Sometimes if you just write a letter instead of letting go of a lunch-table idea, amazing things happen. In January of 1967 some of us students were wondering what could possibly help U.S. leaders to reconsider our intervention in Vietnam.
The idea was simple: while our own statesmen discoursed idiotically about “falling dominoes” (the nearby countries of Southeast Asia, none of which have fallen), the French had already lost in Vietnam and might have some wisdom to offer. Having asked a college reference librarian the name of the best newspaper in France, I wrote the following letter to M. Beuve-Mery, the editor of Le Monde:
“By writing to you in English, I hope to emphasize an opportunity for Le Monde to extend the critical influence it already exerts in France and in Europe generally. I know many Americans, in academic and professional circles, who have read brief quotations from Le Monde or have at least been told of its quality and distinction, but who have no French or too little to read the paper that you edit.”
Alas, this included me. The other reason that I wrote in my own language was that I didn't know his.
Then letter continued: “Among these people, there are many who are now disturbed about the war in Vietnam, bewildered by the statecraft of General de Gaulle and by the course of European politics, curious about life and culture in France, and eager for thorough analytic reporting on countries les rich or more leftist than their own. It may be superfluous to add that the needs of these people are not being fully met by the American press or even by papers available from England.
“In order to help meet these needs, I want propose that a selection of articles from Le Monde be published periodically in English. In making this proposal to you, I am encouraged by the example of Cahiers du Cinema, which is now available in English. Surely if French commentary on the film warrants regular translation, the reporting in Le Monde deserves no less.
“I would propose that Le Monde (in English) be published weekly; that articles be selected solely for their relevance to American and English readers, not for their agreeability; and that every article chosen be run in full, not abridged or condensed. Part of the value of Le Monde articles, especially to American readers, is their structure as complete essays, not “inverted pyramids” that can be cut off wherever advertising requires.
“My personal interest in this project is simple. I believe that our press is neither as cosmopolitan nor as critical as it should be to inform the power that America wields. To some degree, this is probably true of any country, but here the problem is intensified by our long isolation, by the resulting lack of fluency in foreign languages, and by the extraordinary role that our country suddenly finds itself playing…
“Even if the project were just able to support itself, I would regard it as a cultural exchange of the most useful kind and possibly a salutary influence on some of the cruial decisions now facing our country. To my knowledge, Le Monde (in English) would also be the first Continental newspaper available in our language.”
Apart from some sentences about my own experience as a college journalist, this was the letter.
I received a gracious reply from M. Beuve-Mery, who welcomed the idea, decided to go ahead, and assigned the project to one of his assistants. I forgot about it until I received the first printed issue. The English edition is now available also in digital form fifty years later.
However, my hopes were disappointed that we’d quickly learn from a country that had already suffered defeat in Vietnam. American involvement in the war continued from 1967 until 1975. Nonetheless, Le Monde in English helped to educate a generation of critics of imperial ambition, a lesson that remains relevant today.