Operation Catapult, lauched on July, 3 1940, has destroyed the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir. (Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The most hateful decision

Honour, power and will at Mers-el-Kébir 80 years ago today

Artillery Row

Eighty years ago today, at approximately 5.54pm, British warships opened fire on the French fleet moored inside the harbour of Mers-el-Kébir on the coast of French Algeria. The concentration of force unleashed was quickly devastating and after only about ten minutes Admiral Sir James Somerville ordered that firing cease. Several of the finest ships in the French navy lay stricken while the number of French dead is reckoned at almost 1300, including further casualties from more minor follow-up actions in the days immediately afterwards. Yet after eighty years, to tell the story of Mers-el-Kebir is now to tell several: of how the tragic events of July 3rd 1940 ever came about, of the uses and misuses of history to which they have so readily given rise, and of the perennial realities of power in one of their most sombre manifestations.

Literally meaning ‘great port’ in Arabic, the same meaning as its Roman name Portus Magnus, the natural harbour at Mers-el-Kebir will have been known to the Phoenicians, who were familiar travellers to the shores of the Western Mediterranean in early antiquity, as to the Carthaginians a little later in what is now modern-day Libya. Home in the early sixteenth century to Moors who had fled the Reconquista in Spain, Mers-el-Kebir fell to Europeans in 1505, when an army accompanied by a Catalan bishop entered the citadel, consecrating the mosque as the church of Santa Maria de la Conception and renaming the town Marzalquivir. After a short interval of Ottoman rule beginning at the end of the eighteenth century, the port passed to France in 1830, being incorporated into one of the three newly created départements of French Algeria in 1848.

If Mers-el-Kebir had long been in French service and had recently been fortified, a surprising amount of work nevertheless remained still on the drawing board by the outbreak of hostilities in 1939. Particularly fatefully for the French ships and their crews by July 1940, works to deepen the harbour remained uninitiated, restricting the scope for ships and their guns to turn and fire once inside the harbour wall. Nevertheless, cooperation between the British and French navies had been one of the quiet success stories of the late 1930s and by the early months of the war everything was in place for close coordination on the high seas. It is not often remembered now that the eventual scuttling of the German raider the Graf Spee in the South Atlantic in December 1939, for instance, was the result of very fine coordination between the French and British admiralties.

During this period of close cooperation, Churchill visited the French Admiralty in late 1939, which had relocated its operational headquarters from rue Royale in the centre of Paris to Maintenon about fifty miles southwest. The visit has not gone entirely unnoticed by later historians and Churchill mentioned it briefly himself in his memoirs, but it would soon turn out to have a significance beyond its immediate moment. Opposite Churchill that day was Admiral of the Fleet François Darlan, head of the French navy, who would go on to play a leading role in the Vichy administration formed after the fall of France the next summer. Even English-speaking historians to this day tend to speak of the necessary tragedy of Mers-el-Kebir as ‘Churchill’s decision to sink the French fleet’ or words to that effect but a closer examination of the question unavoidably lays heavier responsibility on the character and the decisions of the French admiral who refused to sail the ships to safety in the first place.

It is likely that Darlan’s haughty response informed Churchill’s thinking before the decision to fire on France at Mer-el-Kebir

Churchill’s decision to sink the French ships at Mers-el-Kebir surely dates in part to this personal encounter with Darlan outside Paris as 1939 drew towards a close. He was startled enough by Darlan’s behaviour that day to mention one aspect of it in his memoirs, specifically that when he asked Darlan where the French minister of the navy was, Churchill was told that in France ministers did not interfere in operational decisions such as the ones Churchill and Darlan were discussing between themselves. Although the French system of the day did involve sometimes abrupt demarcations of responsibility, it is very likely that Churchill, sometimes if by no means always an astute judge of character, picked up on Darlan’s strikingly haughty and proprietorial response, which in turn would inform Churchill’s thinking in the weeks and days before the decision to fire on France at Mer-el-Kebir.

Indeed, by June 1940, Darlan’s position had become pivotal, as attention turned urgently towards the French navy following the fall of France after six weeks of fighting. The extremity of the combat in France and the suddenness of France’s collapse in May and June 1940 does not always come through in later historical accounts, particularly by English-speaking historians who are perhaps unduly focused on the evacuation of Dunkirk and Churchill’s rise to power in London.

By contrast, recent French historians echo the language of the French elite during those six weeks of unprecedented combat and collapse in talking of France as being on the very edge of the abyss. While both Dunkirk and Churchill’s ascension to the office of Prime Minister are intelligible to contemporary readers as the seeds of later victory, the military and psychological shock France sustained by June 1940 was far too severe for either of those mostly British events to register in that country except as secondary detail. Both those at the pinnacle of the French state who wished to fight on and those who did not understood what they were facing. Paul Reynaud, head of the French government as June 1940 opened, spoke for many of his colleagues when saying in council at one point that the enemy they were facing in Hitler was not another Kaiser William but something more like another Genghis Khan. The fate of Poland since September 1939 will have been foremost in mind, including the systematic destruction of the Polish elite and Polish culture by an occupying army reducing the country to subsistence servitude.

On June 14th Paris, declared an open city, is occupied by the Germans. The same day the French government moved to Bordeaux. Against an already retreating French line, six German divisions supported by a thousand artillery pieces attacked only six French regiments attempting to hold a thirty kilometre front in Moselle with only 114 canons. A few days later, between June 17th and June 19th, six French army corps at the Meuse, no longer fighting alongside Belgium, Dutch, or British allies, gave similarly desperate battle to two German armies.

Scenes such as these occur across French lines already falling back towards the Loire as Marechal Petain, to whom power is transferring, broadcast ‘It is with a broken heart that I tell you that it is necessary to cease fighting.’ Within the next week, despite innumerable local episodes of heroism and defiance, more than a million French soldiers would be taken prisoner as organised resistance collapsed. Five days pass between Petain’s broadcast and the signing of the armistice with Germany on June 22th, famously in the same railway carriage in Compiegne in which Germany’s surrender had been made in 1918. If the story of those ten minutes on July 3rd in which British guns fired on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir has been told before, it is the eleven days between France’s armistice with Germany and that tragic moment on which the controversy properly turns.

In 1985, in one of the early editions of a newly launched US publication The National Interest, Eliot A Cohen wrote an article entitled ‘Why We Should Stop Studying the Cuban Missile Crisis’. The writer was early in his career and the publication was a new entrant onto the field of ideas, but it is a testament to the impact of the article that it continues to be cited and referenced to this day.

Writing at the outset of the second Reagan administration during tensions concerning nuclear weapons and Europe, Cohen argued that groupthink had calcified strategic thinking in the United States and that a fundamental shift in assumptions was urgently required. The predominance of the Cuban missile crisis in the intellectual formation of foreign policy hands needed to end, as it was serving to entrench a mindset properly belonging to the already distant past. Arguing with much detail that the Cuban missile crisis was not characteristic of the types of situations leaders and their advisors would be called on to confront in the future, Cohen called for a new outlook to replace it, one focused on those decisions from the past which more closely resemble the crises or dilemmas which might be approaching. Much of the substance of what that might look like was sensibly left for another day but he made brief suggestions for alternative case studies instead.

The first was the British shelling of Copenhagen harbour in 1807. The second was the British decision to fire on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in 1940. Explaining the importance of that episode, he characterised it as an example for the United States to consider with a view to when ‘even a liberal democratic state leading a coalition finds itself compelled to use force against laggardly allies or ambivalent neutrals’.

Cohen’s article proved enduringly influential in the United States, contributing for better or for worse to thinking on the American approach to coalitions from the 1990s through the two younger Bush administrations. If he had been a British analyst who had similarly liberated himself from the foreign policy dogmas of the moment, perhaps he might have written an article entitled ‘Why We Need to Stop Studying the Suez Crisis’ or perhaps ‘Why We Need to Stop Studying Britain’s Entry into Europe in 1975’. The reasons advanced today would be very similar to Cohen’s thirty-five years ago. Rather than preparing thinking for the types of situations which may indeed arise in the future, concentration on Suez and on the membership debates concerning the EU concretise an attitude and an approach which is properly the property of a period of the past which is unlikely to repeat in similar ways.

Mers-el-Kebir, though one of the most sombre moments in British history as in French history, clarifies aspects of leadership and strategy which may prove pertinent even if one very much hopes that the exact outcome never recurs. There is a basic, irreducible insistence on the realities of actual power. The suddenness with which alliances can conclude and the decision for force be required is illustrated in the sharpest relief. The opacity and the ambivalence of the intentions of even geographically close neighbours and recent allies is to the forefront. And, arguably more than in any other decision taken by a British prime minister to use force, Mers-el-Kebir illustrates the eternal reality that diplomatic activity and even close alliances ultimately give precedence to the necessities of statecraft and in turn to the realities of force.

The port of Mers el Kebir, Algeria, taken nine years after the attack. June 1949. (Photo by – / AFP) (Photo credit should read -/AFP via Getty Images)

Study of Mers-el-Kebir and those eleven days between the French armistice with Germany on June 22th and the events of July 3rd 1940 would properly begin with an appreciation of the extent to which British ministers and officers were entitled to understand themselves as having been betrayed by the French leadership. There had been an agreement between the two countries in March 1940 that neither would seek a separate armistice with the enemy. While that had had the status of a treaty at the time, Britain was prepared to release France from its undertakings on the understanding specifically that the French fleet would sail to British ports.

French commentators to this day will sometimes point out that this was not a formal precondition of releasing France from the agreement not to seek a separate armistice with Germany, but this is at best tendentious. The British position was made perfectly clear by Churchill himself on separate occasions, including one face to face conversation with Darlan on June 12th, and it was repeatedly conveyed by British admirals and naval liaison officers in France, even if there is scope for uncertainty as to how clearly some of them stated the essential point amid the surrounding chaos.

In any case, within a day of the armistice being signed on June 22nd, messages from London to Darlan were no longer receiving a reply, with his true intentions for the French fleet uncertain beyond stock assurances of a general kind. Indeed, far from sending French ships to British ports as his ally had the moral right to expect and to require, Darlan sent a message the day before the armistice was signed ordering French ships already in British ports to take to sea. The message was intercepted and its implementation at Portsmouth and Plymouth was prevented locally by force.  

The demands on Churchill during the eleven days between the French armistice and the action at Mers-el-Kebir are difficult to summarise but to say that he did not have the luxury of a protracted or uninterrupted contemplation of France’s suddenly inscrutable intentions would be an understatement. A selection of documents from the Churchill War Papers for this brief period of days includes correspondence concerning the fate of the former king Edward VIII who had finished up in Madrid as French resistance collapsed, unrest in Palestine where British troops might soon have to leave, arrangements for French troops evacuated to Britain after Dunkirk, managing an already demanding de Gaulle, home defence and preparations to repel an invasion of the island, various difficulties as always concerning Ireland, internment of people such as Mosley, controversies over rations, aircraft production questions, and of course the ever delicate matter of relations with US President Roosevelt (to whom Churchill mentioned in passing and slightly plaintively when writing on June 28th: ‘We have not really had any help worth speaking of from the United States so far’).

Washington was for its own reasons almost as concerned about the future of the French fleet as was Britain. Four days after messages from London to Darlan started to go unanswered, US Secretary of State Cordell Hull stated bluntly to the French Ambassador in Washington that ‘the French fleet in the hands of the Germans would be comparable to a canon poised to fire on us.’ One might allow the observation, though, that the Channel is a lot narrower than the Atlantic.

What both London and Washington knew by now was that article eight of the Franco-German armistice required the ships of the French fleet to return to their home ports, where they would notionally be taken out of service under the supervision of German forces. As Churchill remarked, there were by now half a dozen European countries which could speak to the worth of such German promises. For the avoidance of doubt, the home ports for most French ships at Mers-el-Kebir were on the Atlantic coast of the occupied zone in France, already ceded to Germany by the armistice already operating. For France to implement the armistice as written and already agreed would literally mean sailing the ships into German-controlled ports. We know with certainty today that Darlan was not prepared to countenance that, but all which was known with certainty to London at the time was that the undertaking to remove the fleet from German reach had not been honoured. Simultaneous to the refusal to sail the French fleet to safety, four hundred German pilots were returned to Germany after the signing of the armistice, despite promises to Britain that this would not happen, shortly before the Luftwaffe began its attempt to destroy the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain.  

By June 27th, the decision was taken in the War Cabinet for force to be used to sink the French ships if the alternatives presented by London were not accepted. These alternatives were for the French fleet to rally to British waters, to safe harbour somewhere such as the West Indies or the United States, or to scuttle themselves. There does not seem to have been much expectation in London that any of these alternatives would be accepted and on June 30th Admiral Sir James Somerville arrived in Gibraltar where he took command of Force H, tasked effectively with destroying the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir before it could be seized by German or Italian commandos.

The choice of Somerville appears to have been an excellent one. He had been unexpectedly side-lined in the earlier stages of the war after a TB scare, which he had difficulty overcoming to the satisfaction of the Admiralty regulations. Having eventually done so, with the support of two Harley Street physicians, he had recently participated effectively in the Dunkirk evacuation. Although his personal distaste for the assignment at Mers-el-Kebir was profound and was later documented in his letters to his wife, Churchill must have known that he would see through his orders regardless of his views and no doubt chose him with that in mind. Indeed, there is a famous message from London to Somerville, received at 10.55pm on July 2nd as his ships approached Mers-el-Kebir, which includes the line: ‘You are charged with one of the most disagreeable and difficult tasks that a British Admiral has ever been faced with, but we have complete confidence in you to carry it out relentlessly’. Almost universally attributed to Churchill in the later literature, it was in fact sent by Admiral Pound, one naval commander writing to another, in a communication marked ‘Personal’ on the eve of an extraordinary and extraordinarily unpalatable action.

Less successful, though, was Somerville’s own choice of commander to deliver the ultimatum to Admiral Gensoul, commanding the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir. This was the fifty-year-old Captain Holland, officer commanding of the Ark Royal. Some sources refer obliquely to his personal situation during the summer of 1940, which appears to have been affecting him quite a bit, while others are more explicit in stating difficulties concerning a mistress and the toll on his emotional balance. Be that as it may, Holland had served as a naval liaison officer in Paris and was well known personally to senior figures of the French admiralty, including Admiral Gensoul. With perhaps inadvertent ambivalence, one of the contemporary sources describes Holland as ‘a delightful person of considerable natural charm who was immediately welcome in any society’. It might have been hoped that in sending Holland to bear the terms of the ultimatum to Gensoul, the element of personal familiarity would facilitate the essential message getting through.

If so, that was very far from what in fact transpired on the fateful day, and that might be born in mind as a cautionary example of the dangers of choosing as a national emissary someone selected for their personal or social familiarity with their counterparts. Captain Holland at first failed to secure an audience with Gensoul at all, the latter refusing to meet with someone of a lower rank. When Holland did deal directly with the French, they record him as sweating visibly and appearing somewhat unsure of himself, which may have involved acute embarrassment at delivering such an ultimatum to people he may have unwisely have regarded to some extent as friends rather than as opposite numbers.

The meeting with Gensoul was granted only after the deadline for French capitulation to one or other of the given options had been extended already by Somerville, with Holland left to parley indirectly through subordinates until then. At the eventual last meeting with the admiral himself, with only minutes to go until the point at which Somerville had communicated that he would have to open fire unless he could actually see the French ships sinking into the water, Gensoul produced orders from Darlan dated to June 24th stating that the French fleet was to be moved to the United States or sabotaged in case of an attempt to capture them by Germany. But it was too little, too late, and Churchill had repeatedly made it clear that such assurances did not alter the ships’ fundamental vulnerability to German or Italian capture and the absolute necessity of their being put beyond the possibility of use by the enemy. Holland recorded that as he left Gensoul for good that day he had the impression that the French commander still did not appreciate that British ships would imminently open fire on his fleet. Though offered as a somewhat mournful reminiscence by Holland, it is also an extraordinarily self-incriminating remark for him to have made, as it was his chief responsibility above all others to ensure that Gensoul did indeed understand Britain’s actual intention to open fire if necessary. In any case London had already communicated bluntly to Somerville: ‘settle matters quickly’. As Captain Holland’s small boat returning him to the Ark Royal was not long past the exit from Mers-el-Kebir harbour, the first volley of the British cannonade passed over his head, narrowly missing its targets. The subsequent volleys, each shell weighing two thousand pounds, would not.

Accounts of the combat itself, if it can be called combat, sometimes run to several dozen pages, detailing the destruction of the Dunkerque, the catastrophic explosion aboard the Bretagne, the Strasbourg’s desperate but successful flight for safety through the mined harbour entrance, and the frantic efforts to recover the French dead and dying from the burning waters. What has received far less attention is the ongoing afterlife of Mers-el-Kebir and the marks which remains in the national psyches of several countries.

The first attempt to write the history of the eleven days up to the event fell to Churchill himself, who spoke to the House of Commons the afternoon afterwards, his notes visibly shaking in his hand as he defended an action of extreme violence taken against a recent ally with whom Britain was not at war. While not short as such, the speech is extremely compact, a model of how to defend an executive action to the House in the immediate aftermath of its being seen through, which is also the correct sequencing. Eighty years on, it is difficult to argue with the rationale expounded, from the early statement that ‘what might have been a mortal injury was done to us by the Bordeaux Government [in not sailing the French fleet to safety]’ to the closing exhortation ‘This is no time for doubt or weakness. It is the supreme hour to which we have been called.’ This country dates that supreme hour particularly to the battle of Britain which opened only six days later on July 10th.

Writing in 1993, in his work Churchill as War Leader, Richard Lamb made a typical statement of the case against Churchill, arguing that in forcefully driving the push for a violent incapacitation of the French fleet, Churchill failed to leave open the possibility of an agreed resolution of its fate at a later moment. Lamb’s argumentation is naïve, failing to deal with the risk of a German operation to capture the ships, and has not been much referenced by subsequent writers.

One of the few to do so is Boris Johnson, now Prime Minister, who dealt with the events at Mers-el-Kebir in the sixteenth chapter of his volume on Churchill published in 2014. The chapter is entitled ‘An Icy Ruthlessness’ and opens with the sentence ‘The French sailors had no time to get angry and barely a moment to prepare their souls for the end.’ In fact, the French fleet had been put on thirty minutes notice to sail by Gensoul at the beginning of the day, the British ultimatum to the French at the outset of negotiations was broadcast en clair so that all of his men would be aware of the demand. The most famous French-language testimony by a survivor dealt early on in its account of the day with the sailor’s attempt to put his soul in order while waiting for the cannonade to finish.

Johnson’s second sentence states: ‘When the bombardment began at 5.54pm on July 3rd 1940 the dominant feeling was surely one of total disbelief.’ Again, not only were most French sailors at battle stations by then, about thirty French volleys were returned during the brief exchange of fire, and the Strasbourg, which anticipated the event and prepared for it, was ready to break for the open sea which it did successfully.

Johnson’s third sentence mentions the French fleet cheering the British sailors when they had arrived that morning, which appears to be simply a pure invention rather than merely an inability to reproduce other people’s material accurately. It overlooks the fact that the French naval reservists on ship at Mers-el-Kebir were already close to mutiny even prior to the British ships arriving. All of the contemporary sources record French sailors standing formally to attention as Holland’s sole boat entered the harbour. It would have been difficult in any case to cheer Somerville’s ships as those never approached closer than thirteen kilometres to Mers-el-Kebir itself, which the Prime Minister may or may not by now understand is not exactly an unusual distance for a naval engagement in which a commander prefers not to expose his ships unnecessarily to the possibility  of return fire.

A page later Johnson writes of Britain having fired on France at Mers-el-Kebir ‘with murderous intent’ before referring a page later again to Churchill’s ‘murderous ultimatum’. Continuing through what reads like an introspective rumination of whether Johnson reckons he would have had it in himself to have done likewise, we reach Johnson’s considered conclusion: ‘What Churchill did at Mers-el-Kebir was indeed butchery, but it was necessary. It was the chilling act of a skull-piling warlord from the steppes of central Asia.’ Reading Johnson’s analysis of Mers-el-Kebir in the aftermath of the recent appointment of David Frost as national security advisor, one cannot help but entertain the thought that Johnson’s individual choices of advisor may ultimately be less important than the mere fact that he should not be listening only to himself.

By chance, one of the French considerations of Mers-el-Kebir published soon after Johnson’s was that of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who dealt with the episode in the last chapter of the first volume of his memoirs. France has a very longstanding tendency to be remarkably forgiving to familiar if disreputable names in their retirement and Le Pen’s memoirs have proved a surprise publishing success over the last few years. As a literary and a historical effort they much bear the faults of the man himself, with an ill-disciplined argumentation repeatedly seeming to seek disagreement more than it seeks a conclusion. That said, they offer a window into perception of Mers-el-Kebir on a part of the French right which is now quite antiquated but which was not always so and which was closer to the events of that day that the current generation were.

Le Pen’s ire is reserved not really for the British at all but rather for de Gaulle, who as usual is charged with all manner of faults and betrayals, but is particularly held to account for broadcasting from London on July 8th in which he asked, amid a deep and sincere expression of personal affliction at what had happened, that the French people consider events also from the perspective of the British and from the perspective of France’s hope of eventual victory. The remark is important for understanding the part of the French right which never reconciled itself to de Gaulle and the continuing centrality of Mers-el-Kebir to that fact. Apart from de Gaulle’s conduct during the relinquishment of French Algeria, which particularly is a wound which has understandably never healed for some, the memories of Mers-el-Kebir are still fresh enough eighty years later to excite genuine enmity in certain quarters.

It is interesting to note that de Gaulle’s broadcast on July 8th is largely overlooked by English historians, possibly because of a conscious or semiconscious disinclination to deal with Mers-el-Kebir at all if possible. The episode is mentioned so fleetingly in the most recent English-language biography of the general, by Julian Jackson, that the reader who did not already know about the essential details of the events would be left none the wiser. That is really quite an extraordinary authorial decision in a work running to nine hundred pages including the notes.

De Gaulle’s response is dealt with properly instead by one of his foremost French biographers, Eric Roussel. Remarkably, speaking only two days after the last of the minor follow-up operations at Mers-el-Kebir had concluded, de Gaulle openly broached the possibility that the ships would have been used by Germany in the future against either Britain or the French Empire, even going so far as to say that he could see how their no longer being in existence could be the best outcome in the circumstances. Lost in Le Pen’s ongoing anger at this is his astute observation about de Gaulle personal formation, that his military training as a French army officer prepared him to face straightforwardly the fact of sacrificing a portion of his men to achieve a higher objective. It is somewhat chilling to contemporary minds the rapidity with which de Gaulle turned himself around to see the British action at Mers-el-Kebir in this light, but Le Pen’s account of the military mindset which enabled de Gaulle to do so is probably the correct explanation.

All of this should help to deflate the myth that Mers-el-Kebir is subject to an informal but silencing taboo in France. The truth is very much the reverse. The episode was dealt with by parliamentary inquiry in France under the Fourth Republic and was subject to extensive discussion in the technical military and historical literature in three distinct flurries of interest, one around the late 1940s, one around the late 1950s, and then again after France left Mers-el-Kebir for good in 1968. (The port today is home to a fleet of Algerian submarines, expanded in recent years ostensibly as a response to the so-called Arab Spring)

Nor has French fact-facing regarding the events at Mers-el-Kebir let up in recent times. An important and influential journal article analysing the episode was published by an employee of the French admiralty in 2003 and a well-received work of popular history covered the events from various angles in 2007, including extensive research in the German military archives which incidentally much supports Churchill’s view that the incoming Vichy administration was so defeatist and so demoralised that little resistance to any German demands on the fleet was likely to be offered.

It is in the English-speaking world that the episode remains largely taboo. That that is so is arguably a reflection of certain virtues that are particularly British, including the tendency not to mention likely sources of argument without a good reason and a general preference where possible not to raise a subject which someone else might find distasteful.

The anniversary of Mers-el-Kebir is not a happy one, but it is an opportunity to break the omerta over a past pursuit of the national interest

Nevertheless, this comes very close to the heart of the matter again, and also to the significance of Cohen’s influential article thirty-five years ago. Statecraft is a domain in which rather different considerations apply than politeness or getting on well socially with ones counterparts. De Gaulle understood that and psychologically processed Mers-el-Kebir within a few days. France as a whole processed Mers-el-Kebir within a few years, not withstanding a widely screened propaganda film put out by the young Vichy administration built on footage captured by French naval reservists who happened to have been doing unrelated filming in the harbour on the day of the tragedy. Even so, by 1943, the French Fleet, or admittedly what remained of it, had entered the war again, fighting alongside the Allies and alongside a British navy which had bombarded it only three years previously. The principle of reason of state was never discarded, even if its application at times was highly contestable.

Cohen’s thesis that American planners stop talking about the Cuban missile crisis and start talking about Mers-el-Kebir and other episodes instead was partly a plea for the people who would advise on the decisions of the future to deal with the concrete verities of power over the familiar story-telling of the caste. The anniversary of Mers-el-Kebir is not a happy one, but it is an opportunity to break the unnecessary omerta over a past pursuit of the national interest, at a moment of genuine mortal peril. A country which can do so with adequate self-examination and forward-facing strategic thinking would be one which has not only simply left the European Union but one which has also and separately re-entered the world of realities instead.

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