Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France by John J. Miller and Mark Molesky (Doubleday, 304 pp., $24.95)
Why are relations between France and the United States so bad these days? After reading this book, one might be excused for wondering when they were ever good. Certainly not since the American Revolution, is the final verdict, and not really even then.
Our Oldest Enemy, a collaboration between National Review’s John Miller and historian Mark Molesky, is popular revisionist history in the best sense, a reexamination of the turbulent relationship between France and America in light of recent events, particularly the war in Iraq. It recounts much that has been forgotten by or hidden from the general reader, while letting him see the familiar, such as the liberation of France in World War II, from a fresh angle. The authors have an ax to grind: but it is a wickedly sharp, carefully honed ax. Miller and Molesky may overstate their case with their title, but no one after reading the book will fall for the notion of France as “our oldest ally” again. According to Miller and Molesky, it’s been hate at first sight.
The ugliness began in the early 18th century, when American settlers became pawns in the struggle between France and Britain in the New World. Since the French liked to goad their Indian allies into massacring entire settlements, including women and children, the colonists learned to hate the Gallic sponsors of the terrorism in their midst, in this case terror with tomahawks instead of car bombs. The French returned the enmity with interest:
Propagandists denounced George Washington, the young colonel of the Virginia militia who fought against them at Fort Necessity in 1754, as a coward and “assassin” (of course, when it suited them later in the American Revolution, they buried the hatchet and hailed him as a hero).
It was fear and loathing of the French, not of the British, that first encouraged the 13 colonies to draw together for mutual support against the threat on their frontier. By 1763 France had lost the war, and its hopes of an American empire; but those hopes revived when the colonists and the British Crown came to blows in 1776. It was revenge, not love of American liberty, that prompted the French to support the Founding Fathers–and it did so only after the colonists’ victory at Saratoga had proven to the French that they would be backing a winner. The one sincere standard-bearer of Franco-American comity, the Marquis de Lafayette, was reviled and ridiculed in his own country; and after independence was won, America would fight its first war as a fledgling republic against its erstwhile ally.
From 1798 to 1800, France and the United States fought an undeclared war at sea, with French privateers shamelessly looting American merchants and with the republic’s new navy–led by “Old Ironsides,” the USS Constitution–getting its baptism of fire and capturing more than 80 French vessels. Even after the last shot was fired, the issue of compensation for American merchants whom the French had ruined would drag on and poison relations between the two countries into the 1830s. “It is high time,” said Andrew Jackson after long and bitter experience, “that this arrogance of France be put down.” Only the threat of war finally forced the French to pay up–but not before they had demanded an apology from Jackson. “Apologize!” he exclaimed. “I’d see the whole race roasting in hell first!”
Abraham Lincoln would have agreed with the sentiment, if not the language. He found himself constantly vexed by Napoleon III’s efforts to establish an empire in Mexico under the ill-fated Prince Maximilian and his support for the Confederacy. This same Napoleon had the idea of a French canal in Panama, to sever the United States from Latin America and to revive France’s already-shrinking global role; but the effort was, as we all know, in vain. France’s hopes of becoming the world’s leading power were crushed with the fall of Quebec in 1759, and crushed again at Trafalgar 46 years later. Its hopes of at least dominating Europe vanished with Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig in 1813, to which its humiliating collapse in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 put the permanent seal.
Ever since, a bitter sense of thwarted destiny has been the directing demon of France’s foreign policy; it has been exacerbated by the secret shame of not only having failed to stop Hitler’s Third Reich but–after 1940–having actively connived in his domination of Europe and destruction of the Jews. This bitterness has manifested itself in a ceaseless hostility not just to America’s geopolitical strength but even to its popular culture, which French elites (though not the French public) view as a cancer spreading across their land. “The Americans constitute a real danger to France,” wrote the founder of France’s most prestigious newspaper, Le Monde . . . on the eve of the D-Day landings in 1944.
So why can’t the French forget the past and just face reality? That is the question Miller and Molesky leave open. They see the problem as stemming from the “long shadow” of Napoleon Bonaparte, a nostalgic desire to reclaim the power and prestige that his empire once gave France. But everything suggests the issue goes deeper than that.
France has been at odds with the Anglo-Saxon world almost as long as there has been a France. It was in the 12th century that the Abbé Suger first said, “The English are bound by natural and moral law to be subject to the French and not contrariwise.” Both nations tested that proposition throughout the Middle Ages; in the modern era, they grappled for world dominance. After World War II, America became the heir to the Pax Britannica against which French rulers had fought, schemed, and plotted in vain for upwards of 300 years, and inherited with it France’s unyielding enmity. The French and Indian Wars, Bonaparte’s effort to break Britain with his Continental System, Napoleon III’s grandiose canal projects for Suez and Panama, de Gaulle’s closing of American bases in France, and Jacques Chirac’s support for Saddam Hussein and threatened vetoes in the Security Council all form part of a single historical impulse: to break the hold Anglo-Saxon values have over so much of the world.
Only once, in 1904, did France manage to set aside its ancient grudge, when it had to confront a much more menacing foe: Germany. It could easily have reached an accord with its eastern neighbor, and made the world safe for Prussian militarism and imperialism. Instead, it chose to sign the Entente Cordiale with Britain, making France, in historian A. J. P. Taylor’s words, “democracy’s hostage on the European continent”–and the front line when war broke out a decade later. For four years France paid a terrible price for that decision. Its northeastern portions were devastated, its economy reduced to a shambles, and 1.5 million–almost 10 percent of the adult male population–killed in the trenches. With unbelievable courage, France gave up not only its sons (three in a single family was not uncommon), fathers, and brothers, but its present and future prosperity, for the sake of Europe’s freedom.
It was a conscious act of self-sacrifice without parallel in modern history. In 1940, the French were asked to make the sacrifice again and chose not to. It is hard to blame them. Today, they have come to believe their own reputation: that they are born cynics and too worldly and sophisticated to be anything but self-interested. It was not always thus. Miller and Molesky relate Prime Minister Clemenceau’s reaction when the great German offensive of 1918 was closing on Paris and his cabinet wanted to leave the city. “Yes,” he agreed, “we are too far from the front.” That is the spirit that saves democratic civilization–and will save it again.
–Mr. Herman is the author of How the Scots Invented the Modern World. His latest book, To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World, will be released in November.