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France gives us tips for the Afghanistan War, from their successful role in the American Revolution

11 March 2010

There have been few victories by foreign troops fighting insurgencies since Mao brought the art of 4th generation war to maturity after WWII.  The few grey cases are those conducted with a legitimate local partner (e.g., Malaysian government for the UK) or those not substantially foreign (e.g., Northern Ireland for the Brits).  To find clear victories we need look further back.  Those during the high era of western colonialism resulted from massive technological advantages which we no longer have.  We must look further back in time to find victories with useful lessons for us.  Such as France’s aid to the British colonists in North America. 

  1. Have clear and realistic reasons and goals for the war
  2. Work with your local ally, one in whom you have confidence
  3. Be satisfied with even small results from the war

The following excerpts are from France in the American Revolution by James Breck Perkins (1911).  The comparisons are too obvious to need explanation.

(1)  Have clear and realistic reasons and goals for the war

To separate the United States from England and weaken the insolent enemy of the House of Bourbon was the object and the justification of the war.

… Among the French people, the desire to assist the colonists in their struggle for independence was as unselfish as it was universal. The Americans loomed up before enthusiastic French eyes as heroes possessing the virtues of antiquity, and struggling for the freedom which bad been dear to patriots of old. The subjects of an absolute monarchy sang the praises of liberty, and were enthusiastic for the success of its cause across the ocean. The popular feeling was strong and generous, based upon no selfish considerations of state, but upon genuine sympathy for fellow men.

(2)  Work with your local ally, one in whom you have confidence

No matter how pure our motives, foreign (esp foreign infidel) troops arouse suspicion and dislike.  If they kill many locals (collateral damage) they can easily become hated invaders.  Place your troops under local command and they become friends and heros.

He {La Fayette} was to inform Washington that the French King would shortly send to him 6 ships of the line and six thousand soldiers. They were to be placed under his command; it would be for him to decide in what manner they could most profitably be used; the King’s only desire, said the instruction, “is that the troops which he sends to the succor of his allies . . . shall coöperate effectively to deliver them for all time from the yoke and tyranny of the English.”

While the French soldiers were placed wholly at Washington’s disposal, yet, with a certain pathos he was asked to watch them with care and to spill no unnecessary blood. The well-known humanity of General Washington, concluded the instruction, “makes it certain that he will have specially in care the preservation of a body of brave men, sent more than a thousand leagues to the rescue of his country. Though ready to undertake anything for the safety of America, they should not be sacrificed rashly nor lightly.”

The French desired that even the pecuniary assistance they were to render should be placed within Washington’s control, in order that from it the best results might be obtained. It was announced that the money granted by the French King this year for the purchase of supplies, must be drawn on orders from General Washington; only after representations from Franklin that such a procedure would be contrary to all the usages of his government, were the officials of Congress again intrusted with handling the funds.

(3)  Be satisfied with even small results from the war

The advantages, so carefully considered by Vergennes and his associates, were realized in small degree. For some years a strong feeling of gratitude and kindliness toward France was cherished by our ancestors. This was agreeable to the French, but it was of small practical value.  The decline of English power, which Vergennes so confidently anticipated, be was not destined to behold.

  • France did not obtain the chief share of American trade; that went to England, which had more to sell us, and was ready to buy more from us.
  • English merchants made more money out of the people of the United States than they had ever made from the American’ colonists;
  • the power of England was greater under Pitt, when the people of the United States were independent, than it had been under North, when they were grumbling and discontented subjects.

Nor is there any reason to believe that if peace had been made between England and the colonists before France interfered, they would have joined arms in order to strip the French of their possessions in the West Indies. Thus the arguments on which statesmen based their action were not justified in the future. But the instincts of the French nation were right: they assisted a people to gain their freedom, they took part in one of the great crises of modern progress, they helped the world in its onward march. For nations, as for individuals, that is the greatest work. The reward is not to be found in more vessels sailing, laden with wares, nor in more dollars gained and deposited in banks, but in the consciousness of the unselfish performance of good work, of assistance rendered to the cause of freedom, and to the improvement of man’s lot on earth.

… It is sad to reflect that almost every one who attempted business relations with our country, at the time of the Revolution, ended in bankruptcy (e.g., Chaumont}.

… At all events, the new nation owed a heavy debt of gratitude to France for assistance in the hour of need. The obligation was fully recognized, and a strong feeling of affection for our allies long prevailed in this country; it was sufficiently active to be an important factor in our politics when the French Revolution threatened to involve us in dangerous complications. … Yet the union between the two countries proved less durable and less important than was anticipated in the first fervor of their alliance. Gratitude does not often continue indefinitely as an active force, and untoward events hastened the chilling process which the years in due time would have produced.

France secured the independence of her American allies, but the material advantages she obtained were small recompense for a war which had cost her seven hundred and seventy-two millions. …  The power of England was not broken, France gained no monopoly of the trade with America and not even any important part in it; if the irritation caused by the disasters of the Seven Years’ War was somewhat allayed by England’s defeat, yet the position of France on the Continent was not materially strengthened by the American Revolution. The important effect was on the French people themselves: the success of the American colonists in establishing a free government had a great influence upon the French mind during the years before their own Revolution.

Aftermath of the French-American Alliance

The American government eventually paid back its loans to the French Crown.  See this page on the State Department website for details.

From Wikipedia:

The 1778 Treaty of Alliance, promising the defense of French territory in the American continent, failed to be observed by the United States as soon as 1793, when France entered in conflict with Great Britain in the Caribbean. All the U.S. could do was maintain neutrality, but this neutrality was so negative as to forbid the French the right to equip and arm privateers in American ports, or the right to dispose of French prizes in the United States. These reluctances in effect marked the end of the alliance.

As the United States entered into a treaty of commerce with Great Britain in 1794, France started to raid American shipping, seizing 316 ships in 1796. In 1796, the disillusioned Minister Pierre Adet explained: “Jefferson … is American, and as such, he cannot sincerely be our friend. An American is the born enemy of all the European peoples”, and in 1798, the XYZ Affair considerably worsened Franco-American relations.

The events led to the Quasi-War (1798-1800) between France and the United States, with actual naval encounters taking place between the two powers, with the encounter between USS Constellation and French ship L’Insurgente on 9 February 1799 off Nevis Island, and USS Constellation and La Vengeance in February 1800 off Guadeloupe. An agreement followed, in which the United States agreed to pay 20 million dollars in compensation, and France agreed to give up its claims to the 1778 Treaty.

For more information on the FM site

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.   Such as…

Afterword

Please email me if you have a correction to this post.  Or email me if you wish to make a comment and either have expertise in this field or are mentioned in this post. Send messages to fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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