John F. Kennedy on the Algerian crisis

President John F. Kennedy addressing a joint session of the Congress on May 25, 1961. (NASA/Wikimedia Commons)

Editors' Note: In this article from the Oct. 5, 1957, issue of America, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts revisits a speech he gave on July 2, 1957, on the floor of the Senate, on the political situation in Algeria.

On September 17 the regular session of the United Nations General Assembly convened in New York. On September 24 a special session of the French Parliament assembled in Paris. The convergence of these two events is not accidental. They both denote a mounting world concern for a solution to the Algerian impasse.

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The imperatives of Western unity and the need to sustain Western influence in the uncommitted areas of the world make the Algerian question one of the pivotal issues in world politics and in the balance of world power. For Algeria, far from being an isolated segment of the African continent or a political byway, is pulsating from cross-pressures and influences which have their source in France, within the Nato alliance, in free Africa and especially among the neighboring states of Tunisia and Morocco. It is a melancholy fact that the failure to find a tolerable settlement in Algeria seriously erodes the possibilities for a westward bent in all of the newly freed states of Africa.

"The imperatives of Western unity and the need to sustain Western influence in the uncommitted areas of the world make the Algerian question one of the pivotal issues in world politics and in the balance of world power."

Some Independence Imperative

On July 2, I spoke on the floor of the Senate in order to try to help clarify for American opinion the situation in Algeria and to heighten American awareness of the serious dangers lurking for the West in the paralyzing rebellion in Algeria. It was my view that a durable settlement could be achieved only by adopting a course which would, within the measurable future, lead to Algerian independence, preferably within a federative or interdependent framework. I expressed the view that the mediatory offices of Nato or the heads of state of Tunisia and Morocco might provide the mechanism by which such a program and timetable could be worked out. If such lines of effort were fruitless, I thought that the United Nations was entitled to discuss the issue, explore methods of mediation and recommend a solution.

In my judgment the United Nations as a body does not provide the ideal forum for achieving a solution, and there is no question that a settlement achieved by direct negotiations or mediation is far preferable, but neither can we foreclose international discussion when an issue such as this, whose effects are felt in many spheres which spill well beyond the borders of France, is placed on the UN agenda. It was clear already in July that the matter would come before the next Assembly and that the United States would have to develop a position more realistic than our old formula of “neutrality.” Our neutrality, we like to believe, signifies a benign attitude, but its surface appearance of tidy order and antisepsis in reality masks an attitude with consequences quite as positive as direct action itself.

This speech aroused a wide response both in this country and abroad. Individual letters were heavily favorable, while editorial reaction and mail from France were much more unfavorable and hostile. I did, however, receive a number of messages from Frenchmen who agreed with my position and who represented some of the noticeable dissatisfaction among independent leaders of French opinion with the drift and stagnation of French policy in Algeria—at the very time when that country is moving forward on many promising domestic programs, as well as on new political schemes in French West Africa and in Western Europe.

"My critics have likened those who speak on the Algerian issue to intruders into an intimate family difficulty or to heedless meddlers."

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In this article I should like to take account of some of the recurrent criticisms that have been made of my remarks and to measure briefly the chances of a settlement arising from the deliberations both of the General Assembly and the French National Assembly.

There is, of course, no arguing with those who feel that to discuss the Algerian question in other than the clichés of official French policy is to commit a moral outrage or to touch national nerves which are far too raw for foreign observation. My critics have likened those who speak on the Algerian issue to intruders into an intimate family difficulty or to heedless meddlers. But little removed from this position is that of those who argue that the overriding compulsions of loyalty to the Nato alliance and to our oldest ally, France, prohibit the ventilation of any situation that has its domestic roots in France. This is an extraordinarily quaint and archaic view of an alliance whose very conception was based on the hope that problems could be shared, consultation encouraged and broader solutions thus achieved.

The most common criticism leveled against my address, most notably by Robert Lacoste, French Resident-General in Algeria, and in the French popular press, is that the Algerian question pales in importance when viewed against our own problems in race relations with American Indians and in Puerto Rico. I am in entire agreement with the belief that a failure to achieve a peaceful accommodation of our race problems in the South and elsewhere in the United States is exceedingly damaging to our international position as well as to the fabric of our own national life. It is perfectly true that progress thus far made is insufficient and needs continuous improvement and extension. On the other hand, most responsible leaders in our national life are quick to recognize the problem, do not consider the open discussion and criticism of current policies as either treasonable or dangerously divisive, and have not shut their minds and eyes to the injustices that have been and are being committed. Having concern for international issues does not prevent us from seeing the flaws in our domestic life.

Why the French insistently allude to the American Indian is puzzling, because they are badly mistaken if they believe that our widely acknowledged cruelties to the Indian in past centuries represent the prevailing temper and ethos of American opinion. Do the French believe that they are entitled to a similar blood bath in the 20th century? As for Puerto Rico, its current condition seems to yield a different moral from the one the French would draw. We see in Puerto Rico what a timely grant of broad political freedoms combined with a program of economic development can achieve: not anarchy, widespread terrorism or social disintegration—as French publicists maintain—but a commonwealth which voluntarily eschewed complete independence but which enjoys extensive autonomy, all basic political rights, vigorous and farsighted leadership, and one of the most genuinely popular and broad-based governments in the world. Perhaps it is our very success in Puerto Rico that encourages many Americans to believe that Algeria, too, can sustain a more generous grant of political freedom.

The most common criticism leveled against my address... is that the Algerian question pales in importance when viewed against our own problems in race relations with American Indians and in Puerto Rico.

No Need for Fatalism

Another critique, which is hard to answer and which typifies much half-articulate French opinion, is best represented in two recent editorials about Algeria in the American press. One such newspaper, whose reportorial columns furnished a good bit of the factual evidence I introduced in my speech, editorially adopts a position of almost passive fatalism, arguing that events must run their natural course and that as Americans we must look on sympathetically while fate makes its decrees in the tragic dilemma of the French. Presumably American opinion is to act the part of the chorus in the Greek tragedies. Or, more whimsically, we are to adopt the old view, attributed to the Austrians, that the national situation is “hopeless but not serious.”

It is, of course, the never-ending refrain that Algeria is a wholly “internal” French question which makes futile so much discussion about Algeria and obscures possible paths of solution. It has been French policy to set up a series of more and more threatening “No Trespass!” signs. In more recent months these have been reinforced by a long line of “Danger—High Explosives!” signs, as if to indicate that any foreign comment critical of the French only invites new waves of terrorism, opens the floodgates of communism and toxic pan-Arabism, and permits the destruction of France itself.

My speech recognized the fact that Algeria is an unusually complicated and ambiguous colonial issue and that the merits of the case are not entirely clear-cut. I noted that a relatively large number of Frenchmen have long resided in Algeria, that there are exciting horizons of new economic development of oil and minerals in Algeria, that there are important racial cleavages. No simple slogan or formula will provide a facile solution, and perfect justice in the dispute is impossible to obtain.

"No simple slogan or formula will provide a facile solution, and perfect justice in the dispute is impossible to obtain."

The French in Algeria

Without question the most difficult barrier to settlement is set by the million French citizens, less than half of whom are of French blood, who constitute permanent settlers and citizens in Algeria. Obviously their claims deserve recognition. But it is also these very settlers who have achieved for themselves a greatly preferred position in Algeria, who have held effective veto rights in the National Assembly and in the Residency-General, who have an economic grip on Algeria and who have choked off in every way oportunities for political participation and leadership—and even education—among the Muslim community. Algerian nationalism, which is now a political fact of life and not just the slogan of a small core of bandits or foreign agents, is more than anything the creation of the myopic and self-centered policies which the French community in Algeria has imposed.

Undoubtedly, there were occasions, even in the recent past, where enlightened rule in Algeria might have made it genuinely a part of France if there had been created a common spectrum of rights and opportunities. But the French failed to act on their own best proposals and recoiled from the consequences of their own theoretical image of Algeria as an organic part of the French nation. Even the very limited promises of the Statute of 1947 have never been fulfilled. In the last three years Muslim opinion has shifted markedly and decisively away from French rule, so that many of the cords of common interest have been snapped. It is the unbroken French political intransigence of the past that makes it so difficult to suppress skepticism about the “moderate” reforms which are in the air now as we approach harvest season in the UN.

Though the French community in Algeria is not wholly composed of “irreconcilables”—the distinguished mayor of Algiers, Jacques Chevallier, is a notable exception—the fact remains that its dominant voice and influence is tough, hard and unyielding. The press in Algeria is viciously distorted, while in France itself there have been repeated Government efforts in the past months to muzzle criticism about Algeria and bleach out frank reporting about North Africa. At the last meeting of the International Press Institute, the French Government was condemned for its repeated suppressions of press freedoms under the cloak of security and national interest. Fortunately this French version of “jamming” has not succeeded in hiding the hard truths. Not only such independent papers as Le Monde and L’Express in France but other great international journals such as the New York Times, the Observer and the Economist in England, and the Neue Züricher Zeitung in Switzerland have not failed in their journalistic responsibilities. One wonders why the French Government has placed so many impediments in the way of those seeking the whereabouts of “missing” French liberals and the facts behind charges of torture. It is a sad fact that French extremists have generally enjoyed French police protection and have also had close liaison with the Residency-General. This is true even now under M. Lacoste, who came to Algiers heralded as the architect of new and definitive “liberal” solutions.

"In the last three years Muslim opinion has shifted markedly and decisively away from French rule, so that many of the cords of common interest have been snapped."

Communism a Threat?

The most important criticism of my position is certainly the honest view held by many people that to loosen French control in Algeria would make that country a victim of either Communist or extremist Arab leadership and would turn it into an arena of uncontrollable terrorism and anarchy. I must say that I share the fear of these critics; I differ with them, however, in the view that the continuance of present policy better insulates Algeria from these dangers. Algerian leadership has also become more intransigent, but even now it still looks largely to the West and to such men as Premier Habib Bourguiba, who wishes to give all of French North Africa a Western cast. The longer legitimate Algerian aspirations are suppressed, the greater becomes the danger of a reactionary or Communist takeover in all of Africa. For not only is the Algerian War terribly damaging to the French economy and to the hopes for an effective exploitation of Saharan wealth; it also is driving further wedges between France and the newly independent countries of Tunisia and Morocco. Moreover, such an impasse as that in Algeria makes it very difficult for the United States and its allies to mobilize opinion in the uncommitted world against the greater imperialist outrages of the Soviet Union in East Europe.

The discussions now taking place in France regarding a new statute for Algeria at least indicate that somewhat cooler and more reasonable voices are now being heard in the French Cabinet, though even these may be outnumbered from right and left. At this writing and before the meeting of Parliament, it is impossible to pass final judgment on the proposals. But from the few newspaper stories, some of which appear to be semi-authoritative, one can at least raise certain questions.

If the French are seeking only a written formula which will obtain for them the requisite number of UN votes this year, then their new plans will not receive—nor deserve—the Algerian and North African assent they require to be effective.

Taken narrowly, the present proposals do not seem to achieve very much more than was intended by the Statute of 1947. If the new statute merely gives a little more decentralization, then it reaches none of the real problems in Algeria. However, there appear to be a few members of the French Cabinet and some members of the MRP who favor a statute that would provide a considerable measure of federal autonomy. These proposals may be sufficient to provide a basis of negotiation and settlement. Whether they will do so depends, however, on whether the new statute is provisional—a step on the road to eventual self-government—or whether it constitutes a final offer and settlement. Beyond this, we do not now know whether this statute or any part of it is to be negotiable with Algerian leaders, nor how extensive the “reserve” powers maintained by the French Government will be. A complete estimate of the French proposals, therefore, cannot be made before the final text is published. Moreover, what type of defense will they be given in Parliament? Will the French Government still regard Algeria as permanently an “internal” part of France? These questions cannot be answered yet.

Much, too, will depend on the reaction of, and French Government counterresponse to, the colons in Algeria, who have scuttled so many previous plans and punctured so many other trial balloons. If the French are seeking only a written formula which will obtain for them the requisite number of UN votes this year, then their new plans will not receive—nor deserve—the Algerian and North African assent they require to be effective. Nor, in my judgment, should they receive the support of the United States delegation at the General Assembly. If, however, we can be satisfied that the French are providing more than a unilateral imposition of meaningless terms and are beginning visible and sustained progress toward a form of political independence for Algeria, then we should respond favorably. But we must be careful that we are getting substance as well as form in any fresh plans, especially in view of the general French response these past few days to the very limited plans for greater local control.

As I stated on July 2, the reverberations of the Algerian crisis touch the most vital interests of all the free world—Nato, the emergent proposals for a common market for Europe, Euratom and the precarious growth of the new states of Africa. All of these great enterprises and visions will, I fear, come to nothing if we cannot close the Algerian wound. It is idle, for example, to talk of Saharan development so long as there is political instability such as now exists in French North Africa.

I am convinced that the true interests of Franco-American friendship will be promoted by a resolution of the Algerian crisis. Neither France nor the Atlantic Alliance can afford another Indo-China. It is not a sentimental and dogmatic anticolonialism, but the harsh realities of the world we live in, which call on all nations to help in the search for an Algerian solution.

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