â€œWe Saved Their Buttsâ€
It is difficult to imagine the bitter irony with which many French people must be receiving the American charge of â€œingratitude.â€ For the last two weeks at least, leading United States Congressmen, editorialists and others have been bashing the French for their supposed failure to support international â€œlaw and orderâ€ by joining Americaâ€™s reckless and dangerous campaign to needlessly massacre Iraqis. There is even talk of an American boycott of French goods. Much of the criticism has focused on the charge that France is â€œungratefulâ€ for Americaâ€™s heroic efforts to save them during â€œthe Good Warâ€ â€“ the great Allied struggle against German and Japanese fascism between 1941 and 1945.
Listen, for example, to Fred Barnes, executive director of the reactionary Weekly Standard. Last Thursday, Barnes expressed his outrage that France would â€œactively try to undermine President Bushâ€ on Iraq â€œafter all weâ€™ve done for themâ€ â€“ including â€œsaving their buttsâ€ in World War II.
Behold the outraged former New York City Mayor Ed Koch. â€œI encourage everybody in America: do not go to France,â€ Koch said last week. â€œThese people were Nazi [collaborators] in large part. We saved them â€“ and they turned on us.â€ â€œMost of us,â€ chimed in â€œwarâ€ enthusiast Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Queens), â€œbelieve [the French] would all be speaking German if it were not for US military intervention.â€
Three weeks ago, US Senator John Kyl noted that America â€œliberatedâ€ France from â€œHitlerâ€™s gripâ€ in a statement denouncing â€œold Europeâ€™sâ€ (France and Germanyâ€™s) supposedly irrelevant opposition to American â€œwarâ€ (massacre) plans in the Middle East.
Deleting Americaâ€™s Fascist Accommodation and Emulation
History holds a less than exalted position in the nation that Michael Eric Dyson once aptly called â€œThe United States of Amnesia.â€ Still, it is interesting to note how consistently elite would be-architects of American opinion feel driven to construct fundamentally, albeit bad, historical arguments on behalf of their various projects at home and abroad.
A funny thing forgotten by practitioners of the new American sport of French-bashing is that US policymakers helped enable the rise of European fascism that culminated in Hitlerâ€™s march of terror. As is apparent from the relevant historical literature, the US watched with approval as Fascist darkness set over Europe during the inter-war years. American policymakers saw Italian, Spanish, German and other strains of the European fascist disease as a welcome counter to the Soviet threat â€“ essentially the demonstration Russia made of the possibilities for modernization (industrialization, urbanization, and nation- building) outside the capitalist world system â€“ and anti-capitalist social democracy within Western European states.
In 1937, the US State Departmentâ€™s European Division argued that European fascism was compatible with Americaâ€™s economic interests. This key diplomatic agency reported that fascismâ€™s rise was a natural response of â€œthe rich and middle classesâ€ to the threat posed by â€œdissatisfied masses,â€ who, with the â€œthe example of the Russian Revolution before them,â€ might â€œswing to the left.â€ Fascism, the State Department argued, â€œmust succeed or the masses, this time reinforced by the disillusioned middle class, will again turn to the left.â€ The French Popular Front government of the middle 1930s was an example of the popular left threat that made fascism acceptable to American officials before Hitler really launched his drive for a New World Order. It is true that fascism became an avowed US enemy during WWII. This did not occur, however, until fascism, holding power in two leading imperialist states, directly attacked American interests. American policymakers intervened against fascism on the basis of perceived national self-interest, not out of any particular concern for the human rights of the French or, for that matter, European Jews or anyone else. After the war, it is worth noting, Americaâ€™s accommodation of European and Asian fascism in the inter-war period became the model for US Third World policy. In the name of resisting supposedly expansionist Soviet influence and anti-capitalism, the US sponsored, funded, equipped, and provided political cover for numerous Third World fascist regimes. In doing so, it protected and enlisted numerous Nazi War criminals (e.g. Klaus Barbie) perceived to have special skills in anti-leftist counter-insurgency. And today, as it prepares a â€œpre-emptiveâ€ invasion of a weak state to advance an American-dominated New World Order, the US quite reasonably strikes many European and other world citizens as the closest thing in recent historical memory to the Hitlerâ€™s Third Reich.
Who is Ungrateful?
The American right wants to view Franceâ€™s position on US Iraq policy as a French referendum on its historical debts to other nations. Fine â€“ perhaps, then, we should see Franceâ€™s resistance to the Bush War Party as an expression of its deep gratitude to Russia, which opposes Bushâ€™s Iraq campaign and which lost 25 million lives in the struggle against fascism-Nazism. No nation did more than Russia to stop the Nazis. If their charges of French ingratitude are to be taken seriously, Americaâ€™s warmongers believe that a decent nation expresses proper gratefulness for a survival-enabling historical gift from another nation by embracing the savior nationâ€™s current policy agenda, whatever the widespread opposition of the saved stateâ€™s population. By this standard, however, America ought to be taking its policy cues from France. After all, it is incontrovertible historical fact that French military assistance was crucial to Americaâ€™s victory in its War of Independence against the British Empire between 1776 and 1783. Perhaps the French should launch a public relations counter campaign, accusing American policymakers of being ungrateful for the heroic sacrifices made by France to enable the very birth of the United States. The French do feel gratitude for the role Americans played in expelling the Nazis. When they see George W. Bush sneering from their television screens about the concocted threat posed by Iraq, however, they do not flash back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the heroic struggle against world fascism. They see a dangerous new potential world dictator, one who manufactures exaggerated foreign threats to justify a Nazi-like drive for unchallenged world power.
What is the moral calculus whereby one nationâ€™s historical debt to a stronger nationâ€™s past opposition to a shared monstrous enemy mandates the weaker stateâ€™s supine subservience to the stronger stateâ€™s current global agenda â€“ even when that agenda puts the weaker state at significant risk?
The charge of ingratitude was once leveled against Americaâ€™s Founding Fathers, in the aftermath of what American history texts call â€œThe French-Indian War.â€ The accusation came from King Georgeâ€™s British Empire, aghast at the North American colonistsâ€™ reluctance to pay the costs of supposed imperial protection. The ensuing struggle sparked by British efforts to enforce proper imperial subordination culminated in the American Revolution, successfully completed with crucial assistance from France â€“ something for which the American people should be eternally grateful.
Here, perhaps, we find a somewhat more useful historical analogy than WWII to grasp â€œungratefulâ€ Franceâ€™s reluctance to jump on board the imperial campaign of historyâ€™s new and more dangerous Mad King George.
Among the many reasons for people to know their history, few are as compelling as the power such knowledge gives them to critically scrutinize misleading historical statements made by policymakers to advance terrible agendas. The hysterical French-bashing historical propaganda recently spewed out by Americaâ€™s modern imperialists and their chauvinistic cheerleaders is an excellent example.
Paul Street (pstreet@cul-chicago ) is a Lecturer on urban class and race relations at Loyola University in Chicago, Illinois.