The anniversary of D Day, seen from France, is one where the American vice of self-congratulation often meets the French vice of self-regard. (They are different; the self-regarding don’t necessarily like what they see, but they like to see little else; the self-congratulatory regard all criticism as implacable hostility. ) Or, to put it with a touch more earned exasperation, one where the French sin of selective amnesia meets the American one of total amnesia. If the French, as is often said, bought into a myth of French participation in the invasion that rather understated the equality of effort, or sacrifice, among the other three invading powers—and let us not forget that Canada was there, and took its beaches with efficiency so understated that it is almost always entirely overlooked—Americans still tend to see it as an almost entirely American operation. John Wayne takes the beach, Tom Hanks agonizes over the hard choices, and all the rest are there for local color: if British, to be stuffily obstructive; if French, to provide an accent or two and a part for a woman. (The Canadians don’t earn even a cameo.)
It’s worth briefly recalling, then, why Charles de Gaulle and the French forces, however notional, whom he represented, were so essential to the cause, and why Churchill, despite the frustration that led him to get into an inebriated rage with de Gaulle on the very night before the invasion, still knew him to be so. De Gaulle is portrayed in a lot of the Anglo-American memorializing as nothing but a vain and egomaniacal nuisance. On that pre-invasion night, he was still fussing pompously and endlessly about the “scrip” currency that the allies intended to use in France, and which he regarded as “counterfeit” and somehow demeaning to his nation. He was even threatening to withhold the French officers who were supposed to serve as liaisons between the invaders and the French. Nor would he let the speech he was to make after the invasion began be vetted by the Allied powers with bigger armies. Given that he had essentially no army, no power and, as yet, no obvious legitimacy, and nonetheless insisted on being taken seriously as an equal, it is not hard to see why his allies got crazy and Churchill got drunk. (The general annoyance at French claims of being central to the victory extended even to the Nazis themselves: “What, the French are here, too?” the German general Keitel is said to have announced with astonishment at the surrender ceremony.)
But there’s another sense in which de Gaulle’s vanity and egomania was essential to the cause. De Gaulle had decided to incarnate France, which he did with a vengeance, and on the basis of the slightly metaphysical assertion that a certain idea of France was present in all of its parts: so long as any part of France resisted, France was still fully engaged as a “great nation” in the war. But beneath that astounding claim was a shrewd understanding, the one that he had made in his famous appeal, broadcast on the BBC on June 18, 1940: “This war is not limited to the unhappy territory of our country. This war is not ended by the battle. This is a World War.” De Gaulle’s argument, subtler and more logical than it might at first seem, was that the global feature of the war is what distinguished it from any previous conflict, and changed the nature of victory and combat. Because it was a World War, the defeat of France was merely one loss to register, and it could not end the existence of the French nation as an entity and a government. No one was defeated until everyone was defeated. Seen on the proper global scale, the battle of France was only an incident. And implicit in grasping that it was a World War was the understanding that the world took sides.
Left to his own devices, and still refusing to have his words screened in advance, de Gaulle later on D Day made a great and unifying radio address, thanking the other Allies without hesitation or scruple: “From behind the cloud so heavy with our blood and our tears, the sun of our greatness is reappearing.” For all of the rage that Roosevelt and Churchill sporadically vented at him, in his official statements he was always remarkably clear-headed about what France owed to the guys who had done most of the hardest fighting. His later insistence on putting France at the center of Germany as an occupying power itself, which seemed one more act of vanity and hubris at the time, turned out to be useful, not least, in establishing France as an equal workhorse rather than a subservient power, and in raising the dignity of France in German eyes, beginning the great work of Franco-German coexistence—indeed, essentially, of union that has helped bring peace and prosperity to Europe for a half century. (This work was, to be sure, largely done by other, far from Gaullist politicians. And, although his rival Jean Monnet’s desire for an enlarged Europe with American attachments was proven right, de Gaulle’s instinct that sovereignty could not ever be erased from the European mind has proved still true.)
The Franco-centric view of D Day has one other virtue. Grasping that the war really was a World War, that view remains inherently international. Take the Paris Métro and you will pass through a station named for Franklin D. Roosevelt, but you will also find a stop named after the Battle of Stalingrad—a dark point in human history, but the turning point of the war—and still another named after Guy Moquet, the seventeen-year-old French Communist who was murdered by the Nazis, and whose memory President Nicolas Sarkozy helped universalize. And then there’s still one more stop, a central one, named for de Gaulle himself. (Churchill doesn’t get a station, but he did get an ugly statue, right in front of the Petit Palais.) Many combatants—some easy to admire, some very hard to stomach—fought against the Nazis, and on many fronts. The American contribution, though immense, was hardly sufficient, and hardly alone.
The good that de Gaulle did for the American empire as such was limited; but the good that he did for the cause of republican government in the world was immense. He helped to make it plain that anti-Communism was not merely an extension of American hegemonic aims, but possible to imagine as part of an independent-minded nationalism, and confirmed a republican practice—to which, for all his aristocratic manners and autocratic ways, he remained firmly loyal—that didn’t demand an Anglo-American aura. To think about de Gaulle on the seventieth anniversary of D Day, as President Barack Obama stood near President Francois Hollande at the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, is indeed to remember a man vain and petty enough to fuss, on the eve of a great battle in which other nation’s soldiers were about to go to their deaths to liberate his land, about the timing of his speech and the uses of scrip money. But the entire record is also a reminder that our best allies are rarely our most subservient—and that what truly great powers need is patience, respect for other people’s ways and tongues, and a sense of humor, even if at times maintaining it drives you to drink. Without those traits, humanitarian interventions become mere episodes of imperial willfulness, and missions of liberation turn, all too soon, into the degradations of occupation. It’s a worthwhile lesson. Difficult men make good allies in dark times.