25.12.14

Book Review - De Gaulle: The Man Who Defied Six US Presidents

I cringed hard reading De Gaulle: The Man Who Defied Six US Presidents by Douglas Boyd. It's bizarre reading an anti-everything author write about one of the most fascinating characters in the 20th century. Being a francophile is one thing, being anti-US another - but to combine elements of francophilia, bitter US hatred, personal prejudice against FDR, anti-nuclear tirades, anti-communism and many more parochial hatreds in under 300 pages is remarkable - not in any good way.

tl;dr - ugh, 2 stars.

De Gaulle is undoubtedly one of the most interesting personalities of the WW2 leaders. As someone who was abandoned to the machinations of self-righteous allied leaders and who in any reasonable narrative should have folded right after Operation Torch, De Gaulle stands head and shoulders above (literally - giant of a man) the pygmies of European leadership of WW2. To knit the diverse elements of France into the fighting French in an atmosphere of surrender and defeat and to be able to face down diplomatic challenges when surrounded by defeatists is a somewhat remarkable achievement. To stay relevant post-war and lead France through the decolonization phase makes De Gaulle's life a remarkable read.

To dilute his leadership and simplify it to anti-US hatred and patronizing comments about FDR's health is just bizarre. The book also completely skips analysis of De Gaulle's losses in post-war France and his behavior during the Algiers affairs. If anything is examined, it is mostly through the lens of adoration, intense to the point of blindness, which leads to excuses or hand-waves in explaining missteps or questionable judgments. The book is structured well and starts off on a good note, but as you read further the book meanders on and off topic. The chronology starts to drift back and forth. The immediate post-war era is dismissed in a few pages and discusses the power struggles and the eventual power shift that cast De Gaulle into political exile in a few terse passages. There is hardly any discussion of the people around De Gaulle who influenced his wartime strategy or his post-war cabinet. One gets the impression that De Gaulle was a dictator and took all decisions as a supreme leader. While not far from the truth, it is a really limited lens from which to view De Gaulle

There is also the slight matter of the six US Presidents De Gaulle "defied". The only president who the author focuses exclusively on is FDR. There are a few lines describing diplomatic outbursts and tough conversations, but De Gaulle's relationship with the other 5 presidents are hardly discussed. If they are, there is an element of patronizing - an elder statesman speaking to the leader of the free world like a sage to a child. Not to mention the whole period of De Gaulle's political exile where he would hardly have been privy to France's political destiny or busy defying US presidents.

There are also the sad parts where personal attacks on FDR are used to speculate on bad choices, not analysis or counterpoints but comments on his personal health. A good biography contains speculation - mostly because personal papers or existing documentary evidence cannot provide enough insight into the thought process of people separated from the author by the passage of time. But to voice personal prejudice in the disguise of scholarly judgement without any proof is just bad scholarship. The author could have done better than that.

There is very little redeeming about reading this book. The WW2 parts are decently chronicled and the sources are easily accessible. But, in the end the invective and the lack of substantial analysis of De Gaulle's post-war actions just makes this a bad read. Just don't read this book if you want a well structured biography that tries to understand the motivations and actions of a brilliant world leader. Read it if you either want to read poorly written fanboi history. Read the wiki page entry instead.