Thursday, July 14, 2011

Vive la Similarité

… the ties that bind America and France are more important and infinitely more interesting than most of us know
writes David McCullough as the author of The Greater Journey (Americans in Paris) tries to mention every allegedly positive French aspect in the United States, from Pierre Charles L’Enfant and Jean-Antoine Houdon to over "a million American students [who] are taking French" and "the hundreds of young Americans who went to study medicine in France in the 19th century" via the "the number of French names all across the map of America" and the "nine million of us [who] are of French descent."
Consider that the war that gave birth to the nation, our war for independence, would almost certainly have failed had it not been for heavy French financial backing and military support, on both land and sea. At the crucial surrender of the British at Yorktown, for example, the French army under Rochambeau was larger than our own commanded by Washington. The British commander, Cornwallis, was left with no escape and no choice but to surrender only because a French fleet sailed into the Chesapeake Bay at exactly the right moment. …

The first major study of us as a people, “Democracy in America,” was written by a French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville. Published in 1835, it remains one of the wisest books ever written about us.
What David McCullough fails to mention, though, is that the charge that is regularly fired in America's direction can equally apply to the French presence in the 1770s and 1780s ("well, sure, but… didn't they do it for their own interests?") and that Tocqueville's book was meant to serve as a rebuttal to the stream of anti-American and anti-Democratic tomes being published in France on a regular basis and how, in the aftermath of the book's appearance, dozens if not hundreds of books were published to disparage “Democracy in America” as well as its author.
To be sure, our relations with France have not always been smooth.

…But the rewards of our ties with France have far exceeded any difficulties there have been. With the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France, the size of the country was more than doubled. The Statue of Liberty, one of our most treasured symbols, was a gift from France.
Not to want to destroy the feel-good atmosphere, but again, wasn't la Louisiane sold mainly, if not solely, in and for the interests of Napoleon? As for the Statue of Liberty, wasn't it offered to America only after and only because the Egyptians refused a statue meant to be raised at the newly-built Suez Canal?
Especially for American women and for African-Americans, Paris provided an atmosphere of freedom and of acceptance such as they had never experienced.
Fine, except how tolerant and anti-racist would the French have been, would they be, if there were a similar percentage of blacks in their society as there was, as there is, in the United States? (Not that that should in any way serve as a pretext for racism…)

To end on a positive note, I will not offer any comments on the following:

And there is a further reason France should hold a prominent place in our memories and in our hearts. More American history has unfolded in France and more Americans are buried there than in any other country but our own.

During World War I more than two million American soldiers served “Over There.” In World War II another generation of American soldiers numbering more than 800,000 served in France. In all, more than 60,000 Americans are buried in French soil, at Meuse-Argonne, Normandy and nine other cemeteries. At the Meuse-Argonne, the largest, lie fully 14,246 American dead. The grave markers are a sight never to be forgotten.

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