For some of us pieds noirs who lived in Algiers, Nov. 8, 1942, was that strange and wondrous night when we were awakened by the sound of air raid sirens and for some time took up the routine (new to us) of deciding whether to go down to the shelter--or not. That night, a student friend, who had taken advantage of the still clement temperature to get a midnight swim on a beach near Algiers, got the surprise of his life when an otherworldly craft spewed out at his feet a group of men in combat gear, of whom one introduced himself as U.S. Gen. James H. Doolittle and requested directions and discretion. The Americans had landed! This preamble is to say that, with so little direct experience of World War II, I plunge readily into any book that might give me a firsthand impression of what it must have been like to participate in person in those epic events. The interesting and informative "Roosevelt and de Gaulle" is precisely one of those. The fact that we have here an account of events even more baffling than Stendhal's and Tolstoy's famous chapters on the Napoleonic wars may be a guarantee of its authenticity.
Raoul Aglion, a diplomat by career, joined the small band of Charles A. de Gaulle's partisans early in 1940, ending in New York (after a stint in the Middle East) with the mission of recruiting French residents of the United States for the LaFayette Brigade. He could not have found a situation more confused and confusing than the one that confronted him on arrival. The many French nationals living in the States were hard put to decide to which of the French self-appointed authorities they should report: an ex-commercial counselor, a personal friend and representative of De Gaulle, or the president of a French patriotic and cultural association "France Forever." A fourth contender to their allegiance did not simplify matters. During all four years of the war, Aglion was never able to solve the problem of who was really representing De Gaulle in America, and things got even more complicated when at the time of the Allied landing in Northern Africa, Adm. Jean Louis Darlan and Gen. Henri H. Giraud became France's successive spokesmen in the eyes of the American government.
Aglion, a staunch and never wavering believer in De Gaulle, navigated a treacherous course between the various French powers-to-be (or would-be powers) and the U.S. government whose political Machiavellianism in the circumstances remained a constant. Granted that the stakes were high: The United States could not afford to see the French fleet fall into the hands of the Germans and therefore continued to keep diplomatic relations with the Vichy government so late in the game that in May, 1942, the American government grotesquely invited the Petainist military attache to a commemoration of Pearl Harbor! To make matters worse, the most influential of De Gaulle's personal representatives, Adrien Tixier, originally a Labor specialist who became the main French Connection in Washington, seems to have played a dubious role, selling his boss short to the Americans.
Finally, the French residents themselves, as well as those French people who managed to escape from occupied France, were far from unanimously behind the general. A Vichy official said it well when, referring to Adm. Darlan's negotiations with the Americans in November, 1942, he quipped: "We live in sad times when we cannot trust our own traitors anymore."
The crux of the matter was whether Washington would ever acknowledge the political leadership of a gangly general who had come out of the blue, calling himself the Savior of the French people and comparing himself to Joan of Arc. President Roosevelt seems to have been extraordinarily stubborn and rather shortsighted in refusing to recognize the man he still called to the very end "that prima donna" or "the president of some French committee or other." It is true that, on his side, De Gaulle was equally stubborn and autocratic. He may have lost the game in an early round when at Christmas, 1941, he had the Free French forces (a mere handful, then) "liberate" the tiny French islands (off the southern coast of Newfoundland) of St.-Pierre and Miquelon from the Vichy orbit without consulting the Americans.