French Kiss

How the Americans and French Fell In and Out of Love During the Cold War

Non-Fiction - Military
356 Pages
Reviewed on 05/14/2024
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    Book Review

Reviewed by K.C. Finn for Readers' Favorite

French Kiss is a work of non-fiction in the military, slice-of-life, and historical writing genres. Penned by author Steve Bassett, this fascinating book explores the rollercoaster romance between Americans and French during the Cold War at Dèols-Châteauroux Air Station (CHAS). Amid laughter and bizarre antics of high-ranking officers, the book delves into the black market, sex, love, and tears, showcasing how mutual acceptance triumphs over suspicion. Generous interviews and access to mementos unveil the human side of history, from generals' wives dancing naked to drunken kitchen workers. The base's last commander, a hard-drinking pilot, epitomizes the era with his demand for a fireplace to celebrate successful missions. Amidst liaisons in historical lodges and encounters with legendary prostitutes like Nine Fingers and Gigi, genuine stories of sorrow, betrayal, and kinship emerge, painting a vivid picture of life in the heart of France during a turbulent time.

Author Steve Bassett has crafted a work that’s like stepping into a time machine, whisking readers into an atmospheric and detailed bygone era filled with intrigue and passion, and best of all, it comes from real life. I loved the creativity put into this non-fiction narrative to give it a storytelling feel, whilst bringing together the personal anecdotes and larger historical context. This rich tapestry of human experiences takes place amidst the backdrop of the Cold War, which is described both from its top-down facts and figures viewpoint, but also from the realistic perspective of those enduring it as part of everyday life. The vivid descriptions of the base's atmosphere, from the raucous food fights to the trainloads of prostitutes, painted a rich picture of life at CHAS. What struck me most was the candidness and unsparing nature of the accounts, revealing the complexities of relationships between Americans and the French locals. The book not only entertains but also provides a nuanced understanding of how individuals navigated love, loyalty, and identity amid geopolitical tensions. Overall, French Kiss was a captivating journey that I would highly recommend, and it left me both enlightened and entertained.

Jamie Michele

French Kiss by Steve Bassett is a look into the transformative impact of the American presence in post-World War II France, particularly in Châteauroux, against the backdrop of the Cold War. Bassett discusses things like The Marshall Plan rejuvenating agriculture, and the military presence sparking propaganda wars with local communists. The evolution of social dynamics between Americans and locals is discussed, influencing everything from racial integration to personal relationships. Bassett recounts the stories of French women marrying GIs for opportunities in the U.S., alongside controversies and lively social scenes at CHAS. Bassett wades through historical events like the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War, and their shaping around American military bases. The closure of bases is shown to have brought economic uncertainty, as well as a continued debate, echoing the tangled legacy of American influence in France.

French Kiss by Steve Bassett effectively humanizes a time of historical significance by offering intimate insights into individual experiences, serving as microcosms of larger socio-cultural dynamics. The standout to me was things like the detailed descriptions of Châteauroux's bustling bar scene that provide a genuine look at post-World War II French life, where American and French cultures intersect at establishments like Madame Janine and Joe’s From Maine. These depictions provide readers with a tangible sense of the era's social dynamics. Bassett does well in shedding light on the America-France-Cold War connection, which may be overlooked by some, including myself, which is somewhat embarrassing given that I am an American expat living in Europe. I definitely found that Bassett's work enriched my understanding of this historical period. Bassett's comfortable writing style and the mix of academic yet accessible content ensure the book's appeal to history lovers and students alike.

Asher Syed

French Kiss: How the Americans and French Fell In and Out of Love During the Cold War by Steve Bassett is a chronicle of the unique dynamics at Dèols-Châteauroux Air Station (CHAS) in Central France. Shared by the people who know the stories by memory and heart, these vignettes include a wide range of pieces that all come together to form a collective history. Highs and lows of personal stories reveal deep sorrows, betrayals, and unexpected bonds forged between American military personnel and the French locals that went beyond racial and social barriers. Against the backdrop of geopolitical tensions and Communist propaganda, CHAS emerges as a flicker of past lights that shine with resilience and shared experiences, defying the specter of war until geopolitical shifts altered its fate in 1967.

French Kiss by Steve Bassett is an immersive journey through history's lesser-known corridors. There is no right or wrong side in it and Bassett has interviewed both Americans and French connected to the base. Despite the book's length, the storytelling pulls a reader in effortlessly and each anecdote is rich with authenticity and humanity. I couldn't help but recall snippets of similar tales shared by my grandfather. Coincidentally, it is an airport where my brother had some of his flight training also, half a century after our grandfather left. The pictures give another layer to the stories. French Kiss is not just a historical account; it's a real-life testament to the resilience of human connection despite adversity. Very highly recommended.

Gaius Konstantine

In the words of author Steve Bassett, “French Kiss is not a totally objective historical treatise.” I agree it is not. It is far more than that. French Kiss is a collage of memories featuring people that range from generals to prostitutes and everyone in between. During the onset of the Cold War, and due to the Marshall Plan and Truman doctrine, an American base was erected at Châteauroux, France. For some locals, this is a unique opportunity for a better life, courtesy of a slice of Americana in the form of a massive base in this French backwater. However, the Americans come along with their baggage, both good and bad. For the French communists in the region, it is an opportunity of a different kind as they get to face off against their foe. But when people must choose between a full belly and rousing yet inedible slogans, a happy stomach wins every single time.  

French Kiss by Steve Bassett is a unique book that delves into personal histories and goes beyond typical military history. The author presents these stories in a clear and almost relaxing manner, evoking a sense of nostalgia. The meticulous research that went into this book is impressive, and the scattered photographs throughout the narrative not only enhance reader immersion but also ensure that these beautiful moments in time are not lost. Apart from all the fascinating people, I also glimpsed a France healing physically and spiritually from the devastation of WW2. This book will interest not only Cold War historians and sociologists but also everyday American and French readers who want a glimpse of the recent past and an understanding of what has been gained and lost.

Grant Leishman

French Kiss: How the Americans and French Fell in and out of Love during the Cold War by Steve Bassett is an intensive look at the sixteen years, in the 50s and 60s, when the United States Air Force operated the Dèols-Châteauroux Air Station (CHAS) in the Berry region of Central France. This was the time of the Cold War and the Soviet Union saw France as one of the Western European countries it could influence and perhaps turn to communism. NATO determined that Western Europe needed a significant presence of member troops throughout Western Europe to try to curb Soviet expansionism. CHAS, in Central France, was to be one of the main distribution centers for equipment and supplies for bases all over Western Europe. A small rural area of France was suddenly inundated with thousands of American airmen and their families. Equally important for the impoverished rural area were the economic benefits and the jobs that would be provided for the local villagers. How did the locals cope with this non-violent invasion and how did the Americans adapt to living in an area where many despised their very presence? With over 250 hours of interviews and many photos, author Steve Bassett attempts to answer these questions.

French Kiss is a truly fascinating look at what happens when two very different cultures are thrown together and collide. Author Steve Bassett has not presented a narrative that merely tabulates the personnel, the equipment, and the expense that was the Dèols-Châteauroux Air Station but rather gives the reader a layered, more nuanced look at life on the airbase, how it impacted both the locals and the American military and civilian personnel. This is a social history of the airbase and the surrounding region which makes the book interesting and at times quite eye-opening. It was interesting to note how many of these young Americans fell in love with French girls and married them. The racial dynamic was also explored through these stories, which was critical, as it was a period of great turmoil and change in the military as it applied to racial lines. That this airbase and the time people spent there was so impactful on their lives is best summed up by the fact that reunions of the airbase personnel were being held some fifty years after the base’s closure. The author doesn’t shy away from talking about the seedier side of U.S. military involvement in other countries, with interviews with former prostitutes and those involved in the flourishing black market. As a social commentary on life in the 50s and 60s from two very differing perspectives, this is a wonderful read and one I can highly recommend.