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The Man, The Legend: General de Gaulle

If you’ve ever visited France, it is likely you are familiar with the name Charles de Gaulle. The Cold War politics of the widely revered former general and president of France are highlighted in General de Gaulle’s Cold War: Challenging American Hegemony, 1963-68, published this month. Author Garret Joseph Martin writes why these policies—respected by French countrymen and women—so dismayed U.S. leaders of the day. The author shares his thoughts about the figurehead, below.




Berghahn Books: What drew you to the study of General Charles de Gaulle?


Garret Martin: More than forty years after his death, General Charles de Gaulle remains a towering figure in France, and he was arguably the most influential Frenchman of the twentieth century. Growing up in France, you simply could not escape his presence and his legacy—see the multiple monuments in his honor and the streets named after him.

Additionally, I was intrigued by the very polarizing nature of Gaulle during the Cold War, revered in France yet reviled in the United States and the United Kingdom for being a difficult ally.



BB: Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research to the time you completed the book?


GM: While I would not say that my perceptions on the subject changed dramatically throughout the research and writing process, I had not initially anticipated spending a lot of time dwelling on the more technical area of international monetary affairs. However, the documentary evidence kept reinforcing the idea that international monetary affairs were a central part of the Franco-American rivalry of the 1960s.



BB: In what ways does de Gaulle’s legacy remain significant to current French foreign policy?


GM: De Gaulle’s legacy is still very much felt in current French foreign policy. He set the precedent of turning the presidency into the main locus of decision making, a situation embraced by all his successors. He continues to embody the idea that France’s rightful rank is as a global power—his belief in a ‘certain idea of France’ as he stated in the first page of his memoirs. Moreover, the Franco-German partnership as the main motor of European cooperation, and the desire to Europe as a major actor on world stage, are still central goals of French foreign policy.  



BB: To what extent do you think the book will contribute to debates among current and future academics within the field?


GM: This book will contribute to debates in the field of Cold War history by encouraging scholars to look beyond the competition between the superpowers. Medium powers, like France, and small powers were able, at times, to have a significant impact on the course of the East-West conflict. Furthermore, this book can help foster debates about missed opportunities to end the Cold War before it did.



BB: Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?


GM: Since the book tries to provide a balanced account of de Gaulle’s foreign policy during the 1960s, it does go against some of the very polarized opinions on the General. While it does argue that the General had a legitimate grand design, and was not motivated by anti-American feelings, it also underlines the fact that de Gaulle’s own mistakes and flaws proved his undoing.



BB: What inspired you to research and write?


GM: As long as I can remember, I have been passionate about history—a passion that was also shared by members my family. I was also lucky to have had great teachers and professors along the way, and in particular at the London School of Economics, who encouraged me to pursue that path.



BB: What is one particular area of interest or question, that hasn’t necessarily been the focus of much attention, which you feel is especially pertinent to your field today and in the future?


GM: While there is understandably a great deal of focus on how the Cold War came to an end, there is far less attention on the leaders and movements that tried to imagine a post-Cold War world or sought to end the East-West conflict before 1989. There were many missed opportunities before the Iron Curtain actually came down.



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Garret Joseph Martin is an Editor-at-Large at the European Institute in Washington, D.C. He obtained his Ph.D. in International History at the London School of Economics. He co-edited Globalizing de Gaulle: International Perspectives on French Foreign Policies, 1958-1969 (with Christian Nuenlist and Anna Locher, 2011). He currently teaches courses on the Cold War at George Washington University and on transatlantic security at American University.