War lessons from a replica French frigate

Jim Rosapepe (Ambassador to Romania, 1998-2001)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Rosapepe’s June 18, 2015 op-ed in the Baltimore Sun.

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This week, the replica of the Hermione, the French tall ship which brought the Marquis de Lafeyette and French soldiers in 1780 to help Americans defeat the British at Yorktown, is visiting Baltimore. It’s also the week that Congress is debating whether to expand or contract U.S. aid to anti-Assad rebels in Syria’s civil war.

What do they have in common? They are both cases of big powers intervening in other people’s civil wars.

Given the moral ambiguity and unsatisfactory results of the U.S. interventions in Vietnam and elsewhere, many Americans understandably question even the concept of foreign intervention in civil wars. Can they serve America’s interests and our values? The Hermione’s visit to Baltimore, commemorating France’s military intervention in the American Revolution (a civil war between British subjects), reminds us of at least one time when such intervention served both. In fact, it may well have been decisive in creating our country and the modern era of democracy.

In school, Americans learn that France supported our war against Great Britain. But, given the war’s success and our unambiguous embrace of its moral legitimacy, France’s aid is appreciated but rarely recognized as the big deal it was.

Great Britain and France were the great powers of the late 18th century. The Seven Years’ War between them, in which the American colonists fought alongside the British against France, had ended in British victory, solidifying their control of what is now Canada a little more than a decade before Bunker Hill.

The French government immediately saw the American rebellion (a civil war among the Brits) as an opportunity to avenge its losses in North America and weaken Great Britain. While Lafayette and other French idealists saw it as good cause, in 1775 France was still a monarchy and not a very constitutional one. Initially, King Louis XVI and his diplomats were interested in helping the rebels — if they had a chance of success and if it could be done without “boots on the ground.”

The American revolutionaries wanted French intervention on their side and were not particularly concerned about the purity of French motives. The Continental Congress, the closest thing America had to a national government, sent one of it senior statesmen, Benjamin Franklin, as its envoy to Paris to convince the French to join their fight.

At first, the French government sent gunpowder and economic aid covertly, much like CIA support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria today. And, as in the U.S. today, their government debated whether the American revolutionaries were strong enough to win. The French wanted to torment the British, but they didn’t want to waste French money or lives in a losing war.

But, in 1777, the Americans won a major victory against the Brits at Saratoga in New York. Convinced that the rebels could win, King Louis decided to go all in. France signed a military alliance with the Americans, and for their next several years, French troops and ships helped General Washington’s troops.

But by 1780, the French concluded that more of their firepower and troops were needed in America to win the war. That’s what brought the Hermione — and Lafayette and thousands of French soldiers to Boston and then Yorktown. It was what we would today call “escalation” of intervention in a civil war. And it worked. The battle of Yorktown was decisive in ending our revolution (or first civil war, as the Brits certainly saw it) in victory for Americans — and France. It took two more years to negotiate the peace treaty, which recognized our country.

The French government certainly helped win the war. But they lost the peace. The American victory was embarrassing for Great Britain, but it hardly turned the tide in North America or elsewhere toward France and against the British. In fact, the 19th Century became the British Century, from the Industrial Revolution to the British Empire. Even worse for the French monarchy, arguably the war contributed to the French Revolution that ended it, along with the king’s life. French intervention in our war of independence was financially expensive, helping boost France’s national debt by 50 percent in just a few years. And the king’s plan to raise taxes to pay these debts was the spark that lit his country’s revolution.

What are the lessons for us in the Hermione’s historic role in the creation of the United States? Certainly not that big power interventions in other people’s civil wars are always just or effective. Or even that they always work out well for the political elites of the big powers.

But French intervention in our war did work out pretty well for us and for the cause of democracy for more than two centuries. Even if Louis XVI lost his head.

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