News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

More comments on Our Oldest Enemy: a History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France.

The contents of this book are basically summarized in the introduction beginning with page 6: The tale of Franco-American Harmony is a long-standing and pernicious myth. The French attitude toward the United States consistently has been one of cultural suspicion and political dislike, bordering at times on raw hatred, as well as diplomatic friction that occasionally has erupted into violent hostility. France is not America's oldest ally, but its oldest enemy.

The true story of Franco-American relations begins many years before the American Revolution, during the French and Indian wars. Lasting nearly a century, these conflicts pitted the French and their Indian comrades against the 17th and 18th century American colonists.... Indeed, America's first authentic sense of self was born not in a revolt against Britain, but in a struggle with France.... the French crown regarded the principles of the Declaration of Independence as abhorrent and frightening. French aristocrats viewed Lafayette with contempt and branded him a criminal for traveling to America against King Louis XVI’s explicit command.... To be sure, France did become an ally to the colonists for a few years in the late 1770s and early 1780s when American sovereignty served French geopolitical aims. But then the French believed that double dealing against their erstwhile friends after Yorktown served their interests as well. During the peace talks, France sought to limit American gains because it feared the new nation might become too powerful. If the French had achieved all of their objectives of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the United States today might be confined to a slender band of territory along the eastern seaboard, like a North American version of Chile.

In 1998, French Defense Minister Alain Richard declared that "France and the United States never fought each other." This is manifestly untrue. Within a generation of Yorktown, French and American forces were exchanging deadly fire during a little-known Quasi War of 1798-1800 during which France earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first military enemy of United States following the ratification of the Constitution.... In 1796 [the French ambassador] meddled in the presidential election in a desperate and failed attempt to prevent John Adams from becoming commander in chief.

During the Napoleonic era, France posed a constant threat to the United States and its westward expansion....[Napoleon] agreed to sell the Louisiana territory only after suffering a military disaster in the Caribbean and hearing threats of war from Thomas Jefferson. The war of 1812 was very nearly fought against France rather than Britain, and the Monroe Doctrine was written with France clearly in mind. In the 1830s, Andrew Jackson came close to declaring war on France for its persistent refusal to make good on promised reparations for French naval crimes during Napoleon's reign.

...Whenever French politicians want to generate feelings of goodwill among Americans, they invariably appeal to the memory of Lafayette and Yorktown. They neglect to mention the French role in the Civil War, when Napoleon's imperial nephew supported the South and incited disunion, carried out the first major transgression of the Monroe Doctrine, and engaged in what General Ulysses S. Grant considered acts of war against the United States.

By rejecting the advice of Woodrow Wilson and insisting on crippling and humiliating reparations, France fatally undermined the fledgling German democracy and planted many of the seeds of the Second World War - a conflict for which the French required another American rescue. Before the liberation could occur, however, American troops landing in North Africa in 1942 encountered stiff resistance from the soldiers of Vichy France. The GIs literally had to fight their way through the French to get to the Nazis.

... More than 60,000 Americans who gave their lives in these two world wars lie buried in French soil. Yet it was not long after the second world war had ended that many in France forgot the sacrifice. Anti-Americanism metastasized as a whole generation of French intellectuals embraced the West's totalitarian enemy, the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, French misrule in its Southeast Asian colonies made Ho Chi Minh's communist movement possible and set the stage for an American debacle. Indeed, if the French had followed the advice of Franklin Roosevelt and gave Vietnam its independence after World War II, the Vietnam War might not have been necessary, and today Vietnam might be a prospering democracy like South Korea.

And there's more, plenty more. A fascinating account although I suspect one could make a number of nasty claims against the British as well for various political intrigues against the US prior and during the war of independence, the war of 1812, support for the Southern Confederacy, the false propaganda of the British home office which lured the United States into the first world war and so on and so forth. Nevertheless, being completely unfamiliar with the manner in which France's political class has pursued its national interests, this was a fascinating read to be sure. Not that I ever mistook it for being impartial and unbiased. That, as one would probably suspect from reading the above, it is definitely not.

Worth mentioning is that this book is not a book of ideas. There is no explanation for the romantic, thoroughly moony psychology of generations of prominent French thinkers and political actors; at least how it appears from the Anglo-Saxon perspective. There is no digression into the national education scheme, urban legends, national myths, a caste structure that has reemerged from the grave like voodoo, and so forth. There's no incorporation of the French catholic take on morality, leadership, ethnic and religious chauvinism either. Where Lafcadio Hearn would have worked religion or Ruth Benedict traditional social behavior or Marvin Harris economic materialism or Victor Davis Hanson martial culture or Paul Johnson moral transgression, John Miller trots out a few platitudes and washes his hands clear of the difficulty. I would have liked to gape as the author limns the hodge-podge of values and goals that hobble and excite the citizen and which fetter and inflame the thinking of opinion makers and political leaders, making them heel to the left or the right like folk lost in the woods, walking in circles and chasing their tails yet fully convinced they're independent actors forging their own destinies, thumbs up, moving straight and going their own way.

Oh well. Instead, and yet done in a very satisfying manner, there is a vast piling up of vivid transgressions, of dates and details, of which bounder did what to besmirch the name of honor and the good intentions of our ancestors, less tainted with corruption and thus closer to God. And for what nefarious reasons did the evildoers commit their dastardly acts.

Nevertheless, as a primer, as an instigator, as an agent provocateur, this book works quite handsomely. Whatever else I'd say about this book, it's certainly not boring. Given that the author has little to say about the genesis of the monotonous and improvident lunging for French glory, the pitiful monomania of the citizenry to play Messiah and ring in the New Canaan, and the rest of the comic eschatology that apparently drives Gallic (and Chinese) political leadership, rather than botch the book as many an academic would through harassing the reader with self-evident definitions for phenonema that even a bright child would find superfluous, the author instead whets the reading appetite with hints of infamous behavior by a familiar and satisfying villain, rams us through a set of events that hurtles to a climax with the haughty, scheming, and opportunistic Gauls pulling endless fast ones on the long-suffering and provident Anglo-Saxons. The French antagonistes never quite win and never admit failure but survive to badmouth the Yankees another day and heap animadversion on cheap and tawdry Anglo-Saxon civilization, all the while strutting with tall talk about glory and the inability of the bovine to dream. The author sets the stage, draws the curtain, presents his showy characters, puts them through their lines, and prudently shuts down the show before the audience gets tired or gets to asking nosy questions about the deus ex machina.

I’m in a bit of a rush, but perhaps I should bring up my favorite act of treachery. I think you’ll enjoy it and it gives up the flavor of the book. From Page 52
: Sailors slipped on decks covered with blood. As night fell, the Bonhomme Richard [named after Benjamin Franklin’s almanac series] was taking on water faster than its crew could pump it out, and the ship began to sink slowly. "Do you call for quarters?" barked British Captain Richard Pearson. Upon hearing this invitation to surrender, John Paul Jones shouted back his immortal reply: "I have not yet begun to fight!"

As the fierce battle continued, [French commander] Landais maneuvered his ship into range. But instead of attacking the British vessel, he opened fire on the Bonhomme Richard. The first salvo killed two American sailors and forced many away from their stations. Subsequent French volleys proved even more lethal, and a chief petty officer was among those killed. Although Landais would claim that he was trying to attack the [British warship] Serapis, he would later confide privately to one of his colonels that his real goal had been to sink the Bonhomme Richard first and then overpower the exhausted man of the Serapis with the boarding party of fresh Marines. He believed this would make him - not Jones - the hero of the fight off Flamborough Head.

Yet Landais decided to pull away from both ships. Perhaps waiting for the Bonhomme Richard to go down before pouncing on the hobbled Serapis, he again held back as the naval duel entered its final stage. Jones, for his part, refused to give up, even though nearly half his crew was dead or wounded and his own sinking ship was doomed. The Bonhomme Richard did in fact sink, but not before Pearson asked his relentless American foe for quarter. The victorious Jones moved his flag and his men onto the captured Serapis and sailed to a neutral Dutch port. It was one of the most astonishing and dramatic naval victories in American history - and one almost ruined by the French.

Landais would go on to lose his command and spend much of his time trying to get Jones to honor his promise of a duel. Although the American preferred to battle his naval enemies at close quarters, he was not an expert swordsman and may have feared that Landais, an experienced fencer, would carve him up. When Jones suggested that a court-martial settle their differences, Landais refused and went on hating Jones for years. As late as 1787, Landais approached Jones in New York City and, so he claimed, spat in the face of his American rival.

Hilarious stuff, never were so many baddies and goodies set out in such brilliant contrast. And there’s 250 pages of it in this book. Franklin Roosevelt became so suspicious of France's de Gaulle during WWII that he would only meet with him after first preparing his own retinue of bodyguards armed with submachine guns. As mentioned above, French forces fought to the death to keep the Allies from liberating France on the grounds that the US and England were foreign powers! I take this sort of nonsense for granted from Chinese sunshine patriots, their inchoate critical thinking skills flayed at the sight of wheezing foreign devil with forked tongue whose women have uteruses affixed sideways (both sides of the equation are given to this racial hee-haw). But if even whole herds of educated officers in the French military were capable of this loony bravado, then I’ve quite underestimated the appeal of patriotism to the allegedly fully civilized.

These shenanigans continue right down the present day apparently. Of course socialism (romantic idealism meets politics) has something to do with Chirac’s maneuvers, given that socialism is systemically far more given to corruption than capitalism. Socialism imposes monopolies willy-nilly to control market behavior and protect us from ourselves. One of the problems with government monopolies is that they place whole sectors of the nation's business in the hands of just one bureaucrat, not a species known for its spine. Every slick customer in that sector, whether private or public, focuses his energy and imagination on seducing one paper-shuffling political appointee or brother/sister of someone's sister/brother who had a connection to someone else.
Can you imagine Donald Rumsfeld in a procurement scam, pulling a runner and on the lam in a foreign country for six months? And yet that's what a French Defense Minister did in the 1990s after getting caught bribing Taiwanese authorities (to purchase frigates) and mainland Chinese authorities (to keep quiet about it), while taking bribes from domestic manufacturers. Can you imagine George Bush as president designing a huge construction boondoggle to create jobs for his hometown of Crawford? But when former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had the Canadian government fund construction of a commercially unviable lumber mill in his tiny hometown, it was just another day in Canadian politics. Resign? Impeachment proceedings? That's for silly Americans.

All in all, a quite competently done book I thought, given the limitations of the author and the remarkable fact that he recognizes his limitations. He resists the ambition of so many Pulitzer authors to win applause at the bar of the subsidized literati. He never gave in to writing that tortured and worried journalese which fatigues and bores in that prize-winning way that promises gravitas and edification but instead delivers snoring in the main.

If, having got this far, you’re impressed by how empty my comments are, good for you! I don’t have time to think and lay out something innovative. Too many books to get down my craw on too tight a schedule. Besides, this wasn’t a book of ideas and the subject matter’s beyond my purview. For now.

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