Neither Republican candidates in the recent midterms nor conservative political analysts made much of the Peng Shuai case, nor the Brittney Griner case. It is impossible to assess post facto whether it would have made any difference if they had. These two cases of young athletes abused for perverse and political reasons by members of regimes that wish us only ill are symbolic of the neglect of foreign policy more generally in our political contests.
Morality cannot guide relations between states, which are not moral entities. But we ignore the moral values, or their absence, of the men guiding enemy regimes at our peril. Who can say that a candidate in, for example, New York or Pennsylvania — or Georgia — would not have gotten the votes he needed had he said, “I’ll fight for Brittney!”
You might bemoan this, but you might also consider it typical of democratic regimes. Foreign policy, including just what we mean by human rights, plays a role in presidential contests, but it only rarely does in local or statewide ones.
Franklin D. Roosevelt won a third term as president in 1940, and, two years later, the Democratic Party held its ground in the midterm elections. By then, the president’s position as war leader could and did contribute to his popularity, but his party did not play the war or rally-around-the-flag card.
In those days, politics stopped at the water’s edge, except for a few die-hard isolationists and Stalinoid second-front men. FDR in fact paid some attention to the latter — not because he shared their views but because he, no less than Winston Churchill, understood the importance of keeping a hundred German divisions way out there in Stalingrad and its vast vicinity (now called Volgograd, it is south and east of Ukraine and was the key hub for control of oil fields that the Germans needed).
However, neither Churchill nor Roosevelt, much as they wanted to help the Soviets, thought they could take on the Germans in the West, and instead they decided on a mighty amphibious invasion of North Africa. This would relieve pressure on the British, who were blocking the German attempts to conquer Egypt and gain control of the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf oil fields.
Operation Torch, largely forgotten today except by students of World War II, took place this week 80 years ago. As American soldiers went ashore in Morocco and western Algeria, a British offensive at a place called El-Alamein was putting an end to German plans in the Near East.
Very few Americans knew anything about North Africa, and even old salts thought of it mainly in connection with Stephen Decatur and the Marines at Tripoli. As in the early 19th century, the North African coast was a cauldron of intrigue, treachery, and foul play in which personal, tribal, national, political, strategic, and who knows what other schemes complicated Allied commander Dwight Eisenhower’s plain, normal, straight American objective: beat the enemy and get on with the next job.
It could have been worse. The French troops in Morocco were following the orders of the Vichy government, which was in charge in North Africa. Britain had broken relations with Vichy in favor of the Free French Committee headed by Charles de Gaulle, but the U.S. had not.
Even as British troops went on the offensive in the desert, Americans found themselves unsure whom they were fighting on the coasts. French forces in Morocco obeyed orders to stand and fight (they took heavy losses). Irwin Shaw was with the Signals Corps and later wrote a fine short story on the ambiguities of the situation. It is called “Hamlets of the World.” A very young Office of War Information scriptwriter named H. J. Kaplan, who was expected to understand the French on account of studying their literature under a leading American specialist in the subject, William Albert Nitze, was trying to figure out who was who in Algiers. His thesis adviser, Professor Robert Vigneron, a Great War veteran and a specialist in Marcel Proust, had never mentioned Algeria in his seminars.
A close adviser to FDR, Robert Daniel Murphy, one of America’s great diplomats who was our ambassador in Paris and as such was responsible for North Africa, had developed his own network, unbeknownst to Army intelligence, and they were getting ready for a coup against the Vichy officials in Algiers.
The key here was a group of anti-Vichy Algerians, led by a young medical student named José Aboulker. Like other indigenous Algerian Jews (French Jews had been among the settlers in the 1870s), he and his family’s French citizenship had been revoked by the Vichy government. It had begun rounding them up for slave labor camps in the desert and eventual murder.
Aboulker and his band of partisans pulled off a coup d’état in Algiers as American forces were advancing on the city. Aiding them was an officer named Henri d’Astier de la Vigerie, whose patriotism outweighed his royalist, anti-Semitic biases. They arrested Admiral François Darlan and General (later Marshal) Alphonse Juin, respectively the top Vichy political and military men in Algeria, and persuaded them it was time to switch sides.
Darlan was a Great War veteran who had made his way to the supreme command of the French navy in the 1930s. If he had some of the qualities of the policeman Renault in Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film, Casablanca, he was a republican who shared the anti-Nazi politics and systemic Germanophobia of his class, which in 1940 found an outlet for its misery in allegiance to the old marshal who cultivated the image of a “shield” that would protect the unoccupied part of France while the “sword” of the resistance was sharpened.
Juin was a native Algerian whose reflexive “defend the Empire” attitude was no different from de Gaulle’s, whose Free French columns under General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque were making their way north from Congo to join up with the Anglo-Americans to drive the Germans out of Africa. My father’s future daughter-in-law’s father, a mere teenager, was marching with the West African rifles who made up the bulk of his troops and who were poorly treated by the French government after the victoire.
Roosevelt’s instructions to Murphy and Eisenhower were to let the French in Algiers have their spats without interfering openly. This was wise. The Euro-Algerians were still pro-Vichy and the Muslim Algerians hoped the Americans would end French colonial rule.
Darlan and Juin were released and kept their jobs; however, the admiral was assassinated on Christmas Eve by a royalist.
The Allies scarcely needed to get embroiled in a local civil war, a lesson lost on future generations of nation-building missionaries. Referring to “military expediency,” FDR did not officially play favorites, which meant not interfering with the region’s domestic governance, including anti-Semitic laws and police-state methods. Indeed, d’Astier and Aboulker were arrested as suspects in the Darlan assassination and were lucky to escape the fate of the young assassin, who was shot after a summary trial.
There was some confusion, my father told my wife with his usual understatement, because we really did not know these people. Juin, after some hesitation, agreed to place his troops under Anglo-American command; the other general there, Henri Giraud, who had escaped from a German stalag, hoped to get the nod from Eisenhower, but, apart from his courage, he had few assets to recommend him. His conversations revolved around cycling and football.
D’Astier’s brothers, who, like him, were career soldiers, were in London with the Free French and one of them became a great Resistance hero and communist fellow traveler. Eisenhower did not want to know about any of this. When some natives came to see him at the Hôtel Saint-George, where he had his headquarters, to request that he help them gain civil rights, he politely told them that he could not do anything for them.
Decades later, I happened to be stopping at the Hôtel Saint-George and the locals proudly showed me the room where Ike’s staff meetings were held. There is a commemorative plaque and, they said, the furniture has been kept as it was. It looked to be fine, elegant old stuff, I supposed they were playing it up as a tourist attraction. I asked if they would like to see American officers here again to help them with their counterterrorism war. They smiled and said that would be kind, but no thanks, they could handle it. They had nothing but praise for le grand general Eisenhower and they referred to John Kennedy as votre plus grand president because he supported decolonization.
Eisenhower and Murphy leaned on the French to get their act together under de Gaulle’s command, to FDR’s displeasure. Eisenhower then gave Leclerc tanks and launched the legend of Leclerc’s men — there were great writers on hand to run with it, notably A. J. Liebling.
My father asked Oumi if her father had ridden into Paris with Leclerc.
She said that she did not know, her father rarely talked about that. He said the food was awful and that in Germany every house was shattered. He thought white people were crazy. Pas toi, papa, she added.
“It was long ago,” he said with some modesty, “and I suppose we really did not understand all of what we were witnessing. We knew the decisive thing was Montgomery’s great victory at El Alamein. The fighting there ended on November 11. Churchill said it was the end of the beginning.”
He knew the war was far from over. “We took a terrible beating three months later by walking into a German ambush at the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. But they were finished in Africa. It’s too bad that the French did not see that they were done too, or at least with the colonial system they had there.”
“They still do not,” she scolded.
“Takes time, ma fille,” he said.
“It was Armistice Day,” he reminisced. “There were many veterans among both the French and the Muslims — the Muslims had been drafted into the Great War, you know, just as your father was in the next one, and here we were, a moment of unity in Algiers. It’s a charming city, you know, if you do not know what goes on there. But in France, the Germans occupied the south, the Vichy zone. Vichy was no longer the shield; it became the satellite, and those who did not switch sides became traitors.”
She waited for the ancestor to choose his words. Africans have profound respect for elders, though, due to global trends, this is changing.
Which is unfortunate, the ancestor said after a while. It is always unfortunate to call a compatriot a traitor. And yet…
Leclerc, toward the end of the war, having liberated Paris and crossed the Rhine with his American tanks and his African rifles, thanked his men and warned them not to expect too much. He told them about the 369th New York, the Hellfighters from Harlem who crossed the Rhine ahead of all other Allied troops in 1918 and then were denied full honors when they came home.
When elements of Leclerc’s men captured some French Nazis wearing the uniforms of the Waffen-SS, Leclerc asked them how they could wear such clothes. The beaten men replied defiantly, “And your American clothes?” The general replied, ice-voiced: “Fusillez-les.” He made sure that a squad of Frenchmen, not Africans, were detailed for the job.
His daughter let him remember. Then she spoke quietly, Tu es sage, papa.