Thursday is Bastille Day, the national day of France, which commemorates the storming of the Bastille and the outbreak of the French Revolution. That being the case, this week I want to talk about what we Americans owe to our French friends across the Atlantic.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me confess at the start that I love France and I love the French. I love French wine and have worked hard to learn as much about it as possible. I love French cheese. I love the devotion the French exhibit towards food. I love reading the writings of the French philosophes like Voltaire and Diderot and French playwrights like Racine and Moliere. I love the general French attitude towards life, working to live rather than living to work. I love the French language, though I must admit that my repeated efforts to learn it have not been very successful. It probably won't come as a surprise that I will be cheering France on when they go up against Portugal in the UEFA Euro Cup final later today.
I have been lucky enough to visit France twice. Quite in contrast to their reputation for rudeness, all of the French people to whom I was introduced were very warm and welcoming. I had been told that Paris was the most beautiful city in the world, and as I looked upon the clean and lovely buildings and the statutes and fountains that seemed to grace every intersection, I thought that something had lived up to the hype for once. I've since wondered why we Americans can't make our cities as lovely as Paris.
American and France have a long relationship and it has frankly not always been a good one. During the colonial era, the French were the sinister enemy over the western horizon, constantly stirring up the Indian tribes to attack the settlements in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. In 1798, France and the United States actually fought an undeclared naval war with one another which sometimes threatened to blow up into an all-out conflict. During the Second World War, President Franklin Roosevelt famously despised Charles de Gaulle, which led to unnecessary tensions between the United States and the Free French forces. Throughout the Cold War, although ostensibly on the same side, France never fully agreed to toe the American line in regards to the Soviet Union. In the lead-up to the Iraq War in 2003, France's refusal to go along with American plans led to puerile proposals that "French fries" should be renamed "freedom fries".
If an American tells a joke about France, he or she is almost guaranteed a laugh. A common joke is that, were it not for the Americans, the French would today be speaking German. While I generally abhor insults of any kind and especially those directed towards entire nations, there is some truth behind this particular snide remark. Although the Allies probably would have eventually won the First World War even without American help, albeit at a later date and higher cost, there can be no doubt that it was the United States which made possible the liberation of France from the tyranny of Nazi Germany in the last years of the Second World War.
The French haven't forgotten this. There's a reason that one of the busiest stations on the Paris Metro is named after Franklin Roosevelt. All across France, military cemeteries where lie the remains of tens of thousands of American soldiers are meticulously maintained. On the anniversary of D-Day, Frenchmen in Normandy gather to honor the American soldiers who landed on the Utah and Omaha Beaches to begin the campaign that would liberate their country.
Americans who lack a historical memory might be tempted to say that, thanks to what we did for them in 1944-45, the French owe us one. But in truth, though, in liberating France, the United States was simply paying back of a very old debt. For without France, the United States would never have existed at all.
When the American colonists rebelled against the British in 1775 and declared independence a year later, the odds of success were long. Britain was the mightiest empire on the planet, the Royal Navy ruled the seas, and the British Army was the most feared fighting force from North America to India. The only hope, and the American rebels realized quite early, was to win the support of Britain's old enemy, the French.
This was not going to be easy. The American colonists had been fighting against the French for more than a century in the wilds of North America. France was still an absolute monarchy and couldn't be expected to support an anti-monarchical rebellion for idealistic reasons. The average aristocratic noble giving advice to King Louis XVI recoiled in horror from the rhetoric of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Finally, there was a religious angle, as most of the American colonists were Protestants and the French were Roman Catholics. There seemed to be little to link the two peoples together.
Besides which, the French did not want to throw in with an ally who might not have the stomach for a war. Compared to the economic and military might of Britain, the colonies were weak and disorganized. There were scarcely any facilities in America for the manufacture of weapons and ammunition, to say nothing of uniforms, camp equipment, and the other necessary supplies of war. Britain had intentionally crafted its economic policy with regards to the colonies to prevent them from developing manufacturing of their own, so as to leave them dependent on imports from the mother country. America relied upon a militia for its defense and could not be expected to stand up against the professional army of the British. There was no American fleet to challenge the might of the Royal Navy. Nor were all Americans on board with independence; a substantial chunk remained loyal to the crown.
It would have been foolish for France to have rushed into openly supporting what might turn out to be the losing side. Besides which, the last time France had gone to war against the British Empire, it had been thoroughly beaten and lost virtually its entire colonial empire, to say nothing of its prestige. It was an experience they were not anxious to repeat.
Nevertheless, from the earliest days of the Revolutionary War, the French were trying to figure out ways in which they might assist the American rebels. The French began covertly sending supplies of weapons and ammunition to the Americans through the Dutch port of Saint Eustatius in the West Indies, which they could not have otherwise obtained. A very large proportion of the gunpowder and lead used by the Americans in the Battles of Trenton, Princeton, Brandwine, Germantown and Saratoga, as well as the rifles with which it was all fired, had been supplied by the French. Without such assistance, it is doubtful whether American resistance could have been maintained during the truly dark days of the war.
With news of the American victory at Saratoga, France decided to go all in. It officially recognized American independence and signed a treaty of friendship with the United States. This, as expected by everyone, led almost immediately to war with Britain.
The direct role France played in the defeat of the Britain in the Revolutionary War can scarcely be overestimated. With French entry into the war, the resources the British could deploy against the Americans were severely restricted, for fleets and armies had to redeploy to protect Britain from a possible French invasion and fight on new war fronts in the Caribbean, India, and elsewhere. This had an immediate impact in America, as the British had to abandon the captured American capital of Philadelphia, having decided they lacked the men to hold both it and New York City. The changed situation can also be seen in the fact that Lord Howe had invaded New York in 1776 with an army of more than 30,000 men, yet Lord Clinton was able to launch his campaign in the southern colonies in 1780 with scarcely 13,000 men.
Aside from diverting British forces away to other parts of the world, France dispatched troops to fight directly alongside their new American allies. French troops fought at Savannah in Georgia, at Newport in Rhode Island, and, of course, at Yorktown in Virginia, where the combined American forces under George Washington and French forces under the Comte de Rochambeau forced the surrender of an entire British army under Lord Cornwallis. Yorktown is often remembered as a glorious American victory, yet French forces composed nearly half of the victorious force and the French engineers played a crucial role, in that the Americans had little siege experience. Moreover, it was the French fleet under the Comte de Grasse which trapped the British in Yorktown in the first place.
Setting aside logistical and military support, France provided enormous financial loans to the nascent American government which, lacking effective ability to tax, had virtually no way to generate revenue on its own. Without this support, the American war effort would undoubtedly have collapsed. It should be pointed out that providing these loans put a severe strain on French government finances and played a not inconsiderable role in bringing on the French Revolution only a few years later.
No one should be deluded that France helped America win its independence out of any sense of altruism. That's not the way nations do things. France did what it did as a way to strike at Britain, its traditional enemy, and gain revenge for its defeat in the Seven Years War. Nevertheless, the fact remains that without French support, America never would have won its independence. France indeed owes a debt to America for the role it played in the liberation of the country from the Nazis in 1944, but America owes an equal debt to France for its very existence as an independent nation. I say we call it even
So, on Bastille Day, I shall open a bottle of Bordeaux wine, cook a French recipe, and raise a glass to France. And I encourage you to do the same.