The Making of Yesterday: The Diary of Raoul De Roussy De Sales
AUGUST 8, 1942. — Elmer Davis, head of the Office of War Information, has put out a statement which is the first decent declaration of its sort made by any country since the start of the war. Elmer Davis tells the truth, emphasizes the insufficiency of the war effort made so far, declares that America’s allies have been doing most of the fighting, states that the promises made to them have not always been kept, and concludes by saying that the war may be lost. The style is excellent — plain, realistic, and lacking dramatic effects.
The British don’t appear to be intimidated by Gandhi’s threat of rebellion, but I fail to see what they can do from a practical standpoint to avoid it. What the Americans should do is to side openly with the British, even if they think the latter could have avoided the present situation — for, after all, the idea is to win the war; but most probably they will have too many scruples to do anything of the kind. They will want to stay out so as to be in a position from which to judge the matter impartially. It would be a fine gesture for the Americans to get up their courage and say to the British: “We don’t care whether you’re right or wrong; you’re our allies, and therefore we’re on your side.” On that day, victory won’t be far off.
August 18. — It is announced that Churchill has just spent a few days in Moscow. The Germans had already revealed the news. A communiqué, which tells nothing, gives an account of the interview, saying that the visit came to an end with a large banquet during which many jokes were made and much gayety reigned. From this, the Herald Tribune concludes that, in spite of the undeniable gravity of the Russian situation, it cannot be desperate since there is so much gayety in Moscow. In the meantime, the Germans are still advancing through the Caucasus and toward the Caspian, but people have stopped being alarmed over what seems inevitable.
Churchill’s visit to Moscow has put a little new life into the futile debate on the second front, which had almost died from lack of sustenance; but the other great debate, the problem of India, is still in the foreground. The papers continue to publish letters on the subject; Norman Thomas has been to see Roosevelt to ask him to intervene; hundreds more individuals and groups are having their say.
Americans, even the most well-intentioned and most intelligent, will never understand that their worst national fault is this irresistible need they have to interfere in the affairs of other people in the interests of a morality which they deem irrefutable for the sole reason that it is their own. For a people to consider themselves the custodians of a superior morality is less dangerous than for them to believe they are a superior race, like the Germans, but it is no less annoying.
August 20. — A very big commando raid on Dieppe yesterday, in which English, Canadians, Americans, and French participated. The Allies were on shore for nine hours. Their losses are sure to be enormous. The Germans have made mention of 1500 prisoners. Whatever the practical results, the psychological effect is tremendous and so far very good. The Allies have taken the offensive on a large scale; they have accepted heavy sacrifices; they have set foot on French soil — which the Germans had declared to be impossible. The general effect is undeniably bracing to morale.
August 21. — Nothing is so fascinating as ideological and political constellations, in which groups that are often very far apart on the surface involuntarily come together and revolve about certain poles. Despite the war, reactionism is still in force. The Democratic Convention in New York has nominated as its candidate for the post of governor a certain Bennett, whose rival was a certain Senator Mead. Both are unknown; but the real struggle was between Jim Farley, supporting Bennett, and Roosevelt, supporting Mead. The President was defeated. The Republicans are rejoicing at this dissension in the opposite camp; but then, so are a great many Democrats.
The general approval of F.D.R.’s foreign policy does not prevent a growing hostility to his domestic policy. Farley, whom I know slightly, is an excellent vote-getter. In his day, he did a wonderful job of helping Roosevelt, but without giving a thought to the New Deal or to what it was. He would have served F.D.R. as faithfully if the latter’s program included the re-establishment of slavery. But because he is against F.D.R. and came out on top in this political affair, people are happy. This probably has no importance, except as a symptom.
August 23. — The Last Time I Saw Paris, by Elliot Paul. This book has been a best-seller for several months, but I didn’t want to read it. Curiosity and lack of anything better to do made me change my mind. I found that my suspicions were well founded. This book lives up to all the assurances that its title, its locale (the rue de la Huchette), and its publicity contained. In spite of all this, I don’t see why it became a best-seller. Is it because of the sentimentality evoked by the name of France, or because brothels and prostitutes play such a prominent role in it? Is it because it contains so many scenes that the average American reader considers spicy and therefore “very French”? The author uses the rue de la Huchette, where he claims to have lived sixteen or eighteen years (already a bad sign), as a miniature representation of Paris, of France, and of civilization in general.
But the sad thing about it is that the rue de la Huchette is neither France, nor Paris, nor even the Left Bank, but merely the rue de la Huchette. Elliot Paul loves France, or at least the rue de la Huchette, with that romantic passion for the picturesque which Americans restored to a world that had practically given up the romantic and the picturesque for the last sixty years or so. It’s queer that France has preserved this picturesque attraction for strangers — particularly Americans — while England, for instance, has none at all. A wine seller, a concierge, or a prostitute in Paris is still vividly characteristic to Americans, while their counterparts in England are lifeless and colorless.
American reporters perform a dual role in the world today: they are the retailers of news (which is their profession), but they are also popular bards. It is they who have created Henry Wallace’s Common Man and, in so far as it has any, the poetry of this war.
Although Elliot Paul spent eighteen years in the rue de la Huchette, he writes “Penses-toi” instead of “Penses-tu” and confuses the Bourse du Travail with the Bourse. It will always be a mystery to me why writers who quote in a foreign language don’t at least take the precaution to have their quotations checked by a native of that country, but apparently this is impossible.
The enormous success this book has had is depressing, for if that is the general picture of France entertained over here, what’s the good of perpetuating the misunderstanding by saving the country from its present state of slavery?
August 24. — Chance discoveries are the most precious of all, especially when they serve to reveal a bit of the truth. In fact, save for certain instances when happiness is the by-product of a disinterested piece of work or research, it exists in its purest form only on those rare occasions where intelligence illuminates an obscure problem. It matters little whether or not this process be an illusion. The important thing is not, perhaps, to understand, but to convince oneself that one has understood, to find a key that fits the lock.
All this is to lead up to the fact that yesterday, being short of reading matter, Reine was looking in the dusty tomb that is the library in this house and found a small book of Henry James’s, A Little Tour in France, which I had never seen before. This book makes no pretensions. It’s merely the account of a short trip to France that Henry James made barely sixty years ago. Obviously at that time tourists confined themselves to the vicinity of Paris and never visited the provinces in France. Italy w as the fashionable place, and James frequently reveals his own inclination to compare what he sees in France with Italy.
According to James, it seems that provincial hotels and inns were in general bad and often very dirty. The famous French cooking which was later to throw American and other tourists (as well as the French themselves) into such ecstasies was not yet in existence, unless James failed to notice it. In Bordeaux, for instance, he found neither a restaurant nor a hotel that was passable. At Narbonne, in a hotel unpleasantly full of a horde of commercial travelers and winegrowers, he is served “a horrible mixture known as a gras-double, a light gray, glutinous, nauseating mess, which my companions devoured in large quantities.”
But James does not travel for the sake of food. He merely wanders from one town to another, without getting off the beaten track. He describes the more celebrated monuments and sites: the House of Tristan the Hermit, the Castles of the Loire, the Maison Carrée, the Pont du Gard, and so forth. It’s the book of a refined tourist, too nonchalant to display his erudition but also possessing too sure a taste for the reader to forget for a single instant that this stroller is an exceptional person.
But to return to the “discovery” made by reading this book. Whereas I had been depressed and disheartened by The Last Time I Saw Paris, certain passages in this little book of James’s cheered me and left me positively enthusiastic; while Elliot Paul’s book seemed to me artificial, absurd, and grotesque, that of the author of Daisy Miller seemed accurate and truthful. And yet Elliot Paul’s ambition was to make France and the French come to life by placing before the reader what he believed to be a realistic setting of a group of people in the rue de la Huchette, while James is utterly unconcerned with bringing anything to life.
And yet James’s book, unimportant as it is and so far removed from today (1882 is a long time ago), gave me a more intense feeling of reality and truth about France and the people than all the books written about France and her fall during the last two years. In describing the cathedral at Tours as it appeared to him sixty years ago, and without saying a word about Tourangeaux, James manages to give a vivid impression of life in France.
And here enters the discovery which made me happy for a whole day. A tremendous proportion of present-day literature is based on journalism, on the dual method of reporting and interviewing. There is certainly a wide gap between Elliot Paul and Hemingway; but after all, both are doing reporting. They try to seize reality by the horns, making use of what they call “human interest.” They believe that by making real people live and breathe in their books, they will arrive at general truths.
Paul and Hemingway interviewed their characters and then wrote books. But the results are absurd, as proved in the negative by James’s little book, which is exactly the opposite of journalism and reporting, James purposely ignores the thousands of insignificant individuals he encounters, specimens of the Common Man, 1882 model, as colorless and preposterous as their successors of 1942.
But when James describes cathedrals, castles, and towns, he is showing what innumerable generations of average Frenchmen have created. Through their works, as well as through the countryside in which they live, he makes them real and important. He gives them a significance that is completely absent from the newspaper books, which detach these same people from their surroundings and, for the sake of the picturesque and human interest, show merely what is sordid, empty, and desperately tiresome in the life of some individual at some time or other.
Thus, it seems to me that we are suffering (among other evils) from a confusion of styles. Because journalism has acquired a tremendous role in life, it has been accepted as a sort of criterion for all literature. If reporters had stayed where they belonged, only half the harm would have been done, but they eventually came to exert a kind of hegemony in literature as in politics and even in philosophy. (In so far as I am a reporter, there was no excuse for my writing a book like The Making of Tomorrow and for its having had a modicum of success.)
The excellent technique of correspondents and columnists in America and the wide field of their activities have completely addled the judgment of the critics and readers. To produce a book, it’s not enough to write a number of words, have them printed, and sell them in the shape of something designated by the name of “book.” Not every book can be immortal, but it should be able to last longer than twenty-four hours. By becoming as ephemeral as a newspaper article, it loses all meaning. James’s little book is still a book after sixty years. The Age of the Common Man will have the literature that suits it — the literature of rewrite men.
August 26. — For some time Churchill has been appearing in the most fantastic garments, whose psychological significance I am unable to see, though I am certain they have one. When, at the age of sixty-eight, a great man exaggerates his penchant for extravagant dress, there is a meaning behind it, especially if the said great man is English — that is, naturally inclined to believe that eccentricity does not become an honest man.
Pictures have shown Churchill during his recent visit to Egypt, dressed in what he calls his “siren suit,” a kind of Stalinesque blouse, and wearing a ten-gallon hat. The effect was incongruous enough as it was. But here are some more details given by correspondents: sometimes (wrote Sedgwick of the Times, now in Cairo) he would appear “in the uniform of a commodore of the RAF. At another time he appeared with astonishing conventionality in a light gray suit, but his black tie hung loose from an extravagant collar reminiscent of the last century. On some occasions he carried a large white umbrella to shield him from the fierce glare of the noonday sun. Never was he without a cigar, lit or unlit, and never left any gathering without making the V sign with his two cigar-holding fingers, sometimes saying, ‘Great days are ahead’.”
August 28. — Willkie is going to visit England, Russia, China, and India, with the approval of Roosevelt and very likely on his account. This is really kind of Willkie, but I feel that it means his political suicide. It becomes more and more obvious that the Republican Party must necessarily take its stand on the coming liquidation. Whatever happens, victory or defeat, I believe that the democratic-fascist conflict will break out in America. It may be violent; certainly it will be dangerous.
August 29. — Latest folly of the war: Roosevelt announced a plan yesterday “to rehabilitate the art treasures, the manuscripts, literature, and famous buildings of Spain and to encourage the movement of tourists from the twenty-one American republics to Spain after the war.” This would depend on the maintenance of neutrality by the Spanish government.
Spain, as everyone knows, is in a chronic state of famine unequaled by any other nation in Europe. At least a third of the population is in prison. To speak of Franco’s “neutrality” is sheer nonsense. Franco is bound to the Axis with closer ties than even Pétain. Spanish railroads are to be repaired for post-war American tourists. Meanwhile, they can be used by German tourists. Who is crazy?
Item: A young Russian girl, who is supposed to have killed 309 Germans singlehanded, is in Washington, where she is regarded with a great deal of curiosity. She said, “Every German who remains alive will kill women, children, and old folks. Dead Germans are harmless.” People marvel at such talk, thinking, “ What savages these Russians really are!”
September 1. — The fourth year of the war begins today. It still doesn’t have a name. It has only a number — number 2.
Rommel has launched his attack on Egypt.
Stalingrad is still holding out, but it would be surprising if the Germans didn’t get to the Caspian before the snows. The Germans say that Europe’s true frontier is the Volga and that they have reached it.
There is rather confused fighting going on in the South Pacific. Great American victories are going up in smoke with a regularity that is becoming very peculiar. There is still fog (and Japanese) in the Aleutians.
September 4. — Franco has given the sack to Serrano Suner, his brother-in-law, who was Minister for Foreign Affairs and head of the Falange. Speaking of this action last night, Raymond Gram Swing said that it might signify a shift toward monarchy on the part of Spain, a strengthening of the army’s influence, and “consequently” the possibility of a rapprochement between Spain and the United Nations. I don’t know what’s going on in Spain, but no one can make me believe that the army is democratically inclined or that the presence of Don Juan on the throne would be any guaranty.
It’s curious to see — even in someone like Swing — the persistence of illusions and the stubborn refusal to acknowledge the revolutionary character of this so-called world war. Undoubtedly, it is possible that Franco may be slightly less tractable to the injunctions of Berlin and Rome today than he was a while ago, for reasons of political strategy, but these superficial variations clearly make very little difference. Franco is dependent for his existence on the Axis, or rather on the support of international fascism. Any other considerations are negligible.
People will say that this agreeable event (Suner’s dismissal) is the fruit of F.D.R.’s promises about the development of traveling facilities in Spain after the war. It will be said that Washington’s policy of appeasement is succeeding. I feel there is no connection between the two.
Yesterday Roosevelt delivered an address to international youth. He promised that this time they would not be let down after the war, that they would be given a new world, and so on. The terrible weakness of democracies and their leaders, starting with Roosevelt, lies in the contradictory course they pursue. On the one hand, they talk as though they really did accept the responsibility for creating a new world — that is for carrying out a revolution; and on the other, they act in accordance with worn-out methods (puerile political haggling, economic scheming designed to protect powerful interests, and so forth). In fact, of all the nations, America is the one that talks most about “revolution” and is the least ready to do anything about it.
Churchill is more precise and perhaps more honest. An unabashed conservative, imperialist, and traditionalist, he has confined himself to wanning the war. He is saving England from annihilation.
Roosevelt has other ambitions: he wants to make the peace and considers himself qualified to orientate the “revolutionary” forces. But the following problem arises: Doesn’t the very fact that America has no direct contact either with the war or with the revolutionary forces that originated the war — the very fact that she can allow herself the luxury of remaining conservative and even (since 1937) reactionary — disqualify her from finding the appropriate formulas? Secondly, isn’t Roosevelt, who is basically a “reconditioned” liberal, as it were, but who is still imbued with traditionally American ideas concerning property, private initiative, America’s mission, and so on — isn’t he led astray by his own intelligence? He has seen certain dangers more clearly than others. But there is no reason to believe that he sees the remedies.
September 6. — Comics. I read a ridiculous article in the Atlantic about the “problem” of comics. Is this type of literature dangerous for children or harmless? — and so forth. As a matter of fact, the problem of comics, if there is a problem, has nothing to do with children. Whether children read them or not seems to me as immaterial as the fact that I used to read Buffalo Bill or Nick Carter at the same age. What’s interesting is that grownups read this nonsense as well. In fact, I suspect that the comics are written consciously for them, far more than for children (there’s no other way to account for a certain brand of pornography often to be found in them).
Superman and the adventures of Orphan Annie have become a part of the life of this country. There is a druglike quality about them. All this enters into the category of pleasures and vices of the Common Man, for whose eventual triumph we’re fighting this war.
September 18. — Both in England and here there are a number of pro-Russian fanatics who regard Stalin as an omniscient sage and Soviet Russia as a paradise, but these fanatics are neither numerous enough nor influential enough to do anything. Perhaps the Russians want to put some of the responsibility for their defeat on the democracies, in order to conciliate public opinion (so far as it exists). And it is undoubtedly true that the democracies are greatly to blame for the ills of the entire world during the last three years. But no more so than the Russians themselves, who, by their alliance with Hitler in August, 1939, made the war possible.
A number of people apologize for Stalin by claiming that his completely justified lack of confidence in Chamberlain, Bonnet, and the others explains his alliance with Hitler in 1939. This may explain it, but doesn’t justify it. What’s happening to Russia now proves that Stalin made a terrible mistake, and if that was the result of his distrust of the capitalist states three years ago, it’s not a happy precedent. In fact, the present mania for crediting the Russians with all sorts of wisdom is absolute nonsense. The Russians are just as stupid as we are, which is saying a lot. Their unhealthy distrust is a sign either of weakness or of stupidity. By spreading the argument that the democracies are betraying Russia because they don’t open a second front, the Russians are only playing into the hands of Germany.
September 23. — I have just reread a large part of this diary, which I started on March 15, 1938 (Anschluss). The following are my impressions: —
1. All this is useless. Even assuming that these random notes have a certain documentary interest, they cannot see the light of day for some time, probably not while I am alive.
2. In many cases, they have already become hard to understand because the events I refer to are now forgotten or confused. I forgot to save important quotations been use I apparently thought that, being of importance to the age, they would endure. But almost nothing has endured. Roosevelt’s speeches, for instance, which I analyzed, I have either forgotten or mixed up in my mind.
3. At least half the time, my appraisal of events was wrong, and I came across colossal errors in judgment which today I don’t see how I could have made.
4. My chief fault lies in an almost superstitious excess of pessimism. For instance, when the Germans attacked the Russians in June, 1941, I thought that Hitler would succeed in upsetting the ideological front on this side. He probably managed to delay the entry of the United States into the war (and even that hasn’t been proved), but I didn’t foresee, for instance, that the British public would become so violently pro-Russian as it appears to be, or that Tom Lament would write to the Times in praise of Moscow. I was also mistaken about the chances of a German victory. A long time ago, according to me, they should have gained possession of the Mediterranean and the Near East. But they’re still stopped at El Alamein and at Stalingrad. I made many other mistakes like this.
5. I have been unfair to the United States and to France, but especially to the United States, in the sense that I have fallen into the error of saying: America is hypocritical, America is shirking, America is afraid, and so on. This tendency to personify a nation is stupid. Everybody has done the same thing, but that’s no excuse. I should say: “There are Americans who . . .” and then specify them.
6. Finally, the fact that, in spite of my skepticism about the Allied cause, I have been violently partisan (in the sense that nothing under the sun can make me accept or even tolerate contrary opinions) lends to everything I write an elusive, contradictory, and often even insincere quality.
In that case, why go on with it? I don’t know why, but I shall probably keep on writing.
September 26. — French nationalism. My opinion of this is approximately the following — and naturally I can only theorize. It is probable that the defeat, together with Pétain’s philosophy, has in fact imbued the French with a feeling of despair analogous to that which Hitler has exploited in the Germans. The day will come when people will say that we didn’t lose the war. Pétain tried to keep a tight rein on this feeling, bound up with the armistice and a waiting policy of “restoration and expiation.” But Laval’s intrusion on the scene, which tended to make collaboration more positive, discredited Petain without destroying the sentiments he created and exploited. In other words, what has been called Pétain mysticism is an unhealthy form of nationalism. Thus, there has been a realignment of forces, a shift toward de Gaulle, in whom both the chauvinistic tendencies and “Pétain mysticism” have been centered.
France’s misfortune (among others) lies in the fact that the man who, on June 18, 1940, told her she was not yet dead wore a kepi instead of a felt hat. Oak leaves and stars may crown a career; but they are not seeds. Nothing has ever sprouted from a general.
September 30. — Second front. Willkie’s statement that certain military leaders here and in England “needed prodding” has started a controversy. Maybe he’s right. Nothing to date has proved that the military leaders in this war have used much foresight, but we are nonetheless obliged to rely on them. One inconvenience of war is that it is carried on by soldiers.
October 2. — Hitler apparently considers the Volga as the limit of his conquests (Lebensraum), and shows by implication that he intends to annex all the land and all the populations of this region. It’s a far cry from the period when Hitler was waging war to liberate the oppressed Germans. He is now waging war to unite Europe under his protection. It’s not a new dream. Others have tried it and failed, but in spite of current predictions, this doesn’t prove that fascist principles and a fascist order won’t reign in Europe for some time to come.
October 5. — Dorothy Thompson still believes that the surest means of winning the war, if not the only one, is to shower propaganda on the Germans. “I know my Germans,” she says. Her thoughts are not clear. She is against any attempt to break Germany up into pieces, against any “humiliating” peace, yet she admits that Germany must be made to feel what war is. She’s convinced that the Germans are anti-Nazi and that they must be softened by attractive peace proposals.
I certainly see no harm in discussing the terms of the peace, except that nothing seems to me to be more futile. Dorothy grieves because we have no war aims. I think it’s natural that we don’t. The time isn’t ripe yet. Perhaps it will never be ripe and the war will come to an end with the Allies unable to agree on why it was fought or on how to make the peace. Now that the war is “global ” and that it embraces problems like India and the Far East, I don’t see how we could formulate a set of guiding principles that would apply everywhere. In other words, we’re not going to fall back on Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which are still an obsession with many people, as is everything else connected with the last war.
October 7. — If the Allies intended to aid enemy propaganda instead of combating it, they couldn’t do any better. Willkie’s statement in Chungking, coming after Stalin’s press interview, is an example of this incomprehensible sabotage. His statement contains several interesting remarks, notably his discovery that the Asiatic peoples and others are skeptical concerning the support of the democracies after the war. This doubt kills their enthusiasm for the war, says Willkie.
In this statement, there are attacks against the conduct of the war, the philosophy behind it, and so on. What must be the conclusion of the Chinese, the Russians, or even the British who read this sort of thing? Is Willkie the spokesman for Roosevelt, President of the United States, or isn’t he? Apparently not. But then, why does a country at war, like the United States, send an envoy trotting around the world to speak for the “loyal opposition ”? Which are they to believe? It’s not surprising that the Chinese and the others are skeptical about American intentions, as Willkie says, but he is the first to encourage such doubts. On the plea of being an honest man and saying whatever comes into his head, he confuses everything.
The task of F.D.R. and Churchill, who, in the final analysis, are responsible, is not facilitated by these vagaries.
(To be continued)