It's interesting to play the counterfacutal game-would history have gone the same way if X hadn't happened. Like the counterfacutal would there have been a Great Depression if Benjamin Strong had lived? Milton Friedman believed no.
I wrote a recent post about the question of whether there would have been the Cold War if FDR had lived.
My conclusion I drew was no. For the most part it seems unlikely that the answer to these kinds of questions are yes.
It's extremely hard to prove a counterfactual of any kind-if it were easy it would be easy to make a killing in the equity or commodities market for example.
However, as I was thinking about WWII and then the Cold War, it occurred to me that there is one counterfactual that does seem pretty strong. If de Gaulle hadn't lived maybe France would never have made it. It's hard to imagine just how important he was to the postwar development of France into a strong, wealthy First World country.
Obviously to start with he was so important to French morale during the shameful Vichy regime. Yet what's interesting is that he was needed by France just as much in 1957 as the country stood on the edge of chaos and anarchy.
It's hard to believe now-as France has become one of the most politically stable and strongest countries in the world right up there with the US, Britain, and Germany-of course Germany took a long time to get here too.
But what is striking about France is that since the Jacobin Revolution, France had been until 1957 an unstable country always hanging by a thread, that had seen 4 different republics, 3 different Napoleons, been overrun by Germany three times over 70 years, including the last time of being collaborationist with Hitler-then of course there is the interesting episode of the Paris Commune.
Compare this with the health of say Britain-it's Great Compromise worked, that much is clear. The nation itself was never threatened with destruction from within at least-of course it was threatened from without in WWII.
And de Gaulle was the man to somehow bring France that was always at the point of dissolution back. De Gaulle in 1957 more or less seized power though he did has always make sure to put it up for referendum. By taking on emergency powers he was able to shutdown the chaos in the country. And it worked. While he finally had to step down in 1968 as his popularity had waned, he is the reason we see a stable, strong France today.
In WWII FDR was never a fan of his. He got on Churchill's nerves too. Churchill was a little more understanding as he understood just how painful the specter of a prostrate France was for de Gaulle. De Gaulle could be a pest. He never could show the US and Britain the gratitude they deserved. But of course the US has so little history of losing, of being defeated. We don't know what that's like. Our history is mostly success after success. The last time our very nation was threatened was the Civil War-destruction from within. Britian understood France a little better as the British who had been the great world power for so long had by now become a second rate power-hard as this was to face. So they could sympathize a little more with France.
But of course the one time when FDR truly got inflexible-when he refused to recognize de Gaulle for a long time before finally giving in, he was wrong. It's like the idea of France was locked up in one man. If the idea of the nation is held to be something abstract and insubstantial, de Gaulle belied this belief. There's a sense that de Gaulle in his very corporeal presence was France and France was de Gaulle.