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Reviewed by:
  • Kennedy, de Gaulle, and Western Europe
  • Anna Locher
Erin R. Mahan , Kennedy, de Gaulle, and Western Europe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. 229 pp. $65.00.

The French-American relationship in the early 1960s has often been told as a story of diametrically opposed foreign policy goals. Erin Mahan in her slim but rich book develops a more complex account of the "cold alliance." In explicit contrast to the standard interpretation, Mahan seeks to move beyond notions of conflicting designs. By examining the strategic and economic decision-making processes in Paris and Washington, she elaborates the political bargaining character that made up the U.S.-French relationship. Her accessible study offers a novel account of the links between international economy, defense strategy, and power politics. A major strength of the book is its clear interpretive framework. Mahan starts her discussion with the economic constraints of both countries—in France, the Algerian war and the burdens of an immense agricultural sector; in the United States, persistent economic recession and severe balance-of-payments deficits—and convincingly relates them to the strategic aspects of the troubled partnership.

Mahan develops her argument in eight autonomous chapters. An ambitious but rather roughly sketched introduction leads in medias res; it covers also the historical background and includes a perhaps too brief discussion of the literature. Following a tour d'horizon focusing on the protagonists of the narrative, Mahan dwells on the [End Page 164] many misunderstandings and disagreements that emerged after John F. Kennedy entered office in early 1961. Mahan then discusses the critical impact of the Berlin crisis on the search for a new strategy for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), on France's resolve to push its nuclear force de frappe, and on early French ideas about separation from NATO. She maintains that the Berlin crisis delayed a coordinated U.S. policy on Western Europe and the Atlantic alliance. With regard to French nuclear policy, she demonstrates the Kennedy administration's inconsistent approach to nuclear sharing. Unable to decide whether to provide Paris with nuclear assistance, Washington procrastinated in order not to antagonize Bonn. In a chapter on trade, Mahan sheds light on the links between French agricultural protectionism, Britain's Common Market bid, and the Trade Expansion Act of 1962.

In a fascinating chapter on monetary policy, Mahan, based on her earlier work with Francis J. Gavin, takes a detailed look at what was long presented in the literature as a clear case. Whereas conventional wisdom holds that France was opposed to the Bretton Woods gold-dollar system because it enshrined global U.S. dominance and that the United States, despite the system's obvious flaws, did not want to modify it for fears of losing exactly this alleged leverage, Mahan draws a different picture at least for 1962. Not only were top people in the Kennedy administration prepared to reconsider a system that they perceived as generating U.S. monetary weakness, but French Finance Minister Valéry Giscard d'Estaing was also willing to cooperate. He even proposed an agreement that would suspend allied gold takings, which would have helped Washington to overcome its pressing balance-of-payments deficit. In the end, an agreement did not come about—not because of French obstructionism but because the Kennedy administration was divided as to which solutions should be pursued.

Discussing the impact of the Cuban missile crisis on French-American relations and the Atlantic alliance, Mahan argues that it stimulated forces leading to de Gaulle's double non on the Polaris submarine offer and on British membership in the European Economic Community and supported French-German rapprochement. She stresses that a characterization of this development as the "climax of a 'grand design' drama misrepresents U.S. priorities toward Europe" (pp. 143–134). Nevertheless, Washington's ability to pursue its goals of a settlement in Central Europe and of West German agreement to the U.S. conception of NATO strategy was increasingly constrained. De Gaulle, who in the early 1960s still promoted a hard line toward the Soviet Union, and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer successfully blocked a non-aggression pact between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. This move caused Kennedy to alter...