Charles de Gaulle and the French Republic During the Cold War

Posted on June 2, 2012 by



“In its highest expression, Gaullism is the effort to act according to permanent realities. In that sense, its relevance remains in the midst of changes and despite all the noise of superficial posturing.”  (Gosset, 2009, p. 5)



With numerous streets, an airport, and France’s only airline named after him, Charles de Gaulle was a man of immense historical and political significance, and occupies an almost mythical status in French consciousness. Rejecting the notion of bipolarity in the Cold War period, de Gaulle advocated the national independence and strength of France as the Western Alliance’s major ally (Kulski, 1966: 22), and pursued foreign policy based on politique de grandeur (Warlouzet, 2010: 21). De Gaulle’s concept of France “as dedicated to an exalted and exceptional destiny” (cited in Mangold, 2006: 18) has its roots in his background, and directly impacted the development of French foreign policy during the Cold War. This paper will give a short biographical background of Charles de Gaulle and briefly examines the main themes of French foreign policy during his time as President of the Fifth French Republic.


Charles de Gaulle


As Resistance movements developed in France in the early 1940s, collaboration between de Gaulle’s Free French government-in-exile and internal Resistance members increased, and his political ideas were discussed during visits to London. During this time, tensions developed between de Gaulle and America, in addition to increasing difficulty with Britain. LaFeber (2003: 13) writes, “De Gaulle bitterly fought American officials as he tried to maintain his country’s colonies and diplomatic freedom of action”. The United States were equally unhappy with de Gaulle, naming him “a political extremist” and “this French Adolf” (LaFeber, 2003: 13).


Following the liberation of Paris in August 1944, de Gaulle was elected Premier and remained at the head of the provisional government until January 1946. Under his leadership, France underwent a significant social and economic shift, indeed, Jackson (2003: 36) asserts, one of the most fundamental periods of change in French history. After spending over a decade in retirement from political life, a time in which he wrote his memoirs, de Gaulle established the French Fifth Republic, and was inaugurated as the first President in January 1959.


After settling the conflict in Algeria in the early 1960s, de Gaulle was able to pursue his two main objectives; the reformation and development of the French economy, and subsequently, development of an independent foreign policy and a strong presence on the global stage. Despite significant economic and military aid (including nuclear armament in 1960) from the United States following the war, his dislike of Cold War bipolarity was unremitting, and, as Gaddis (2005: 138) asserts, “de Gaulle and Mao set out to dismantle the alliances that had nurtured their states and embraced their regimes”. De Gaulle’s desire for France to play a central role on an international level meant that whilst he did not absolutely reject the Western Alliance, he sought to undermine the United States as one of the superpowers in the Cold War system, demanding that France be “accepted as a major player in the Western camp” (Warlouzet, 2010: 27). He firmly believed that sustained peace and stability would be achieved through a multipolar structure, not through the existing bipolar system (Gosset, 2009: 3).


De Gaulle’s dismissal of bipolarity led to several policy decisions throughout the 1960s that were integral to the reestablishment of national self-esteem, and to gaining recognition from the two superpowers. Key actions and decisions such as the veto of British membership in the European Economic Community, the announcement of ‘Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals’, the acknowledgement of China, and the withdrawal of France from NATO’s integrated command structure sent a very clear message to Washington that France was more than just a minor player in the alliance (Gaddis, 2002: 140; McMahon, 2003: 97-9). Indeed, Gaddis (2005: 143) proposes that the decrease of fear was a key factor in de Gaulle’s ability to act in defiance of the United States, and claims, “[b]y the 1960s, France and China had become sufficiently strong within the frameworks of their respective alliances that they no longer suffered from the insecurities that had led them to seek such alliances in the first place”.


De Gaulle’s early recognition of Mao’s China had profound implications, and Gosset (2009: 3) claims that whilst de Gaulle was interested in working alongside another foreign government, more importantly he anticipated that the establishment of diplomatic relations would place France in a position to cooperate with a more long-term, “permanent human construction, the Chinese civilisation”. The development of ties between China and France demonstrated, as Gosset (2009: 2-3) proposes, two central elements of Gaullism; the long-term outlook, and “the effort to take in consideration, beyond transitory events or relatively short-lived phenomena, more permanent realities”. France’s recognition and interaction with the People’s Republic of China was a strong indication of its intention to pursue independent foreign policy (Gosset, 2009: 3), and reveals de Gaulle’s forward-thinking vision.


Historians debate the idea of whether de Gaulle is the greatest French statesman of the twentieth century; since the French Revolution; since Louis XIV, and whilst Warlouzet (2010: 21) observes, “a tendency for historians of political history to adopt a heroic approach, that is, to seek out heroes and villains in their stories”, it is nonetheless evident that de Gaulle and his ideas have left a lasting legacy. Clear from his early life in the military, and his role in both world wars that he was more than just a average soldier (Mangold, 2006: 11), de Gaulle’s pursuit of French centrality in the Western alliance and independence on the world stage challenged the bipolar structure of the Cold War era, and unsettled the two global powers.




Gaddis, JL 2005, The Cold War: A New History, Penguin Books, New York.

Gosset, D 2009, ‘A return to De Gaulle’s ‘eternal China’’, Asia Times, 8th January 2009.

Hobsbawm, E 1996, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, Vintage Books, New York.

Jackson, J 2003, De Gaulle, Haus Publishing Limited, London.

Kulski, WW 1966, De Gaulle and the world: the foreign policy of the Fifth French Republic, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse.

LaFeber, W 2002, America, Russia and the Cold War 1945-2002, updated 9th ed., McGraw-Hill, New York.

Mangold, P 2006, The Almost Impossible Ally: Harold Mcmillan and Charles de Gaulle, I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, London.

McMahon, RJ 2003, The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Warlouzet, L 2010, ‘Charles de Gaulle’s Idea of Europe: The Lasting Legacy’, in Kontur, no. 19, pp. 21-31.


Jess Marshall is a second year Bachelor of Arts student at La Trobe University Albury-Wodonga, majoring in History and Sociology, receiving a Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences Dean’s Letter of Merit in 2011 for outstanding academic achievement.  She is interested in historical and social issues on a local and global level.

This paper was submitted for assessment in the second year subject International Relations: The Cold War and the Great Powers at La Trobe University.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.