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A Question of Balance: How France and the United States Created Cold War Europe

A Question of Balance: How France and the United States Created Cold War Europe by Michael Creswell. Harvard University Press, 2006, 238 pp.

Florida State University professor Michael Creswell’s A Question of Balance: How France and the United States Created Cold War Europe (2006) examines a topic of considerable interest to scholars of Cold War politics and strategy, as well as European integration: the contribution of France to the postwar European international order. In 1940 Nazi Germany cast France down from a world power to a virtual nonentity in the council of nations. Yet after World War II, France would once again become an important actor by securing a seat on the Security Council of the United Nations, playing a leading role in European integration, and exploding its own atomic bomb in 1960. The contribution of the French Fourth Republic (1947–1958) to this tale of French resurgence has been contested by historians. At first they viewed it as an unfortunate prelude to the true work of resurgence undertaken by the Gaullist Fifth Republic (1958–present). It was blamed for both the loss of empire and the reduction of France to the status of an American puppet incapable of having its interests respected. Particularly important in this latter regard was the German problem (the status of a defeated Germany within Europe). The French were seen as having been forced to swallow the rehabilitation and rearmament of Germany in the 1950s despite their misgivings.

With the opening of crucial private paper collections and government archives in France to academic research, new works began to appear in the 1990s that challenged these earlier negative assessments of the Fourth Republic. In the first wave of this revisionism appeared the challenge to the view that France was simply an American puppet, shorn of independent initiative in the international arena. Instead, this wave of revisionism emphasized the indispensability of France to American Cold War plans and the leverage that this granted to the French in works like Irwin Wall’s The United States and the Making of Postwar France (1991). More recent works have endorsed even more enthusiastically the international policy of the Fourth Republic. William Hitchcock’s France Restored (1998) broke new ground by maintaining that far from being a pawn in the Cold War, the France of the Fourth Republic was a key player, largely responsible for the shape of the Western Europe that emerged in the 1950s.

A Question of Balance continues this trend of positive reassessment. The focus of this historic monograph revolves around the quarrel between the American and French governments over the rearmament and reintegration of West Germany into Western Europe in the 1950s. Only five short years after the end of the Second World War, with the Cold War reaching new heights of intensity following the beginning of the Korean War in June 1950, American secretary of state Dean Acheson proposed to his North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) partners that West Germany should contribute troops to the alliance. What followed is familiar in its broad outlines. A reluctant France countered in October 1950 with a plan for a supranational army that would ultimately morph into the European Defense Community (EDC). Despite having proposed this plan, after years of delay and indecision, the French National Assembly scuttled it in August 1954. Nonetheless, a few short months later the same national assembly endorsed the Paris Accords that permitted West Germany to supply troops to NATO.

Earlier historians have viewed this episode as a tale of French obstructionism that ultimately culminated in the triumph of the American policy priorities. Creswell, however, seeks to put to rest definitively the view that France was forced by the United States to accept German rearmament against its will. Instead, he is careful to point out that given the military imbalance between Soviet and NATO forces in Western Europe, France’s political and military leadership accepted the necessity of German rearmament. This was a dispute over its timing and character, not whether or not it should occur. Creswell persuasively argues that France’s political leadership succeeded in compelling the Truman and Eisenhower administrations to accept its preferences for German rearmament. French decision makers held out until the conditions emerged that allowed them to accept German rearmament on their terms. Crucially, these terms included long-term Anglo-American military commitments to continental Europe and the assurance that France would maintain the military lead over its neighbor thanks to a prohibition against German possession of nuclear weapons (p. 6).

In a remarkable demonstration of concision, the author weaves together the French, American, German, and British dimensions of this complex tale into a short book. The result is a work that should at last end the simplistic view that French leadership in the 1950s opposed German rearmament all together and that French policy must be understood simply as a series of intricate maneuvers to avoid the inevitable. Instead, Creswell shows us that the French German policy was far more realistic, sophisticated, and ultimately successful than earlier works have argued.

One does wonder, however, if Creswell overstates the triumph achieved by the Fourth Republic’s international policy with the Paris Accords and the Western European Union. It is true that the French succeeded in delaying German rearmament until both its timing and its nature seemed more appropriate to the French—although more by fumbling than by conscious design. Nonetheless, one of the central dilemmas of French defence policy remained unresolved: the balancing of its European and overseas interests. As the author ably demonstrates, the French state’s ability to ensure its military superiority over a rearmed Germany and thus remain the backbone of NATO forces in Europe (with all the political influence that would flow from such a position) was a central concern throughout the entire Pleven Plan-EDC episode. The inability to do so while the Indochina War dragged on was often at the heart of the reluctance of the military leadership to embrace these defense integration schemes. With the Paris Accords and the creation of the Western European Union, France at last agreed that Germany would be permitted to form 12 divisions. Yet with the outbreak of the Algerian War on the heels of the Indochina War, France’s ability to surpass this figure remained in jeopardy. Indeed, with French forces continuing to be diverted from Europe, the new Bundeswehr steadily replaced the French Army as NATO’s spearhead in Europe. Thus, at least in this one area, the timing of German rearmament still remained far from ideal for France.

The author draws his conclusions from an impressive archival foundation that runs to four pages in his bibliography. He has consulted all of the relevant government documents and private papers in France, the United States, Great Britain, Belgium, and Switzerland. This clearly written and exhaustively researched work clarifies the dizzyingly complex EDC affair. It is to be highly recommended to those interested in the early years of NATO and the European integration as well as American and French military and Cold War strategy in the 1950s. It shows that gone forever are the days in which Cold War Europe can be understood simply in terms of American designs and European resistance.

Mark Thompson

Stephens College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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