Editor’s Note: This piece on the War on the Rocks Hasty Ambush blog is published in partnership with the Hoover Institution’s Military History in the News.
This week, we friends of France celebrate the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation in 1944. Four years earlier, the Wehrmacht’s combined arms had roared through the Ardennes forest from the Netherlands, bypassing from the north France’s eastern line of defenses. The British Army retreated to Dunkirk, and from there across the Channel.
France had mobilized a third of its male population between the ages of 20 and 45, and had five million men under arms, about half of which were deployed in the north. Ninety-thousand French soldiers were killed in the space of seven weeks before the French government surrendered; another 200,000 were wounded and 1,800,000 taken prisoner.
For those who snidely criticize France’s capitulation in 1940, I would ask whether you can honestly say your government would not have sought accommodation after facing such an overwhelming military onslaught. I cannot make such a bold claim for my own country.
In 1944, after the tide had turned against Germany, Hitler had ordered the complete destruction of Paris should the Allies attack. German occupation forces, however, knew the war was lost and were more interested in getting out ahead of resistance attacks and approaching Allied armies. Eisenhower preferred to keep Patton’s Third Army racing for Berlin to speed Germany’s collapse and de Gaulle’s threat to detach the 2nd French Armored Division from the Allied command would have served as a sharp reminder of the political value in French forces liberating their own capital.
De Gaulle further irritated the Allies, whose forces were then doing the bulk of the fighting, with a rousing speech at the Hotel de Ville, claiming that France had been “[l]iberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the armies of France, with the support and the help of all of France, of the fighting France, of the only France, the real France, the eternal France!” He came to symbolize the restoration of France’s dignity and strength.
France has often been an irritating ally for America since, objecting to the rearming of Germany in 1954, withdrawing from NATO’s integrated military command and revoking permission for stationing of American troops and NATO headquarters on French territory in 1966, refusing to support NATO’s strategy of flexible response or participate in NATO’s nuclear planning group, opposing reunification of Germany, refusing for years to allow NATO any role in “out of area operations,” organizing international resistance to the 2003 Iraq war, and much else.
But France has also refused intimidation by the Soviet Union, insisted on its right to an independent nuclear deterrent, fought to bring peace in the Balkans and eradicate the Taliban in Afghanistan, and, in their military operations in Mali, showed us all a different and more successful model of limited wars.
The United States is fortunate to have the problems of prickly, difficult allies independent in thought and action. The French put up a good fight. Then, and now.
Kori Schake, Ph.D. is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.