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Jacques Cousteau

bracing for the revisionism and perhaps, eventually, the truth about a secretive man

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, June 25, 1997.

In the 1960’s, a cousin of mine worked for the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. She was a secretary - quaint term now - and I do not recall exactly what she did beyond the fact that she assisted projects involving Jacques Cousteau and she got to set foot on the Calypso, the old mine layer that became a mythic symbol to the environmental movement. She met Cousteau and a couple of his sons, including the one who died on a voyage, I believe, to the South Pole. This family tragedy was part of one of the National Geographic’s television episodes, and I remember it yet as Jacques Cousteau became a household cliché during those years, a grand old man saving the planet from polluters and expanding our understanding and appreciation of the value of the ocean ecosystem. It would not be too grandiose to suggest that Cousteau became a mythic, perhaps God-like figure to the young during those years.

Older folks, less interested in ecology, feted Cousteau for his invention of the aqua-lung, and his long, rather mysterious involvement in the French resistance during the Second World War. In short, a man whose credentials were exquisite in his bid to become a world icon. A freedom fighter, a brilliant scientist, and now sage of all time. Plus, he had this wonderful accent that made his narrations a simple joy to listen to in English, a lilt that charmed all audiences. When my cousin quit her job with the Society, her family was hurt and vaguely annoyed that this most wispy and tangential connection with Cousteau was now severed.

Cousteau died at the age of 87 today, after a long illness. It was brief announcement. Brace yourself for the funeral games that accompany the passing of the great. And brace yourself for an instant revision of his legacy, for Cousteau may stand for his generation’s and his country’s agony during the years of the Nazi occupation, which is to say that while Cousteau was indeed a patriotic Frenchman, he was also a collaborator with the Germans, and may have himself carried out missions against the English and Americans. It may have been much worse, for only his stature and deity like status of the last few years saved him from possible severe condemnation. Now, it will all come out, probably slowly and with great pain to the French.

In some ways, this is unfair. History, perhaps feeling guilty for the schlacking France took during the First World War, has been over lenient in presenting its role during the Second. Most people do not know that the French Navy fought against the English and Americans, at least until the invasion of North Africa in 1942. The famous French resistance was, in reality, non-existent beyond the communist cells, and the vast majority of French were compliantly living under the Nazis or their puppet, Vichy regime. This makes the awarding to Cousteau of the Legion of Honor for his resistance work somewhat puzzling, especially when specifics are lacking. Upper class, Catholic France was as cheerfully anti-Semitic as any nation in Europe, and Hitler’s phobias would have struck resonant chords; and apparently did, if recent revelations are any indication.

Cousteau, who had been puttering around with underwater breathing devices for a while, had always suggested that he couldn’t talk about his role during these years, and in any case would not, which led to the image of the good man, ever fighting the good fight, who had to put those images of war and horror in the service of the Allies behind him. There are those who suggest his hesitation to discuss those years was because he was guilty of war crimes on behalf of the Axis, and his invention itself, the aqualung, lent itself so well to secret and vicious warfare.

In keeping with the general pattern, the myth grew he had been doing something or other pretty heroic and secretly for the Allies. This is hard to believe, since the Allies would have been the first to champion one of their own, but no such stories or events have emerged even after fifty years and most official secrets of the war are no more. And the rumors have not been pretty, particularly involving attacks on the British fleet in Alexandria, once attributed to Italian saboteurs.

Here is an interesting philosophical debate. Stephen Spielberg suggested, in Schindler’s List, that even a self-centered, money-grubbing schmuck could seem a hero in retrospect if he only didn’t choose the worst of all possible choices available to him. Cousteau may serve a somewhat different sentence in the books. Here was a man who became a hero in passivity but who may have been a horror during the war, whose reputation as an educator and environmentalist are unsurpassed but may yet be revealed to have become a fawning sycophant to those with cash to build his saintly reputation among the people he had once fought on behalf of a horrible cause. It will be most interesting to trace the reputation of Jacques Cousteau over the next few years. It may not, however, be pleasant.

Regardless, credit where credit is due, and recall that Cousteau’s support has probably saved entire species and ecosystems, and his condemnation attracted public scrutiny where it deserved to be. His scientific research and discoveries, directly and inspired, are generally considered of great value, if for nothing else because it got the public’s attention and generated financial support.