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Vive la Similarité
By DAVID McCULLOUGH
Published: July 13, 2011
THE recent arrest in New York of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then the head of the International Monetary Fund, has caused some people to question the American-French relationship. Though we will probably never see a Bastille Day when French flags fly along Main Street and strains of “La Marseillaise” fill the airwaves, July 14 would not go so largely unobserved here were we better served by memory. For the ties that bind America and France are more important and infinitely more interesting than most of us know.
Consider that the war that gave birth to the nation, our war for independence, would almost certainly have failed had it not been for heavy French financial backing and military support, on both land and sea. At the crucial surrender of the British at Yorktown, for example, the French army under General Rochambeau was nearly as large as our own commanded by Washington. The British commander, Cornwallis, was left with no escape and no choice but to surrender only because a French fleet sailed into the Chesapeake Bay at exactly the right moment.
The all-important treaty ending the Revolutionary War, wherein King George III recognized the United States to be “free, sovereign and independent,” was signed in Paris. The plan for our new capital city on the Potomac was designed by a French engineer, Pierre Charles L’Enfant. The first great statue of our first president was the work of a French sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon. The first major study of us as a people, “Democracy in America,” was written by a French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville. Published in 1835, it remains one of the wisest books ever written about us.
To be sure, our relations with France have not always been smooth. Tensions over a diplomatic snafu called the “XYZ Affair” led, in 1798, to an actual but undeclared shooting war at sea that could have flared into full-scale war had it not been for the level-headed judgment of President John Adams.
But the rewards of our ties with France have far exceeded any difficulties there have been. With the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France, the size of the country was more than doubled. The Statue of Liberty, one of our most treasured symbols, was a gift from France.
No less conspicuous are the number of French names all across the map of America — cities and states, rivers and lakes: Baton Rouge, Des Moines, New Orleans, St. Louis, Terre Haute, Louisiana, Vermont, the Au Sable River, Lake Champlain. And then there are colleges and universities like Lafayette, Duquesne, Marquette, Notre Dame.
More than nine million of us are of French descent. Over a million American students are taking French, making it, after Spanish, the most commonly studied foreign language in our schools.
Times continue to change, yet we remain conspicuously fond of all manner of things French. We deck ourselves out in French fashions, French lace, French cuffs, spend small fortunes on French perfume and French luggage. We love French doors, French cheeses. We’ve made French fries a national staple, and in time-honored tradition raise glasses of French Champagne at important celebrations.
For well over 200 years, our most gifted American writers, artists, architects, composers, musicians and dancers have flocked to Paris to study and work, nearly always to their benefit and ours. John Singleton Copley, James McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Richard Wright, Louis Gottschalk and Louis Armstrong, Cole Porter, Isadora Duncan and Josephine Baker, and, of course, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The list goes on and on.
Especially for American women and for African-Americans, Paris provided an atmosphere of freedom and of acceptance such as they had never experienced.
Less well known but of great importance were the hundreds of young Americans who went to study medicine in France in the 19th century, when Paris was the medical capital of the world and who brought home ideas and skills that would transform American medicine and medical education.
And there is a further reason France should hold a prominent place in our memories and in our hearts. More American history has unfolded in France and more Americans are buried there than in any other country but our own.
During World War I more than two million American soldiers served “Over There.” In World War II another generation of American soldiers numbering more than 800,000 served in France. In all, more than 60,000 Americans are buried in French soil, at Meuse-Argonne, Normandy and nine other cemeteries. At the Meuse-Argonne, the largest, lie fully 14,246 American dead. The grave markers are a sight never to be forgotten.
Though I love France and greatly value the friends I have made there, I am not an overboard Francophile. But as an American I think it is well past time to get back to respect and affection between our countries, on all fronts and with all possible good will.
For my part this Bastille Day, I intend to raise a glass or two of Veuve Clicquot in a heartfelt toast: “Vive la France!”
David McCullough, a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, is the author, most recently, of “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 18, 2011
An Op-Ed article on Thursday, about America’s ties with France, incorrectly described the size of General Rochambeau’s forces during the siege of Yorktown in 1781. While the combined forces of the French outnumbered those of Washington, Rochambeau himself commanded fewer soldiers than Washington, not more.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on July 14, 2011, on page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: Vive la Similarité.