Since the end of World War II, I’ve closely perused all manner of material on Franco-American concerns without ever seeing mention of a brace of incidents that I’m certain largely shaped our relationship in Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s time.
In 1945 I was a midshipman at Annapolis, and the superintendent was Adm. Aubrey W. Fitch. (Jimmy Carter and Stansfield Turner were in the class ahead of me; I’m probably the only journalist in the world who was ever put on report by both a President of the United States and a director of the Central Intelligence Agency for not having his shoes shined.) De Gaulle, not yet in politics, was on a visit and, like all VIPs passing through Washington, was brought to the Naval Academy for one of the brigade’s regular Wednesday-afternoon parades. It was announced Fitch would receive the Legion of Honor, and the brigade wondered if the ceremony would include de Gaulle bestowing the traditional accolade on Fitch as well.
On the appointed day, the brigade, four thousand strong, marched onto Worden Field, was halted, faced left, dressed and presented arms. Admiral Fitch was facing us, and de Gaulle moved toward him, with his back to the brigade, and read an interminable citation in French. An aide then handed de Gaulle the order, which was of a grade requiring a sash to be draped over the recipient’s shoulder. He got it over Fitch’s cap and arranged it—and then bent over to bestow the accolade, a kiss on each cheek. In doing so, he had to lean very far over (the admiral stood about five feet six inches tall), presenting what seemed like an acre of well-tailored riding breeches to the brigade—and the brigade, with no advance coordination, loudly kissed the air while he kissed Admiral Fitch.
You could have heard it across Chesapeake Bay. De Gaulle sprang back as if struck at by a rattler, and when we had been turned and were marched past in review, we could see that Fitch was highly amused, with a cherry-red face he had difficulty keeping straight. Le général had no difficulty with his features; they were immobile—not to say stonelike—and the color of a ripe plum.
It was customary for visiting VIPs to request an amnesty of demerits and extra duty for offenders at the time of their visit; several distinguished naval careers have been saved by some dignitary’s fortuitous visit. We were later informed de Gaulle chose not to exercise this proffered privilege.
Worse happened at West Point, as I later heard from two different cadets who were there to see it.
After the First World War the French military academy at St. Cyr—de Gaulle’s alma mater—presented a larger than life bronze statue of a Napoleonic grenadier to West Point, in honor of the graduates who had died on French soil. (The French took such gifts seriously. The St. Cyr class of 1914 graduated just as the war started and swore to wear white gloves into action. By 1916 the entire class was dead, wearing their white gloves to the end; the majority had died in the first ninety days.)
The bronze grenadier was depicted advancing in action, brandishing his musket aloft, and wearing the traditional bearskin shako and tight—very tight—moleskin trousers. In the early 1920s a tradition started at the Point that if a cadet was having academic difficulties, he would gain favor from the god of war if he rubbed a particular portion of the grenadier’s anatomy. By the mid-1940s, accordingly, the grenadier was covered with a fine green patina, except for an area cast into prominent relief by his stretched trousers, which was the color of a newly minted penny.
Some thoughtful soul remembered this, and just before de Gaulle’s visit the grenadier was put on a dolly and moved from his customary position in the center of the library rotunda to a dark, inconspicuous corner cramped by a circular staircase, where he was parked with his face in the corner. The library was deleted from the projected inspection itinerary, and the staff was warned under no circumstances to mention the statue.
De Gaulle was greeted at the academy gates by the superintendent and a guard of honor and, while still shaking hands with the superintendent, announced he was to be taken straight to the grenadier, for the placement of a wreath he had brought from St. Cyr especially for the purpose. It was a mile drive from the gate, and the time was occupied by a junior aide attempting to explain, in vile French, the amusing sight that awaited the visitor. The task was far beyond the vocabulary of the escort, and the general was obviously not prepared to be amused. My friend’s description of de Gaulle’s features, after he had demanded a flashlight and emerged from the dusty corner, precisely matched my own impression when I had seen him at Annapolis.
De Gaulle left the wreath but went away angry. He did not exercise his amnesty privilege at West Point either.
I have been waiting these many years for a proper academic analysis of the effect of these two incidents on the history of America’s postwar involvement in the European scene. They were, I am sure, far more significant than was realized at the time; they may even have played a role in the French withdrawal from NATO that began in 1967 and ended only last October.