Algeria: France, the United States, and the Algerian War

By Naylor, Phillip | The Middle East Journal, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview
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Algeria: France, the United States, and the Algerian War


Naylor, Phillip, The Middle East Journal


France, the United States, and the Algerian War, by Irwin M. Wall. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001. xiii + 268 pages. Map. Illus. Notes to p. 309. Bibl. to p. 319. Index to p. 335. $39.95.

The decolonization of Algeria is usually interpreted as a supreme French internal problem with considerable, though subordinate, external significance. Professor Irwin Wall offers an alternative perspective. He views this agonizing crisis as having immense global importance and places it squarely in the context of international affairs - specifically the Franco-American relationship. The author propounds several provocative interpretations that are bound to raise eyebrows among historians and political scientists.

Charles de Gaulle is traditionally admired for freeing France and liberating Algeria by a deliberate, determined, though not always decisive, policy of decolonization. Wall contends that after coming to power, with the support of the United States, de Gaulle endeavored to preserve French Algeria. This objective dominated French foreign policy and de Gaulle's grander strategic designs - the independent nuclear deterrent, the tripartite NATO directorate, and the Eurafrican plan. Wall originally envisioned a book examining the collapse of the Fourth Republic with a concluding chapter on how de Gaulle decolonized Algeria. He eventually reoriented the book and included three chapters on de Gaulle's policies, which escalated the decolonizing conflict, leading to chaos and catastrophe in Algeria and, correspondingly, to frustration and failure regarding the general's global foreign policy ambitions.

The most strategic bilateral relationship for France during this period was with the United States. France posed serious problems for American foreign policy, given France's humiliation in the Suez crisis in 1956 and its reluctance to grant independence to its two North African protectorates - Tunisia and Morocco. The latter two countries had moderate leaders whom Washington wished to shepherd into the anti-Communist camp. Even after Tunisia and Morocco attained independence, their sovereignty remained threatened by the colonial war in neighboring Algeria.

Soon after the surprising hostilities broke out, the Eisenhower administration assessed that Algerian autonomy or independence was inevitable. It disregarded Paris's fearful rhetoric during the Suez crisis proclaiming that "France, in Algeria, was defending freedom against Pan-- Islamic theocratic fanaticism" (p. 35). Given its contacts with the Front de Liberation National (FLN), Washington also rejected the French formula that equated Algerian independence with communism. On the other hand, Suez and the Algerian War threatened NATO's strength and solidarity; this was a serious matter. Though the British were penitent after Suez and pursued an "Anglo" partnership with the United States, the French remained recalcitrant and resentful, and resorted to occasional anti-American outbursts. As the Fourth Republic disintegrated, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles astutely assessed the insurrectionary "fraternization" of May 1958 in Algiers between Europeans and Muslims as "artificial" (p. 146). Those demonstrations demanded de Gaulle's return to power.

By that time, Washington had lost its patience with the Fourth Republic. French inability to suppress the insurgency led to collusion with the British and Israelis against Egyptian President Jamal `Abd al-- Nasir - a staunch supporter of the Algerian nationalist FLN. The subsequent Suez fiasco correlated with the beginning of the Battle of Algiers that was fraught with terror and torture. French governments lost control of civilian and military administrations, as illustrated by the skyjacking of a Moroccan plane carrying prominent Algerian nationalists in 1957 and the bombing of the Tunisian town of Sakiet in 1958. These events deepened Washington's impression that the Fourth Republic was politically and morally bankrupt.

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