The War Without a Name

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the Vietnam War divided the American people and shook American politics to its foundations, forcing one American President, Lyndon B. Johnson, out of office. The bitter controversy that accompanied the war has left a searing memory in the minds of all Americans who were alive and politically aware at the time. Yet, the experience of divisive dissent in the wake of war is by no means unique to America. Between 1954 and 1962, equally great bitterness was created in the domestic politics of a European country, France, by another so-called dirty war: the losing battle to keep Algeria, French. It is this subject that John Talbott, a Professor of French History at the University of Santa Barbara, treats in his new book, The War Without a Name.

Talbott has produced a narrative of almost unacademic crispness and readability, one that will be of great value to the general reader whose knowledge of both Algerian and French history is rather vague. Aside from its insightful observations on public opinion in metropolitan France during the course of the war, however, it offers little that is new to the specialist. The spareness of the narrative is, to some extent, achieved at the expense of vividness and detail. The issues of loyalty to conscience versus loyalty to the state, and of government attitudes toward the right of dissent in time of war, are pursued at the expense of other equally interesting aspects of this particular historical episode. Talbott’s work supplements, but does not supplant, the other recent work on the war: A Savage War of Peace, by Alistair Horne.

The outbreak of violence on November 1, 1954, throughout the remote areas of eastern Algeria, took most Frenchmen by surprise. In Chapter One, Talbott gives the reader the historical background of the Algerian War. Colonial Algeria, he explains, was sharply divided between a relatively privileged European settler minority, on the one hand, and the Muslim majority, on the other. The author shows how, for more than two decades, the appeals of Muslim moderates like Ferhat Abbas for peaceful, gradual reform had met with repeated evasions and rebuffs, until a small band of young nationalists, most of them veterans of the French Army, finally decided that European settler domination could be overthrown only by armed rebellion against France. The impression is given that armed rebellion was more or less inevitable: relatively little effort is spent on examining those occasions when judicious introduction of reforms might have enabled moderates among both Muslims and settlers to resolve peacefully the differences between the two communities.

The second chapter traces the gradual military buildup of French forces in Algeria. It demonstrates how the reformist Radical Premier of France, Pierre Mendes France, who had recently ended French military involvement in Indochina and who had been moving toward conciliating native nationalists in Morocco and Tunisia, nevertheless felt compelled to order measures taken to repress the Algerian insurrection. Hardline sentiment was so strong that even François Mitterand, then the youthful Interior Minister and a later kingpin of leftist politics, declared: “Algeria is France.”

Before being voted out of office by the French National Assembly, on February 5, 1955, Mendes France had appointed Jacques Soustelle governor-general of Algeria. While determined to defeat the rebels militarily, Soustelle, like many other Frenchmen, also believed that improving the Algerian Muslims’ economic position would hasten victory by depriving the rebels of mass support. The author compares this French belief to the American conviction that improving South Vietnamese living standards would eradicate the revolutionary nationalism of the Vietnamese Communists.

Under Mendes France’s successor as Premier, Edgar Faure, the steady military buildup continued. Between January and December, 1955, the total number of French troops in Algeria was increased from seventy-five thousand to one hundred eighty thousand. Yet France was not officially at war: she was engaged in what the government termed “operations for the maintenance of order.”

In the third chapter, the author shows how, at the beginning of 1956, the newly elected Socialist Premier, Guy Mollet, despite his campaign promises to seek a peaceful solution in Algeria, actually strengthened the French commitment to military victory. After being greeted, upon his visit to Algiers on February 6, 1956, by a European settler riot, Mollet hastily withdrew the nomination of the aging Arabophile, General Georges Catroux, as successor to the departing Soustelle. Instead, he chose the hard-line Socialist, Robert Lacoste. By the end of 1956, Mollet had increased the number of French troops in Algeria to more than four hundred thousand men. Calling to mind once again America’s bitter experience in Vietnam, Talbott compares Mollet to Lyndon Johnson, and compares the Special Powers Law of March 16, 1956, overwhelmingly approved by the National Assembly, to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed by the United States Senate in 1964. The Special Powers Law granted the executive virtually unlimited powers to suspend individual rights, if necessary, in order to deal with the rebellion. Talbott doubts that the February settler riot was, in itself, sufficient to change Mollet’s policy from conciliation to repression. He suggests that fear of being accused of abandoning the settlers might have induced Mollet to keep sending troops even if the riot had never occurred.

To Talbott, Mollet’s precise motives for escalating the war are less important than the fact that he decided to do so, and was able to do it with so little danger of political retribution, either in the Chamber of Deputies or at the bar of French public opinion. Despite some timid dissent in the Socialist ranks over the war, Mollet’s Cabinet was the longest-lived in the history of the Fourth Republic; it endured from January, 1956, until May, 1957. When it finally was overthrown, however, the act was not due to opposition to Mollet’s Algerian policy, but rather to discontent over his proposal for a tax increase.

It was not that there was any lack of atrocities to spur antiwar feeling at home. After an American ultimatum had halted the joint Anglo-French expedition against Egypt, in November, 1956, a shamed French Army worked more zealously than ever to regain its honor by crushing the Algerian rebels. The French government decided to send the elite corps, the paratroopers, to the city of Algiers itself. Throughout 1957, the tough and energetic World War II resistance hero Jacques Massu, commander of the paratroopers, relied on the most brutal methods possible to break the back of the rebel underground in Algiers. Suspects were frequently tortured in order to obtain information; once arrested, many of them disappeared completely.

Yet, in Chapters Five and Eight, and in scattered passages throughout the book, the author makes clear just how weak the principled opposition to the Algerian War was, as compared with the potency of the antiwar movement in the America of 1965-1973. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, in the periodical Temps Modernes, did, it is true, condemn the war as immoral and call for a victory of the rebellious Algerian Muslims of the Front Liberation Nationale (FLN). There was also a French pro-rebel activist, François Jeanson, who succeeded in organizing the secret transport of weapons to the rebels; some of the members were put on trial in September, 1960. The number who carried opposition to the war that far, however, was small.

Besides such extremist forms of opposition to the war, there was also a more moderate variety of dissent. The distinguished literary critic Pierre-Henri Simon, in his essay Contre la Torture (1957), exposed Army interrogation tactics, as did the small group of dedicated left-wing Catholics who wrote for the periodical Esprit. Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, editor of the magazine L’Express, likewise strongly condemned torture, although he balanced his condemnation by making it clear that he favored a continued French presence in Algeria. The reaction of Paris intellectuals against the mysterious disappearance, in 1957, of Maurice Audin, a mathematics professor suspected of aiding the rebels, showed that the war had by no means snuffed out public concern for human rights.

Yet somehow, all these little streams...

(The entire section is 3493 words.)