THE WAR WITHOUT A NAME: France in Algeria, 1954-1962 by John Talbott

THE WAR WITHOUT A NAME: France in Algeria, 1954-1962

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The French war against Algerian guerrillas was in many ways comparable to the American war against Vietnam in its national divisiveness, the one big difference being the presence of French settlers in Algeria. As the subtitle hints, Talbott (History, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara) focuses less on the minutiae of the war (detailed in Alistair Horne's A Savage War of Peace) than on its impact on French political life. After a summary chapter on French colonialism in Algeria--which, unlike other colonies, was considered a part of France itself--and the lingering impact of the French defeat in Indochina, Talbott is able to make some sense of Pierre Mendes-France's Algerian policies. A man of the left chosen Prime Minister in order to extricate France from Vietnam, Mendes was unable to see Algeria in similar terms; Algeria, in the words of then-Interior Minister Mitterrand, was France. Mendes began the dual policy of fighting the guerrillas and attempting to reform the countryside (modernization would supposedly still Algerian discontent) which continued to be French policy under his successor, socialist Guy Mollet. Talbott crisply recounts the process by which these men of good will--we would call them liberals--launched a course of action that came to involve torture, assassination, and all the other evils of counter-insurgency so familiar to Americans. The French army in Algeria, and the settlers, came close to provoking a civil war in France, while the government attempted to stifle dissent. Just why, at this point, de Gaulle assumed office with the support of the right and then pulled France out of Algeria is still unknown; Talbott sees him as a modernizer who never intended to keep Algeria French, but merely worked to stay in power until his opponents were defeated and French concessions to the Algerians became possible. Less familiar overall than the role of the right is the opposition from the left--particularly the role of the Catholic left in protesting the use of torture. Ending with the war's end, Talbott doesn't take the opportunity to generalize on post-Algerian France, where the scars of Algeria still show among the left. A solid, significant review of the political machinations of an ambiguous war.

Pub Date: Sept. 22nd, 1980
Publisher: Knopf