21 November 2005

Berman on the History of French Anti-Americanism

The meatiest book reviewed in Paul Berman's lengthy article in The New Republic entitled France's Failures, Hatreds, and Signs of a New Look at America: The Anti-Anti-Americans (free registration required) is Philippe Roger's The American Enemy: The History of French Anti-Americanism. Roger reminds us of historic French grievances about American ingratitude during the 18th and 19th centuries, not just American grievances about French ingratitude during the 20th century.
Roger recalls the history of French grievances against America, the actual hard-fact history--this history that Americans know nothing about and can hardly even imagine, though its stages are easily identified. There was the French feeling of horror and betrayal at the secret Jay Treaty of 1794, in which, despite France's crucial aid during the American Revolution, the United States made peace with the same Great Britain that was, at that very moment, waging war against revolutionary France. It is easy to see that, on this issue, the French had a point--especially so when you recognize that, whatever France's imperial ambitions may have been (namely, to conquer Europe and the Middle East, and to re-name these regions "France"), the French were undergoing a terrible pummeling.

Then came the struggles of the Napoleonic wars, and the French navy seized a great many American ships (a total of 558, by the American reckoning). And the United States demanded compensation afterward, and not in a small amount. President Andrew Jackson pursued this demand, and the French eventually agreed to pay, if only because Jackson threatened to seize French property in the United States. But, as Roger tells us, the argument over compensation to the United States aroused a tremendous anger in France--tremendous because the French had aided the United States in the past, and America ought to have allowed its feeling of gratitude to linger a little longer. And the resentment was owed to something more. For what was the meaning of France's revolutionary and Napoleonic wars?

France suffered. France's army was destroyed. France ended up under European occupation. Huge portions of the French population were killed. The defeat was spectacular and enormous. And here was the United States in the wake of these tragedies, demanding a money transfer from a somber and defeated France to the cheerful shores of a prosperous United States. The French Chamber of Deputies eventually agreed to pay, but their assent was bitter. Even the pro-Americans among them--Roger points to the poet Lamartine, a solid republican with excellent pro-American credentials--burned with resentment. An echo of this turns up, I would add, even in Tocqueville, who remarks that in the American War of Independence, the Americans endured nothing on the scale of French suffering a few years later.
And the same can be said of American vs. French sacrifices during the Great War, the war of Europe's lost generation.
By the turn of the twentieth century, it had become obvious that America was expanding its power all over the world, just as the European supporters of the old Confederacy had feared; and the sundry racial and cultural factors came to seem frighteningly dynamic. Woodrow Wilson seemed like a scary man, insane, imprisoned by his Christian fanaticism, and manipulated by Jewish financiers. The years that followed Wilson's intervention in France produced, in Roger's account, the high tide of anti-American literature. The United States was a racial horror, a machine-like menace, a disaster for the working class, a tool of the Jewish conspiracy, and so forth--all of which had a way of making America seem much more dangerous than Germany. These attitudes were upheld by people on the extreme right and by a number of independents who were neither right-wing nor left-wing, and, in the age of Pétain, these became the reigning attitudes.

Then again, Pétain's defeat and the catastrophe of the extreme right in France merely ended up producing still another wave of anti-Americanism, this time promoted by the communists, whose left-wing feelings were just as virulent as the old right-wing version. The United States, no longer a greater danger than Nazi Germany, was now the heir to Nazi Germany. "Truman, Hitler's authentic successor" was a communist slogan. The communists campaigned against blue jeans, Coca Cola, and Hollywood. The right-wing themes from between the wars were in these ways re-fitted for the postwar left, and the revised themes were massively disseminated....

In this fashion, a cultural tradition arose in which America was condemned for every possible reason and its opposite--condemned for being less advanced than Europe, which is to say, geographically and sociologically younger; and also for being ahead of Europe in its social development, which is to say, older. America was a country without values; and appallingly moralistic. Repulsive for being racist; and for mixing its races. America's democracy was a failure and a sham; and America was repeatedly said to have lately fallen away from its admirable democratic past. America was governed by a dictatorship of millionaires; or by a rabble of corner grocers. Worse than Hitler; or Hitler's heir; and either way a threat to humanism.

America was frightening because it was excessively powerful; and was repeatedly declared to be on the brink of collapse. America was bellicose; and its soldiers, cowardly. America was hopelessly Christian; and, beginning in the 1920s, America was, even so, dominated by Jews. Coldly calculating; and, at the same time, religiously insane. Talleyrand made the complaint about religious insanity at the very start of the American republic (he had fled to America in 1794 to escape the mass guillotinings that were mandated by France's new religion of the Goddess of Reason) in his witty remark that America featured thirty-two religions and only one dish, which was inedible. The remark about food was significant in itself, and suggested, as well, a larger complaint about the unattractive thinness of America's culture--a main theme of the anti-American accusation. And yet America's greatest danger to the world was also said to be its culture, which, despite its lack of appeal, was dangerously appealing, and was going to crush all other cultures.
Yet, after such a well-crafted stream of ironies, Berman concludes on a note very sympathetic to France.
Anyone who visits Berlin will recognize instantly that Germany is a nation that has suffered stupendous and unbearable defeats--a nation that has been reduced to rubble repeatedly by events, even if the Germans have themselves to blame for some of those events. A visitor to France will come away with no such impression. Rubble, in France? And yet it may be that France, too, is a nation covered with scars--a wounded nation, different from Germany only in France's gallant insistence that it is not a wounded nation. I turn the pages of Roger's history and the other books, and I contemplate Glucksmann's observations about the hatred that arises from a revulsion at one's own weakness, and it occurs to me that, instead of rubble, which the Germans have aplenty, the French possess the very remarkable literature that Roger and the others describe. Not exactly rubble, but a kind of wreckage--the literature of a wounded culture, expressing more than two hundred years of conscious and unconscious injury.
Will America be any more gracious by the turn of the next century, when perhaps China will have taken over the role of colossus bestriding the world?

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