, de Gaulle’s worst doubts were confirmed. At least, he considered, Britain and Vichy had broken official relations after Britain disabled most of the French fleet at Oran. And yet a proud, haughty man like de Gaulle had to go begging for war equipment for his Free French Forces—with some success in Britain, which had little to spare, but very limited results in Washington.
Like everyone else, de Gaulle feared that the Red Army would fail to contain the German invasion after June 1941 and, apparently for the first time, he thought that the United States would be forced to enter the war. Like Churchill and most of the European leaders of their generation, de Gaulle always believed in the “Germany first” approach.
For de Gaulle, America’s entry into the war was good news and bad news. He had correctly predicted in his first BBC speech, on 18 June 1940, that “immense forces have not yet been unleashed”—a clear allusion to the USA and USSR. Now they were—and on the side of his Free French—and this was fine.
The bad news was that the Anglo-Saxon Special Relationship would receive a tremendous boost—and de Gaulle’s worst fears were confirmed when Churchill immediately rushed to Washington to express what de Gaulle saw as unconditional allegiance.
Now, de Gaulle was no long-term visionary. He had not understood that the Imperial ideal, if you can call it an ideal, was no longer tenable. His wartime speeches are full of glowing allusions to the French Empire and its bright future after the war. In this he should have found an objective ally in Churchill against Roosevelt, but the old colonial disputes with Britain still rankled and he everywhere saw British plots to dislodge France from her “possessions.”
It would be idle to attempt to draw a full list of the misunderstandings with Churchill and the snubs, real or imagined, from Roosevelt; but by June 1944, on the eve of the Normandy Landings, it seems clear that de Gaulle harbored a paranoia whose main element was the perceived “Anglo-Saxon” plot to eliminate France from the ranks of the great powers.
In their memoirs, both Churchill and de Gaulle recount their stormy meeting on 4 June 1944 when, according to de Gaulle, Churchill delivered the fateful words: “Mark this—on each occasion that we shall have to choose between Europe and the open seas, we will always choose the open seas. On each occasion that I shall have to choose between you and Roosevelt, I will always choose Roosevelt.”
Churchill does not report these words, but he describes the Frenchman’s reaction: “de Gaulle replied that he quite understood that if the U.S.A. and France disagreed, Britain would side with the U.S.A. With this ungracious remark the interview ended.”
We also have the magnificant and cynical testimony of Sir Alexander Cadogan, who was part of Churchill’s entourage, in his diary entry for the 5th of June: “It’s a girls’ school. Roosevelt, P.M. and—it must be admitted de G.—all behave like girls approaching puberty. Nothing to be done.”
De Gaulle’s view was reinforced at Yalta, when it seemed clear to him that the interests of what was not yet known as the Free World were being defined and defended by the Anglo-Saxons. He was distressed that France had not been consulted on the future of Germany, a question of capital importance for France’s security after three successive Franco-German wars fought on its soil. That Churchill volunteered to give a zone of occupation to France, taken from Britain’s allocation, was only seen by de Gaulle as a reflection on his calculating mind.
Thus, in de Gaulle’s eyes, the Anglo-Saxons’ “plot” to thwart the recovery of France in 1945 was just a predictable repeat of their attitude in 1919-20. His duty, as he put in on the first page of volume II of his memoirs, was to prevent France passing from “the servitude imposed by the enemy to a subordinate role in relation to the Allies.” He did not go so far as to say “a subordinate role imposed by the Anglo-Saxon Allies”—but this is probably what he thought.
All this very largely explains de Gaulle’s later obsession with “national independence” in military and diplomatic affairs, his acceleration of the French nuclear programme, his mistrust of NATO and his two rejections of the British applications to join the Common Market—which he saw as totally incompatible with Churchill’s unambiguous vow of solidarity with America on 4 June 1944.
There is no doubt that de Gaulle always envied the British for having a privileged status in Washington. But at the same time, he was never prepared to pay the price Britain was paying in this type of Special Relationship.
Dr. Capet is Professor of British Studies at the University of Rouen, France, and editor of several collections on Britain’s 20th century diplomatic and military policy, including The Special Relationship (2003) and Britain, France and the Entente Cordiale since 1904 (2006). His book reviews have been published in Finest Hour and the electronic journal Cercles. He is now compiling a comprehensive bibliography of Britain in the Second World War.
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