Of the Nine Muses the greatest bore is Clio, although Calliope runs a close second. Fortunately, however, the stately progress of History, if not that of Epic Poetry, has always been accompanied by indiscreet memorialists—the imps of letters and diaries so well described by Lytton Strachey—who snicker and thumb their noses and, in our time, even whisk aside her toga to reveal her under-garments. Theirs is, if you like, the worm’s eye view of the Great, but even when it is colored with malice, it is not incompatible with admiration. No one outside of France, so far as I am aware, has focused his vermiform lens on the last figure of our time who combined the historic and the epic and who disappeared—it seems incredible —little more than six years ago.
I have shaken the hand of General de Gaulle, which was dry and firm, just twice. I have watched him alight from automobiles in his capital and in mine. How many times I have seen him on television I cannot say. The parodist of Saint-Simon who chronicled events at the Élysée for the Canard Enchainé used to refer to “the appearances of His Majesty at the mysterious dormer (l’étrange lucarne).” And the tone was always royal, whether the General wore a double-breasted suit or his uniform or the great chain of the Legion of Honor. His head would lift, his lip curl slightly as the camera moved swiftly in upon the lined visage and the great fennec ears and the uplifted arms. Then would come the booming sonority of “Francoises, Franyais” (no one, so far as I know, ever objected to this male chauvinist precedence), followed often by a weary “Eh, oui!” and on one occasion— the insurrection of the generals in Algiers—by the Racinian cry, “Hélas, hélas, hélas!” Our press attaché at the embassy said that it was always the best show in town; for reasons personal as much as professional, both he and I refused other distractions during these hours.
My earlier encounters with General de Gaulle had also been electronic and photographic. Like other Americans, I had smiled over the angular discomfort, immortalized by Anglo-Saxon cameramen in 1943, of his shotgun marriage with poor General Giraud at Casablanca. I heard his voice for the first time on June 6, 1944 in the maternity ward of the Annapolis Naval Hospital, where my daughter had been born three days before. He was proclaiming, in tones a bit hoarse after a week of storms with Elsenhower and Churchill, that Frenchmen—and only Frenchmen—were about to take over in France. Despite the crackling of static and the novel distractions of paternity, I was impressed.
During the 1950’s, when I was stationed in Morocco and then in Washington, I became more and more aware of the massive, frowning figure that loomed in the background as the Fourth Republic pursued its disastrous courses in Indo-china and North Africa, where the grapes of anti-colonial wrath were stored, But it was not until 1958 that the elongated shape, with its incongruous paunch—an acquisition of de Gaulle’s period in the political desert—and the elephantine visage that delighted the cartoonists, moved once again into the international foreground. In the State Department the African enthusiasts had long since been admitting the future “nation-builders” by the side door, and we were blissfully cooking up the anti-imperial recipes—including the Anglo-American “Good Offices” following the bombing of Sakhiet in Tunisia—that did so much to sap the political credit of the Fourth Republic. But of course if we had possessed more omniscience and fewer good intentions, we might have ended by patching up the comfortable old shoe of the Fourth Republic: there would then have been no Fifth to revivify France and no de Gaulle for us to quarrel with. On balance, as the bureaucrats say, I think that would have been regrettable for both France and the United States.
In 1960, at the National War College, I chose for my thesis a study of General de Gaulle’s attitudes toward the Atlantic Alliance, It amuses me now to reread my cheery prognosis, my brisk and manly recommendations for coping with troubles that lay ahead. Troubles there would surely be: even in the turbulent days of his accession, General de Gaulle had found time to lay down the objectives, if not the courses, of his policy. In his letter to President Eisenhower of September 1958, he proposed, in effect, that France, Great Britain, and the United States should join in running the world. So bland was the assumption that the United States would submit its commitments around the globe to the veto of any member of the triumvirate, that one found it hard to believe that the General really expected us to agree. In Washington this document caused, as the French say, much ink to flow. There was a resurgence of the anti-Gaullist syndrome of Franklin Roosevelt and, even though everyone was more polite, a great fuss over the concoction of suitable evasions. No one thought to grasp the nettle by making counter-proposals; perhaps it was already too late. In any event, the seers and planners became a bit sober about prospects for Franco-American relations in the next decade.
The mutinous week of the barricades in Algiers had already passed by the time I took up my assignment in Paris in 1960, but the final tests of strength with the French settlers and the Army were not far off. In November of 1960 I made a trip to Algeria. I learned many lessons, and I had a foretaste of many tragic ruptures between France and Frenchmen. A month later I was followed, if I may presume to put it that way, by General de Gaulle, whose journey was more eventful than mine. Everywhere he encountered the acclaim of the Moslems and the curses of his countrymen. The delirium reached its climax in the village of Aïn Temouchent when he climbed out of his car and plunged into the mob.”Ils ne sont que des braillards!” he cried.
It was also during this trip that the General turned to the newly appointed governor, who was riding unhappily beside him through the storms of catcalls and the showers of vegetables. “It appears, Morin,” he said, “that you are not very popular down here.”
The days that followed brought more serious events than shouts and rotten tomatoes, On April 11, 1961 came de Gaulle’s first mention of Algeria as a sovereign state. Eleven days later, just a month before the negotiations with the Algerians at Évian, the French generals rebelled in Algiers. With my usual tardiness at the banquets of history, I had chosen that weekend for a trip to London. Only the mischance of my wife’s catching cold saved us from missing the meli-melo in Paris. We changed our flight and took the last plane that landed at Le Bourget that Sunday night. Shortly afterwards the metropolitan airports were shut down. Had we managed to land later, we would have been greeted by police dogs and vigilantes, somnolent but hysterical and armed solely with Prime Minister Debré’s homilies for the disobedient paratroopers whom he expected from Algiers.
Even amid the fog and flicker of the November evening, we could tell, from the number of police on the tarmac, that something was up. In France a certain exhilaration always arises when things go wrong, and as everyone seemed to be enjoying himself thoroughly, we were convinced that the event must be serious, Hurrying back to our flat, we switched on our television just in time to see the familiar face, particularly long that evening, and to catch the mournful threefold “Hélas!” Then came the orders: “In the name of France, I command that every means—I repeat: every means—be used to stop these men while we await their elimination. . . . I forbid every Frenchman and, above all, every French soldier, to carry out any of their orders. . . .Françaises, Français, aidez-moi!”
For both speaker and listener those words marked a moment of anguish but also of elation before a challenge. In the years that followed there would be occasions for other emotions: for dismay, in January 1963, when the General condemned the British to live, as one of our staff put it, with water all around their island; for nostalgia, during the transfer of Marshal Lyautey’s ashes to the Invalides; for depression, during the last appeal before the referendum of 1969 (“De toute fapon, dans trois ans je men irai.”) But on that November evening, when I tried to imagine M.Laniel or M.Edgar Faure or M.Mitterand exclaiming “Aidez-moil” instead of” Evidemment,” I realized that while there might be persistent knocks in the motor, France had at last shifted gears and was moving ahead.
By the time I first met General de Gaulle “in person,” as they used to say of vaudeville stars, the flaming Gotterdammerung in Algeria was well advanced. Already one could hear the first mutterings of Atlantic thunder and see the flashes of Gaullist lightning over the Asian horizon. That June evening in 1961 at the Elyseé was memorable for other voices and other handshakes. But the range of the Kennedys—the good-humored elegance of the President, the wide-eyed reticences of his wife in her white gown and towering coiffure— did not quite reach into the register of authority that characterized their host. There was first the tall silhouette under the chandeliers, and, then, the progress of the majestic, myopic pachyderm through the overlighted rooms, while the outriders of the protocol service, like sweepers in a curling match, cleared the way before him, parting the crowd of guests for the salutations of the monarch. These took place about every three paces and sometimes by pure chance, so that I noted with amusement that one of my more mobile colleagues had his hand shaken twice in the course of the evening.
If the Queen’s manner was more self-effacing, her glance was much sharper. Madame de Gaulle’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly as she took in each guest, and especially the women. I was told later that at receptions she applied an invisible tape measure to all de’colletages; she would then temper her handshake either with a word of greeting or with icy silence.(Once when she and the President accompanied a visiting chief of state to the ritual evening at the Opera, the program—I think it included the Bèjart production of Ravel’s Bolèro— was not to her taste. During the entr’acte she summoned the Chief of Protocol. “Monsieur,” she said sweetly, “I congratulate you.” But the Chiefs dreams of glory were soon shattered: “You have succeeded in assembling everything that is indecent.”) On this evening my wife, who was wearing long sleeves, was detained long enough to be informed that June that year was unseasonably chilly.
My second handshake also took place at the Elysée. In other posts I had learned to dread the New Year’s receptions for the diplomatic corps: the eternal waiting in cold and drafty antechambers, the discomfort of dress clothes, the smell of mothballs, the stale, curling sandwiches, the inevitable mix-ups with automobiles. But I hoped that this one would be different. I had just become political counselor of the embassy, and I travelled for the first time in the convoy led by Ambassador Bohlen. We started out bravely from the residence, and then our cars got separated in the Paris traffic. With dismay I watched the ambassador’s limousine gliding away beyond the stoplight where I was immobilized. But the White Russian chauffeur, who shared my panic, took a forbidden shortcut, and we arrived just as the ushers were roping back the tardy before the President appeared. I scuttled ignominiously into place behind my chief. Each ambassador stood at the head of a column composed of his immediate staff, and General de Gaulle passed along the lines with a handshake for everyone. When he reached our phalanx, he paused for a few words with Mr. Bohlen, to whom he was partial, and then turned to me.
“Monsieur,” I heard, “c’est un honneurde vous saluer dans cette maison.”
“Monsieur le President,” I stammered, “je . . . je vous souhaite une trés bonne annee.”
I saw at once that my reply was gratuitous; to go further would have been presumptuous. The General’s eyes emptied, as though I had become transparent. Consumed like Semele in the blaze of Jovian splendor, I was already a non-guest. My host’s gaze was riveted on the column next to us—I think it was the Mexicans: “Monsieur, c’est un honneur. . . .”
I glanced around at the ranks pressed against the damask walls. At a quick calculation, there would be about 300 recipients of this immortal phrase. With royalty one should never confuse greetings with conversation.
In the next few years we all learned to enjoy—some more than others—what one might call the picturesque aspects of General de Gaulle. They enlivened my own assignment in Paris, even at the moments when I was grinding my teeth over disappointments, disagreements, and finally outright discord with the Rtyublique Gaullienne.But I leave to the experts—to Pierre Viansson-Ponte and, on our side, to Professor Stanley Hoffman—the dissection of Gaullist policy and of Franco-American divergence, which turned out, as Ambassador Bohlen had predicted, to be impervious to facile remedy and yet, in the long view, less serious than one had thought. I am trying only to catch the tone of the Gaullist decade in diplomacy and, without falling too far into anecdotage, the flavor of the personage who gave it body and soul.
What a curious decade it was! How lofty the goals of the Renouveau, as the General styled it, and how deceptive the accomplishments; how exhilarating the main themes and how sordid the quavers and crotchets—as in the Ben Barka affair or the squabbles with the Foreign Ministry. Above all, one has the impression of impermanence: barely six years have elapsed since the passing of Oedipus at Colombey, yet the second reign seems terribly brief—especially in the perspective of his 80 years, with their dizzying ups and downs and their sudden and (so far as one can tell from Claude Mauriac’s moving account) merciful ending. Already the mists are forming around the peaks—some of them, I fear, of papier mach6— toward which the General pushed and prodded the infuriating and dispersive inhabitants of the nation he worshipped. Although the policies—or more exactly, the style—of his two successors have proven more soothing, they do not impart the same sense of living in the great passages of history.
My own insights owe much to Lytton Strachey’s imps, in this instance the indiscreet members of the Quai d’Orsay and the Élyseé and the press, who reminded me more than once that history was also real life. It would require an austere regime to cure the French sweet tooth for indiscretions, especially when there is a hapless victim. The first victim who springs to my mind is the Soviet ambassador.
A stout man, with reddish hair and a somewhat porcine face, Serge Vinogradov had had the perspicacity to maintain contact with General de Gaulle during the passage of the desert before 1958.Like many Soviet envoys, he preened himself on his acquisition of bourgeois airs and graces. He was fond of French food and snobbish about his connections with the Establishment. He fancied himself a huntsman; at one of the Rambouillet shoots, he was heard to complain that only General de Gaulle’s favoritism in placing the American ambassador could account for Mr. Bohlen’s superior bag. But even if he was not very sportsmanlike, Mr. Vinogradov must have been rather appalled when Moscow instructed him in the early 60’s to lodge a protest against the French atomic explosions in the Sahara and a warning about the burgeoning French weapons program.
Mr. Vinogradov, according to the handymen of the Élyseé, had decided to mitigate Soviet bullying with his own comradely sorrow as a friend of France and of General de Gaulle.
“You are wasting vast sums,” he told his august inter-locutor, “on a program that will serve no purpose. Let us suppose that with this bombinette you are developing, you were to succeed in destroying one Soviet city—say, Kiev or Odessa. What would be the result?”
With his usual courtesy, General de Gaulle waited for the ambassador to answer his own question.
“In retaliation,” Vinogradov continued, “France would unfortunately be wiped off the map.(La France serait rayée de la carte, )”
General de Gaulle thought this over for a minute. “But in that event, my dear Vinogradov,” he said, “you and I would die together, wouldn’t we? (Nous mourions ensemble, n’estce pas?)”
At the embassy we all rubbed our hands over that story. But it took some time to grasp the implications of a remark so imperturbably monarchical and so deceptively simple. The Soviet ambassador had dealt with nuclear events on the scale of Moscow’s calculations: he had reduced death to a statistical abstraction. General de Gaulle found it salutary to remind him that death is a personal event of some note: it affects diplomats as well as ordinary citizens; before it, even the most cosmic bluster becomes trivial. Mr. Vinogradov would have done well to remember the inscription scrawled by one of the local comrades on the house of the General’s father in Lille: “Charles XI born here.”
Monarchical also were the General’s ironies. No one was safe from these, but as they were free of grossness, no one seemed to mind them very much. There was always a chance of immortality in being properly annihilated, and many officials took delight in recounting their own humiliations, Jean Sauvagnargues, who was to become Giscard’s foreign minister, told me that when he went to make his farewell call on General de Gaulle before proceeding as Ambassador to Tunisia, he told the president of his great joy (“ma joie profonde”) that he had been given this assignment. The General looked at him with astonishment (it was the period just after the French bombed Bizerte and before Bourguiba expropriated the French settlers).”De la joie?” he said.”Vraiment? Mais Monsieur l’Ambassadeur, chez un diplomate la joie me paraît une émotion bien déplacée.”
And then there was Paul Delouvrier, who found himself whisked away from the cozy glories of the inspection des finances to the governor generalship of Algeria at the moment when the administration was dissolving in fire and blood. While none of the faithful ever refused an assignment, M.Delouvrier did think he might mention his total in-experience of Algerian affairs. “All the better,” the General answered.”You will have no preconceptions.”
The victim for whom at this distance I feel a certain pity— at the time I was merely amused—was the journalist who dared to inquire into the presidential health during the General’s first press conference after the removal of his prostate. I cannot recall the name of the questioner: like the clergyman who asked Dr. Johnson whether Dodd’s sermons were not addressed to the passions, he was immediately hurled into oblivion. But I do remember that he asked how the General was feeling, adding that his fellow citizens were naturally concerned. Not only was the question unscheduled—a cardinal sin at press conferences that were as carefully rehearsed as a production at the Comédie Franjaise; it was also, in the General’s view, impertinent. And the tone was a bit smarmy: the correspondent was conscious of straying beyond the bounds; under the sugar coating lurked a grain of Fourth Republic malice. Such a combination was sure to bring out the worst in General de Gaulle—or the best, if you were standing under a safer tree when the lightning struck. Before several million television viewers, the president peered at his questioner from among the electrified candelabra and the microphones, with an Olympian but unconcealed disdain.
“I am not feeling too badly,” he said. “But be of good heart, dear sir; I shall not fail to die some day.(Rassurez-vous, cher monsieur; je ne manquerai pas de mourir un jour.)”
Whoosh! The moth that had bumbled into the flame was no more.
Less acrid, but no less ironic, was the comment that delighted Ambassador Gavin when he undertook to liven up the conversation at the General’s lunch table by explaining the morphology of certain Irish names, including his own. These, he explained, were really Norman-French; they had arrived in Great Britain with William the Conqueror; their bearers had then gone on to mingle with the Celts in Ireland. Thus the vagaries of European migration and conquest had produced the Delaneys and Delancys of Dublin and the Gavins of New York and the Normandy beachhead.
The General listened with every sign of interest to this ingenious demonstration. He smiled a little wearily.”I am sure you are right,” he said.”But you understand, Mr, Ambassador, that since he crossed to the other side of the Channel, we no longer assume any responsibility for the actions of William the Conqueror.”
For most of the African chiefs of state, the privileged bureaucrats of the former colonies, General de Gaulle remained the paterfamilias in Paris, author of their newly exalted status, venerable counselor, and friend—providing one remained within the limits of respect for France, With Mohammed V of Morocco, the relationship was one of deference between kings; with Habib Bourguiba, there were times of vexation and even chastisement for the sins of the “univers arabe,” but there was forgiveness too. Even the Algerians were offered “la paix des braves.” But among the wingless angels of Black Africa, two Lucifers had been cast into outer darkness. One was Sekou Touré of Guinea, who, alone in French Africa, had dared to opt out of the Community in 1958.The other was Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, who, after his downfall, passed six years as Sekou Tourés houseguest in Conakry—surely a record even in the annals of African hospitality,
When Nkrumah was well established—or so he thought— as a leader of African opinion, he published several books of a hortatory tendency, best exemplified in the masterwork of 1965, entitled Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism.Forgetting apparently that the book contained disobliging references to French policy in Africa, and even a slur on General de Gaulle’s sincerity, the author inscribed a copy for the great decolonizer and instructed his ambassador in Paris to deliver it in person.
The appointment proved difficult to arrange. For one thing, Nkrumah labored under the double demerit of an American education and an allegiance to the British Commonwealth, For another, he failed to understand that if France’s colonies had been melted down, her mission civilisatrice had not—and emphatically not for the guardian of her honor. Most recipients of flowery dedications do not read much beyond the flyleaf (or the index); chiefs of state have staffs who perform this chore for them. And so for long months, the ambassador of Ghana languished in the antechambers of the Élysée.
I am not sure that the appointment was ever granted, but I know that somehow the book was delivered. General de Gaulle was neither boorish enough to ignore the gift nor kindly enough to overlook the heresies of the donor. Thanks to the funny bone of an indiscreet friend (“Vous trouverez ca rigolo, mon cher”), 1 was made privy, at least orally, to the General’s letter of acknowledgment. Couched in the buttery style he found effective with minor royalties such as Prince Sihanouk, it contained toward the end a sentence whose essentials I can still recapture: “La politique de la France en Afrique a été I’objet d’une demagogic considerable, comme Votre Excellence est peut-étre mieux placèe que quiconque pour savoir.(The policy of France in Africa has been the object of considerable demagogy, as Your Excellency is perhaps in a better position to know than anyone else.)”
For subordinates who disagreed with General de Gaulle— and rare is the Frenchman who finds himself in agreement with any other Frenchman—life in the first years of the Fifth Republic was not easy. This was particularly true of the Quai d’Orsay. The Foreign Ministry has always had a dozen minds of its own, and at a time when the Elyseè assumed direct responsibility for decisions, both major and minor, it became a hotbed of dissidence. Despite the assignment of a Gaullist foreign minister (Couve de Murville) and a Gaullist hatchetman (Habib-Deloncle) as state secretary, a foreign diplomat who held his breath could frequently detect the muffled shrieks of the tortured. Many of these heretics were treated with a capriciousness that bordered on cruelty. One expert on Eastern Europe, who staunchly supported the Atlantic Alliance and opposed the Gaullist “Europe des Patries,” found himself demoted to a contemptibly honorary status in the ministry while the Élysee continued to nourish itself on his memoranda in dealing with the Soviet Union.
Two of the directors with whom I worked closely were diplomats of Socialist affiliations. One of them was engaged in a running battle with the Élysée secretary general for African and Malgache affairs, whose barbouzes (agents) constantly fomented anti-American mischief in former colonies. He once warned me that the Elysee, where sensitivity about American contacts with the new countries amounted to mania, was inquiring whether Washington had cleared with the Quai a visit of U.S.destroyers in the ports of the Malgache Republic (Madagascar). Washington had not in fact cleared the visit; in obedience to the fetishes of nation-building, it had even neglected to inform its own embassy in Paris. I explained this deficiency as best I could, and my friend smiled sympathetically.”I think you should know,” he said, “about the visit of your Navy. On July 26, two destroyers called at Diego Suarez. They spent two days in port and then moved on to, . . .”
When he had finished his narrative, he looked at me expectantly. And then I twigged.”I think,” I said, “that your government should be informed of the visit of U.S.Naval units in the ports of the Malgache Republic. On July 26. . . .”
“I shall tell the Elyse’e,” he said, “that you have kept us in the picture. As for the date—well, no need to stitch with white thread.”
Another director, who was even more heterodox, let me understand, also without white thread, that his office was bugged. During the dark days of the NATO imbroglio, just before the American troops left France, he developed a flair for the approach of dangerous moments in our conversations. “I think,” he would say, “that we must explore the ground a bit before making a decision.” This was a pre-arranged signal that we should transfer our discussion to the hallway outside his office. I spent a good deal of time that year pacing the musty corridor, dragging my feet over the long runners of Brussels carpet, beneath which the floorboards creaked protestingly. These promenades encouraged a thoughtful treatment of foreign affairs; they were certainly more healthful than sessions in the director’s slippery leather armchairs.
Many of these excesses were the work of over-zealous lieutenants, but even though they were unknown to the General, they constituted a barometer of the stormy Franco-American atmosphere. Nor was it easy for our friends to help us: despite the wisdom of both President Kennedy and President Johnson in following Ambassador Bohlen’s counsels of restraint, Washington could hardly help casting a jaundiced eye on advice, however sound, that emanated from General de Gaulle’s Foreign Ministry. This sour skepticism was especially unfortunate in Asian affairs. The far eastern directorate was headed by a straight-talking Breton named Étienne Manac’h, former chef de cabinet to Guy Mollet, future ambassador to Peking, and veteran of the postwar tragedy in Prague. For motives quite different from those of General de Gaulle, he never ceased to warn us against the deepening ruts that beset the paths of anti-Gommunist crusading in Indochina.
In response to my nagging about the French position on Cambodia (this was before the Nixon “incursion”), M.Manac’h once summarized for me a memorandum he had just sent to the Élyseé in preparation for the General’s next press conference. His recommendations, he warned me, were not always accepted, but I was too accustomed to the appreciation, not to say the docility, with which the Elsenhower White House received the bite-size morsels furnished by the kitchens of Viginia Avenue. I gleefully telegraphed to the department a scoop on French policy in Cambodia. A few days later I watched the étrange lucarne aghast, as the General took a line diametrically opposed to what I had forecast. My consternation did not prevent me from calling this discrepancy rather sharply to M.Manach’s attention.
He was slightly reproachful. “You must understand,” he told me in his usual machine-gun style, “that the Quai no longer controls the foreign policy of France. Oh, we have our moments: we provide dates and facts; we even prepare advice for the General. But their use—well, let me put it this way: the Quai furnishes bricks and mortar for the Élysée but we never know what structure may emerge on the other bank of the Seine. Sometimes it is a palace of Palladian symmetry; at other times it is a Gothic structure of the most flamboyant fantasy.”
That summarized admirably the situation of those who labored in the Gaullist vineyard. Even with those of proven loyalty, the General displayed a mordant indifference to their misgivings. When his most fanatical supporter on radio and television lamented that his friends were becoming more and more concerned about the General’s policies, his patron offered a simple solution.”My dear Astier,” he said, “why don’t you change your friends?”
At times the statesmen of Europe and America got the impression that they too were subordinates. Was it not evident that the United States was the eldest daughter of Europe? Could not Nikita Khrushchev understand that there was no place for fantaisistes in the communist camp? “Nous avons decide,” the General once told Ambassador Bohlen with a wicked smile, “de parler d M.Khrushchev sur un ton ferme des choses vagues.”
Even more troublesome were the statesmen of minor powers. There was Abba Eban, who ignored the oracle’s warning against recourse to arms. There were Paul-Henri Spaak and Joseph Luns, the Max and Mauritz of the “Europe des Patries,” who dared to wreck the Second Fouchet Plan. General de Gaulle told Mr. Luns that the Dutch were both stubborn and avaricious.”Oui, tetus et coriaces, les Hollandais, et avec vos interets tout pres—bref, une nationl” Mr. Luns told me that de Gaulle had thus paid the Netherlands the ultimate compliment. And he was delighted when the General, annoyed by his persistent advocacy of British membership in the Common Market, asked him why he had become a British agent. For while M.Spaak might be written off as an Atlantic gadfly, with no nation to represent, Mr. Luns figured in the Gaullist rubric as the minister of a genuine patrie.And besides was he not over six feet tall? Members of this fraternity, the General once told him, “can never act quite like the others. We have to be a bit tougher when we handle the little fellows.”
When Mr. Luns and Princess Beatrix attended the funeral of President Kennedy, they shared a pew at St. Matthew’s Cathedral with General de Gaulle. At one moment the chief of the French state found it fitting to convey to the heir-apparent of the Netherlands his sense of the occasion: “Quel triste sort, Madame, nous réunit ici!” The princess, startled by this sonorous alexandrine, murmured that it was indeed very sad. Mr, Luns, who is never timid about advising royalty, whispered that perhaps her reply to a ruling sovereign might be more expansive, a little more appuyé.But the princess declined the gambit.”Really, Mr. Luns,” she told him, “at eleven o’clock in the morning, I can’t be expected to talk like Racine.”
Occasionally the heir of Racine and Bossuet would nod like great Homer, and the extraordinary memory, which at 75 was capable of replaying for television a dozen pages of Jacques Rueff’s treatise on the gold standard, would flicker a little. But the recovery was always paced without fluster. At one press conference the designated correspondent muffed his cue for soliciting the royal statement about imprisoned Algerian leaders. When the moment came, General de Gaulle looked up expectantly: “Someone asked me a question about Ben Bella,” he said. This produced a burst of laughter, after which the General said serenely, “Well, it has to be answered anyway,” and launched into his remarks. In San Francisco, at the end of the umpteenth speech on the oldest Alliance, he raised his glass and cried, “Vive Chicago!” (On this same visit he was taken out to inspect a new traffic cloverleaf, where a thousand vehicles crossed and recrossed, above and below and side by side, empurpling the California air with their fumes. The General was not enthusiastic.”J’ai I’impression,” he said, “que tout cela vafinir trés mal.”)
Ceremonials, to which he always lent the appropriate tone, in fact bored him to distraction. This, together with an eye-sight whose failures were not always accidental, sometimes caused slippage in the cascade of official amenities. M.Viansson-Ponte tells us that one distinguished journalist, whose name and habits were irreproachably masculine, was amazed, after the footman had announced him, to be greeted with a booming “Bonsoir, Madame.” Or great ladies of the Sixteenth Arrondissement, passing through the reception line, would be asked for their prayers of support, while an archbishop would be congratulated on his charm.
Beneath the seigneurial surface lay depths of suffering, and even of envy for the cozier relationships of ordinary mortals. I am told that when de Gaulle commanded the tank regiment at Metz in 1937, he often returned to barracks in the morning hours, exhausted by the drive to and from distant Colombey: he visited his family there every evening, mainly so that he could put his retarded daughter Anne to bed and sing her to sleep. From this one turns without comment—other than his own when his daughter died eleven years later: “Now she is like all the others.”
In a more public domain—but with personal undertones that vibrate too deeply for our entire comprehension—I cite the brief eulogy delivered on the occasion already mentioned: the transfer of Marshall Lyautey’s ashes from the mausoleum in Rabat to the Invalides in Paris. No event could have marked more clearly for France an end and a beginning. With all of North Africa on the verge of independence, the Moroccans, who had already acquired theirs, no longer found it possible to harbor in state the remains of their conqueror and first resident general. To this solemn sacrilege General de Gaulle acceded with regret but with dignity; not for him the flutterings of the Fourth Republic over the passage of empire. After a brief tribute to Lyautey’s extraordinary magnetism, even for the subjugated, he added, “But if he wished to lead others—and what chief was more chief than he?—he also burned to serve them. Everything he said, everything he did, bore witness to his passion for elevating those with whom he dealt and for instilling, to use his own words, “a particle of love” into each of the projects he constructed with them.”
“Une parcelle damour.” In this eulogy, which also honors a global ideal for France that was already fading in 1961, one detects a longing—even a shade of jealousy—for the warmth that others could impart to their missions more easily than General de Gaulle. His parcelle damour was reserved first and foremost for the nation rather than for the exasperating individuals who composed it, and his eulogy must be written in other terms.
I was not in Paris during the declining days of General de Gaulle’s presidency, except for a chance incursion in the midst of the tempest of 1968.Whatever my sympathies at that moment and later, I could only regret the battalion of sorrows that assailed him in the last two years. And how could one remain unmoved by the photograph of the royal exile, with his cane and his cape, striding bareheaded through the heather of Ireland before he drew around him the silences of Colombey? When the news of his death reached us in The Hague in November 1970, I had the same sense of rupture that I had experienced with the sudden deaths of President Roosevelt and President Kennedy. It was not easy to say why. None of the shared ordeals of depression or war lay between us, and none of the horror at the spectacle of a career cut short in mid-flight by a stroke of madness. But one felt nevertheless that a great spring had given way in the underpinning of the world in which one had grown up and survived and grown older.
I pictured briefly the scenes, recounted by Claude Mauriac, at Colombey: the General seated before his game of patience; the radio tuned for the evening news; the bustle of the servant (wonderful that her name should be Honorine!) in the dining room. And then, “Oh, que j’ai mal!”— the sudden, relentless snipping of the shears. Afterward, the trials of the two women, like a scene from Sophocles: the summoning of the doctor and the priest and the laying out of the body. And then the official sequel, with all its complications and inherited resentments, its moments of comedy and of dignity, of spite and of grandeur.
I knew for certain that while it would take years before we could discern the real shape of General de Gaulle’s greatness, there was no doubt as to its reality. His vision of the world was that of the old noblesse de robe and the old army; it was like the vision of Marshal Pétain, whose delinquency he therefore found doubly treasonous. He was, if you like, an anachronism—although some of his insights into the nature of France and the schisms in the Communist world make me wonder a little about that facile term. Whatever his aberrations, he at least saw his age in the light of a creative intuition that allowed of no fear and none of that caddishness that the French call muflerie; even his deceits and his rancors were free of hypocrisy. He once told Cyrus Sulzberger that his career, unlike those of Churchill and Roosevelt, had taken its origins in pure desperation. Certainly he demonstrated that men, rather than blind movements of matter and instinct, make history; they can change its course if they steel their wills. Even at his most unaccommodating and cantankerous, he taught us that the dry rot of mediocrity and conformity can be arrested. So he held up a light—although neither Frenchmen nor Americans could always follow it—that kept the rest of us awake. No matter how we may yawn over Clio and her pomposities, General de Gaulle will remain one of those who have leavened the indiscriminate substance of history with an interest and, one may even say, with a value.