France: America’s “Oldest Ally”

French and American diplomats sign the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and of Alliance, February 6, 1778.

In responding to the November 13th terrorist attacks in Paris, President Obama referred to France as “our oldest ally.” Let’s review some highlights of the Franco-American alliance—how the relationship has lasted and what it has meant. To begin with, it is a safe counterfactual bet that the Continental Army under General George Washington would not have defeated the British in America’s founding Revolutionary War without French aid. In 1777 France became the first foreign nation to give diplomatic recognition to the United States of America. King Louis XVI extended not only recognition but financial and military aid to the fledgling American nation.

Because France had long been an enemy of Great Britain, its interest in opposing the British was partly self-serving. But there also was significant affinity between some Americans and the French. Those we now call Francophiles (lovers of France) included Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense; Benjamin Franklin, the nation’s first ambassador; and Thomas Jefferson, lead author of the Declaration of Independence. True, the French occasionally tried to undermine the relationship—in 1793 Citizen Edmond Genêt connived to draw the United States into another war against Britain; in 1798 Foreign Minister Talleyrand waved a bribe under American diplomats’ noses in the XYZ affair, leading to the undeclared Quasi-War with France.

But the alliance endured. In 1803, France sold the major portion of its North American colonial possessions to the United States. The deal, known to history as the Louisiana Purchase, doubled the size of the young nation and cemented U.S. control of the port of New Orleans and the entire Mississippi River basin. (Fifteen states, in whole or in part, were eventually formed out of this former French territory, though only one retained the name.)

Franco-American relations remained steady through the 1800s, and in the twentieth century, the alliance was tested and solidified in the two world wars. Perhaps the most renowned day in U.S. military history, D-day, marked the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion of German-occupied (Vichy) France. Although France’s role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was rocky during the Cold War, in recent years cooperation through NATO has made the Franco-American alliance stronger.

Image credit: © Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

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