The Great Exasperater
I can’t be the only one who found the following passage about Charles de Gaulle funny. Can I?
Once, when asked for his opinion of Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill mused: “If I regard de Gaulle as a great man? He is selfish, he is arrogant, he believes he is the center of the world. He … You are quite right. He is a great man.” Churchill knew whereof he spoke: During World War II, it was he who bore the brunt of the Frenchman’s intransigence.
Though very different characters, the two statesmen had certain points in common: Both had an extraordinary way with words and both saw themselves as men of destiny. Having fled to Britain after the collapse of the French army, de Gaulle cast himself as the embodiment of the French nation, a modern-day male Joan of Arc, who would lead the fight against the Germans and their Vichy hirelings and restore France to its rightful place and greatness.
In the process, he managed to upset a great number of people. As French historian Francois Kersody has written, he seemed to be permanently involved in a two front war: “a public war against Vichy and the Germans, and a private war against the British Admiralty, the Air Ministry, the War Office, the Intelligence Service, the Foreign Office, the Prime Minister, the U.S. State Department, and the president of the United States.”
One of his advisers noted “the General must constantly be reminded that out main enemy is Germany. If he would follow his own inclination, it would be England.”
Before departing London to set up headquarters in Algiers in May 1943, de Gaulle said goodbye to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, who asked, “Do you know you have given us more difficulty than all our European allies?” To which de Gaulle answered, “I have no doubt of it. France is a great power.”
The Americans, of course, regarded him as suffering from delusions of grandeur. During the Casablanca summit, Roosevelt’s secret service detail discretely kept the Frenchman covered with their Tommy guns. You can never be too careful.