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American Diplomacy
Opinions and Editorials

August 2000

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Immediately below the reader will find remarks your editor put together shortly after returning from a recent trip to France, a trip which had a profound impact on the writer. Read on to share the impressions gained at that time.

Elsewhere the journal's readers may scan two other offerings not easily categorized: a statement setting forth the publishing and editing procedures of "American Diplomacy," an effort to make plain the journal's requirements, while stressing a theme of openness reflected in the brief title, "An Invitation Reiterated." Further, all who have an interest in U.S. diplomatic history (probably almost everyone who has visited this Web site) will note with interest a new feature called "Significant Books Survey." In that segment we call for readers' selections of the ten most important books in American diplomacy of the twentieth century, leading off with three of our own editorial staff members' sample lists.

 Log on, then, for all three features and let us have your reactions.

One Example of Natural Allies

WE USUALLY ASSOCIATE General John J. Pershing with the phrase, “Lafayette, we are here!” Uttered in France on the Fourth of July eighty-three years ago, those words signaled the arrival of leading elements of the U.S. Army, newly engaged in the deadly struggle of the Allies against the Central Powers in the First World War. The meaning was clear: The United States had begun to pay its debt to France for that nation’s economic and military assistance well over a century earlier. Simply put, without French aid and armed intervention following the 1776 revolution, the American colonies would not have achieved independence from Britain. The United States owed France.

Never mind that in the ceremonies where the famous phrase surfaced, at the Marquis de Lafayette’s tomb in Paris that July day in 1917, it was not General Pershing who pronounced it, even though he was present for the occasion and made brief remarks. Rather, it was an aide — the general’s “designated orator,” Colonel C. E. Stanton. “What we have of blood and treasure are yours,” Stanton intoned. “In the presence of the illustrious dead, we pledge our hearts and our honor in carrying the war to a successful conclusion.” And then the final line of his speech: “Lafayette, we are here!”*    

General Pershing afterward explicitly disclaimed credit for what he termed a “splendid” phrase.

The point about authorship is not vital. One other point is worth noting, however.

In 1917, many Americans were already in France serving the cause of the Allies. They had been arriving to repay Lafayette by the hundreds since the earliest days of the conflict, long before the United States declared war and the American Expeditionary Force began to make its appearance. American volunteers in substantial numbers enlisted in the French Foreign Legion as early as August 1914; many fought in the trenches that first winter of the long, terrible conflict, and thereafter. Others left comfortable homes or university lives to serve in the American Ambulance Field Service, driving the wounded from battlefields on the Western Front. As an example of the numbers involved, the fledgling French air force, le Service Aéronautique, alone included some 300 young Americans too brave and too impatient to wait for America to declare war. Most of them lost their lives flying in combat before the war ended.

Such was the affinity between the peoples of the United States and France and the similarity of their basic values. Despite the absence of formal treaty obligations and despite President Wilson’s 1914 admonition to Americans that they remain neutral in thought and deed, this sense of shared ideals — and, to be sure, the thirst for adventure — led many young Americans to take up arms against Germany long before events thrust America into the ranks of the Allies. Marching to their own drums, they joined the alliance against militarism in advance of official action by Washington.

One of the many Americans to precede Pershing to France was James Rogers McConnell. Born in Chicago and educated at the University of Virginia, he was working when the war began in the state of North Carolina (where this journal is based). McConnell first joined the Ambulance Service; then in 1915, he enlisted in the Foreign Legion to undergo flight training. (U.S. nationals lost their citizenship if, upon joining up, they swore allegiance to a foreign country, but not if they took an oath of loyalty to the Legion.) By early 1916, he was a founding member of the famed Lafayette Escadrille, a French pursuit squadron of expatriate American pilots.

In the fall of 1916 McConnell suffered severe injuries in a crash, but he returned to duty in early 1917. In March of that year he was shot down and killed near a village seventy-five miles northeast of Paris — a village in ruins at the time — called Flavy-le-Martel. A few days past his thirtieth birthday, he was the last American flying under French colors to die before America’s entry into the war the next month.

Remarkably, the folk of Flavy-le-Martel to this day have not forgotten McConnell, even though no one there had ever known him personally. One family in Flavy has, to the third generation, placed a red rose on the site of his crash every March on the anniversary of his death. The residents, even youngsters, still call that area “l’endroit de l’aviateur.”

Author and Mayor dedicate monumentOn June 24 of this year, the mayor and town council of Flavy-le-Martel, along with the Franco-American Museum at Blerancourt, north of Paris, dedicated a large stone monument with engraved plaque at the McConnell crash site. Some fifty people attended the day-long ceremonies and enjoyed the town’s hospitality, including a representative of the American Embassy in Paris, relatives and American friends of the McConnell family, villagers, and French officials. A local band marched and played; the French and American flags flew everywhere; sunlight brightened a cool day; there were speeches, above all an impressive oration by the mayor on Franco-American amity through the years. This was followed up by a three-and-one-half-hour lunch at the town hall with numerous toasts in excellent wine exchanged among those attending.

Invited as the author of an article on those volunteer flyers and as a researcher who had visited the village five years ago, I too was present for the occasion. I found it one of the most impressive and memorable commemorations I have witnessed. The young American who was memorialized personified in my mind all that was fine about Franco-American relations through the years.

Lord Palmerston long ago held that there are no eternal alliances, only eternal national interests. By this he undoubtedly meant shared interests such as trade, access to resources, and territorial integrity. I take the liberty of adding shared values and ideals as bases for an association of interests by the citizens of two countries. Only with France has the United States had a community of ideals and visions going back so long; with a few brief periods as exceptions, this commonality of interests has endured since the eighteenth century. It has been a long “alliance.”

It seems to me that a better demonstration could not be found of the reciprocation of idealism and a sense of shared national values than the honor paid to James McConnell recently by this French village. And, of course, the honor he paid to France by giving his life in its defense.  

~ The Editor

 

* Quoted in Frank E. Vandiver, Black Jack: The Life and Times of John J. Pershing (1977), vol. II, 724.



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