Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France
By John J., Miller and Mark Molesky
294 pages; $24.95
“These proceedings are rapidly rendering the name of Frenchmen as detestable as once was dear to Americans and if suffered by their Government to be continued, total alienation will be inevitable.”
Those words were uttered not by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2003 but by Secretary of State Charles Pickering in 1796, on the occasion of yet another French ship firing on yet another American merchant vessel. This puts the lie to the notion that only now is some great tradition of Franco-American respect and cooperation unraveling. On the contrary, such a tradition has never existed.
That is precisely the point of John J. Miller and Mark Molesky’s engaging new book, Our Oldest Enemy, from which the above quote is taken. In this highly readable historical overview, Miller, a reporter for National Review, and Molesky, a history professor at Seton Hall University, set out to prove that the current enmity between America and France is by no means new. The two nations have a rich legacy of distrust — fueled primarily, in the authors’ eyes, by 300 years of French fecklessness and duplicity.
If this book were a political ad in a campaign for world opinion, its opponents would surely dismiss it as a negative attack. But like the best negative attacks, this slender volume is relentlessly effective, scoring point after scathing point not just against a series of French leaders but by extension an entire nation.
After French fortunes began to decline after Napoleon, the authors argue, the country’s animating impulses have been jealousy, entitlement and a misplaced arrogance: The French cannot yet accept that they are a people “whose greatest general was a foreigner, whose greatest warrior was a teenage girl, and whose last great military victory came on the plains of Wagram in 1809.” Our Oldest Enemy is peppered with such incendiary statements.
The authors best succeed in making their case not through such well-known shameful episodes as the XYZ Affair and the debacle of the Treaty of Versailles as engineered by French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau but by debunking the “myths” of Franco-American comity during other periods.
During the Revolutionary War battle of Flamborough Head, which made John Paul Jones famous, a French vessel that had supposedly come to the rescue of Jones’s sinking ship first fired on Jones in hopes that he would sink. The goal was to turn its fresh crew on the British ship and hoard the day’s glory.
Ally would become enemy again in 1942, as U.S. soldiers attempting to land in North Africa were strafed by Vichy French forces. Even as Allied troops were preparing to liberate France on D-Day, future president Charles de Gaulle refused to broadcast a radio message to the French people.
It was during another period of supposed Franco-American goodwill — the Cold War — when French ideas were the enemy. The authors reserve a special degree of scorn for 20th-century French intellectuals who worshiped “at the altar of” Stalinism. For Miller and Molesky, it is no accident, nor should it be overlooked, that many of the century’s greatest murderers, Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot chief among them, studied in Paris.
To be sure, the book views history through a narrow prism, suggesting that France was responsible for every foreign-policy crisis in our history. While on the whole it may overstate this case, it nonetheless demonstrates France’s involvement — often deleterious — in so many episodes.
The weakest support for this may be in the beginning, in which Miller and Molesky discuss French behavior during the French and Indian Wars of the 18th century.
Because France at the time was in competition for colonies in the New World with Great Britain, this period’s place on a timeline of Franco-American distrust is debatable. It does, however, surely help to reinforce the authors’ low opinion of French national character.
The authors’ chief example is an Indian massacre of British settlers at Fort Edward in upstate New York in 1757. “According to several accounts,” they write, the French, who were allied with the Indians, “did nothing to stop the bloodbath.”
Apart from a history of France’s questionable status as our ally, the book tells the story of U.S. accommodation of French antics. Eisenhower repeatedly gave in to de Gaulle’s petulant and self-serving demands during World War II “in the interests of Allied harmony.”
After the war, the United States was footing 80 percent of France’s expenses in Vietnam, a colony that the French were incapable of holding and that would soon become our problem. In 1965, U.S. Marines were sent to the Dominican Republic to help quell a civil war. Even while de Gaulle publicly castigated America for the intervention, he privately asked LBJ to protect the French embassy, which the president did. And today, America pays lip service to working with France against terrorism, while we tolerate its deals with terrorist regimes.
Should our attitudes and our policies toward the French change accordingly? This book should give comfort to those who would answer in the affirmative — and give pause to those who do not.