Kerry Got that de Gaulle Story Half-Right

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Erlich is an HNN intern. He is pursuing a Masters degree at the BMW Center for German and European Studies, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

Note from the Editor: This article is based, in part, on information graciously provided by the H-Diplo historians who answered our request for fast help.

In the first presidential debate John Kerry argued that America has lost credibility in the eyes of its allies. In the context of a controversial call for a “global litmus test,” Kerry claimed that whereas now America would fail such a litmus test, in the past America would have passed.

To illustrate America’s past credibility, Kerry related an anecdote about the French president, Charles de Gaulle:

We can remember when President Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis sent his secretary of state to Paris to meet with de Gaulle. And in the middle of the discussion, to tell them about the missiles in Cuba, he said, "Here, let me show you the photos." And de Gaulle waved them off and said, "No, no, no, no. The word of the president of the United States is good enough for me.

Though Kerry’s story contains a minor factual error (Kennedy sent Dean Acheson, the former Secretary of State), the rest of the statement is accurate according to several sources, most famously Jean Lacouture’s biography of de Gaulle.*

In his anecdote, however, Kerry failed to provide vital contextual information, which belies his use of the example to demonstrate American multilateralism. Before the photos were shown to him General de Gaulle stated: "I understand that you have not come to consult me, but to inform me." Upon being informed that this was indeed the case, De Gaulle then continued on to say that America was perfectly right in defending its interests, but if he had been consulted instead of informed he would have had to disagree with U.S. actions.

On the one hand, then, Kerry was correct in using the example of de Gaulle to assert that many nations did once put more faith in American intelligence gathering than they do at present, de Gaulle was not questioning the veracity of the U.S intelligence photographs, whereas in the case of Iraq, allies such as France have increasingly doubted American intelligence. On the other hand, Kerry’s comments vis-à-vis de Gaulle do not demonstrate American multilateralism. Rather they highlight the structural difference in the world system at the time—a structure in which the French more often quietly acquiesced in American decision making. In the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. was certainly not attempting to pass some global litmus test before acting.

*Jean LaCouture, Le Souverain (Editions de Seuil, Paris, 1989), pp. 364-365.

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Arnold Shcherban - 10/13/2004


Thank you for the clarification.
I actually was guessing something very similar to
the info provided by you, just based on my personal understanding of the US and the USSR policies during Cold War and the info I already had.
However, you might remember that I was also questioning
the absense of commentary on whether the deployment of
Russian missiles on Cuba was though unfortunate for this country, but logical and reasonable strategic response from the point of view of the Russian national security, instead of the highly dangerous provocation of the nuclear disaster by the "rogue" communist country, as it was interpreted by the US goverment, media and later by the US historians.
Do you know something in this latter regard?

Jim Williams - 10/13/2004

Kennedy did act. The missiles removed from Turkey were obsolescent but represented a face-saving concession by Kennedy to Khrushchev.

The missiles Khrushchev removed from Cuba seriously weakened the Soviet Union in the "balance of terror" and helped lead to its wide deployment of the massive warheads and missiles of the late 1960s and 1970s. The removal of missiles from Cuba also helped lead to Khrushchev's ouster.

Arnold Shcherban - 10/12/2004

The historical reality, not sweatened with perpetually presented in the offical version idea of higher nobility of the US actions on international arena hardly supports such idea.

Moreover, the US routinely uses its military power in partial or complete disregard of the position of its allies, not mentioning already neutral states.
That was exactly what D'Gaulle reffering to, as if saying: 'anyway, I know tool well that you do it only out of formal diplomatic courtesy, without any real intention to listen to my opinion. It is just by luck that in this particular case you intelligence info looks correct.'

However, I have not read a single American historian
who would elaborate on one circumstance in the case of Cuban crisis: the validity of Russian's claim that they installed their missiles on Cuba in response to American installation of similar capability and purpose missiles
in Turkey, in immediate proximity to the Soviet-Turkish
border. Coincidentally, one of the conditions of the
post-crisis Soviet-US agreement was the elimination of
the "Turkish" missiles.
Unfortunately, I'm not aware whether the US actually acted on the latter promise.