By Mark Roosevelt, President
The best book that I read in my usual holiday reading frenzy was Jonathan Fenby’s biography of Charles De Gaulle, The General: Charles De Gaulle and the France He Saved. It is a long, dramatic, and beautifully told story of the least known and understood major figure from the allied side of World War II. De Gaulle is a fascinating and exceedingly annoying man. His personal qualities are so challenging that one wonders how he ever assumed a position of national leadership, and given his dictatorial mindset, how he managed to function at all in a democracy. And, yet, it is clear from Fenby’s book that his victories and contributions outweigh his failures.
Throughout De Gaulle’s life it seemed more likely that he would end up in angry isolation than any form of triumph. Given to fits of pique, threats to resign, actual resignations, coldness, haughtiness, and inflexibility, De Gaulle triumphs through force of will, clear goal setting, and an overwhelming determination to endure and succeed. He believed in himself when no one else did and became, on more than one occasion, the pillar of strength his nation needed to survive. His story is a classic example of how a person’s attributes battle with their deficits, and the outcome is determined as much by the needs of the situation as by any other factor.
The drama of the story is in good part how De Gaulle becomes France’s necessary man. As France offered weak and disorganized resistance to the Nazi invasion in the spring of 1940, De Gaulle emerged from near obscurity as a resourceful general of an armored division, but he was not a major national figure. As the outcome of the invasion became clear, and other French “leaders” chose collaboration over resistance, De Gaulle left the continent to go to London to set up a “free” French government in exile, attempting to galvanize both French and other forces to support resistance to both the German occupation and the collaborationist government now ensconced in Vichy.
De Gaulle had some credentials. He was an early opponent of appeasement. He recognized the Nazi threat and warned against complacency and inaction. But it was his iron will more than his resume that drove his success. He had a nearly maniacal belief in the destiny of his nation and of himself, and he believed that these destinies were inextricably intertwined. And for a time they surely were. During World War II and for much of the time until his death in 1970 De Gaulle believed that he did not just represent France—he actually was France. In one of many scenes during the war in which his English allies were ready to abandon De Gaulle and search for virtually any other person they could anoint as head of the Free French, Anthony Eden, Britain’s foreign Secretary says, “Do you know that, of all the European allies, you have caused us the most difficulties?” De Gaulle replied, “I don’t doubt that. France is a great power.”
Of course, it wasn’t. Nor has France been a great power since WWII. But in many ways it still thinks of itself that way, for better or worse, in good part due to De Gaulle.
Sometimes it seems that there is a providential hand at work as nations or causes find the leader they need in times of crisis. Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860 and the skills he displayed in winning the Civil War and ending slavery is one such moment. His rise to power, and to greatness, is such an unlikely tale that it is challenging to explain logically. And it is generally accepted that England found similar serendipity in the rise of Winston Churchill at the start of World War II. Churchill was often woefully out of place in times that did not require leadership of the most dramatic “our backs are against the wall” style. Most see FDR’s depression era and wartime leadership in much the same light. De Gaulle’s is in many ways a similar story only perhaps even more unlikely, as his skill set was so much more limited than the other three leaders.
The General is a story of a stubborn man and a declining nation, often at war with itself, full of tales of cowardice, especially as regards collaborators such as Petain, and also of great courage, shown by the resistance movement and often De Gaulle himself. It is a story of begrudgingly slow acceptance of new realties, such as the end of French rule in its colonies, and ugly resistance to these realities. As is depicted in the fictional thriller, The Day of the Jackal, De Gaulle was the target of many assassination attempts by the Organization of the Secret Army or OAS, Frenchmen who refused to accept Algerian independence, which De Gaulle himself had engineered, after coming to the realization that there was no other path.
Besides being a great story, The General has lessons for us in America at this time. Perhaps the most profound is about how factional, partisan bickering often prevented France from dealing with critical issues. De Gaulle insisted that he was above party and that a nation needs such leadership. Of course, when the status of being above the fray is located in only one person, there is the danger of dictatorship. But the perception that nations need leaders who rise above partisan squabbling has roots in our own origins as a nation.
In Gordon Wood’s Revolutionary Characters, he delineates that many of the founders also believed it was essential for leaders to be “disinterested.” By this they meant above the fray, above sectional, partisan, and especially pecuniary interest: the ability to put the nation’s interests above all other considerations. The word “disinterested” has lost its power and this particular meaning and is now taken as being hardly different in meaning from “uninterested.” But the word and the concept had powerful meaning as 18th century American leaders contemplated the early effects of the age of commercialization. The founders believed that without disinterested leaders the nation would become “unvirtuous.”
As did many of the founders, De Gaulle abhorred the politicization of government and preferred the idea of an administration of leaders limited by neither party discipline nor electoral pressures. He resigned from the presidency in 1946 and only returned to power in 1958 because he believed he could govern with direct authority from the people and without factional or party pressures. For a while it worked and he guided the nation through thorny issues, and then it didn’t, and he left power again, deeply worried about whether a factionalized government could chart a path to a better future.
Reading The General is a good reminder that when dealing with declining influence in the world, nations are far more susceptible than usual to nasty infighting, which deflects attention from the real problems they face. Especially in such times of dislocation, nations need leaders willing to speak honestly, to help find a new way of structuring themselves internally and also of thinking through where they fit in our increasingly complex, ever-changing world.
The United States is now in a grumpy mood very similar to that of France through much of the mid-twentieth century. We also need to find our way to some form of post-partisan, above-the fray problem solving. De Gaulle’s personal example is in many ways a poor one, but his ability to get people to see threats they would rather ignore commands respect. Indeed, De Gaulle once said that his whole life consisted of getting people to do what they did not want to do.