Think Global, Fight Local: The French Army, the Algerian War, and the Origins of Cold War Counterinsurgency, 1954–62

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 10:50 AM
Room 401 (Colorado Convention Center)
Terrence Gordon Peterson, Florida International University
As French Algeria slipped into a violent eight-year war that ultimately led to its independence, French generals, officers, and policymakers sought to explain the ‘rising tide’ of decolonization that engulfed their empire from Indochina to North Africa.  The Cold War provided a convincing lens.  Historians often interpret French actions in Algeria as the product of dynamics internal to the colonial context, and international observers at the time frequently dismissed French Cold War claims as simple pandering.  But French authorities themselves located the roots of the Algerian War in the broader economic, cultural, and political shifts shaping the postwar world.  French military leaders viewed the conflict in Algeria as a ‘hot’ front of the global Cold War, and sought to systematically frame their own war effort in the language of this ideological contest.  While such efforts reveal the depths to which French authorities fundamentally misunderstood the nature and objectives of anticolonial nationalism in Algeria, this paper argues that they also reveal a key process in the construction of the postcolonial international order.  French efforts ultimately failed as Algeria won its independence in March 1962, but the new practices of “counter-subversive” – or later, “counter-insurgent” – warfare that French military commanders elaborated in Algeria helped to forge a new paradigm of military action embraced by states across the Cold War world.  French military leaders actively sought to promote their doctrines to nations like the United States, Great Britain, Portugal, Argentina, and even Iran.  And they largely succeed because they framed counterinsurgency as bulwark against the social disorder caused by changing mores, new mass medias, and Communist infiltration.  The Cold War did not drive the Algerian War, but French commanders believed it did and sought to account for it.  In the process, they devised new norms of intervention in the emerging Third World.