In 1909 de Gaulle joined the French Army and three years later graduated from the French military academy at Saint-Cyr. He fought in World War I and was severely wounded twice. Promoted to captain in September 1915, he was wounded a third time and then captured by the Germans at Verdun in March 1916. He was a prisoner of war for the remainder of the conflict. Following the war, he returned to Saint-Cyr as professor of history. Later he taught at the École de Guerre, the French war college, then served as aide-de-camp to French Army commander Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain. De Gaulle also became an important theorist of armored warfare and in 1934 published a book on the subject, arguing for a fully motorized and mechanized professional army with organic air support. Had his ideas been implemented, the 1940 defeat of France might never have occurred.
When the May 1940 battle for France opened, de Gaulle received command of the 4th Tank Division. It achieved one of the few successes scored by the French Army in the campaign, bringing him promotion to brigadier general on 1 June. Within a week Premier Paul Reynaud brought de Gaulle into his cabinet as undersecretary of state for national defense.
Reynaud rejected de Gaulle's advice to fight on, and on 17 June the general left Bordeaux for London. A day later he spoke over the British Broadcasating Company and urged his countrymen to continue the war against Germany. He headed the French Resistance in World War II, but his wartime relations with the British and Americans were strained and often difficult. De Gaulle acted as if he were a true head of state, while the British and Americans persisted in treating him as an auxiliary. He was embittered by blatant British efforts to dislodge the French from prewar positions of influence in Syria and Lebanon and by the failure of the Anglo-American powers to consult him in matters regarding French national interests.
From late August 1944 de Gaulle ruled France as provisional president. He was determined that France would retain its role as a great power and serve as a bridge between East and West, a point that he stressed during a week-long meeting with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in Moscow in December 1944. De Gaulle also concluded a twenty-year treaty of alliance and mutual security with the Soviet Union. At the same time, he sought to reassert French control over Indochina. In August 1945 he sent an expeditionary corps of two divisions under General Jacques Philippe Leclerc as well as a naval squadron to Indochina and appointed Admiral Georges Thierry d'Argenlieu high commissioner to Indochina to restore French sovereignty over its colonial territory.
In January 1946 when a French constitutional convention rejected de Gaulle's calls for a strong presidency, he abruptly resigned. He spent the next years writing his war memoirs as the French Fourth Republic stumbled from one crisis to another. In May 1958, having survived the long and unsuccessful war in Indochina, the Fourth Republic finally collapsed under the weight of another war, this time in Algeria. De Gaulle then returned to power, technically as the last premier of the Fourth Republic.
Although at the time there were serious doubts in France and abroad about the general's intentions, de Gaulle's preservation of the democratic process was in fact his greatest legacy to France. His Fifth Republic ushered in the strong presidential system and political stability that he had long advocated as well as a degree of domestic tranquility.
The most intractable problem facing de Gaulle, however, remained Algeria. The army had brought de Gaulle back to power ostensibly to maintain Algeria as a French territory. But in a convoluted process, options for the disposition of Algeria were systematically eliminated. There were terrorist activities in France itself as well as several revolts by the generals and Algerian settlers and attempts on de Gaulle's own life. Algeria became independent in 1962.
In international affairs de Gaulle was arguably less successful, largely because he sought to reassert a French greatness that had vanished. He saw France as leader of a third European force between the two superpowers. He pushed the development of a French atomic bomb and then the nuclear strike force, the Force de Frappe, to deliver it. De Gaulle's entente with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) was a significant achievement, and it was de Gaulle who began the process of détente with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. More questionable was his withdrawal of France from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) military command, although he gave strong support when the West was pressured by the Soviet Union. De Gaulle twice vetoed British entry into the European Common Market, and he cut France's close ties to Israel and called on Quebec to secede from Canada. De Gaulle also lectured the Americans on Vietnam, warning President John F. Kennedy that intervention in Indochina would be "an endless entanglement."
With the defeat in 1969 of a national referendum on administrative reform, which de Gaulle made a litmus test of his leadership, he again resigned and retired to write his final set of memoirs. De Gaulle had completed two volumes and part of the third when he died at his home at Colombey-les-Deux-Églises on 9 November 1970.
Spencer C. Tucker
Gaulle, Charles de. The Complete War Memoirs of Charles de Gaulle, 1940–1946. Translated by Jonathan Griffin. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964.; Gaulle, Charles de. Memoirs of Hope: Renewal and Endeavor. Translated by Terence Kilmartin. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971.; Lacouture, Jean. De Gaulle: The Ruler, 1945–1970. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1992.; Ledwidge, Bernard. De Gaulle. New York: St. Martin's, 1982.; Werth, Alexander. De Gaulle. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965.