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FRANCE’S GREAT FOLLY

John Chuckman

That great bellowing herd, sometimes called middle America, is now making noises much like those of bull walruses in mating season. The challenges issued in the form of belches and grunts are directed towards the French, a people who have the temerity to stand for principles other than the one George Bush regards as central to humanity – that is, support America or else.

But France’s great folly was not in her recent brave efforts to prevent a needless war. No, it occurred more than two centuries ago when America won her independence from the British Empire.

As probably only a few dozen people in middle America even likely appreciate thanks to hyper-patriotic history texts, America’s Revolutionary War succeeded only because the French supplied arms, cash, men, leadership, and a navy. It wasn’t just help, it was decisive.

There were two key battles in the Revolutionary War. The first was Saratoga in 1777. That stunning victory over Britain’s General John Burgoyne was only possible because of a secret French gun-running operation, much like those undertaken by the CIA today, directed by Pierre de Beaumarchais, grand adventurer and author of The Marriage of Figaro. America then was a relatively simple society with little capacity for manufacturing the weapons necessary to take on the British army.

Of course, France’s secret assistance now may be viewed as the greatest example of what intelligence people today call “blowback” in Western history. It makes the blowback of 9/11, directly attributable to the CIA’s work in Afghanistan, seem tame by comparison. For France played mid-wife to the birth of something that a little more than two centuries later would arrogantly claim the right to determine the fate of the planet.

The main importance of the victory at Saratoga lay in gaining something the revolting colonists desperately wanted: a formal treaty with France and a great bounty of loans, gifts, and military forces. Of course, France’s main interest was to hurt its great rival, Britain, but then it certainly was not America’s main interest to liberate France in 1944-5.

The deciding battle of the Revolutionary War was Yorktown in 1781, although a peace treaty was not settled until 1783. The truth is that Yorktown was overwhelmingly a French victory. Washington didn’t want to attack Yorktown, but then Washington was a terrible general who lost almost every battle he fought.

In 1781, Washington was fixated on a battle whose prospect was almost certain failure, an attack on New York. It was General Rochambeau’s foresight and planning that made Yorktown possible, but it took a lot of arguing to have Washington finally agree. One of Washington’s most trusted young generals, the Marquis de Lafayette, was given a substantial role in the action.

French Admiral de Grasse blocked a British fleet from entering the Chesapeake and evacuating the British army at Yorktown. French troops in the thousands were among the most active. French engineers guided the building of the entrenchments that sealed the fate of General Cornwallis’s army in a fortified encampment that had its back to the water and no fleet to help.

The American forces carried French arms, and what pay they received came from the French treasury. It was during this last stage of the war that Americans massively lost interest. There had never been great enthusiasm, with about a third of the population against it from the beginning and another third indifferent (contrary to myth, revolutions are almost always the work of minorities) – the real explanation, along with a stubborn unwillingness to pay taxes still evident today, behind Washington’s chronic lack of resources despite his countless pleas for help from the colonial governments. But by the late 1770s, Americans had become even more indifferent. It was around this time that M. Duportail, a French officer serving under Washington, made his famous observation about there being more enthusiasm for the Revolution in the cafes of Paris than he saw in America.

America never repaid the massive loans made by the French. Years later, when France underwent the agonies of a much more terrible revolution, then-President Washington maintained a very cool distance. Even when poor old Tom Paine was rotting in a French jail, expecting any day to be executed, Washington ignored his pleas for assistance. This was the same Tom Paine whose Common Sense and Crisis Papers were so important in stirring support for America’s revolution.

Well, despite the great chorus of gastric disturbance just south of here, I shall proudly continue wearing my beret. After all, it was the wonderful Ben Franklin who said that every man has two countries, his own and France.

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