Enough, already!

At first, I thought all the Froggy-bashing over the Iraq situation was pretty amusing: freedom fries and all that.

National psychoanalysis based on policy differences isn’t for grown-ups; we all understand that. Of course no one could really try to translate a foreign policy dispute into a diagnostic of deep flaws in national character; that’s the sort of childish nonsense we laugh at when the left fringe talks about “Puritans” and “cowboys,” right? And Americans who didn’t want to be harangued by Europeans about Vietnam or support for the Contras or for Savimbi or Mobutu or for the apartheid regime in South Africa aren’t going to harangue individual Frenchpeople about their government’s policy in the Middle East. Not a very productive activity; we all have better things to do.

I started to get annoyed when it became obvious that lots of folks were taking it seriously, or at least seriously enough to significantly offend and annoy actual people living in the actual countries with whose governments our government is having a dispute. Boycotts of French wines, gleeful speculation about how we could use our postwar control of Iraq to damage the French economy, all that nonsense, got old quickly.

The rhetoric quickly descended from policy argument to mere ethnic and national abuse: “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” denigration of the French cultural heritage (yeah, right, the country that produced Descartes is a mere intellectual parasite on the sacred Anglosphere), even silly attempts to cobble together bits of half-understood history to “prove” that the French have always been cowards in war (a thought which would have surprised the hell out of Marlborough or Wellington). Beneath contempt, really.

But that sort of nonsense was mostly concentrated among people for whom I didn’t have that much respect in the first place. Bad for the country, of course — getting people in France angry at the United States and its people, rather than merely its current governing group, is likely to have long-term consequences we won’t enjoy — but there wasn’t much anyone could do about it except mourn the proud provincial ignorance that, as a lover of my country, I must admit is one of its less attractive features.

But when Amitai Etzioni starts doing it, some sort of limit has been reached, and it’s time to call the meeting to order. He quotes approvingly this ugly little bit of nonsense from Charles Krauthammer:

“Our sophisticated European cousins are aghast. The French led the way, denouncing American simplisme. They deem it a breach of manners to call evil by its name. They prefer accommodating to it. They have lots of practice, famously accommodating Nazi Germany in 1940.”

Pardon me? Have I been reading the wrong history books?

The way I learned it, in 1939 Germany invaded Poland. France, which shared a long border with Germany behind which it could clearly see a very large and well-armed German Army and Air Force, responded to its treaty obligations by declaring war (along with Great Britain) on Germany. In retrospect, it was clear that the French government, like the British, had been excessively accommodating to German expansionism and violations of the Versailles treaty, but when push came to shove France went to war.

The United States not merely did not declare war — though it obviously could have done so safely — it continued to allow its business sector to help the German war effort. The Roosevelt Administration would have preferred a more active role, and under Lend-Lease did as much as it could get away with politically, but the overwhelming pacifism and disinterest in European affairs that characterized the US population at the time made doing more impossible.

In the ensuing war, France was outgeneralled, outmaneuvered, outfought, and overrun. It surrendered. Some of its politicians set up a puppet regime, which was supported, or at least endured, by part of the population and resisted by another part, some at home and some in exile.

Two years later, the United States entered the war, only because we had been attacked by Japan and Germany responded to our declaration of war on Japan with a declaration of war on us. Even then, it took us more than a year to really ramp up, and American forces weren’t much of a factor in the European theater until 1943.

So if there was a country that could justly have been accused of “accommodating Nazi evil” in the period around 1940, its name isn’t actually “France.”

Now that’s not history I look back on, as an American patriot, with any particular pride. Of course I’m delighted that, having entered the war, we were able to turn the balance against the Nazis. But Roosevelt’s inability to make it clear to Hitler in the late 1930s that his attempt to conquer Europe would not succeed — an inability created largely by the same ignorant “middle American” red-state provincialism that most delights in Froggy-bashing now — was directly responsible for the slaughter that was World War II. (And we didn’t even do our bit in absorbing Jewish and other refugees from the Nazis.)

That doesn’t mean that Americans are bad people. That doesn’t even mean that Americans back then were bad people. All it means is that national interest, geography, and the alignment of political forces in the United States in the 1930s made us disgracefully lax in responding to the threat to the world posed by Naziism, while national interest, geography, and the alignment of political forces in France at the same time made France somewhat less lax in that regard.

I’m certainly not willing to take any crap from any European about all that; it was a long time ago. Who-did-what-to-whom in 1940 is pretty irrelevant to how the US and Europe ought to relate today. But for an American to start accusing the French of accommodating the Nazis is really a little bit too much.

Krauthammer should know better. Etzioni certainly does know better. It’s fine to be angry at the French government, though we might profitably save just a teensy bit of that anger to use on the diplomatic incompetence that got us at such loggerheads with the French (and the Germans). But there’s no excuse for converting a policy dispute into an ethnic pissing match.

Update here.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com