CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA — News of the April 6 death of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisian independence leader and that nation's first president, recalls the role in his life of an American diplomat, Hooker A. Doolittle.
Mr. Doolittle was the US charge d'affaires in Karachi when I served there in the late 1940s. With his clipped grey moustache and his white hair, he could have been taken for a British colonel. But he was thoroughly American and had sacrificed much for his country. He lost his household effects three times - in the Russian Revolution, in the Spanish civil war, and in Tunisia in World War II. And throughout many assignments, he displayed an independent streak often unappreciated in the Department of State.
He first encountered Bourguiba in Tunisia. Since 1880, Tunisia had been a protectorate of Paris. But the desire for independence never died and, after World War I, an independence movement developed. In 1934, Bourguiba, a lawyer, took over a more radical wing of the movement and ultimately emerged as the recognized independence leader. He broadened the popular base of the nationalist movement and, anticipating French suppression, organized alternative sets of nationalist- party executives.
During World War II, France, whether under Vichy or Charles de Gaulle's interim government, was not ready to consider independence for its colonies and protectorates in North Africa. From the early 1930s, France had seen Bourguiba as a serious threat, especially when, as a Paris-trained lawyer, he skillfully parried the many French interrogations. He was imprisoned from 1934 to 1936 and from 1938 to 1942. His political activism and fiery speeches when he was out of prison soon established him as the primary leader in Tunisia's struggle for freedom.
In 1942, the same year the Germans occupied France, Doolittle was US consul general in Tunis. Bourguiba, then in prison in Lyon, was freed by the Germans and turned over to the Italians who, permitted him to return to Tunis. But in May 1943, the Allies retook Tunis with the Free French, who were no less determined than those in Vichy to retain their colonial empire.
Upon his return, Bourguiba issued a manifesto urging Franco-Tunisian cooperation. It didn't move Gen. Alphonse Juin, de Gaulle's resident-general in Tunis, who ordered legal proceedings against Bourguiba. At this point, Doolittle entered the picture. Bourguiba, believing that the Americans were a better assurance of freedom, approached Doolittle and asked for his intervention. Doolittle visited General Juin and, stressing the North African's friendly manifesto, urged proceedings against him be dropped. One biographer of Bourguiba said, "Juin reluctantly agreed and allowed Bourguiba to settle his affairs with the police and accepted that he had the strong protection of the United States."
Bourguiba remained free in Tunis although restricted by the French from political activity and from leaving the country. In March 1945, uncertain of his fate at the end of the war, he fled in disguise to Egypt, aided by Mrs. Doolittle. By that time, Hooker Doolittle had become US consul general in Alexandria, Egypt. In that capacity, he did one final favor for Bourguiba in issuing him, over French objections, a US visa so he could attend the United Nations organizing session in San Francisco.
Bourguiba went on to lead Tunisia to independence and to become its first president, a moderate Arab leader, and a close friend of Washington. He never forgot Hooker Doolittle. On each of several visits to Washington, he'd tell anyone who would listen of "my great friend Hooker, who saved my life."
What the Doolittles did for Bourguiba was undoubtedly done without instructions from Washington, then concerned with avoiding destabilizing a post-war France threatened by a large Communist Party. With his streak of independence, Doolittle never became an ambassador. But, as he once told me, "I have no regrets; I have made contributions to history."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society