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February 3, 2012
Dining with History in France
Ah, Paris in the springtime. How delightful. It was so good to leave my Washington office to go to France for lunch yesterday. I teased my colleagues about heading out to Le beau Pays for a meal and conversation. "The Concorde's been grounded," one of my friends jabbed back.
Actually, I was in France. That's because we recognize the French Embassy in Washington as sovereign French territory. And the January weather was spring-like on Reservoir Road. Under international law, developed in no small part by hundreds of years of French diplomacy, every civilized nation recognizes the embassies of other nations as equivalent to those nations. Thus, the Iranian mullahs' regime committed an act of war against the United States in 1979 when they invaded and occupied our embassy in Tehran.
Yesterday's lunch -- an excellent one of carrot soup, sole almondine, and crème brûlée -- was the occasion for a broad-ranging discussion of historical and political topics.
My gracious hosts reminded me that 58 French soldiers were victims of suicide bombers in Lebanon in 1983 -- along with those 241 U.S. Marines and Navy corpsmen.
I had forgotten that we had joined France in an effort to keep warring factions in Lebanon from each other's throats. France's ties to the Levant go back centuries. France had long been seen as a protector of that country's Maronite Christians. Might she play that role again?
That year, 1983, was the first time Muslims had embraced the idea of suicide bombing.
Hezb'allah is recognized as a tool of the Ayatollah Khomeini. In addition to violating international law by seizing embassies and holding our diplomats and Marine guards hostage, that evil man gave the nod to suicide, something that had never been approved in Muslim history. Khomeini was also responsible for issuing fatwas that called for the murder of those in the West who insulted Islam. Thus, he extended the reach of tyranny and terror far beyond the borders of his long-oppressed country.
We delved into history. Captain Yves Postec, the naval attaché at the embassy, led us down the hall to the fine French restaurant, stopping to point out a large, beautiful painting on the wall. It showed the Comte de Rochambeau with General Washington at Yorktown. Capt. Postec admired it, as did my French friend and I.
Capt. Postec was too tactful to point out that the Yorktown campaign that gained American Independence was really undertaken at Gen. Rochambeau's initiative and against Washington's better judgment. His Excellency, Gen. Washington, preferred to assault the British in their main stronghold of New York City.
Rochambeau knew that Admiral de Grasse and the French Fleet were pledged to engage the British naval squadron in the Chesapeake Bay. If victorious, we could bottle up the British commander of the South, Lord Cornwallis. Sensitive to the political situation in London, Rochambeau surmised that a massive defeat for the British in Virginia would end the war. He was right. It's one of the most admirable traits of George Washington that he allowed himself to be persuaded.
French recognition of the American republic, and their generous financial support for our armies, made our Independence possible. Benjamin Franklin, that Yankee-est of Yankees, fully appreciated the importance of France. His skilful negotiation of our Treaty of Alliance with France of 1778 places him second only to Washington in the ranks of our Founding Fathers. Franklin loved the French and they loved him.
More recent Franco-American relations have not been so happy. I learned of the French Guaranty Treaty of 1919 only a decade ago. When French Premier Georges Clemenceau threatened to leave the Paris peace negotiations after World War I, British Prime Minister Lloyd George worried about a fatal breach in the anti-German alliance.
He devised a treaty under which the U.S. Britain, and Canada pledged to come to France's side if the Germans ever arose and threatened France again.
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson signed the Treaty, then continued with his visionary plans for a League of Nations. When, later that year, the U.S. Senate rejected Wilson's Treaty of Versailles, and with it his beloved League, Wilson refused even to submit the French Guaranty Treaty to the Senate for ratification. Under our Constitution, the Senate cannot act unless the President first transmits a signed treaty to them. Wilson thus violated his pledged word to the French, who had just lost two million men fighting the Germans.
Wilson collapsed on a national speaking tour, campaigning against the Senators who opposed his beloved League. The Republicans swept the White House and Congress in the 1920 elections. But by the time they took power, their Sec. of State, Charles Evans Hughes-whom Theodore Roosevelt had derided as "Wilson in Whiskers," had other ideas than honoring the French Guaranty Treaty.
Thus, in 1936, when Adolf Hitler marched unopposed into the Rhineland-the U.S., Britain and Canada did not rally to the side of France, did not try to stop Hitler in his tracks. We now know that Hitler's generals were prepared to overthrow him if he failed in this daring gamble.
World War II might have been avoided if Wilson had only kept his word to the French. The French Guaranty Treaty was an embryonic NATO. Wilson grandly said he was going to "make the world safe for democracy." In the end, he didn't even make France safe for democracy.
"We think in English," Alexander Hamilton had told the British minister to the U.S. in the early days of the republic. That, agreed my hosts, may account for the closer ties between Britain and the U.S.
Still, with discussions of international terrorism on the table, with issues of economics and demographics always a concern, it was good to hear Capt. Postec's sincere commitment to principles of "liberty and human rights" as the foundation of the French Republic. It was for those principles that America's Founding Fathers--men like Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, James Madison and Sam Adams--embraced France as our oldest ally.
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