More on the French Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkey Smear: the Junk History Behind it

And following on from the last post, here is a link to Jonah Goldberg’s shameful cheese-eating French surrender monkey article, which I’m afraid did help set the tone for a very ugly response from some parts of US commentary and politics to the French having a different point of view about whether it was a good idea to invade Iraq, as if only ‘cowardice’ or ‘treason’ to ‘the West’ could explain a different prudential judgement, which has now anyway become the widespread judgement in Britain and the US.

The most grotesque expression of the hysteria and panic that a major western country disagreed with the US policy was the renaming of French Fries  (known as chips in Britain) as Liberty Fries in Congressional cafeterias. This itself referred back to the rather more justified renaming of German foods with reference to liberty, so hamburgers became liberty steaks and sauerkraut became liberty cabbage. ,

The comparison of French opposition to an invasion which most of the world outside the US rejected with the crimes of Nazi Germany was simply morally despicable and reflects a bullying, angry intolerance in a significant part of the US right which is still with us, though expressed in other ways, as in the current success of the buffoonish populist Donald Trump in the Republican primaries.

Now to look at the content of the article, the painfully bad history proffered by Godlberg, who clearly thinks he is being frightfully clever and funny, Yes the article has a humorous aspect in intention (can’t see it works though) but it also clearly much more or much less than that in circulating nonsensical claims and assumptions about history as a substitute for informed argument and accurate knowledge.

The French did not surrender Paris without firing a shot. There were 100 000 French casualties in the Fall of France, in which France was also trying to protect Dutch and Belgian territory, something of great help to the Nazis who cut of this force by surprise thrust through northern France from Belgium. British troops were also cut off and British forces left France before the final fall, so really ‘surrender monkey’ abuse should apply to Britain as well with regard to the Fall of France, though not later events of course.

French troops who shot on the Americans during operation Torch, (landings in Morocco late 1942) were Vichy French, that is the army of the collaborationist regime as opposed to the Free French under Charles de Gaulle who played a role in expelling Vichy and Nazi forces from north Africa. Goldberg fails to understand the difference or maliciously creates confusion on this score so that appears all French forces of the time were firing on the American forces.

Goldberg also does not mention that Roosevelt and the US administration of the time leaned a long way in Vichy’s direction and were trying to hand over France to Admiral Darlan, the deputy head of the regime under Marshall Petain. Only Darlan’s rather murky assassination put an end to US plans to prefer the ‘surrender-monkey’ Vichy French to the non ‘surrender-monkey’ (I presume both groups enjoyed eating good French cheese) Free French who refused to surrender and fought on after the Fall of France.

Goldberg then jumps through history to the 1980s when France declined to allow the US air force to pass through to bomb Libya in response to a terrorist attack. I’m not saying this was the right French decision, but Goldberg omits to mention that it was an international public relations disaster for the US, with apparent civilian deaths, allowing Gaddafi’s regime to appear the victim of great power bullying, and was strongly criticised in the UK though Thatcher supported the operation. As I say my judgment is open, but maybe in that instance the French were a bit more prudential, and one should think about that instead of automatically shouting Treason!

According to Goldberg the French ‘stuck’ the US with Vietnam. Well, the US gave aid to France from early stage in its war against Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese communists, so chose to enter the war early on rather then the French ‘sticking’ it on them. It is American military historians have concluded that the US Army of the time when the US was fully committed to Vietnam and then the rest of what was French Indochina, arrogantly and foolishly failed to use French experience and knowledge in the region.

A lot of what is intellectually sound in the US army comes from a reaction to that amongst other failings in Vietnam and a determination to learn from mistakes there. US counter-insurgency methods lean heavily on the French experience in Algeria, where the army performed well in a rather brutal kind of way, but just couldn’t mach the political hold of Algerian nationalism on the population.

The brutality itself influenced the US, torture was used in Algeria and defended as a part of counter-insurgency in quite sophisticated (if morally awful) terms and this is an important part of the thinking behind ‘special’ measures against Guantanamo detainees. So the worst aspects of the War on Terror were influenced by a French model, even as Republican politicians drove themselves into a frenzy of France bashing.

Two French officers who participated in the counter-insurgency operation, Roger Trinquier and Marcel Bigeard, are known as writers and thinkers about war, with Trinquier particularly well known as a theorist of counter-insurgency  including a role for torture, which both defended. The character of Colonel Mathieu in Gilles Pontecorvo’s well known film set in the Algerian Independence War, The Battle of Algiers, who is seen to authorise the use of torture, is based on a composite of officers from the conflict including Bigeard and Trinquier, so a notable couple of military officers in various ways.

Goldberg is correct to say that postwar France exaggerated the role of the French Resistance and of Free French forces in WW2, but this sort of nationalist exaggeration is hardly unique to France, the US (and Britain and any number of other countries) are equally disposed to self-serving exaggerated versions of history. Goldberg claims France had nothing to do with Nato during most of the Cold War. In fact, France was a member all the way through.

De Gaulle took French troops out of the military structure only, that is he refused to allow French units to come under command of any other nation, while keeping France in Nato and keeping French troops in Germany against any possible Warsaw pact. This aversion to coming under foreign command is very strong in the US, so Goldberg’s complaint here is particularly absurd. France has anyway since rejoined the Nato command hierarchy.

Goldberg claims that President François Mitterand wished to keep a socialist east Germany. This can only refer to Mitterand opposing reunification of Germany after the Berlin Wall came down. Unification was also opposed by Margaret Thatcher, as Goldberg fails to mention. The point about preventing unification in both cases was power rivalry not maintaining socialism in the east. There was indeed a brief period when it looked like a continuing East German state might opt for a non-USSR style of socialism. That didn’t last, was not relevant to British or French schemes to prevent unification, and anyway the centre-right came to power in the east of Germany before unification.

Goldberg’s complaints that many French intellectuals engage in knee jerk anti-Americanism and hypocritical claims to moral purity have some justification, the same level of justification as complaints that American opinion formers create anti-French myths. That is both complaints have at least a little justification at any time, and alarmingly high levels of justification at times. Goldberg still surfaces a serious authoritative conservative commentator, I will always associate him with ignorance, bad history, and blustering xenophobia.

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