The French revolution followed the American revolution, which we discussed in part one of this two part series. If you have not read part one yet, click here to read it!
The French Revolution followed on the heels of the American Revolution beginning in 1789. George Washington walked a political tightrope between competing viewpoints. Thomas Jefferson supported the revolutionaries entirely, whereas Alexander Hamilton gave his concern to the financial ties that remained between the U.S. and Great Britain. Maintaining neutrality after the radicalization of the French citizenry became increasingly difficult as time went on, especially during the Terror. However, even Jefferson – the ardent revolutionary supporter – saw the err of joining the war no matter the noble cause. Following the Reign of Terror, tensions between the U.S. and France heightened.
From 1798 to 1800, the U.S. and France played at war through navel altercations; however, President John Adams succeeded in avoiding large scale war. Despite promises of support from Great Britain, and a home-grown Federalist support of war, Adams chose to view France’s lack of aggression at sea as a desire for peace. To quell the Federalists, he signed The Alien and Sedition Acts into laws which increased deportation, lengthened citizenship application times, and generally decreased the ease of citizen dissent. The U.S. and France’s treaty of alliance was re-branded as The Convention of 1800 and the nations’ more nuanced friendship survived.1
Relations returned to normal until 1834. By that time the Napoleonic wars were over, but financial damages lingered. When U.S. President Andrew Jackson tried to go to war with France over wartime seizures of U.S. ships, it was Great Britain who mediated and restored the peace between nations. On into the 1840s, French and American thinkers wrote about life and politics in both countries with great success and general well-wishing.
During the U.S. Civil War, France remained neutral but also strengthened the French presence in Mexico. The U.S., preoccupied with in-fighting, did not intervene; yet when Mexico achieved independence from France in 1862, the Union and many confederate states celebrated with their southern amigos.
During WWI the U.S. loaned food and supplies to the French before sending over a million troops to aid in the fight. U.S. troops used French munitions and vehicles along the Western front and, with the French veterans, turned the tide of war. The 1919 peace settlement was not pleasing to the French who (rightly) saw Germany as a constant threat, and the French felt that America was too culturally invasive, so a deep resentment festered through the interwar years.
WWII confirmed France’s fears, and despite the U.S. support of France over Nazi Germany, the joint effort to build the France Air Force proved too little, too late. Under Vichy government, the U.S. and an occupied France remained allies until 1942 when the Nazis took direct control of the country. At that time the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with the Vichy government. Despite strained relations, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the leader of Free French, Charles De Gaulle worked together to reclaim Paris.
Post-war ties strengthened the French and American bond. Finally, the Americans paid back the French for recognizing them as a nation when no one else would more than a century before. Grants and loans helped France rebuild after WWII, and the nations grew closer as French innovators adapted American ideas about production and worker relations. In 1949 the countries were formal allies and the U.S. helped France maintain control of numerous colonies until 1954, when Eisenhower would not send help to quell an uprising in Dien Bien Phu. Shortly thereafter, France distanced itself from the U.S. further after the Suez Crisis.
In the 1950s exported American culture invaded France but the leaders disagreed about the Vietnam war in the following decade. In the 70s and 80s France and the U.S. had a mix of agreements and disagreements but would not lose sight of their friendship. France maintains a distinctly French identity despite the diligence of U.S. marketers, and most Anti-Americanism in France today is in response to the capitalistic proliferation of American started corporations.2
In matters of foreign policy and war the U.S. and France continued to see eye-to-eye. The Middle Eastern wars that began in the 1990s, swift reactions to acts of terrorism in the new millennium, the necessity of responsible climate action in the 2010s, and the desire to prevent insurgencies from gaining nuclear weaponry remain at the top of a long list of shared international priorities.
Let us look back on this long history of friendship when we move forward. Leaders come and go, and none have the power to destroy a history of friendship. The French and U.S. people can survive the administration foibles and failings to emerge united on the other side.