Algeria’s Struggle for Independence
The modern-day People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria is now a proud, sovereign state in North Africa that readily influences the region. However, before 1962, Algeria had been a French colony, dating back to the French invasion of Algiers in 1830. Following a brutal conquest that some termed as genocide, France began a policy of “civilizing” their new North African colony. To help assimilate Algeria, the colony was administered as an integral part of France and thus split into three département of the nation. The motto of Algeria would soon be: L’Algerie c’est la France (Algeria is France).
Under this new administration, the French implemented new laws and policies that were aimed at “civilizing” the country. As a part of the département system, Algeria would have representatives in the French National Assembly. However, only Algerians who have accepted French law and rejected Sharia law were allowed to vote for these representatives, which caused problems as a high percentage of the Algerian populace was Muslim.
Eventually, these policies inevitably created an elite class that left out the natives and most of the populace. As time passed, a growing number of the Muslim populace became disillusioned with French rule and their lack of political and economic status in the colonial system. What began as a clamor for greater autonomy soon erupted into an all-out war for independence.
Beginning in 1954, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) waged war against France to gain their independence. The conflict was devastating enough to cause the collapse of the Fourth Republic in France and brought about its successor, the Fifth Republic, now headed by the WWII war hero Charles de Gaulle.
Now in charge, de Gaulle in 1962 held a referendum on Algerian self-determination, which was approved by the majority of the populace in both France and Algeria. Finally, on March 18, 1962, the Évian Accords were signed, ushering in a newly independent Algeria and thus ending the 8-year long Algerian War.
Wells Stabler was a political officer in Paris during the closing days of the Algerian War and witnessed an attempted coup d’état against President de Gaulle by French generals who opposed his Algerian policy. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in February 1991. Frank G. Wisner recounts his time as a junior officer in Algiers, Algeria right after Algerian independence and the chaos that had enveloped the country. He was interviewed by Richard L. Jackson beginning in March 1998.
Walter L. Cutler describes the difficulty of maintaining U.S.-Algerian relations after independence when he was a political officer in Algiers. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in July 2010. Philip Birnbaum was a Project Officer with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Algiers where he explains the difficulty of establishing an aid mission in a country with deep-seated suspicion of the West. He was interviewed by W. Haven North beginning in February 1996.
“These five generals and a good many of the units in Algeria turned against de Gaulle and rebelled against the central authority”
Wells Stabler, Political Officer, Embassy Paris, 1960-1965
STABLER: From the time I got there in 1960 and ’61, one of the major issues that de Gaulle had to deal with was this problem of Algeria. That had become an amazingly difficult thorn in the French side, the rebellion in Algeria, the inability of the French, in spite of large French forces, to bring it under control.
There were very strong feelings on the part of many Frenchmen that it must always be “Algerie Francaise.” Finally de Gaulle, recognizing that this was certainly not going to be resolved by force of arms, declared that he was going to leave Algeria for the Algerians.
He had gone down to Algeria at some point and had made a speech from a balcony and, of course he was rather good sometimes with conundrums and the famous statement he made as he addressed the crowd, mostly French settlers or “pieds noirs” [a person of European origin who lived in Algeria during French rule, especially one who returned to Europe after Algeria was granted independence] and said, “Je vous ai compris,” — I have understood you.
No one to this day really ever knew what he meant by that…I have understood that Algeria must remain French or I have understood that we aren’t going to win this one and Algeria will become independent?
As a result of all this tension, there was the famous revolt of the generals in Algeria in the early fall of 1961. This was a very serious matter because these five generals and a good many of the units in Algeria turned against de Gaulle and rebelled against the central authority.
That night Michel Debre , who was then the French Prime Minister – a Gaullist, of course, and a very faithful servant of de Gaulle – appeared on television…It was a wild appearance, he was unshaven…and he urged the citizens of Paris to go by whatever means, horseback, car, whatever, out to Orly and Le Bourget, the two big airports, to prevent the landing of the aircraft that was expected to bring troops from Algeria to seize power in Paris. It was a very tense moment.
I was in the Embassy and we heard noise of tanks coming across the Pont de la Concorde by the Assemblé Nationale on the Place de la Concorde . One really didn’t know at that point whether these were tanks of the forces loyal to the generals or what they were.
I think, if I recall correctly, the general view was that de Gaulle would probably carry the day because of his extreme basic popularity in France. While there were many Frenchmen who probably were — what they used to call “pieds noirs” in Algeria — or had served in Algeria and had strong feelings in that direction about Algeria, but they didn’t represent the majority of the French people.
I think most of us probably felt that it was most unlikely that the generals would carry the day and that de Gaulle would be successful in putting this down.
Everything happened very quickly. Everything was over very quickly. The tense moment was that night and once nothing developed there then it was sort of down-hill as far as the generals were concerned. The only way they could have imposed their will was by pushing de Gaulle out of office–by capturing de Gaulle. That didn’t happen. Once that failed, then the rebellion, itself, began to peter out as far as Algeria was concerned.
“We were batting with three strikes against us on the Algerian field of the day”
Frank G. Wisner, Junior Officer, Algiers, Algeria, 1962-1964
WISNER: The Algerian war for independence, the liberation struggle for Algeria, was winding down. The French and the Algerians had reached an accord at Evian. There was a transitional regime in Algiers as I began my studies in Tangier, and there broke out at that moment a fierce, fierce struggle between the provisional government of the Algerian Revolution which was based in Tunis and the military which had allied itself with the previous group of Algerian political leaders the French had arrested some years earlier.
Algeria was for a number of months swept with internecine, bloody warfare until the provisional government was dislodged and the [Ahmed] Ben Bella regime [leader of an underground opposition movement, who became President of Algeria in 1963], backed by [Houari] Boumedienne, was in charge. That was the Algiers that I arrived in. I was assigned there, in 1962.
The setting was further that the French had left, thousands of French residents had left the country, and the economy was absolutely flat. (Photo shows French pied noirs at Maison-Blanche airport in Algiers.) A new, quite radical regime was taking over, but right down to basic services in the marketplace, the plumbers, the technicians, most of them were French and they had all picked up and gone.
It was very hard to get things done in Algiers. You had a modern city that didn’t have the technical capacity and on top of this was layered a decision to not only declare Algerian independence, but the new leaders wanted to socialize it.
There was a huge ideological struggle underway from straight Algerian nationalists to pure Algerian communists with Trotskyites and other European leftists who had come down to be part of it. The Russians and their Eastern European allies, the Cubans, the Chinese, Che Guevara, arrived during all of this period with everybody wrestling for the soul of the Algerian Revolution, what was to be its course and direction.
The United States was in an anomalous position. We were regarded in a number of ways, none of them particularly friendly, of course, constantly recalling that the United States, notably President Kennedy, had stood by Algeria in the later days of the revolution.
Kennedy had been the first Senator to speak out for Algerian independence, but for the great majority of the Algerian War our concerns about European stability had led us to at least try to accommodate the French who were determined to maintain their role in Algeria. So we carried a bit of the memory of our association with France.
Since the new Algerians of one stripe or another had decided either for national security purposes or for ideological reasons to align themselves with the then-East Bloc, the existence of the Cold War and the position of the Americans in it created a further tension.
Third, there was a sort of inherent diffidence about the United States, born of the high degree of French culture that had been part of Algerian life. A diffidence about American culture, and you could hear many of the same arguments you heard in France in the late ’40s or ’50s about American culture and its failures coming out the mouths of Algerians. It added a patina of discomfort to the American-Algerian relationship.
Fourth, Algeria was trying to make its way inside the Arab world. It had never been there really and, while I was there, [Egyptian leader] Nasser came to try to put his banner of Arab nationalism on top of the Algerian puzzle….
But our tensions with Egypt, the outcome of the Suez War, our increasing estrangement from Egypt and the Arab national cause, as it was defined then, and the confrontation with Israel also played to our disadvantage. So we were batting with three strikes against us on the Algerian field of the day.
It was a tough time for the United States, though. We were under constant criticism with hostile intelligence operations all around us, not only sanctioned by the local regime. We were the country’s major aid provider, particularly food assistance. The French were the major financial assistance provider. But we were constantly hammered in the press, criticized for sending poisoned food to Algeria.
“Very suspicious of the West”
Walter L. Cutler, Political Officer, Algiers, Algeria, 1962-1965
CUTLER: People were not lined up to go to Algiers. Every night on the evening news you would see billowing smoke coming out of the city as the OAS (Organisation de l’armée secrete) and the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale, logo at left) and everybody else tried to take the place apart.
It was the French extremists, primarily the pieds- noir, the right-wingers, the extremists who really did not agree with de Gaulle’s policy of letting Algeria become independent. They tried to resist it, and even tried to foment a revolution within France, which didn’t work.
And then, when it became evident that they were not going to prevail, they decided that if they couldn’t have Algeria, they would lay waste to the country. So they went around doing as much damage as they could.
I arrived in September of 1962. Actually, I was assigned out there as an Economic Officer at first, because that was the only slot available. The consulate general was going through the pains of quick growth into an embassy. And so, for bureaucratic reasons, I went out as an Economic Officer, where I did serve for several months as the only Economic Officer there.
I arrived just after independence had been granted in July of 1962. I arrived in September. The situation was, in a word, difficult.
So many French, a million French, had left so quickly that the country was virtually on its back. Security was minimal. Most of the utilities hardly worked. So many of the houses had been blown up.
A huge influx of diplomats, as all countries rushed to set up 14 embassies. And even though so many French had left, housing was very short. The embassy didn’t have the facilities to handle this rather sizeable increase in personnel. The motor pool was virtually non-existent.
The French had largely disappeared. They had an embassy there. They had a number of people who had a lot of things to sort out with the Algerians. For example, the whole question of housing, what they called the “biens vacants” and these were houses or commercial establishments that had been abandoned by the French. The French had left to save their own lives. And yet there was still a legal question as to really who owned the property. That problem persisted for years. Gradually the country began to pick itself up off the floor. It was not easy.
[President] Ben Bella, who had been in a French jail for so long, had almost forgotten his Arabic. He used to speak down in the city square, and I remember his first speeches were more French than Arabic, then they became sort of half and half, but in due course, he regained his native tongue.
There was an effort made to make Algeria an authentic Islamic country and to rid the country of the remnants of the French. This went on all the time we were there.
The environment was difficult for us, because (and perhaps quite understandably) a number of the Algerian nationalists who had taken over had very fresh memories of very bitter fighting with the French. They tended to associate the United States, through NATO, as an ally of the French, and, therefore, they believed that we were supporting the French in many ways. As a matter of fact, some of the military equipment, they claimed, was American, obtained by the French through NATO and used or misused in Algeria.
I think we were a little concerned as to the direction in which that first government might go. There was a brand of Arab Socialism that was spreading in the area. And Nasser was very much the hero to the Algerians. He had been very supportive of the Algerian revolution.
When he came to Algiers, it was perhaps the greatest festive occasion during the whole three years that I was there, even though it ended in tragedy. The very day he arrived, the Foreign Minister of Algeria, a man named Khemisti, who had been shot in the head six months before in front of the Parliament building and had lain in a coma for all those months, died. Nasser stayed only a brief time and then went home. The whole country had been decked out for an extended visit by Nasser, and the fervor was unmatched, really.
Yes, I think there was some concern on our part as to this new government: Highly ideological in outlook on things. Highly nationalistic. Very suspicious of the West because of the experience they had had. Very heady from the standpoint of having won their independence against all odds. And highly supported by the Soviet Bloc countries.
Many of the teachers replacing the French, who had all left, were Bulgarians. Many were Egyptians. But there were a lot of East Bloc people pouring into that country, and, in, those days, that was of concern to us. Algeria had a somewhat strategic location, and it had a lot of oil.
We were trying to get across to the Algerians that we in the United States wanted to work with them. We understood what they had been through. And to persuade them that, if they had to align themselves in any direction, the best way to go was with the West and not the East, to put it baldly.
Contacts were difficult in those days, very difficult. Many Algerians felt that the better part of wisdom was not to be in direct touch with any foreigners. There was a fair degree of xenophobia.
“About 1 million French people left within 7 or 8 months. The economy just came to a screeching halt.”
Philip Birnbaum, Project Officer, USAID, Algiers, Algeria, 1963-1964
BIRNBAUM: This was in the summer of 1963. Harry said, “I’d like you to come over to Algeria and join us.” And we decided we would go. Actually, Harry took three people from the Tunis Mission, Leo Rasmussen, who was an excellent agricultural technician, and a woman named Joyce Mallinger, who was concerned with public health and education, bilingual, a very capable person. So we were going make this nucleus of a great little AID program in Algeria.
This was a year after independence. The Algerians were very xenophobic. The first thing they said was, “We’re too proud to have an AID mission, so all of you will have to be part of the embassy.” So I received a commission as a Foreign Service officer. I was made second secretary of the embassy. They wanted an extremely low profile. So, in effect, Harry was the Mission Director, but that title could not be used.
It was really a state of chaos. Once Algeria was declared independent, about 1 million French people left within 7 or 8 months. The French not only controlled the whole private sector, they had all the top government positions, and more importantly, they filled all the minor positions. The guy who read the gas meter in the utility company was a Frenchman. The women who worked the switchboard in the telephone company were all French. So the economy just came to a screeching halt.
Another sign of the chaos…The standard practice was for the embassy to sign a lease, and then the house came under the protection of the U.S. Embassy, and they would put up a sign in French and Arabic to that effect.
But at that time the countryside was overrun by people who fought in the revolution and who had weapons. They had a practice called “bien vacant.” If a piece of property was empty, they just moved in, that was that.
Well, that’s just what happened to our house rented by the Embassy before we even got to Algiers. Some guy with a machine gun took it over, and the Embassy never got the lease money or its furniture back.
William Porter was the Ambassador, and Frank Wisner, who [later was] our Ambassador to India, was a very junior officer in the Embassy…. At every staff meeting the Ambassador would say, “Frank, when are you going to get Birnbaum’s house back? When are you going to go down to the police station and tell these guys to do their job?”
And Frank would say to me, “Phil, you’re never going to get that house back. You had better look for another place. The Algerian police are even afraid to go up there.”
So that was the situation. Frenchmen, who had sent out their families would go to work in the morning, and when they came home at night, their apartment or their houses would be occupied, and there was nothing they could do, but get on a plane and get out.
The first thing Ben Bella did was to declare Algeria an Islamic country. All the women were put into veils and no Algerian could be served alcohol in cafes, although pre-independence Algeria was the most open and “Frenchified” country in all of North Africa.
Next, they decided their economic model was to be the Soviet model, with very heavy industrialization. They had the gas and oil revenues and they were going to build all these factories. Agriculture was taken for granted.
The country was overrun by Russian and East Bloc technicians, and so we were in the minority. Of course, the French were not talking to them, but one very interesting fact was that the oil was treated as an external resource. All the oil and gas earnings were paid into France, and then a percentage was sent back to Algeria. But the French presence disappeared. We also had travel restrictions. You couldn’t go 20 miles outside of Algiers without a permit.
So it was a very tight situation, and the question was what kind of an AID program could we mount there? There were few Algerian technicians, and they were in the process of setting up ministries.
You would go to the Ministry, and you would see people typing with one finger, and an Algerian counterpart would complain to you that “I can’t get a call through to a town 20 miles down the road. The operators tell me that the phones are broken, but I know she doesn’t know which part of the switchboard to plug in to reach the town. The phones are not broken.” It was really unbelievable.
“We made a noble effort, but we couldn’t compete with their anti-West emotions”
Transportation had broken down. There were literally people starving to death in one part of Algeria in the Constantine area, where people were eating leaves and berries. In another part of the country there was wheat, but transportation was inoperative.
So, we started one of the biggest feeding programs in the world with the CRS [Catholic Relief Services], Lutherans, and CARE. About 2 million Algerians were being fed via an enormous PL 480 food program [which permitted the President to authorize the shipment of surplus commodities to “friendly” nations, either on concessional or grant terms and allowed the federal government to donate stocks to religious and voluntary organizations for use in their overseas humanitarian programs]. And we also were trying to start some agricultural projects.
I remember at a staff meeting Harry Lennon said, “Mr. Ambassador, I really think that Ben Bella doesn’t realize how large a feeding program we are running. Not that he has to tell us thank-you, but he ought to be aware of what’s going on, and how important this program is, for keeping this country going.”
Ambassador Porter was bilingual in French, and was an Arabist, so it wasn’t a question of communication. He said, “OK, when I see Ben Bella next, I’ll make this point.”
And it was very interesting, although the Algerians have this love-hate relationship with the French, they always admired French sophistication. And here is Ambassador Porter explaining to Ben Bella how we’re providing food for 2 million people, including food for work programs in addition to feeding of children and mothers.
And all Ben Bella could say was, “Aucune objection.” “I have no objection.”
One thing you have to keep in mind was that they had this very bloody struggle for independence from the French. Algerians remembered very well that when President Kennedy was a senator, he came out in support of Algerian independence.
The Algerians at that time were looking to demonstrate to the French that they had friends. For Americans, we felt that this was a very important country, given all those natural resources, and we knew the Soviets were very interested in getting into Algeria.
It was part of the Cold War syndrome. If we could establish a footing there, perhaps we could influence the government.
But our relations went downhill, and they expelled the United States. I don’t remember the exact time schedule, sometime in 1965- 66 when we were represented by the Swiss, as the Algerians just moved more and more toward the Soviet Union. Algeria became one of the most vocal members of the North-South dialogue, heaping criticism on the industrialized countries.
The Algerians fought a very bloody war of independence. They claim 1 million people were killed. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but surely a few hundred thousand or more were killed. They were supported in the war by Nasser and by the East bloc countries, because they always made it their business to support revolutionary movements.
We were supporting the French. All the equipment that the French Army had — from napalm to fighter bombers — were American. If one stood back and said, “Well, what’s going to happen if they win the war, and get independence, which way are they going to go?”
The chances of the U.S. having a relationship with them were slim. It didn’t take much hindsight to see that. They said, “We know who our friends are, who supported us.”
This was a war against colonialism, against imperialism, and in their minds, also against capitalism. So I think the die was cast. We made a noble effort, but we couldn’t compete with their anti-West emotions.