Why America needs de Gaulle
Charles de Gaulle began his famous war memories with the remarkable line:
All my life I have had a certain idea of France.
(I’ve had a certain idea of France all my life.)
However, this idea was far from easy. Originally written after World War II and published in several volumes between 1954 and 1959, the memoirs themselves were written with a catastrophic past and stormy present in mind.
The war had been utterly disastrous for France – not just materially, but also in terms of national honor, as nearly a millennium of martial prowess appeared to have been wiped out in one bad week in 1940. And he left deep political rifts that only became part of the ongoing process of decolonization. These would prove extremely destabilizing, overthrow the Fourth Republic and threaten worse, as right-wing paramilitary organizations attempted to bring the violence of colonial warfare to France itself.
In order to do justice to the divided reality of post-war France, de Gaulle presented a unifying idea of his nation: one that could cover up social and political divisions that went back not just years but centuries. As Julian Jackson points out in his instructive biography of de Gaulle, his sure idea de la France was a peculiar one.
What was remarkable about de Gaulle’s patriotism was not just its depth or passion, but its breadth: it combined otherwise incompatible elements of French tradition and created an image of unity that was seldom found in history itself. His syncretic vision was large enough to encompass characters and movements that were antithetical in their time: the Ancien Regime and the Revolution, the Sun King and Danton, the Grand Condé and Lazare Hoche. From Clovis to, well, de Gaulle himself, he envisioned some kind of unbroken chain of memories strong enough to integrate divisions and conflicts into a whole of indescribable permissiveness.
It may all sound dreamy and unworldly, but his vision really captured something of France that one would miss out on something special. A purely revolutionary or traditionally conservative portrayal of France would represent as incomplete a picture of the country as one without Burgundy or Aquitaine.
Moreover, de Gaulle found rich and powerful conceptual resources in this vision that would assist him during the war years in London when he alone claimed legitimate representation of France; then through his subsequent period of political exile; and finally, during his tenure as Prime Minister, when faced with deep national political divisions (along with over two dozen assassination attempts) he administered the country through the economic successes of the Trente Glorieuses.
The open question is whether Gaullist patriotism has really caught on beyond de Gaulle. As the professional Francophile Adam Gopnik noted, “In the forty years of traveling in and out of France, I almost never heard him cited as an in any way useful example for today’s crises.”
But precisely because it does not necessarily need a de Gaulle, this peculiar version of patriotism can have a certain relevance for America today. Of course, we are not at a low point in which de Gaulle found the happiness of his nation in 1940: our homeland remains unoccupied by foreign powers, our military remains outstanding, our dollar remains the global reserve currency and so on. In addition, our success in developing and disseminating vaccines in response to the COVID pandemic, while hardly exclusive, nonetheless testifies to the ingenuity and resources that America continues to have at its disposal.
And yet it is clear enough that we are doing badly. Our national divisions – partisan, regional, intergenerational, cultural and racial – are as clear as ever and in many ways stronger against the backdrop of a long period of relative peace and prosperity. Furthermore, in a typically American fashion, these divisions raise fundamental questions about the nature of our country: the legitimacy of its creation, the legacy of slavery, and the appreciation of our loyalty and affection as citizens.
The New York Times’ famous 1619 Project therefore not only wanted to shed more light on historical crimes, but also to treat these crimes as co-extensive with the founding of America itself. This does not necessarily exclude patriotic ties entirely, but makes them dependent on a certain vision of progress.
Meanwhile, his response, the Trumpian 1776 Project, has received considerable criticism, but his problem is not his laudatory interpretation of US history; it has made American nationalism another front in the endless culture war. As such, the acceptance of this story, with all that it entails, becomes a partisan move tied to a particular faction rather than addressing the country as a whole, as de Gaulle used to do.
Perhaps the trickiest problem for national history is: what do we do with great crimes and their perpetrators? Especially the crimes related to the creation and creation of countries? Balzac’s maxim that behind every great fortune there is a crime was considered a political truism long before the 1619 project was conceived.
He showed no sentimentality towards supporters of the extreme right or the extreme left, and his stature was so large that he could largely avoid paying lip service to their complaints.
In his conclusion on Leviathan, Hobbes warns of either undue scrutiny or undue justification of the past. His point is that no political community in history can have an impeccable past – let alone impeccable beginnings – and peace and stability require mutual disagreement to ignore such events in favor of a good life in the present.
Still, de Gaulle was one of the least Hobbesians of modern times; Dedicated to church and nation in a way that could hardly be defended on mere instrumental grounds. And maybe we are closer to de Gaulle too, because we are unwilling to treat citizenship as a mere object of transaction. We remain deeply concerned about the character of the country to which we belong and which is ours. The problem is that the predominant preoccupation with the moral history of the nation is essentially negative; it can only tear down and despair. Meanwhile, the reaction of the right is only superficially positive; it has struggled to formulate an independently appealing display of American patriotism that is not presented in response to progressive criticism. Both are thus exclusive in a way that Gaullist patriotism is not.
The genius of de Gaulle’s patriotism was not only that he placed the country above the faction, but that even the moment they clashed, he could see the representatives of the opposing factions as the embodiment of a common national character. As Madison would be quick to remind us, factionalism and partisanship are going nowhere, but perhaps it is possible to follow de Gaulle’s lead in evaluating our shared history.
For us, this means identifying the common American threads that bind past figures of the past with each other and with ourselves, even if they are in various ways inappropriate. This means not only the simple ones like Lincoln and Douglass and Tubman or the founders (who are getting less and less easy), but also the more difficult and weird ones.
We should be able to imagine an “Americanism” big enough to accommodate Confederate battlefield leaders with eccentric tactical brilliance like Jackson and Lee, and black nationalists like Stokely Carmichael and Huey Newton. Great warriors like Ruben Rivers and Smedley Butler, but also convinced pacifists like Jane Addams and Smedley Butler. Don’t they all embody American genius in their own way?
Is that a hopeless mishmash? Maybe. But as another Frenchman, Ernst Renan, famously noted, historical error is an essential factor in nation creation. Our goal here is not foolish consistency, but great synthesis. At a time when our national self-image is in danger of becoming too cramped and restricted, we should strive for a broad and magnanimous sense of our past. And this does not require wearing down our history any more than de Gaulle’s patriotism required washing away the bloody excesses of the French Revolution.
Of course, even the most magnanimous vision must have its limits if it is not to become simply boring. De Gaulle eventually decided to commute the elderly Petain’s death sentence, but was otherwise quite inconsiderate of the execution of Vichy supporters (and later senior OAS members). In later years he crushed the May 1968 protests when they became destructive, and even employed the highly Machiavellian tactic of using disgraced former OAS members.
He showed no sentimentality towards supporters of the extreme right or the extreme left, and his stature was so large that he could largely avoid paying lip service to their complaints. At most, his rhetoric could turn into studied ambiguity – as with his notorious statement to the masses of Algerians and pieds-noirs: “Je vous ai compris!” But here too he was ready to give up colonial obligations, as these threatened the greater interests of France.
Likewise, a prudent version of American patriotism should not be a universally inclusive ideal. In order to stand for anything other than its own perpetuation, it must be prepared to make ethical distinctions. But if it is to be any kind of patriotism, it has to take care of what it leaves behind; it cannot simply rely on destructive iconoclasm to stimulate the political imagination of citizens. Perhaps because of this, so many across the country recently took notice of what would otherwise have been a local news story as an Atlanta high school previously named after Nathan Bedford Forrest (a Confederate Army general and the most prominent early member of the Ku Klux Klan) was renamed to honor baseball star Hank Aaron. That is, a highly divisive figure was replaced by a thoroughly American one – in fact, one whose status served as a refutation of what the former stood for. There is a poetry here that reflects something of the Gaullist vision.
It is hastening to add the obvious caveat: a more generous national self-image will not and should not end political and economic disputes. Such conflicts are the stuff of politics, and it is perfectly appropriate for citizens to have disputes over political issues in a country of over 330 million people. The strength of Gaullist nationalism is that it could allow us to return to our political competitions without constantly reopening the national question.
Of course, it all seems overly Gallic, unsuitable for a New World country like ours, let alone incoherent and even paradoxical. So be it. To paraphrase no less an American figure than Walt Whitman, we are a big country and we have a lot too.