As a former soldier and war correspondent, I abhor demonstrations of flag-waving, militarism and nationalism. That great American, Benjamin Franklin, put it perfectly: ‘no good war, no bad peace.’
But I must admit that my heart does beat faster when I hear the rousing strains of France’s glorious national anthem, ‘La Marseillaise.’ One must be almost dead not to respond to the hymn, first known in 1775 as ‘the war song of the army of the Rhine’ and then the marching song of volunteers from Marseille.
Allons! Enfants de la Patrie! Forward! Sons of France, Le jour de gloire est arrivé! The Day of Glory has Arrived, Contre nous de la tyrannie, Against us Tyranny L'étendard sanglant est levé! Its bloody standard is raised!
A few years ago, I was a guest of France’s government on the reviewing stand of the annual 14 July Bastille Day military parade. Watching the glittering Garde républicaine cavalry, the tough Alpine troops in their huge berets known as “tartes,” and, of course, the grim Foreign Legion march down the Champs Élysées was thrilling.
US President Thomas Jefferson put it best: ‘Every man has two homelands: his own, and France.’
Both Franklin and Jefferson spent time in Paris as ambassadors and helped negotiate France’s decisive military intervention that saved the American Revolution. French troops under the Marquis de Lafayette and a fleet under Admiral Rochambeau and Count de Grasse played the key role in defeating British forces.
Ironically, France was bankrupted by this military effort which also contributed to the French Revolution against King Louis XVI.
One hopes US President Donald Trump reflected on these facts when he was French President Emmanuel Macron’s guest of honor at Bastille Day. He was hopefully reminded by aides of American Gen. ‘Blackjack’ Pershing’s memorable statement upon landing with US troops to join France in World War One, ‘Lafayette, we are here!’
Two hundred US troops led the great parade down the Champs Élysées, headed by a contingent from the venerable 1st US Infantry Division, known as ‘the Big Red One’ and other American units. Their march marked the 100th anniversary of the US landing in France. President Trump, who managed to avoid military service due to a small foot problem, stood and saluted the American troops.
The US and France owe much to one another and should regularly recall their mutual debt.
Particularly so for all those uninformed Republicans who keep calling the French cowards and sissies. France lost more than 1.5 million dead in World War I. Churchill observed, ‘you will never know war until you fight Germans.’
But the key question remains, was US intervention in World War I a catastrophic mistake? By 1917, France, Britain, Russia and their allies were militarily exhausted. So was Germany and its allies Turkey, Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary. The war had become a giant siege in which millions had died for nothing in history’s most barbarous war.
Both the bankrupted Allies and Central Powers were beginning discreet contacts over a possible peace in the stalemated war. At this point, US President Woodrow Wilson, a sort of idealistic imperialist, pushed America into war against Germany, using some German blunders, the sinking of the ‘Lusitania’ and waves of British propaganda as a ‘casus belli.’ This at a time when the largest ethnic group in the United States was of German origin. In spite of this, Wilson secretly aided, armed and financed the British Empire and finally secured a declaration of war against Germany.
By the end of 1917, one million US troops arrived in France. The advent of so many American soldiers tipped the stalemated military balance. Germans were heavily outnumbered, exhausted, and unable to fee their people due to a crushing British blockade.
Generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg, who had led the war, walked away, leaving civilian politicians to surrender and make whatever terms they could get. After the war, these civilians and wealthy German Jews would be blamed by all sides for ‘stabbing Germany in the back.’
At the notorious Versailles Treaty, the victorious Allied powers tore away 14% of Germany’s people, 13% of its lands and imposed crushing monetary sanctions. Austria-Hungary was ravaged. An obscure Austrian politician, Adolf Hitler, called for revenge and vowed to restore Germany’s and Austria’s lost lands and populations.
Had Woodrow Wilson not intervened in the European war, the exhausted opposing sides would have been driven to a fair peace, rather than a draconian peace of the victors, which would have totally altered Europe’s modern history. There would likely have been no Hitler and his National Socialists; tens of millions of lives would have been saved by averting World War II. The 1930’s Depression may have been avoided or mitigated. Communists might not have seized power in Russia and, later, Eastern Europe.
Responsibility for many of these disasters lies with Woodrow Wilson who is wrongly portrayed in the US as a noble idealist; in Europe, he’s seen as a rampant fool or dangerous naïf.
The 200-man US contingent on the Champs Élysées recalled all these bitter memories. Their uniforms looked dowdy compared to the snappy French. President Trump, by contrast, looked seriously presidential; wife Melania was serene and elegant. They did a fine job.
The French are masters of the art of seduction. Let’s hope Trump was charmed by his brief visit to Paris and reminded that France has resumed its role as diplomatic leader of Europe and key American ally. Trump may even reconsider his ill-advised withdrawal from the Paris climate pact.
Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2017