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De Gaulle and the United States: trust built on a balance of power

Third episode in our "Esprit 44" series in partnership with the Charles-de-Gaulle Foundation. Here's how General de Gaulle, initially mistrusted by American officials, obtained their recognition of Free France in two years, in addition to information about the future atomic bomb.


By tracing Charles de Gaulle's various meetings with American "leaders" of the Allied camp, from the end of 1942 onwards, and his trip to North America in July 1944, we can understand how the leader of Free France gradually enabled France to regain full and complete sovereignty over its territories, both the hexagon and its colonial empire.

This was not an easy outcome, since the Americans initially wanted to place France under allied administration, and even to remove some of its overseas territories. Eight decades later, this long diplomatic effort is part of the defence culture that the IHEDN is tasked with promoting.


The relationship between Free France and the United States was marked by common battles, a necessary understanding (the Free French depended on American armaments) and a trust that took time to consolidate.

From the start of Operation Torch (the landing in North Africa on 8 November 1942), the Americans hesitated as to whether they could trust Admiral Darlan, head of the Vichy regime's armed forces in Algiers, who sided with the Allies. They then chose General Giraud, with whom Jean Monnet played the role of kingpin.

Giraud seemed better known to the French in metropolitan France, and his ambitions were more compatible with their vision of the conflict, that of "Victory above all", since Giraud prioritised military victory, whereas de Gaulle did not dissociate the struggle from the political reconstruction of the country. De Gaulle, on the other hand, was "the man in whom I have the least confidence", as Franklin D. Roosevelt confided after the Anfa conference (January 1943): in the American President's entourage, the General inspired deep distrust, and his plans for post-war France were viewed with hostility.

André Philip, the Free French envoy to Washington in November 1942, was opposed to the AMGOT project, i.e. the American provisional administration of liberated France. Roosevelt also made no secret of his intentions for Dakar, New Caledonia and the West Indies. In short, a hostile feeling towards French claims to regain full sovereignty over its territories was not absent from American ruling circles. 


De Gaulle was not involved in the landings until very late in the day by Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Invited to London on 4 June 1944 (the same day that General Juin's troops entered Rome), he refused to give the planned speech to the BBC, and showed himself hostile to the American demands (Generalissimo Eisenhower wanted the French to "carry out his orders"). So much so that Churchill, beside himself, considered sacking him. manu militari in Algiers. Instead, addressing the French, de Gaulle announced "the battle of France, the battle of France".

In operational terms, however, French involvement in Normandy was limited to the Commandos Kieffer, a few frigates from the Forces navales de la France libre and aircraft from the Forces aériennes de la France libre, which helped to secure the terrain. Most of the French troops, equipped with American equipment and operational concepts, were regrouped in England (the 2e DB, which did not land in Normandy until 1 August), or in the Mediterranean (the 1era French Army, which landed en masse in Provence on 15 August). 

When de Gaulle reached French soil at Courseulles on 14 June, there were many latent conflicts with the American administration: neither the question of the provisional administration nor that of the banknotes in circulation in metropolitan France had been settled. His freedom of movement was restricted, and he quickly returned to London and then Algiers, but not before setting up the beginnings of an administration linked to the Provisional Government of the French Republic (GPRF), which Eisenhower accepted. This was a crucial point: as the historian Jean-Baptiste Duroselle notes, "the American and British administrative officers were thus cut off - a few hundred had been appointed and were going to wander around like lost souls for a while".


On 7 July 1944, General de Gaulle paid tribute to George Washington at the latter's home in Mount Vernon.

Inevitably, the road to Paris passed through Washington, where the leader of Free France went from 6 to 10 July 1944. The insistent invitation came from Roosevelt, who was then entering his re-election campaign against the Republican Dewey. Wary and considering that he "had nothing to ask of the President", de Gaulle nevertheless saw several possibilities.

Firstly, to counter anti-Gaullist influence close to American government circles (André Labarthe, Camille Chautemps, Henri de Kérillis, and the journalists André Géraud dit Pertinax and Geneviève Tabouis). Secondly, to strengthen Free France's ties with the American people: "Americans, our friends", he said in his initial declaration. Finally, the possibility of seeking definitive legitimacy for the GPRF, even if it was out of the question to appear to be asking for any kind of approval: "The way in which the French will proceed with the reconstruction of France is an exclusively French matter", he replied curtly to a journalist.

Received at the White House by Roosevelt, De Gaulle also visited Arlington National Cemetery. He met General Pershing, former commander of American troops in the First World War, who, in the evening of his life, asked him for news of his "friend Pétain" ("He's well, I think", the General modestly replied).

Exchanges with Roosevelt and his Secretary of State Cordell Hull remained courteous. De Gaulle saw in the American president "the optimism that suits those who have the means", and an "idealism that dresses up the will to power". On the other hand, De Gaulle's post-war vision of a four-way directoire (USA, Great Britain, USSR, China) aroused reservations and anxiety: "His conception seems to me both grandiose and worrying for France and Europe".

The visit led to an ambiguous success: on 12 July, the American government sent Algiers a note "recognising that the French Committee for National Liberation is qualified to administer France". But since the previous 3 June, the CFLN had renamed itself the Provisional Government of the French Republic, with the approval of the Consultative Assembly... Washington did not officially recognise the GPRF until 23 October.

On the other hand, on 21 August, Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower, anxious to speed up the advance eastwards, agreed, at De Gaulle's insistence, to see the Guillebon detachment and then Leclerc's 2nd armoured division divert to Paris to ensure its liberation. Ike's visit to the Arc de Triomphe on 28 August was tantamount to de facto recognition of the GPRF by the United States. 

From left to right: on 10 July 1944, General de Gaulle is received by the Mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia.
On 6 July 1944, General de Gaulle was received by Roosevelt in Washington. The meeting was attended by Anna Boettiger, daughter of the American President, and Cordell Hull, Secretary of State.


Continuing his trip to North America via Canada, de Gaulle received a warm welcome from the local population on 11 July. He met the physicist Jules Guéron very discreetly, in "a room at the end of a corridor in the Free French delegation in Ottawa", as Guéron put it. Involved in the Anglo-Canadian nuclear research programme with his colleagues Bertrand Goldschmidt and Pierre Auger, Guéron informed the General about the possibilities of nuclear fission and the Manhattan Project, designed to give the United States the atomic bomb.

Following the discovery of artificial radioactivity in 1934, Frédéric Joliot-Curie's laboratory at the Collège de France filed three patent applications in May 1939, two anticipating nuclear reactors and one relating to a nuclear bomb. The fall of Paris in June 1940 put a stop to this work, even though large stocks of uranium and heavy water, the substance most likely to cause a chain reaction, had been built up. The former were kept secretly in a mine in Morocco for the duration of the war, while the latter were taken to England on 19 June 1940 by Hans von Halban and Lew Kowarski, two collaborators of Joliot-Curie (who remained in France), using a backdated order!

On 11 July 1944, General de Gaulle made a speech to Parliament in Ottawa.

In December 1940, the work continued in Great Britain and led to the first experiment with a heavy water atomic reactor. The atomic programme, carried out in conjunction with the British and Canadians, would involve other French scientists who had chosen to fight, including Jules Guéron, even though these scientists would be kept out of the American Manhattan project. A year before his first visit to Japan, de Gaulle was aware of what he called the "work of apocalypse" in his memoirs.

On 18 October 1945, de Gaulle used his last opportunity to legislate by ordinance, with the sole agreement of the Conseil d'État, to create the Commissariat à l'énergie atomique (CEA): he took care to attach it directly to the Presidency of the Conseil, and to give it unparalleled administrative and financial autonomy. It was here that the key players in the story that was interrupted in 1940 - Joliot-Curie, Raoul Dautry (Minister for Armament in 1940), Irène Joliot-Curie, Francis Perrin, and the 'Canadians' Goldschmidt, Auger, Halban and Kowarski - were to be reunited.