Britain, France and the USA fall in an out of love regularly. Relations between Britain and France have recently reached a new low point. A number of disputes are commonly presented as the reason. But there is one ultimate cause: mutual hostility. Mutual hostility plays well in politics on both sides of the Channel. Yet, we are neighbours and share a broad spectrum of democratic values. This raises the question: why?
A long history of conflicts large and small has to bear some of the blame. Nothing extraordinary in that. It was an American writer, James Baldwin who said: “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them”, a reflection on racism in the USA but the aphorism applies no less to the UK and France, and not just to racism.
Thanks to decades of Second World War movies, in Britain we often seem trapped, not in the glory of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, but in our memory of May 1940, the heroic, alone-against–all-odds stand after France fell. Not such a bad trap when it comes to sustaining a sturdy sense of national identity during loss of Empire, but a misleading guide for navigating the contemporary world of great power blocs and militarised autocracies. Policy and diplomacy require a finer grained understanding of history. The military historian, Professor Michael Neiberg, in his recent When France Fell; The Vichy Crisis And The Fate Of The Anglo-American Alliance (Harvard University Press) provides it.
“When we mislead ourselves about our past, we not only fail to learn, but we sometimes learn exactly the wrong lessons”, Neiberg warns. Well, we mislead ourselves when we fail to acknowledge that Hitler began losing the war after he invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, and fail to recognise how much we owed to the Soviets’ dreadful sacrifice of human life. We also misread the impact of events by forgetting that the USA in 1940 was nothing like the incomparable military force it became and is today.
The fall of France was a mighty shock not only to us but to a militarily weak USA. Kabul taken in a week was nothing compared to the surprise of Paris taken in a month - supposedly protected by the ‘impregnable’ Maginot line but breached at Sedan. The Americans saw this calamitous rout as the disappearance of a vital defensive barrier from the Wehrmacht thrusting west to the Atlantic. They feared, with a touch of paranoia, possible threats to the USA by coups in Latin American states and French colonial possessions becoming available as Nazi launch-pads for attacks. Unsurprisingly they thought that Britain would be the next to fall.
As colonial powers Britain and France had large and powerful navies. After the French armistice with the Germans on 22 June 1940, American policy was directed at stopping the Nazis getting hold of the French fleet: it consisted, according to Neiberg, of an aircraft carrier, eight battleships, twenty cruisers, seventy destroyers and seventy-eight submarines. To Britain’s chagrin, President Roosevelt recognised Vichy – (essentially the south-east two-fifths of France beyond the extensive Nazi occupied zone minus the French coast) – largely to keep Marshall Philippe Pétain, its figurehead and hero of the First World War, from handing, or being forced to hand over, his ships to the Nazis. It was an embrace based on fear.
On 3 July 1940, Churchill authorised an attack on the French naval base of Mers-el-Kébir, Oran, Algeria, killing 1,300 French sailors and destroying or wrecking three battleships and four destroyers. The battleship Richelieu, the pride of the French fleet undergoing repairs in Dakar on the West African coast, was also attacked and disabled. The Americans denounced the British action in public but breathed a modest sigh of relief in private. The French never forgot Churchill’s ruthless attack on an erstwhile ‘ally’.
Admiral Jean-François Darlan, Commander-in-Chief of the French navy, was an unscrupulous quisling interested only in backing the winning side to forge a path to power, he rose rapidly to become de facto head of the Vichy Government under Pétain, and sent countless French Jews to their death. He surfed an incipient French civil war. General de Gaulle called him ‘the root of evil’. Neiberg memorably corroborates de Gaulle’s assessment, quoting a description from an American officer: “a short, bald-headed, pink-faced, needle-nosed, sharp-chinned little weasel”.
The USA entered the war in December 1941 after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour. North Africa and its ports had already become strategically critical. Control was contested by Vichy France in the form of Darlan, briefly ‘High Commissioner of France for North and West Africa’ until his assassination on Christmas Eve 1942, and the Americans and British who landed 73,000 troops on the Moroccan and Algerian coasts in November 1942 to engage the German forces in Tunisia. The Americans continued reluctantly to back Darlan, who was caught in Casablanca, and had to change sides becoming the Americans own ‘weasel’ until two bullets from a French monarchist liberated them from their flawed policy towards Vichy. The British, not grinning but bearing it, supported de Gaulle, their ‘Cross of Lorraine’ in London, and in this rare instance shared his opinion.
In retrospect, I would suggest US support for Vichy and Darlan set a pattern for their later backing of murderous dictatorships in Latin America. The motto for the early years of the CIA should have been ‘Coups Are Us’, two major blunders in the 1950s each with damaging consequences: Guatemala and Iran. As Talleyrand said of the restored Bourbon dynasty post-Napoleon: “They had learned nothing and forgotten nothing”.
Apart from the military forces of the Third Reich, there were other fears shared by the Western Allies: communist subversion and anti-colonial uprisings, notably Islamic ones. But there was little love lost between them. Roosevelt couldn’t stand de Gaulle’s grandiloquence, associating him with the French Resistance viewed as a hotbed of socialists and communists. Holding his nose the US kept lines more than open to Vichy France. While Churchill knew that he had to put up with de Gaulle and the Free French however infuriating. Nothing was forgotten. In 1963 de Gaulle gave as explanation for his refusal to admit Britain to the European Economic Community his belief that it would mean opening the door to US influence. And it wasn’t just an excuse. Relations with Washington were bad and he downgraded his participation in NATO in 1966.
When France Fell is a compelling read. It is as if a Norma Percy documentary had been turned into a book, translating to print that fly on the wall experience and intimacy she achieves through interviews with the big players who created the action or tried to catch up with it. It provides corrective insights to a history we thought we understood. If you are interested in these critical years, it tells a surprisingly exciting and gripping story. The book would even make Christmas reading. If you think we should learn from how the proponents of realpolitik can get it very wrong, as in US policy towards Vichy, and draw the wrong lessons from it, it’s definitely for you.
See TheArticle 09/12/2021