When General de Gaulle made his first call for resistance on 18 June 1940, he knew a great deal about Franklin Roosevelt, President of the United States of America since 4 March 1933; he knew that in his speech of 10 June at the University of Virginia, the President had placed the material resources of the nation at the disposal of the democracies, thereby committing himself openly to the Allied cause. In his famous Appel, the future leader of Free France actually cited the "immense industrial resources of the United States" as among the assets still possessed by France, along with its Empire and its British ally "which commands the seas and is continuing the struggle".
What, however, did Roosevelt know of De Gaulle at this period? Little or nothing. The US President first came across his name in a message from Churchill, sent from Briare on 12 June, in which the British Prime Minister mentioned the presence at the Supreme Allied War Council of "a general who is convinced that something can still be done", while Weygand was already talking of armistice. Did Roosevelt take note? We have no way of knowing, since he made no reference to it in his reply to Churchill on 13 June. The US President probably did not become familiar with the name of De Gaulle until the Appel of 18 June, reported on the front page of the New York Times the following day amidst a flood of other news from Europe or, perhaps even more likely, until Great Britain's official recognition of Free France on 28 June.
But what did that name represent? Certainly not France, in the President's eyes: De Gaulle was a general who had just formed a resistance movement, but not a politician elected by his fellow citizens to take charge of the destiny of his country. As we know, eminent French figures such as Alexis Léger came to the same conclusions. Léger refused to join either Free France or the French National Committee, which he opposed to the end, and saw Roosevelt as "the guarantor of democracy in France", as he confided to the President in November 1943.
Furthermore, how powerful was the Gaullist movement in 1940 in comparison to Marshal Pétain's regime? Free France had nothing tangible to propose other than continuing the combat, whereas the Vichy government had the power to decide the fate of the fleet, of the naval bases in Africa, Madagascar, Oceania and the French West Indies, and could therefore have a major influence on the future direction of the war. As a matter of sheer political realism, Washington decided to maintain diplomatic relations with the new government in France and not recognise Free France. The Americans believed they would thus be in a position to influence Vichy and convince its leaders that they had something to gain by conceding to Germany only the bare minimum as set out in the terms of the armistice. This policy was pursued, with varying degrees of success, until Laval broke off diplomatic relations on 9 November 1942 following the Allied landings in North Africa the previous day.
Throughout this period, there was therefore no question of Roosevelt recognising Free France; the most he would do was to provide Lend-Lease aid in November 1941 and agree to an official delegation set up in Washington in December of the same year. It was both a little and a lot, even if the Lend-Lease aid could only be accessed indirectly through the intermediary of Great Britain. For the first time, in an official document, Roosevelt had expressed his sympathy for the "Free French Forces" and the presence of a delegation in the US capital gave Free France a legal existence in the USA, even though this did not extend to official recognition.
In spite of everything, the President remained unshaken in his distrust of de Gaulle, a distrust which started in the wake of the Dakar fiasco in September 1940. According to Robert Murphy, his personal representative in North Africa, Roosevelt had formed a low opinion of De Gaulle's judgement as a result of the Dakar episode and "had decided that it was not necessary to consider him as an important element in French affairs". The indiscretions that surrounded the Dakar operation were later used as justification for keeping the Free French out of the planning of Operations Torch (the North Africa landings) and Overlord (the Normandy landings). In Murphy's view, Roosevelt's distrust of de Gaulle, whom the US consul in Dakar accused in his report of having triggered a civil war and of placing his own ambitions above the interests of France, was to remain "a major factor in Franco-American relations right up to the death of the President in 1945".
And yet, throughout the long years of war, de Gaulle declared in speech after speech that the authority he had established was purely temporary and that, at the moment of Liberation, it would be returned to the French people who would then decide, through the ballot-box, on the government of its choice. Nothing made any difference, and Roosevelt continued to suspect the head of the Free French of seeking to become a new Caesar or Napoleon. No spark passed between the two men on the two occasions they met; the first time in Casablanca in January 1943 and then in Washington in July 1944. The US President held fast to his misgivings and said to his wife, on his return from the Casablanca conference:
General de Gaulle is a soldier, certainly a patriot, and devoted to his country but, on the other hand, he is also a politician and a sectarian and has in him, I believe, all the attributes of a dictator.
In her memoirs, Eleanor Roosevelt was to add her own account:
I never heard Franklin say he had changed his mind about him, as a man, and I do not think there was any real understanding between them.
Due to a number of indications, de Gaulle was well aware of this. Nonetheless, according to his aide-de-camp Hettier de Boislambert, he went to his meeting with Roosevelt in Casablanca motivated by "absolute goodwill, absolute good faith".
In the months that followed, the President first tried to impose Giraud as joint head with De Gaulle of the Comité Français de la Libération Nationale (French Committee for National Liberation) and later, after the Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Française (Provisional Government of the French Republic) was constituted on 3 June 1944, refused to recognise its authority until 23 October, despite the example of many other states and despite both Great Britain and the Soviet Union urging him to do so. Roosevelt was still prompted by the same mistrust of de Gaulle for whom, as he said, he had no intention of providing a "white horse" on which to return to France, in the true Hollywood style of a faithful knight liberating his country. This animosity was to be fully revealed in his refusal to invite the General to the Yalta conference in February 1945, although neither Churchill nor Stalin were opposed to his attending, as is shown in their correspondence over the autumn of 1944.
On his way back from the Crimea, Roosevelt invited de Gaulle to meet him in Algiers. The General refused "to be summoned to a meeting on French territory by the head of a foreign state". Had he missed an opportunity for reconciliation with the US President? The occasion was never to present itself again, as Roosevelt died 2 months later on 12 April. From Paris, de Gaulle sent a message to the new President, Harry Truman, "Roosevelt […] was from first to last a friend to France. France admired him and loved him". He did not, however, attend the funeral. Later, in 1970, he revealed to US journalist Cyrus Sulzberger, in an interview on the great US presidents, "[…] I must admit to a certain admiration for Franklin Roosevelt despite our differences. He really had the manner". The General bore no hard feelings.