A review of Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France, by John J. Miller and Mark Molesky

Inspired by the current discord over Iraq, John Miller and Mark Molesky try to set Franco-American relations in a larger context. Drawing on over three hundred years of history, they write to correct the myth—still common in both America and France—that the two countries are "sister republics" with shared ideals, purposes, and strategies; and that France is "our oldest ally," with whom we have never been at war. The authors argue, au contraire, that "France has never been our friend, has always been our rival, and has often been our enemy." If Americans had known this history, they would not have been so shocked at the French government's effort to stop America from forming a military coalition to overthrow the fascist regime in Iraq; they would see that "cautious pessimism" about France's political future is the most optimistic attitude that one can reasonably adopt; and they would temper any expectations that France might "ever become America's steadfast ally."

No one familiar with John Miller's writing in the national press will be surprised that this book is amusing and sharply polemical. Our Oldest Enemy, in which Miller teams up with Mark Molesky, an Assistant Professor of History at Seton Hall University, has serious problems (more on that below), but it is full of informative details and thought-provoking arguments about serious matters, executed in a light style honed in the blogosphere to a competitive edge. 

The thesis of the book is not new. Many commentators have noticed that the American and French people, in spite of their long association, are strikingly ignorant of each other and of their countries' up-and-down relations. What is new is the authors' insistence on France's almost unrelieved moral squalor and political treachery. Literary provocateurs like Mark Twain have engaged in such sport, but generally not historians. They also differ from previous historians by emphasizing the continuity and pervasiveness of the countries' animosity. Others have seen long periods in which there were few political relations to speak of, which helps explain both the mutual ignorance and forgetfulness. In contrast, Miller and Molesky basically fill their canvas with a continuous pattern of hostilities. When political disagreements falter, they shift to cultural hostilities.

With these two very questionable innovations, Miller and Molesky correct the myth of eternal friendship by constructing an opposite myth of eternal animosity.

Their story begins not (as is more usual) with the alliance of France and America during the American Revolution, but with the four "French and Indian Wars" fought between France and Britain (and British Americans) from 1689 to 1760. During these wars the French often encouraged the Indians' barbaric tactics against the British inhabitants, who vastly outnumbered the French as well as the Indians. The authors give lurid accounts of these disturbing events. The wars ended with a decisive setback for the French empire in North America—a setback that they claim inspired "many of the resentments and jealousies that would animate French attitudes toward Americans in the years to come."

France had an opportunity to strike back at Britain by supporting the British Americans' fight for independence. Miller and Molesky easily show (what Americans understood at the time, and should today), that the French government's support for American independence was calculated to serve the national and imperial interests of France. Unfortunately, France's contribution to the American Revolution "gave birth to the enduring myth of Franco-American solidarity."

Such a myth, however, should not have survived the next few decades, when Britain and France were constantly at war and America wisely chose to remain neutral. Revolutionary France clumsily tried to subvert America's neutrality, and during President Adams's administration France and America fought an undeclared naval war (1798-1800). This, coupled with the spectacle of the terrorism and militancy of the French Revolution and its culmination in Napoleon, made clear to most Americans that their republicanism and France's were radically different, and held little promise of solidarity.

The Monroe Doctrine (1823) arose, not from fears of Britain, with whom America had fought a second war in 1812-1814, but from "a residual fear" of the French menace. Indeed, the first challenge to the Doctrine came from France, when, during the American Civil War, Napoleon III tried to set up a monarchy in Mexico. With the Union's victory, this French project soon collapsed. 

However, one should ask: Had the Confederacy won its independence, might not a French-sponsored regime in Mexico have served the cause of human liberty by helping contain the slave power? The real question, after all, is whether France has been (and could be) a friend to liberty, rather than whether it has been a friend to this or that policy of certain English-speaking people in North America. That is, Miller and Molesky largely overlook the importance of regimes in politics. It is misleading to start the story, as they do, a century before the American regime exists. And it is even more misleading to treat "France" as an unchanging polity, as if it makes no difference whether the word refers to a monarchy, a Rousseau-inspired republic, an imperial despotism, a fascist puppet (the Vichy regime), or a liberal democracy. 

The advent of the first durable and liberal French republic (the Third, from 1875 to the fall of France in 1940) attracted much American sympathy and support. The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World—paid for by public fundraising (in France for the statue, in America for the base)—was a product of this new period of mutual attachment. Anti-Americanism in France was rare until unruly and "racially" segregated American soldiers arrived in large numbers in 1917. The Fourth Republic (1946-1958), a post-war revival of the Third, gave way to an improved Fifth Republic (1958-present), which has a more energetic executive and in principle should attract American understanding and support. (In 1948, Charles de Gaulle—proving himself no Bonapartist—had described his model for the Fifth Republic as "an organization of powers which would largely take into account the example furnished by the United States Constitution.") If this young regime matures and settles in (it is still in formation: presidential and senatorial terms have just been reduced, to five and six years respectively), and economic prosperity continues, the Fifth Republic may earn more respect from French citizens and further ameliorate the political habits inherited from previous French regimes.

Our Oldest Enemy neglects, too, the importance of French political thinking for American liberal democratic politics. One of the basic reasons for the differences between the American and French revolutions was that French Revolutionaries—including even Lafayette and other acquaintances of Thomas Jefferson while he was in Paris at the beginning of the French Revolution—rejected the liberal spirit of Montesquieu in favor of the radical, uncompromising, and visionary spirit of Rousseau. Our Oldest Enemy mentions Montesquieu in another context but ignores the fact that his teaching, while neglected in the French Revolution, was influential in the American. "The celebrated Montesquieu" (as both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison called him in The Federalist) was a respected source of American constitutional thinking. But this fact does not further the book's thesis.

To fill the period from the Civil War to World War I with more differences that reflect badly on the French, Miller and Molesky turn from politics to morals and the fine arts, where they pronounce that the French unjustly "paid scant attention to American culture until the twentieth century," and then treated it with "jealousy and resentment." Ironically, "as both countries developed politically into modern, stable democracies…the level of cultural animosity between them would grow." 

This sounds neat, but it is not entirely persuasive. As the authors themselves show, the illiberal culture of postmodernity is as active in America as in France. It is also worth noting (as they do not) that the hard origins of contemporary postmodernism are not French but German (Nietzsche, Heidegger), and that many of the American outbreaks have come directly from German sources, as have the positivism and relativism infecting American life more generally.

Not every American writer and artist who flocked to France in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the authors note rightly, was enthralled by French moral and artistic decadence and ensnared by the false idols of the avant-garde. They suggest, nonetheless, that many Americans failed to do justice to their own literary culture, and uncritically admired that of the French. (Henry James is singled out here, somewhat unfairly.) They proudly insist that the best Americans who lived in France just got on with their work, rising above their dubious French (and other foreign) surroundings: "much of modern American literature was created through the deliberative act of ignoring the French—at least those who were not bartenders or ladies of the evening." They do not point out that some American artists and writers were in Paris in order to rise above the racial hostility that they faced at home.

* * *

When they arrive at the Great War, Miller and Molesky really begin to lose their grip. You know something is seriously amiss when conservatives find nothing critical to say about Woodrow Wilson! In 1917, America—at last—decided to "associate" itself with the Allies (actually becoming an ally would be too entangling). Here Miller and Molesky complain that President Wilson's "bold and visionary plan to repair a broken collection of nation states" was scuppered by the dastardly French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, "another in a long line of condescending and treacherous French leaders." Clemenceau outmaneuvered Wilson at the Versailles peace conference, so the French could create "a settlement that would secure their own continental supremacy for decades to come." Worse: after ruining Wilson's great peace plan, they pursued their "reckless quest for mastery in Europe" by further efforts to keep the Germans from controlling the Rhineland.

One can debate the merits of Wilson's plans for European peace based on "ethnic self-determination" heedless of military geography, but Winston Churchill had a point, in The Second World War, when he quoted Marshal Ferdinand Foch's judgment on the Treaty of Versailles: "This is not a Peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years." Foch said this because Wilson had blocked at the negotiating table Clemenceau's demand that the treaty take the Rhineland out of German hands. France was thus rendered less defensible. After all, Germany had a record of trying to conquer France in the 19th century as well as in the war just ended, and believed (as was true) that its armies had never been decisively defeated. Astonishingly, Miller and Molesky assert that "the Second World War was as much the product of French intransigence and vengefulness as it was the result of Hitler's lust for domination."

Our Oldest Enemy's take on Franco-American relations in the Second World War is also questionable. By the 1930s these stubborn, vengeful Frenchmen have morphed into blind cowards, unable to see the Nazis' threat and unwilling to fight them when they invade—all-too-eager, indeed, to collaborate in fascist projects. Not wanting to blame America for anything whatsoever (except for individual Americans' occasional susceptibility to things French), and therefore paying no attention at all to America's shortsighted non-involvement in European affairs in the 1920s and 1930s, the authors focus entirely on the failures of the French.

There were many such failures. But how could the French have pursued any policy that isolated them from the British? As the authors mention but do not think about, it was Britain as well as France that "vacillated as the Nazis illegally seized the Rhineland" in 1936. (The American Secretary of State's response was that Germany's action did not concern the United States.) It was Britain as well as France who adopted the appeasement policy that condemned Czechoslovakia. The fact that in 1940 and 1941 Britain was compelled (in Churchill's words) to "hold the fort alone till those who hitherto had been half blind were half ready," is an indictment of America every bit as much as of France. In less than one month (May-June 1940), as Miller and Molesky note, 90,000 French soldiers were killed defending their country against the German invasion. This war could have been prevented, most surely by a wise American approach to Europe after the First World War. To blame it all on the follies or the cowardice of the French is incorrect and ignoble. 

Miller and Molesky accept uncritically Franklin Roosevelt's denigration of Charles de Gaulle's statesmanship during the Second World War. More perceptive is the view of Crane Brinton (The Americans and the French, 1968): de Gaulle's never failing optimism about the eventual defeat of Germany, and his related insistence that he and his following truly represented France, were "substantially and realistically correct," and "the failure of American policymakers to recognize, admit, and act on this fact" was "one of the deepest roots of our present [1960s] difficulties with France." Even after America stopped recognizing the Vichy regime as France, Roosevelt's dislike and distrust of de Gaulle meant that America ended up supporting such evils as the French "Imperial Council," which ran concentration camps in southern Algeria.

Molesky and Miller do not relent in their critique of de Gaulle as a useless pain in the backside when he was president (1959-1969). Yet they also notice that President Nixon (who admired de Gaulle, and got on well with his Gaullist successor, Georges Pompidou) pursued certain of de Gaulle's policies: withdrawal from Vietnam, détente with the USSR. The authors' approval of this way of reaching rapprochement with France suggests that they think de Gaulle was right on these issues all along. They are on more solid, less contradictory ground when they conclude that France "must finally be persuaded that its long-term interests correspond with those of the United States," and that it must stop "living in denial about strategic realities that affect [France] profoundly."

If we want the French to make wise choices on such matters, it would be better to treat them with magnanimity (which does not exclude a certain amount of righteous anger) than with indiscriminate condemnation. Expecting them to act as responsible republican citizens and leaders could encourage them to do so. Expecting them to behave badly may well ensure that they will.