- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 6, 2005

Perhaps the most enduring tenet of American history, implanted early in our school years, is the belief that France was our strongest ally and our closest friend during the American Revolution against the English. Now comes historian Harlow Giles Unger with “The French War Against America,” a fascinating account of the schemes, intrigue and distrust that were woven among the three major combatants in our breakaway — Britain, France and the United States, each of them aligned against the other two — and in this case, Mr. Unger asserts, it was basically France against the United States.

Mr. Unger’s book makes clear that none of them wanted to lose the war or their own territories that were put at stake to wage the conflict. All three wanted to come out richer than they came in. The British wanted to reinforce their hold on Canada, and regain whatever they had lost in earlier conflict with France. The British also wanted to reinforce their hold on the colonies, and on America as a whole. The French were not there, he says, to help win independence for the new United States, but to “recapture the United States.” “After thirty-five years of feigning friendship for America, France reveals her real motive: to infiltrate the U.S. Army high command, replace George Washington and establish a French military dictatorship.”

This relationship began long before the major, significant battles of the American War for Independence. Mr. Unger begins with revelations of the moral decadence and sexual proclivities of French kings in the years leading up to the British-American war. Some of the monarchs were running out of money to wage more war than they had already had. Those who served them through senior government positions were eager to seize the Ohio Valley, the Mississippi and Louisiana, and some tried to establish their own colonies, limited to driving stakes into the ground and asserting that no one could be on the property who was not French.

Mr. Unger creates a believable frenzy among the three nations, with tales of ships sailing back and forth across the Atlantic, seemingly chock full of spies and replacement ambassadors, some even more villainous than their predecessors. The New World was seen by the nations of Europe, particularly France, England and Spain, but also smaller nations such as The Netherlands and Sweden, as huge hunks of new land for the taking, with new waterways, new resources and ample room for settlers and new trading companies.

French explorers were often first on the scene in America. Names like Cartier, Champlain and La Salle have worked their way into our history books, men who explored and coveted everything from the Ohio Valley to the Gulf of Mexico. Between 1689 and 1763, Britain and France fought four wars in America, counterparts of wars that raged in Europe and elsewhere between the two powers. On occasion, Catholic France and Spain joined to fight Protestant England. But the French king failed in his plans to limit British power, and after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Great Britain emerged as the preeminent world maritime power.

French settlers — who got along with Indian tribes far better than the English, or any one else — lived in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada. Far greater numbers of English-speaking people lived in the 13 colonies to the south. These English-speaking colonists built towns, and shops and churches and boats and harbors, published newspapers, and decided to break free of England’s king, but before the shooting began the King wanted to tax all of them in various ways, so he sent over boxes full of tax stamps, which the American patriots promptly threw into the harbor. He also decided to tax their incoming tea, which, as we all remember, they dumped into the harbor at Boston.

Mr. Unger’s brush draws a clear, sharp picture of the Battle of Bunker Hill and of major episodes of the war that followed. The British suffered significant losses at Bunker Hill, and decided to wait until winter was over for their siege of Boston. Meanwhile, the Americans and the French both decided the Americans could not win without foreign aid. The French agreed to sell the American revolutionaries military supplies, but much of what was received — guns, gunpowder, clothing and other goods as well — turned out to be obsolete or otherwise unusable.

By the summer of 1775 there were spies everywhere — British spies, French spies and others — all funneling information to the governments they served, including some stolen from Washington’s own command, such as data on his need for arms and munitions. French spies reportedly were putting cash into the hands of various members of the American Congress. (And it was French money.)

The French spymaster in Paris, named Vergennes, informed his top agent in America, Gen. Rochambeau, to permit no French troops to separate from others, and to be certain they were serving under French generals. Mr. Unger cites Vergennes as the one who liked to plot Gen. Washington being shot from a horse, so that Rochambeau could take his place and control the American army.

It is of interest that John Adams (later the second president) spent much time in Europe during the Revolutionary War and warned repeatedly that the French should not be trusted.

In the 1790s, when revolution had come to France, disagreement and conflict between the French and the Americans flared up once again. The only Frenchman treated generously throughout the book is the Marquis de Lafayette because of his service to and close relationship with George Washington. Clearly, Mr. Unger has very strong views on the subject at hand — the so-called French ‘friendship’ with the United States during the early years of the American republic. He makes a compelling case that the French-American relationship in the 18th century was problematic, to say the least. However, at a time when President Bush has been working diligently to restore and raise the level of Franco-American trust and friendship, it is to be hoped that this book will not work against that end.

Ambassador Robert M. Smalley (Ret.) was appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

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