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Monday, March 3, 2003

France, Britain, the US and WWII; also French and American Tussles at Present: From Professor Anthony O'Regan

Our thanks to Professor Anthony O'Regan, a specialist in International and Comparative Politics, for his comments on an article by a syndicated columnist about French-bashing in the media that has splurged here the last two months. That article was sent to him by a former student of his, and he sets out some comments to clarify the historical record.

The Buggy Prof then throws in his two-cents' worth, elaborating on the historical context of appeasement and British, French, and American diplomacy and strategy before and during WWII

  Professor Anthony O'Regan

I think Molly Ivins offers an inaccurate portrayal of recent history in her column about American French-bashing (reprinted at the end here). As it happens, she hates President Bush and is someone who uses anything and everything to poison the well about US foreign policy--today and yesterday. A few rejoinders to her views:

1.The French made their own defeat at the hands inevitable by their appeasement policies of Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s (British leaders up until Churchill followed this course too)

2. The US never had "cordial relations" with Nazi Germany. We had diplomatic relations true, but Ivins makes it sound like we were toadying up to Hitler. By early 1941 FDR was already waging a secret and undeclared war on Nazi Germany--so much for cordial relations! As Congressman Tom Lantos (a Democrat by the way who fled Nazi occupied Hungary) reminded us recently if it weren't for the US (and Britain to a lesser extent), France and most of continental Europe wouldbe commemorating its ninth decade of Nazism.

3. Ivins makes it sound as if the US held a global political monopoly in the post W.W.II years--which we didn't. FDR (like Woodrow Wilson at the end of W.W.I) and Truman wanted a world where Empire and colonization were a thing of the past, something that brought us directly into conflict with the British and the French alike. The French wanted to hold to their Empire by force: that's why they fought so bitterly in Algeria and Vietnam. Britain, by contrast, under pressure, withdrew voluntarily: first from India in 1947 (at the cost of huge communal wars between Hindus and Muslims), and then later from Pacific Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Persian Gulf.

4. Look at the French News (on the International Channel): like the Islamic Fundamentalists they are obsessed about American power and their own relative weakness. Take a look, nothing more. I won't add anything beyond what even the casual observer could see after 15 minutes on any given night.

Don't believe me about the obsessive preoccupation in French elite and intellectual life with the US. Last year was a book that claims the CIA was behind Sep. 11 was a top-seller there. Such nonsense is taken very seriously in some French circles, though more serious observers, it's fair to add, did note that it was nonsense.

American French-bashing, very much in evidence the last two months, is something new. Most Americans, as Michael-the-Buggy-Prof has noted, don't know much about France and are never concerned with it one way or another unless they visit the country.

5. Last Ivins cheap shot "France is a country that takes its history seriously while we are anti-historical." If the French take their history seriously, why won't they fess up about their past? Why did it take over half a century for a French President to apologize for the collaboration of Vichy France in W.W.II? Why was it that not a single member of the French military was ever tried for human rights violations in Algeria--yet at the same time the French press still revels in US actions in Vietnam? I could go on believe me. Finally, if the US is anti-historical--the history of continental Europe up until the rise of US global prominence in 1945 is one of wars, genocides, holocausts, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, etc. Remember the prosperity and democracy that underpins Europe today came in large part thanks to the political and economic roles played by the US in the last half century plus.


The Buggy Prof's Observations Here By Way of Clarification:

British and French Diplomacy, Appeasement, and Strategy Leading to the Fall of France in May and June 1940:

French Military Strategy First

Contrary to conventional wisdom, even in the historical profession until recently, the French Maginot line --- a chain of pillboxes, forts, and underground railway and communications links that ran the full length of the French eastern frontier (along the Rhine) from the Swiss border on the south to Belgium in the north --- was an intelligent approach to a huge military problem that France faced after WWI: abandoned by the British and this country in 1919 (Wilson had promised Clemenceau a defensive alliance if the French would give up their aim of splitting off the Rhineland from Germany . . . which would have been a much wiser course), France had to police a Versailles Treaty settlement that no German government, even during the Weimar era of the 1920s, ever accepted as final. What military strategy then could France rely on, given that its population was about 60% of Germany's (and if Austria was linked to Germany as it was when Hitler annexed it in 1937, 50%), not to forget a much smaller industrial base, and no clear allies to rely on if Germany attacked in the future as it had in 1871 and 1914 --- the latter war especially devastating to France. Between 1914 and 1918, the war in the west was fought on French soil: it inflicted major damage on the French economy, and French military casualties were double that of Britain's (American were trivial, even though the arrival of first American supplies in 1917 and a year later the American army were decisive in defeating Germany in offensive operations)?

The answer: a defensive line that would prevent the Germans from invading . . . provided it met two objectives, neither of which the French fulfilled: 1) the line had to stretch westward, once it reached the Belgian border, along the Ardennes and somewhat beyond --- precisely the area where the German armies invaded France in August 1914 at the start of WWII; and 2) the defensive line was matched by mobile forces that would, while stopping any German invasion, allow the French military to counterattack with deep offenses onto German territory.

Neither condition was satisfied, in part because of a rigid system of generalship and poor intelligence, in part because of wishful thinking, and in part because --- even when the aged head of the French military, Gamelin, visited the Ardennes (a long stretch of low mountains, river vallies, and woods that French intelligence, extraordinarily given the lessons of 1914, regarded as unsuited for German armor to pass through), and Gamelin recognized that some minor improvements in defensive preparations would have slowed down a potential German invasion --- the French left-wing Popular Front government of radicals, socialists, and communists refused to allocate any more money for defense even as war hovered ever closer in the late 1930s. As for the need for offensive mobile forces to counterattack --- the best defense against armored attacks is the use of armored counter-thrusts, both directly at the attacking forces and flanking them (or counterattacking onto the enemy's soil elsewhere) --- the French military had some capacity, as did the 10 British divisions that the British sent for the battle of France, but they were aimed the wrong way: a quick thrust up the center of Belgium far east of the Ardennes, where Belgian forts in key river valley areas or at key junctions, were supposed to stop any German Blitzkrieg (lightening fast armored attacks, backed by tactical air power and motorized infantry and artillery), and hence carry the battle onto Belgian soil. As it was, the German forces swarmed through the lightly defended Ardennes region, pushed into France, crossed the rivers that should have slowed their offensive down (the French hadn't even prepared properly the bridge-explosives), and then cut off the British and French forces in Belgium.

The Battle for France and Subsequent Decline

Essentially, unless the French government --- which then retreated to Bordeaux (as it had when the Germans invaded in 1871 and 1914) --- were willing to give up Paris and the North, withdraw their forces to more defensible positions in the south, and use their largely intact air force, navy, still large army, in unison with the British as an ally, and continue the fight. Though some members of the middle-of-the-road coalition at the time favored such a strategy --- with the French empire another source of reserve troops and resources --- the government was filled with defeatists and rejected continuing the war.

It didn't help that Churchill, brought to power in Britain at the time of the German offensive in early May, journeyed to Bordeaux and tried to bolster the side that wanted to continue the war, only to refuse --- when bluntly asked --- to commit the RAF fully to the battle. Churchill rightly calculated that the French wouldn't succeed, and since he was determined to carry on the war even when Hitler offered a peace after France fell and the collaborating Vichy government was set up, he believed, again rightly, that the RAF would be needed in the coming air battle over Britain. From the French viewpoint, however, the British offer to continue the war wasn't serious without a full-fledged RAF commitment. Things worsened in French opinion when, soon after the French surrendered and the Vichy government under Marshall Petain was set up (late June 1940), the British Mediterranean fleet cornered the large French Mediterranean fleet in an Algerian port and sunk all the ships once the commander refused the British offer either to surrender and join the Free French Forces under General de Gaulle in Britain or surrender and be escorted to a neutral port where the ships would be interned and disarmed. And of course, French-British relations didn't improve when Britain and later the US started bombing French factories, which were indispensable for the German war economy . . . to say nothing of the Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa in late 1943, where the initial battles pitted American and British forces against Vichy French forces until a Vichy admiral, visiting at the time, persuaded the local French generals to surrender and join the Anglo-Americans and de Gaulle's forces.

The crowning humiliation for the French --- whose army in the battle of France in May 1940 was larger than the German attacking army, whose tanks were greater and number and of equal quality (but not organized into armored units for fast-paced warfare, save for Brigadier General de Gaulle's own units), and whose Maginot line was never breached from the Rhine side --- was that they were then liberated by the Anglo-Americans in the summer, fall, and winter of 1944 and 1944-45, and played a minor role in the subsequent German defeat. Only when Churchill --- fearful that US forces would be withdrawn from Europe after the war (ended in early May 1945), leaving Britain without a strong ally to face up to the Russians who were in East Germany and all over East Europe --- pushed for a French occupational zone in Germany and a French seat on the new UN Security Council --- did France recover even the semblance of great power status.


Some Historical Refinements Charged with Contemporary Significance

1) Appeasement of Germany after 1918 was practiced almost immediately by the British, in a spirit of confidence and generosity, once the German fleet was scuttled, and British leaders began worrying that British and European recovery required German economic recovery. The French, by contrast, who occupied the Rhineland German western frontier, tried to carry out tough policies against the Weimar Republic. The French also concluded a series of alliances to contain Germany even in the 1920s (Hitler came to power only in 1933) with Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary --- a strategy that made sense, provided the French held onto the Rhineland and were willing to invade the rest of Germany should those small countries be attacked. Ultimately, under British pressure, the French withdrew from the Rhineland. Their lack of an effective offensive strategy to reoccupy it in the event of war meant, for all intents and purposes, that they would abandon their Eastern allies then in the event of a war launched by German against them.

That turned out to be the case. The decisive moment came in 1936: Hitler ordered the German army to enter the demilitarized Rhineland areas, further ordering them to retreat should the French attack from the west. The French didn't attack; the Rhineland area was remilitarized; and the Germans then began to construct the Siegfried line, the German equivalent of the Maginot line as a deterrent to a French invasion when they later invaded Czechoslovakia and Poland (1939). Even during the short Polish campaign, the Siegfried line was not fully fortified, and French forces --- had they gone on the offensive --- would

2. Later, in the 1930s, as Hitler took power and rearmed, French governments swung around and adopted appeasement too. After 1936, both London and Paris were actively trying to assuage Hitler, believing he could be dissuaded from war with concession after concession . . . only now, even in London, the spirit of appeasement was shot through with fear as well as vague hope.

3. Britain's strategic problem in Europe for dealing with Hitler was compounded by imperial overstretch and the growing threat of Japanese arms and naval power in Asia, Indian nationalism in its Indian empire, Mussolini's navy in the Mediterranean, and Hitler's huge rearmament, including air power that could be used against British cities. It was further complicated by two other problems: lack of conscription until 1938 (like the US, the British had relied on sea power for centuries, and had no conscription save briefly in WWI), and fears that a big land war in Europe would bog them down as it had in WWI. Appeasement was intended to compensate for these shortcomings.

4) On the other hand, as war became more of a certainty in late 1938 and 1939, British strategy for victory was premised correctly: war would be long and drawn-out, the British and their allies in the empire (also France they had hoped, wrongly), and eventually maybe the US would have superior mobilizing resources and manpower, German industry would be blockaded and destroyed by British air power, and ultimately Germany would be forced into defeat. To put it bluntly, the British had a much better long-term strategy than Hitler ever did, or the German general staff, which had come to rely on quick cheap victories --- as in Poland, then against Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France. Hitler had no way to invade Britain afterwards. The RAF and radar (a British invention) annihilated so many German bombers in the summer of 1940 that daylight German bombing had to be stopped; the British meanwhile had begun strategic bombing of German cities and industries. And when the German offensive in June 1941 against Russia failed before Moscow in the late fall, the British entered into alliance with Russia, reinforced after December 7th by the US joining the struggle in both Europe and Asia.

5) Another point worth elaborating here: Not only were the German plans that they could win a war on the cheap---with quick armored columns and tactical air support destroying the British and French wrong (to say nothing of the Soviets when Hitler attack them in mid-1941)---proved wrong, the British themselves in North Africa eventually found that Blitzkrieg armored warfare by itself couldn't even defeat Rommel. When Montgomery took over from Armstrong--the advocate of a German armored approach, with disaster in North Africa till then---the first thing he did was strengthen the infantry role in accompanying tanks. Once that occurred and the British adapted their tactics, they began to fight Rommel as an equal, and eventually to destroy his main threat at El Alamein . . . Montgomery's great success, a testimony to his intelligence (though he should have then been able to follow up and destroy the retreating German forces quickly).

6) On the Soviet side, the Soviets soon outdistanced the Germans in using tanks and air support, with infantry, and Marshall Zhukov, their great general, emerged as the greatest general of the war on all sides . . . at any rate in Europe (Macarthur in the Pacific, and the American naval commanders, were his equals). And again, a prolonged war enabled the allies to bring to bear their far greater material superiority, especially American---in ways the Germans couldn't remotely match (nor the Japanese).

As for American military and economic mobilization, the world had never seen anything like it. We were using assembly line production by early 1941 to turn out thousands of bombers, fighter planes, and tanks each month, and dozens of huge ships were similarly launched each month. It was this mobilization, together with the Anglo-American victory in the Atlantic and US naval and air power's ability to destroy the Japanese carrier forces throughout 1942 and 1943 (facilitating island invasions and an ever closer air base to Japanese soil), that supplied all the arms and other resources to the Russians, British, and American forces used to destroy Hitler, Mussolin, their fascist allies in Europe and North Africa, and Japanese forces all over the Pacific.

7) Another military observation worth making here, obtained ot from looking at one of Stephen Ambrose's recent works (what a fine military historian he is: most students will recognize him as the main adviser for Saving Private Ryan). He notes that more updated studies cast doubt on what was once an established dogma: to wit, that the Germans were better soldiers on a man-to-man basis compared to the British and American soldiers, usually killing more of them than vice versa (about on the order of 1.4:1). The corollary was that the US-British forces in the West and Italy and North Africa triumphed owing to superior resources and maybe tactics.

As Ambrose points out, the kill ratio---while accurate---didn't take into account that the Anglo-American forces---in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Normandy, the South of France, and then across France and the lowlands into the heart of Germany---were always on the offensive, with the Germans able to fight from prepared defenses. Not only were the elite American and British forces superior in fighting caliber and tactics---British and Canadian commandos, American rangers, airborne troops, bomber forces---but so were the ordinary fighting men in the ranks, whether infantry, artillery, tanks or what have you . . . a superiority all the more remarkable because the British and American and Canadian armies (like the American forces in the Pacific) were drawn from civilians out of anti-militarist countries without traditions of conscription, big reserves, or the most talented men being skimmed off to the military from other careers. They were ordinary Joes, like my dad, who volunteered the day after Pearl Harbor, and who---when asked by the astounded colonel at the enlistment center why he, clearly overage for the war (he was in fact 3 years beyond the upper age limit)---said that he wanted to kill as many Nazis and Japanese as possible and rid the world of the evil scum. Three years later he was a medic, in on the Normandy campaign, and a year later he and millions of Canadians, Britons, Americans, and French helped destroy the Nazi evil (with the Soviets having killed most of them on their front).

It was especially the remarkable agility and flexibility of the American forces that astounded the Germans in France and later in Germany: again and again, American tactics were adjusted to deal with unforeseen contingencies, again and again the combined arms operations of artillery, tanks, infantry, fighting bombers, and tactical planes brought to bear firepower that even the elite SS-armored divisions---brought in from the Soviet front---had never encountered.

All testimony to the superiority, moral, intellectual, political, of a free society (with big apologies to the PC-elites who might read this, scoffing with ridicule at the very notion this racist, homophobic, utterly despicable male-dominated society is capable of any virtue whatsoever).

8) As for Vichy France, the US until it entered the war in December 1941 --- Hitler declared war on us, incidentally, the day after Pearl Harbor -- we maintained relations, then after we entered the war Roosevelt and Churchill --- who couldn't personally stand the hauteur and stiffness of de Gaulle, the head of the Free French Forces that both now armed --- tried to find another French leader to work with. De Gaulle was too wily and ruthless to let any other French leader emerge, and he made sure that when the Anglo-American forces, plus a French armored division liberated Paris in the late summer 1944, a couple of months after Normandy, that he would take control of any new French government. From the start, records now indicate, he thought mainly in terms of restoring French power and its status as a great power and defending the empire, which also included organizing various Continental countries in a counter-bloc vis--vis the British and Americans. Only when the Soviet threat became overwhelmingly clear in late 1947 did the French government --- now led by de Gaulle's successor (he went into exile in Lorraine and stayed there until called back to preside over the fall of the 4th Republic in 1958) --- decide that it should throw its lot into an alliance with the US and the British, which culminated in NATO's creation in 1949 and that of the Federal Republic in the West.

Ivin's Column on American French-Bashing


AUSTIN, Texas -- As our coaches used to say, "OK, people, settle down and listen up." We have been enjoying a lovely little spate of French-bashing here lately. Jonah Goldberg of The National Review, who admits that French-bashing is "shtick" -- as it is to many American comedians -- has popularized the phrase "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" to describe the French. It gets a lot less attractive than that.

George Will saw fit to include in his latest Newsweek column this joke: "How many Frenchmen does it take to defend Paris? No one knows, it's never been tried." That was certainly amusing. One million, four hundred thousand French soldiers were killed during World War I. As a result, there weren't many Frenchmen left to fight in World War II. Nevertheless, 100,000 French soldiers lost their lives trying to stop Hitler.

On behalf of every one of those 100,000 men, I would like to thank Mr. Will for his clever joke. They were out-manned, out-gunned, out-generaled and, above all, out-tanked. They got slaughtered, but they stood and they fought. Ha-ha, how funny. In the few places where they had tanks, they held splendidly.

Relying on the Maginot Line was one of the great military follies of modern history, but it does not reflect on the courage of those who died for France in 1940. For eighteen months after that execrable defeat, the United States of America continued to have cordial diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany.

One of the great what-ifs of history is: What would have happened if Franklin Roosevelt had lived to the end of his last term? How many wars have been lost in the peace? For those of you who have not read "Paris 1919," I recommend it highly. Roosevelt was anti-colonialist. That system was a great evil, a greater horror even than Nazism or Stalinism.

If you have read "Leopold's Ghost" by Adam Hochschild, you have some idea. The French were in it up to their necks. Instead of insisting on freedom for the colonies of Europe, we let our allies carry on with the system, leaving the British in India and Africa, and the French in Vietnam and Algeria, to everyone's eventual regret.

Surrender monkeys? Try Dien Bien Phu. Yes, the French did surrender, didn't they? After 6,000 French dead [sic] in a no-hope position. Ever heard of the Foreign Legion? Of the paratroopers, called "paras"? G*d, the trouble we could have saved ourselves if we had only paid attention to Dien Bien Phu.

Then came Algeria for the French. As nasty a war as has ever been fought. If you have seen the film "Battle of Algiers," you have some idea. Five generations of pieds noirs, French colonialists, thought it was their country. Charles de Gaulle came back into power in 1958, specifically elected to keep Algeria French. I consider de Gaulle's long, slow, delicate, elephantine withdrawal (de Gaulle even looked like an elephant) one of the single greatest acts of statesmanship in history. Only de Gaulle could have done that.

Those were the years when France learned about terrorism. The plastiquers were all over Paris. The "plastic" bombs, the ones you can stick like

Play-Do underneath the ledge of some building, were the popular weapon du jour. It made Israel today look tame. For France, terrorism is, "Been there, done that."

The other night on "60 Minutes," Andy Rooney, who fought in France and certainly has a right to be critical, chided the French for forgetting all that sacrifice (100,000 Frenchmen died trying to stop Hitler in 1940, and 150,000 Allied troops died to liberate that nation in 1944.) But I think he got it backward: The French remember too well.

I was in Paris on Sept. 11, 2001. The reaction was so immediate, so generous, so overwhelming. Not just the government, but the people kept bringing flowers to the American embassy. They covered the American Cathedral, the American Church, anything they could find that was American.

They didn't just leave flowers, they wrote notes with them. I read over 100 of them. Not only did they refer, again and again, to Normandy, to never forgetting, there were even some in ancient, spidery handwriting referring to WW I: "Lafayette is still with you."

Look, the French are not a touchy-feely people. They're more, like, logical. For them to approach total strangers in the streets who look American and hug them is seriously extraordinary. I got patted so much I felt like a Labrador retriever. I wish Andy Rooney had been there.

This is where I think the real difference is. We Americans are famously anti-historical. We can barely be bothered to remember what happened last week, or last month, much less last year. The French are really stuck on history. (Some might claim this is because the French are better educated than we are. I won't go there.) Does it not occur to anyone that these are very old friends of ours, trying to tell us what they think they know about being hated by weak enemies in the Third World?

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate.

Replies: 1 Comment

Molly Ivans has a wonderful sense of humor but her loathing of George Bush clouds all her thinking and renders her writings ineffective.

She should try to be more like Susan Estrich, another funny Liberal with a much better sense of reality and therefore much more effective.

Posted by Tallan @ 03/04/2003 10:04 PM PST