Oh My! The French Don't Like Us (Again)

News Abroad

Mr. Fleming's latest book is The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I (Basic Books, 2003). He is a member of the board of directors of HNN.

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Journalists and TV pundits who have been wringing their hands over America's unpopularity in France because of the war in Iraq are badly in need of a history lesson. Disillusion on both sides of this international equation goes back to 1778, the year that France signed a treaty of alliance with the infant United States, promising to fight the British until the Americans won their war for independence.

The French sent a fleet to American waters and Washington rushed his army to British-held New York, ready to attack the city with every man he could scrape together, supported by the Gallic ships-of-the-line. But the French admiral decided it was too risky to fight his way through the Narrows against the much smaller British squadron.

Washington asked the admiral to support an attack on British held Newport, Rhode Island. This time the admiral showed up and the Americans ferried an army to Adquidneck Island for the assault. A British fleet appeared offshore and the admiral sailed out to fight them. A storm disrupted the battle and damaged several ships. The admiral decided to retreat to Boston, abandoning the Americans on Aquidneck to fight for their lives with their backs to the water. They managed to beat off the British assaults and extricate their army but it was an inglorious end to a hoped-for victory.

In Boston, enraged Americans beat up French officers on the streets. The admiral sailed off to the West Indies in a huff. Helping the Americans was only a minor flourish in his game plan. France's eyes were on the British "sugar islands" of the Caribbean, worth millions in annual revenue. The American war was a sideshow.

Three years later, another French fleet made a foray from the West Indies to escape the hurricane season and helped trap a British army at Yorktown, Virginia. The victory ended the fighting war. This historic ambuscade was a near miraculous concatenation of good luck. It may have been what Washington was thinking about when he later attributed American independence to divine providence.

Peace negotiations found the American diplomats as suspicious of the French as they were of the British -- with good reason. Paris was aswirl with rumors that the French, who were negotiating separately, were ready to give the British all sorts of footholds in American territory in return for concessions in the West Indies and elsewhere. The Americans negotiated a separate peace, winning total independence, and told the French about it after they signed the treaty. Only soothing syrup from worldly wise Benjamin Franklin straightened the out-of-joint French noses.

When France exploded into revolution a few years later and went to war with England, President Washington declared America neutral. The French were outraged. They insisted the treaty of alliance was still in effect. But Washington reasoned that the French republic was a new and very different country, which had decapitated King Louis XVI, the man who signed the 1778 treaty.

The French sent an ambassador named Edmond Genet to the United States. He was barely ashore before he began creating "Democratic Societies" that talked of attacking the rich and overthrowing George Washington. Even Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, a passionate supporter of the French Revolution, was dismayed. Washington soon demolished Genet but relations between the two republics went into a downward spiral as the French Revolution degenerated into Robespierre's reign of terror, which slaughtered tens of thousands of innocent people.

By the late 1790s, the French were losing the war with England and were in a very ugly mood. They began seizing American merchant ships on the high seas as punishment for being a bad ally -- and to replenish their almost empty exchequer. When the United States sent negotiators to defuse the crisis, the French delegation demanded a huge bribe before they agreed to say a word. "No, not a sixpence," replied the Americans, which was improved to "Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute!" Soon the two nations were fighting an undeclared war on the ocean and America raised an army to oppose a possible French invasion.

Things did not improve when the French Revolution evolved into Napoleon Bonaparte's dictatorship. While battering the weary British into signing a peace treaty, the "Man of Destiny" browbeat the Spanish into ceding to France the vast Louisiana Territory and laid plans to ship an army of 20,000 men to garrison it. The goal was to create "a wall of brass" along the Mississippi that would halt America's westward expansion. At Bonaparte's side was his amazingly corrupt foreign minister, Talleyrand, who exulted when Napoleon gave him the job: "I am going to become very rich!"

Renewed war with England forced Napoleon to sell Louisiana to the United States. There was not a trace of benevolence or friendship in this decision. Napoleon told several insiders that after he defeated England, he would go to work on the trans-Mississippi Americans and bribe them into setting up a French satellite state. Things did not work out that way, but by the time the Corsican-born dictator was exiled to St. Helena, militarism was known around the world as "the French disease."

During the Civil War, France flirted with supporting the Confederacy. In 1864, an expeditionary force of French troops established the Austrian nobleman, Maximillian, as emperor of Mexico, with the backing of ultra conservative Mexicans. As soon as the war ended, the United States let Paris know what it thought of this violation of the Monroe Doctrine. Major General Philip Sheridan and 50,000 battle tried veterans advanced menacingly to the Rio Grande. The French troops hastily went home, Maximillian's papier mache empire collapsed, and he was shot by the disgusted Mexicans.

In 1870, when France went to war with a newly united Germany. The American ambassador to Paris declared the war was begun by French aggression and all but cheered when the Germans smashed the French army flat in a war that lasted only a few months.

Fast forward to 1917. Once more the French were fighting Germany, with the British propaganda machine and the British army on their side -- sort of. Riots between French and British officers in Paris frequently required a squadron of gendarmes to quash. Anglophile Woodrow Wilson, after 32 months of supposed neutrality, during which America sold billions of dollars of weaponry and ammunition to the two quasi-allies, joined the war with the illusion that it was good as won. He assumed the United State would not have to send more than a token force to France.

A month later, a French delegation showed up in Washington D.C. led by Field Marshal Joseph Joffre. The first words out of his mouth were: "We want men, men, men!" (The British were right behind them saying the same thing.) They didn't want an American army. They wanted the Americans to ship them raw draftees that they would train and rush into their armies as prime cannon fodder. At this point, Joffre had killed almost a million Frenchmen. The French army had mutinied and was in a state of "collective indiscipline" -- only two divisions were considered reliable. The British were demoralized by more than a million dead and wounded in their own army.

The Americans demurred at becoming cannon fodder and shipped an independent 2.000,000 man army to France that won the war. Afterward, when the doughboys became part of the army of occupation in Germany, they made a shocking discovery: They liked the Germans far more than the French. The Yanks deplored the way the French (and British) went out of their way to humiliate the Germans. John J. Pershing, the American commander, called it "kicking a man when he was down."

In the 1919 peace negotiations, the French delegation mocked Woodrow Wilson's idealistic Fourteen Points for a just and lasting peace and insisted on a vengeful treaty that sowed the seeds of World War II. How much Wilson grew to loathe them became vividly visible when President Raymond Poincare of France invited him to a farewell banquet to celebrate the signing of the treaty. The president flatly refused to go. In colorful (for him) language, he expressed his intense dislike for the pompous president, who had been the hardest of the French hard liners in the demand for a punitive peace. Wilson told his chief advisor, Colonel Edward Mandell House, he would "choke" if he sat at the table with Poincare. Only frantic efforts on the part of Colonel House and other Americans changed Wilson's mind.

In 1940, while a disillusioned America sat on the sidelines, the Germans won the victory over France that America had denied them in 1918. Only Herculean persuasion by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the unexpected assistance of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor got the Americans into the war.

From the wreckage of the 1940 defeat rose exiled General Charles de Gaulle, who struggled to revive French pride by demanding the Allies treat him as an equal, even though he had no army or navy or air force and millions of Frenchmen were collaborating with Hitler. Churchill and Roosevelt soon grew to detest "Le Grand Charles" but he managed to win France a precarious foothold in the peace settlement. Thereafter he remained a thorn in America's diplomatic side, withdrawing France from NATO, pursuing his own nuclear bomb program and generally struggling to assert the "gloire" that France had irretrievably lost. The current French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, is continuing this grandiose tradition. He has written several books extravagantly praising Napoleon Bonaparte, a sure sign of historical imbalance.

Does this mean we should call French Fries liberty potatoes and stop drinking French wine? That stirs echoes of the sort of idiocy that swept the country during World War I, when superpatriots demanded that hamburgers be renamed "liberty sandwiches" and sauerkraut "liberty cabbage."

No, all we need to do is be clear eyed about the limitations of French politicians when they venture into foreign policy and remember that nations do not behave like individuals. Beneath the posturing on both sides lie bonds forged by tens of thousands of individual Frenchmen and Americans.

On a 1968 visit to the Argonne Forest, where my father had fought in 1918, I lost a ring he had given to me on his deathbed. Thirty years later, a young Frenchman, Gil Malmasson, found it and went to a great deal of trouble to return it to me. When I visited Gil in France, I asked him why he had done it. "Because you saved France from the Germans twice," he said. Beside him, his father and brother nodded agreement.

Together we visited the huge American cemetery in the Argonne, and the immense French cemetery at nearby Verdun. We parted knowing we shared a heritage of sacrifice and courage, no matter what the politicians said.


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More Comments:

Brett Owens - 12/11/2003

You are the one in bad need of a history lesson!! The french would be speaking German if it werent for America!! Get your facts straight before you start poting stuff like this on a website!!

HERMELIN Christophe - 10/9/2003

french people were opposed to an action unilateralist in iraq
never in media you insulted your country or leader, but you yes..
we would like an aggrement of UNO for the war,
US refused and now the want the intervention of others armies becanse yours boys died by the want to control these armies...
it can be accepted you made the war alone but now you want the money of other coutries tu rebuilt Iraq
then the reasons to make the war were blured, you administration said that Iraq and Al Quaida were linked but it is wrong..
I an not agred whit your foreign policy and your administration but not again US people. In fact when the war has began french people have not change the word america in freedom lijke you

i an sorry for my mistake in englih but it is not my native langage, i am french
please send me answer on this subject to me e-mail adress


thank you and bye

bashful frog - 8/9/2003

NYguy wrote
"they (the French) carried on, or permitted, a reign of terror that deprived citizens of their live and freedom. Particularly in Haiti where people received a tire necklace if they were on the wrong side. "

Tires ? In Napoleon's time? I thought Dunlop and Michelin started business at the middle of the 19th century (with bicycles tires).Check the date of Haiti's independance !

bashful frog - 8/9/2003

NYguy wrote
"they (the French) carried on, or permitted, a reign of terror that deprived citizens of their live and freedom. Particularly in Haiti where people received a tire necklace if they were on the wrong side. "

Tires ? In Napoleon's time? I thought Dunlop and Michelin started business at the middle of the 19th century (with bicycles tires).Check the date of Haiti's independance !

bashful frog - 8/9/2003

If it had not been for General Rochambeau and "Admiral" de Grasse (who was a poor sailor) and sheer luck indeed (forget La Fayettte), Americans would still use the English pound sterling and speak the English language. This would save them the trouble to find new names for potato chips.

Friedrich Paul Berg - 7/1/2003

Cassandra has tripped all over himself over the difference between annexation and occupation. Alsace-Lorraine was re-annexed to Germany after France's defeat, and surrender, in 1940--but, the rest of France was only "occupied" and most of that only in 1943 after French armed forces in Algeria had precipitously surrendered to the Americans there.

There was never any serious German threat or thought of annexing "France" to Germany. Alsace-Lorraine was a special situation because it had an overwhelmingly German history prior to Louis XIV's annexation of these provinces to France. Even the names of the most important cities are distinctly German--Strasburg, Moulhuse etc and many of the people, but not always a majority, had remained and still are German-speaking--even to this day.

NYGuy - 6/18/2003


Thank you for correcting me. I did mix up Herodotus with Hepatitus. I did exchange ideas with Hepatitus who brought up the point that 2 American's a week were hanged in the U. S. in 1890. My point was that we have to consider what other "civilized" countries did during that time vs. the U. S. to get a better perspective of the period. France certainly did not cover itself with glory with its colonial expansions and its treatment of the locals.

While people in the U. S. were hanged, and that was wrong, other countries such as Haiti were putting tires around peoples necks and setting them on fire, and at a rate greater than 2 times per week. Two wrongs do not make a right, but history students deserve to have a broad understanding of what was happening in the world at a particular time and not treat the U.S. as the worst of all countries. This does not make it right, but many in the U. S. were still fighting to improve the lot of human beings. And, on balance we have succeeded vs. other countries.

cassandra - 6/18/2003

You have it completely backwards. If it weren't for U.S. troops, modern-day France as we know it would be a province of a German Alsace-Lorraine.

James Thornton - 6/18/2003

I believe you have mistaken Herodotus for Hepatitus. I concur about Napoleon's setback in Haiti being a factor in the sale of Louisiana.

NYGuy - 6/18/2003


We had some disagreement over Zinn's history and I told you the story of Babe Ruth. The fault with that story is it was not balanced nor benchmarked and had no frame of reference. I think your following comment would be appropriate in adding to your teaching American history to your students.

"we might well fault the French for their poor colonial policy and failure to decolonize properly, the lasting consequence being the sad state of Haiti ever since."

You had pointed to the 104 American citizen that were hanged each year. Do your review the atrocities of the French colonies in Haiti and Africa. Not only were the French Empire building, which the U. S. has not done, but they carried on, or permitted, a reign of terror that deprived citizens of their live and freedom. Particularly in Haiti where people received a tire necklace if they were on the wrong side.

For me I still prefer the U. S. history over the alternatives. Life is not perfect, but we at least tried to build a better country and succeeded. I hope you explain this to your students and not just emphasis the so called "strikeouts".

John Moser - 6/17/2003

And doesn't saving France from Germany in two world wars more than repay that debt?

Don Williams - 6/16/2003

the current campaign against France, including the ridiculous article above, shows that no good deed goes unpunished.

1) The US would not have won the Revolutionary War if not for French help.
It's unlikely that America would have won the major Battle of Saratoga early on if not for 18,000 French muskets, cannon , and gunpowder dropped at Portsmouth , New Hampshire several months earlier. In all, the French King gave the US several million livres ,100,000 muskets, cannon, and huge amounts of gunpowder. Letters from a bankrupt Congress to the French King in 1780 consisted of one long whine, begging for more money, arms, and help. The French King brought in the King of Spain (who also gave Congress 1 million livres)to the US cause. Yorktown was won because French admiral De Grasse fought a sea battle with the British fleet and blocked British attempts to relieve Cornwallis. Yorktown was also won because 3000 Virginia militiamen and 6000 French troops stiffened the spine of Washington's 6000 half-starved Continentals. French diplomacy helped convince the Dutch bankers to cut off King George's line of credit in 1780, greatly weakening his ability to persecute the war. And the continued threat of a French-Spanish invasion of Britain kept many British ships tied to the home island instead of being deployed to North America.

The US Congress rewarded the King by making a separate peace with the British behind his back, contrary to the express terms of the alliance. The cynical French were philosophical:
" "We have never based our policy towards the United States on their gratitude. This sentiment is infinitely rare among sovereigns, and unknown to republics."

The French have a different view of Bush's actions because they have information which has been suppressed/censored in the US news media.

Herodotus - 6/16/2003

Perhaps Mr. Fleming overlooked the role of the French defeat in the rebellion in Haiti as a significant contributing cause to Bonaparte's decision to sell the Louisiana Territory...we might well fault the French for their poor colonial policy and failure to decolonize properly, the lasting consequence being the sad state of Haiti ever since.