Talk of attempted coups d’état is novel for Washington but remains in France’s recent historical memory. In the “Generals’ Putsch” of April 1961, elite regiments took control of Algiers, threatening to overturn the government in Paris. There, thousands of citizens filled the streets, prepared to resist. But had a U.S. Army spy already saved French democracy? —W.S.

The spring of 1957 found both Charles de Gaulle and Ronald D. Flack of Cloquet, Minnesota, in bad ways. The French hero of World War II was vegetating in isolation in a tiny French village hours from Paris, his political movement dispersed and future bleak. For Flack, a recent University of Minnesota grad, the view was even bleaker: piles of paperwork at a Wisconsin J. C. Penney, as he awaited his draft notice.

History, however, would soon join their destinies—and, perhaps, save de Gaulle’s. History moved first for Flack. His draft notice arrived and he reported for basic training at Fort Smith, Arkansas. Tall, rail thin, resembling a young Jimmy Stewart, Flack had then, as now, a soft-spoken manner suited for winning confidences. Perhaps that, along with a top score in army tests, led to his recruitment by the U.S. Army’s elite Counter Intelligence Corps (C.I.C.), whose earlier agents included Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller, and J. D. Salinger. (The classic Salinger short story “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor” is partly that of an intelligence officer’s nervous breakdown.)

The Quiet American: Ronald D. Flack in LaRochelle in 1959

Though dubbed “G-men in khaki” for their counter-intelligence function (comparable to the F.B.I.’s, domestically), C.I.C. agents like Flack in fact wore, like G-men, suit and tie. After training in counter-intelligence techniques, Flack was sent for immersion in French at the army’s language school in Monterey, California. He was then posted as “resident special agent” at the Army Signal Corps base at Saumur in the Loire Valley, the heart of France’s aristocratic military tradition.

The James Bond of the Loire

From his C.I.C. predecessor, the neophyte spy inherited a spacious apartment, the keys to a Simca Aronde sedan, an office safe holding a Colt .38 Detective Special, and a valuable “legal” (i.e., not covert) informant named Serge. Serge was a young electronics engineer at the base who, orphaned in the war, yearned to emigrate to North America. He introduced Flack to a cute blonde local girl, Danièle—another Grace Kelly, her friends said—who included him in her social-set gathering at family châteaux around Saumur. The scene reminded Flack of the young decadents in Marcel Carné’s hit 1958 film, Les Tricheurs (Youthful Sinners), though the “sin” was mostly of the dancing kind.

Danièle and Ron dancing at a New Year’s Eve party hosted by Ron in his apartment, 1959.

It was through Serge, whose mother died in the Holocaust and father in combat with the Foreign Legion, that Flack’s world approached de Gaulle’s. Serge had been taken in by the Bretagne family, who occupied a nearby château which France’s Justice Ministry used as a weekend retreat for ministry officials. (A Le Monde article from the period put “château” in quote marks: “this ‘château’ is a rather ugly two-story building … from circa 1830,” it sniffed.)

Madame Collette Bretagne administered the château for the Justice Ministry. Its staff was on loan from a nearby prison—the chef had been convicted for murdering his wife, the bookkeeper, for embezzlement. Flack soon became a regular at the Bretagnes’ Sunday lunches, fascinated by the table talk of literature, culture, and religion, as well as the family’s long military tradition. Madame Bretagne’s family’s losses in World War II had been especially severe: three brothers and two brothers-in-law dead. Her husband, Jacques, had been killed in combat in November 1944. She was left with three small children and the key support of a surviving brother, Count Henri-Marie Guy Grout de Beaufort, who had become President de Gaulle’s military chief of staff.

Tall, rail thin, resembling a young Jimmy Stewart, Flack had then, as now, a soft-spoken manner suited for winning confidences.

Intrigued to learn of the general’s role, Flack asked to meet him, and in June 1960 the general invited him to stay at the Beaufort château in Brittany. Flack had no need to employ subtle C.I.C. interrogation techniques that weekend—the general was cordial and seemed to speak with openness and candor. Asked which candidate de Gaulle preferred in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, the general answered, “Nixon,” without hesitation, explaining that de Gaulle had met and “admired” Nixon during his recent state visit to Washington.

Flack reported on the weekend to his C.I.C. superiors, who were astonished to learn that their man in Saumur was having confidential talks with such a high official. But there was much they did not know: General Henri Marie Guy Grout de Beaufort was more than a well-placed figure. He was also a surprisingly dangerous man—a central character in various perilous changes of regime, including at least one assassination plot.

A postcard of the Château de Turquant. The château was used as the Ministry of Justice’s rest house.

Following France’s 1940 defeat, Beaufort was in the nucleus of resistance fighters in the Organisation de Résistance de l’Armée, or O.R.A., serving on the staff of Admiral François Darlan, the head of Vichy’s military. Beaufort claimed to have been party to an early resistance plot to assassinate the admiral, then seen as an arch-traitor and Nazi collaborator. (The admiral who commanded Free French naval forces, an old comrade of Darlan’s, vetoed the plan.)

For France and the allies it was probably fortunate that Darlan survived. In 1942, Beaufort coordinated with resistance circles in Algiers to use Darlan as a lever to bring France’s overseas forces back into the war on the Allied side. The plan worked, greatly aiding the Allied cause. One of Darlan’s first acts after being confirmed by the Allies as commander of French forces in Africa was to send Beaufort to Gibraltar as his representative to de Gaulle’s Free French Forces.

Beaufort finished the war with a heroic record, leading an armored regiment in the liberation of France and earning seven battle citations. Over the following years he rose to general, moving smoothly between military, government, and diplomatic assignments.

The spring of 1958 found Beaufort at the center of another change of regime. France’s postwar Fourth Republic had seen many governments fall, but that spring’s crisis was graver, made ominous by a rebellious military which feared the abandonment of French Algeria, where a large European population (1.6 million) was passionately devoted to its remaining French (l’Algérie française). From his key post as deputy to the chief of France’s armed forces, Beaufort maneuvered between military and government circles, “intoxicating” political leaders with warnings of an army takeover—the so-called “Opération résurrection”—while also, secretly, leading it.

General de Beaufort in 1958, around the time he became de Gaulle’s chief of staff.

Michel Debré, leader of the parliamentarians loyal to de Gaulle, first met General de Beaufort when Debré led a delegation to the Élysée Palace to lobby President René Coty for de Gaulle’s return. The next day the general came to Debré’s office and astonished him with a detailed outline of Opération résurrection.

The army, Beaufort told Debré, “had decided to put an end to the regime and would not go back on its decision.” Commanders in four regions as well as Algiers were committed to move: paratroopers and airborne units would converge on Paris. Beaufort himself was to command in Paris, with armored units securing the airports for the paratroops’ arrival.

His C.I.C. superiors were astonished to learn that their man in Saumur was having confidential talks with such a well-placed figure.

“Finally a serious plan!,” Debré recalled in his memoirs. “I rejoiced to have before me a collaborator who appeared to have the world in his hands. He seemed informed of everything, knowing everyone’s movements. His support was precious, as was the support of those in whose name he spoke.”

An Ultimatum

Beaufort gave President Coty an ultimatum: Call de Gaulle to form a government by May 29 or Opération résurrection would begin the next day. Coty met the deadline: on June 1 the National Assembly made de Gaulle prime minister.

That fall the new constitution de Gaulle backed won with over 82 percent support. Beaufort was promoted to four-star general. At the start of January 1959 de Gaulle assumed a greatly strengthened presidency, naming Debré prime minister and Beaufort his military chief of staff.

But the honeymoon of national unity would not last. In a September 1959 speech, de Gaulle opened the door to Algerian independence—precisely the policy the partisans of l’Algérie française brought him to power to block.

In Saumur, Flack saw the Bretagnes turn passionately against the government while their uncle remained, tensely, within it, believing that de Gaulle would still change course. The younger Bretagne son, Bernard, still a teenager, confided to Flack that he was working with a group to assassinate de Gaulle—Flack let his mother know, and together they talked him out of the crazy plot.

Beaufort’s own loyalty would fray during the January 1960 “Week of the Barricades,” an Algérie française uprising in Algiers which turned bloody. De Gaulle ordered it crushed, an aide telling Beaufort: “All this must be resolved this evening! The sun shouldn’t rise on the barricades!”

Beaufort shouted back: “It would be 3,000 dead—and de Gaulle would be packing his bags, if there were still time!”

Pieds noirs with de Gaulle and Soustelle posters in Algiers in 1958.

Tensions at the Élysée grew so bitter that the civilian staff started carrying guns and barred Beaufort’s aides from their offices. At one point Beaufort and the armed forces’ commander confronted Debré to persuade de Gaulle to modify his policy, without success. Finally, rain, fatigue, and local officials’ delaying tactics waited out the revolt without further bloodshed. Beaufort let it be known he would resign. By April he left the Élysée to head the Institute of Advanced Studies in National Defense across the Seine at the École militaire, a hotbed of dissent. Over the next months, Beaufort’s confidential remarks to intimates about de Gaulle became even more bitter.

One Sunday in the latter half of 1960 remains etched in Flack’s memory. At lunch, Madame Bretagne left the table to take General de Beaufort’s call. After a long interval she returned to the table, pale and subdued—apparently truly shocked. For a time she was silent, then turned to Flack and asked him a series of questions about emigration to the United States.

Commanders in four regions as well as Algiers were committed to move: paratroopers would converge on Paris.

Flack was astonished. For this most traditional of French families suddenly to consider emigration? Who might need to flee, and why? Beaufort’s disillusion with de Gaulle was known. Did the call represent the passing from anger to action?

“I remember thinking, over and over, de Gaulle is in danger,” Flack recalls. “I went directly to my office at the Saumur base and typed a confidential report.” The next morning he called the C.I.C.’s regional headquarters—”I’m coming with something important”—and drove to Poitiers to deliver it by hand.

A Fateful Weekend

On the weekend of April 22, 1961, French Army units under the leadership of four recently retired five-star generals seized key posts in Algiers—the “Generals’ Putsch” had begun. With hundreds of officers involved, it would be the most serious French military insurrection since Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s in 1851.

Unlike May 1958, when threats had sufficed, this time tanks rolled, with the rebels in Algiers arresting high-ranking officers and officials. But unlike 1958, there was no effective leader in Paris, no Beaufort or Opération résurrection. In fact, one of the government’s first moves was to arrest General de Beaufort, detaining him under guard in one of the Defense Ministry’s apartments in Paris.

“What’s grave in this affair is that it’s not serious,” de Gaulle told his Cabinet, minimizing the putsch and ridiculing its leaders. But to most it looked very serious, with one grave but at the time little-known danger: a prototype French atomic bomb, set to be tested in the Sahara at the end of April, had fallen under rebel control.

“Don’t explode your little bomb,” the coup’s leader, General Maurice Challe, ordered the local commander. “Keep it for us—it could always be useful.”

To foil the putschists, the test’s date was secretly advanced, while the test director had the device’s core slipped to the site in an engineer’s humble Citroën 2CV “deux chevaux” rather than in the usual heavily armed convoy. The ruses worked. The putsch’s most dangerous bargaining chip went up in smoke at dawn on April 25.

Cover of a 45 r.p.m. record containing General de Gaulle’s speech ahead of the referendum on independence in Algeria, 1960.

Another technological advance undermined the putsch—the new, portable transistor radios on which the draftees filling French Army ranks heard de Gaulle’s call for them to repudiate the rebel commanders. Lacking support from the ranks, the putsch in Algeria stalled, while in Paris, lacking a leader such as Beaufort, it fizzled before it began.

“I remember thinking, over and over, de Gaulle is in danger.”

Consequences were heavy for those involved. Nine officers received death sentences, later commuted to prison time. In all, 220 officers were arrested, 114 were tried, and 83 convicted.

For his C.I.C. service, Flack received two letters of commendation—with his commanding officer in Poitiers further commending him for providing the “key piece to an intelligence puzzle being put together by the CIC and the CIA as to a potential coup against de Gaulle and who would be involved.”

That intelligence puzzle’s details remain unknown, beyond word that Flack’s C.I.C. report had been passed to the C.I.A. and been key. Flack understands that Amory Houghton, the Corning Glass Works heir who was Eisenhower’s ambassador to France and whose sympathies for de Gaulle were known, gave him the information privately.

Confirmation of the suspicions surrounding Beaufort came with the publication of Maurice Vaïsse’s new history, Le Putsch d’Alger, on the putsch’s 60th anniversary last spring. “Treachery and complicity at the highest level truly menaced the state,” Vaïsse writes, citing Beaufort, whose disaffection ran so deep he privately accused de Gaulle of wanting to “install Communism in France.”

Perhaps alluding to the C.I.C.-C.I.A. report, Vaïsse adds: “Of the temptation to treachery there were other echos coming from abroad.” Though detained at the putsch’s start, General de Beaufort was never prosecuted. He resigned his post and was allowed to retire from the army quietly later that year. U.S. support for de Gaulle was reciprocated during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. President Kennedy had sent Dean Acheson, armed with detailed U-2 photos, to seek de Gaulle’s support for his decision to blockade Cuba. De Gaulle waived aside the photos and said, “You may tell your President that France will support him in every way in this crisis.”

Back to Minnesota

After his three-year stint in the C.I.C., Flack returned to Minnesota with no clear plan, beyond proposing to Danièle—“long overdue,” she thought. Preparing to marry, Flack went to canvass job opportunities at the state employment office in Duluth, where he learned a State Department rep had recently visited.

“You sound like someone they might be interested in,” the counselor said, handing him Foreign Service brochures. The Foreign Service exam was to be held in Minneapolis, and Flack was going there for a party anyway, so he decided to chance it. To his great surprise he passed both the written exam and a later oral one.

He and Danièle married in Saumur in 1961, with the Bretagnes attending. But he faced a problem: the Foreign Service required that the spouses of officers be American citizens. Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey’s office came to their rescue, finding a precedent for Danièle to get her citizenship on an expedited basis. On Valentine’s Day in 1962, Danièle became an American citizen. The next month Flack began a successful 37-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service—including a tough stint in the grim republic Algeria had become.

After retirement, he and Danièle settled in Paris, where I had lunch with them last year. Asked whether he had felt torn in his loyalty to the Bretagnes—while they were alive he never discussed the episode—he didn’t reply but later wrote in an e-mail that he considered it precisely his duty: “All of the actors knew perfectly well who I was and what I did. They knew I was with American Military Intelligence and that anything they told me was being reported. When I learned in 1961 what had happened and that Beaufort had been arrested (albeit briefly) I do not remember having felt remorse, only pride in having done my duty and helped de Gaulle.”

As a sort of postscript, an article appeared in the newspaper Ouest France in 2015 under the headline 50 years later, the General Would Be Proud of His Orchard. It celebrates the vast orchard, originally more than 66 acres, that General de Beaufort planted in Brittany after he retired from the army in 1961, introducing Algerian apple species that he knew from his time in North Africa during the war.

Whit Stillman is a film writer-director (Metropolitan, Barcelona) and novelist