Sunday, April 4, 2010

#16: Americans in Paris

Americans have long been fascinated with World War II. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the United States' outsized self-portrayal as the conflict's deus ex machina. However, Charles Glass' new book, Americans in Paris: Life & Death Under Nazi Occupation, is not merely another ode, in a long line of them, to American wartime heroism. Indeed, it is the moral ambiguity of many of the book's real-life subjects and their actions that separates this work from the neatly packaged pop culture depictions that characterized, say, the fictional Band of Brothers. (I write this as someone who enjoyed that series and is currently an avid watcher of The Pacific. However, while these series' entertainment value is indisputable, their historicity is dwarfed by meticulously researched non-fiction.)

Glass, ABC News' former chief correspondent for the Middle East, has compiled a moving portrait of life on the ground in Paris during the German occupation. Even in borrowing from a wide array of sources, the author admirably pieces together the war years' disjointed fragments and transforms them into complete narratives. As vignettes within the overarching theme of Paris in the war-torn early 1940s, they combine to form a panorama of a world-class city brought almost, but not entirely, to its knees.

Notable amongst the ensemble cast are Sumner Jackson, a surgeon for the American Hospital in Paris whose dedication to his craft was matched only by his devotion to the Allied cause; Clara de Chambrun, caretaker of the American Library of Paris and detester of both the Nazi invaders and the French résistants; and Sylvia Beach, proprietor of the bookstore Shakespeare & Company and tireless friend of literary giants James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. But by far the most complex and perplexing character is Charles Bedaux, introduced here as "le millionaire américain." His business exploits, fueled by an entrepreneurial spirit that launched him to wealth and status as an "efficiency engineer," consumed all his energies and, eventually, himself.

Although born in France in 1886, Bedaux was naturalized as an American in 1917 and quickly went to work establishing himself as a consultant. While living in St. Louis, Bedaux had an epiphany: "'I soon found that engineers had assigned units of measurement to power of all sorts -- fuel, water, electrical. Why, I wondered, couldn't a wholly scientific and mathematical measurement of manpower be ascertained?'" As Glass then goes on to explain, the narcissistic Bedaux soon created just such a unit of measurement, and dubbed it the 'B' unit, for 'Bedaux.' What the businessman lacked in tact, however, he more than compensated for in ingenuity, as his modification of Charles Winslow Taylor's efficiency methods led to Bedaux's ascension to the upper rungs of not simply the American, but also the European, social ladder.

It was Bedaux's association with unsavory individuals and regimes that eventually led to his demise -- socially, financially, and even physically. Ultimately, his failures could be traced to his underlying philosophy, an either amoral or immoral worldview (depending on the reader's own) that found its simplest expression in Bedaux's own words: "'A man loves his country. He makes laws for the glory of the flag. He traces the outline of a national ideal he would like to live up to, but his stomach, his need for trade are essentially international. He is a patriot, and a sincere one, but when his money is concerned, he blissfully commits treason.'" Such unabashedly self-interested sentiments, while easily in keeping with modern corporate behavior, are nevertheless as shocking to read openly in a book as they must have been when they were first enunciated decades ago.

And yet the actions of Charles Bedaux were not, in any strict sense of the term, treasonous. (As Charles Glass notes, Bedaux was guilty of "trading with the enemy," however.) In fact, as the reader discovers late in the book, the ever business-minded Bedaux did take sides in ways that were not immediately apparent as the war dragged on. History is a harsh arbiter, and what made sense at the time will be dissected in ivory towers and living rooms for generations. Perhaps this is the lesson learned from the arguably collaborationist activities of Clara de Chambrun's son and his wife as well. Indeed, there are innumerable aspects of wartime decision-making that eventually become permanently etched into lore as gallantry or cowardice, loyalty or betrayal. But in these delicate moments, in which every second marks the making of history, one's legacy is hardly a consideration.