“A Greater and Better Humanity”: Memory and trails of De Gaulle

Like most cities, New York is awash with memorials which speak of civic, national and international memories of past conflicts. Yet, in writing a lecture, I enjoyed discovering more about a memorial on its outskirts which struck me as decidedly unusual.

I was writing a lecture about the aftermath of war, De Gaulle’s presidency, and the ways in which the legacies of conflict shaped diplomacy. As part of that, I looked up De Gaulle’s speech to the École Militaire in November 1959, in which he sets out a vision for French defence policy (you can find a transcript on this University of Perpignan site). When searching for that, however, I somehow found another result with an image linked from the Wikicommons without context which intrigued me. That led me on a bit of a hunt to find where the monument was sited.

As it turns out, the monument was located in Pelham village, Westchester County, just north of New York City. Just outside Pelham station, up Harmon Avenue, there is a memorial park dedicated to remembering the victims of the 9/11 attacks in New York. The park is bordered by marble benches inscribed with the names of 10 people from the local area who died in the World Trade Center attacks. The curious thing about the memorial, for me, was the quote featured on the marble plinth around which the benches are gathered. On it is a quote from someone who seems almost entirely unconnected to the tragedy (and one might have thought not the fondest in American hearts): “French general, writer and statesman” Charles de Gaulle.

“It is not tolerable, it is not possible, that from so much death, so much sacrifice and ruin, so much heroism, a greater and better humanity shall not emerge”

Charles de Gaulle
Image of the Pelham memorial. CC attribution: Anthony22 at en.wikipedia

I’d managed to find the location of the monument by searching for the text of the quote. Aside from a blog page of cake recipes (?!), I found a link to an article which profiled the park, describing its dedication in May 2007 and showing the same view as the Wikicommons picture. In addition, when searching for the text, I found a twitter post from 2018 by a Democratic New York Senator standing in front of another 9/11 memorial and using the same quote. After checking her profile, I spotted that she represented that area and had gone to High School nearby, and so was clearly acquainted with the same Pelham memorial.

Mystery solved, in part. The quote struck me as useful in the context of what I was writing a lecture about, but as the search had demonstrated, it wouldn’t be an easy one to corroborate (General De Gaulle not being widely renowned for his contributions to cake recipe blogs). I reasoned that this was likely a result of translation and so I tried various different formulations of the phrase in French paired with De Gaulle’s name as a search string. This took a good half hour or so of different combinations (an object lesson in the vagaries of translation). Eventually, I found it. Success!

The quote comes from an address General De Gaulle gave to the Ottawa parliament on 11 July 1944. The text of the speech is available on the Fondation De Gaulle website. The original quote in French reads:

« Car, si tant d’hommes et de femmes, dans le monde libre, ont volontiers souffert, combattu, travaillé, si tant de bons et braves soldats sont morts sans murmurer, si tant de villes et de villages se sont offerts en holocauste pour le salut commun, il ne serait pas tolérable, il ne serait même pas possible, qu’il ne sortît point de tant de deuils, de sacrifices et de ruines, un grand et large progrès humain. »[1]

[Text on memorial highlighted in bold – my emphasis]

It’s a good translation and a poignant quote. But how did it end up on a monument in New York? De Gaulle’s visit to the USA and Canada in July 1944 did take him through New York City[2] and there is some rare footage of him speaking English at the reception:

For me, this led to a tantalizing possibility. Did his 1944 visit to New York spark some longer legacy? He certainly hosted a widely attended reception at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. Raoul Aglion notes that De Gaulle’s reception “attracted a considerable crowd. Naturally all of De Gaulle’s supporters were present, as well as Giraud’s supporters, those who had been lukewarm, those who had been undecided, and finally, former Vichy supporters.”[3]

In a New Yorker article from July 1944, Mlle Laura Roth was interviewed about her experience of that visit. Roth was the secretary of M. Guérin de Beaumont, Agent General in New York for the French Committee of National Liberation. The article notes: “While de Gaulle was attending the reception to the Waldorf-Astoria, she was in his suite, on the forty-second floor, transcribing from his longhand the speech he was to deliver in Ottawa.” Afterwards, she dined with the General and was given a signed photo and Cross of Lorraine medallion.[4]

In investigating the memorial, I skimmed the minutes of the Board of Trustees of Pelham Village and then spoke to the former Mayor of Pelham – now the town historian – by email. He told me how the planning of the monument in 2005 had responded to the family wishes of those commemorated. Despite one family member suggesting a Churchill quote, it seems that the widow of one of those commemorated had suggested the quote from De Gaulle and it was then collectively agreed.

The time period makes the choice of France’s most famous President an odd one. In 2005, the diplomatic spat over the Iraq war was in recent memory: the well-publicized switch to “freedom fries”, and even the rather provocative cover of the New York Post featuring headstones in Normandy (which produced this Wall Street Journal article).[5]

For me, this leaves a mystery, perhaps not possible to solve given the recency of the history, the understandable sensitivity around the losses commemorated, and the often subtle ways in which memory reminds us of a phrase or idea long thought forgotten.

Did some member of New York’s diasporic French community or the ‘France Forever’ organisation follow news of his visit to Canada, retaining some sense of the General’s message? Was the speech widely reported in translation? What was connection to Westchester County? How did that message come to mind when the monument was planned, some 60 years or so later?

The answer to those questions, I’m afraid, is that I don’t know. It would be fascinating to find out, and to try and trace a personal legacy of this diplomatic visit. Famously, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Le Monde published an article on its front page that stated ‘Nous sommes tous Américains’. In that article, as in the quote cited on the memorial, the idea of “a new era” emerging is prominent.[6] Perhaps, then, in that corner of suburban New York, it is fitting that a man who famously claimed to be France is used to remember that national tragedy, and that his hope for human progress – “a greater and better humanity” – be a rallying call for our current era.

[1] ‘Discours prononcé devant le Parlement d’Ottawa, 11 juillet 1944’, Fondation Charles De Gaulle. Accessed at [https://www.charles-de-gaulle.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Discours-prononce-devant-le-Parlement-dOttawa.pdf] on 11/03/2021

[2] See Julian Jackson, A Certain Idea of France (Penguin, 2019), pp.320-323.

[3] R. Aglion, Roosevelt and Churchill (NY: Macmillan, 1988), p.180.

[4] ‘The Real De Gaulle’, New Yorker, 22/07/1944, pp.14-15. (Thanks to Aro Velmet for sending this article on to me!)

[5] J. Carreyrou, ‘U.S.-France Feud Over Iraq Stings Deeply in Normandy’, Wall Street Journal, 24 Feb 2003

[6] ‘Nous sommes tous Américains’, Le Monde, 13/09/2001.

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