France in John F. Kennedy's world view

Fifty Years Without JFK: Rethinking Global Diplomacy
Europe: Panel 1

"France in John F. Kennedy's world view"

Sean J. McLaughlin (University of Wisconsin-Whitewater)

No member of the western alliance caused John F. Kennedy more consternation than Charles de Gaulle’s France. Kennedy and de Gaulle disagreed over nearly every major international issue of importance during the early 1960s, but the fundamental question of why Kennedy and de Gaulle failed to connect on a personal or professional level has not been adequately unanswered.

Traditional explanations rooted in de Gaulle’s cantankerousness fail to acknowledge the cordial nature of their face-to-face encounter in Paris at the end of May 1961 and a mutual desire for cooperation at the outset of the Kennedy presidency. This paper will argue that Franco-American relations were so troubled during the Kennedy years less due to specific policy disputes than to Kennedy’s refusal to accept France as a great power. It examines the journals and records of a young John F. Kennedy, beginning with the journal he kept during his 1937 summer vacation in Europe through to his Senate papers in the 1950s, in order to determine how and why he formed the particular racial hierarchy of Europeans he brought to the White House in 1961. These documents reveal that Kennedy perceived Britons, and to a lesser extent Germans, as robust, dependable, and masculine allies, while he contrasted the French as erratic, jealous, and unreliable.
As Kennedy’s presidency began, he held de Gaulle—a genuine war hero who took bold measures to end the Algerian conflict that had so badly destabilized his country—in considerable esteem. This was a senior statesmen with whom Kennedy desired a running dialogue on world affairs. The tone of Kennedy’s first letter to de Gaulle of 2 February 1961 on the Congo crisis is that of a confident young man seeking and expecting the approval of an older, more experienced counterpart. De Gaulle’s prompt response expressed an appreciation for Kennedy’s effort and a willingness to put himself at the American president’s disposal. Nevertheless, de Gaulle dampened Kennedy’s enthusiasm by arguing that any political solution brokered by the United Nations would offer a Trojan horse for the Soviet Union and its allies and that the administrative role Kennedy envisioned likely contravened the United Nations Charter by interfering so greatly in sovereign affairs of state.
Stung by de Gaulle’s sudden, total rejection of a plan he had crafted with great care and attention, Kennedy turned over responsibility for future correspondence with de Gaulle to his aides, most of whom carried anti-French or anti-de Gaulle prejudices. The personal and emotional element of Kennedy’s first letter gave way to officialese and detached correctness in all subsequent communications. I argue it was at this point that Kennedy retreated back into all of his familiar old stereotypes of pre-Fifth Republic France, enabling him to later justify subsequent actions that effectively marginalized Paris. In future internal Kennedy administration correspondence, France was repeatedly feminized as NATO’s “weak sister” and contrasted against masculine America, while de Gaulle was framed alternately as yesterday’s man or as a typically Gallic egoist who failed to understand that his country’s best days were long behind it.

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“France in John F. Kennedy’s world view”
Sean J. McLaughlin (University of Wisconsin-Whitewater)

Panel 1, Europe: Q&A Session
Chair: Dr. Piers Ludlow (LSE)

Institute for the Study of the Americas
Sean J. McLaughlin (University of Wisconsin-Whitewater)
Event date: 
Wednesday, 13 March 2013 - 12:00am
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