A few weeks ago, the French Ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, posted an incendiary tweet on December 7th, Pearl Harbor Day.
He has since deleted the tweet, but not before a number of people were able to grab screenshots. Gérard later followed up with this tweet:
We are immensely grateful for what the US did for France in 1944 but it is a fact that US, France and UK commited mistakes in the 30s.
— Gérard Araud (@GerardAraud) December 7, 2017
He makes a really interesting claim, which, based on the comment section under the tweet, many Americans intuitively respond to negatively. His timing was poor. But it was also probably calculated.
You see, Gérard Araud likes pushing buttons, and has a long history of doing so before this tweet.
Maureen Dowd wrote in June of 2015 that Araud might be “one glass of silky Beaujolais and one tart tweet away from blowing up his life.” Another publication, writing before this particular tweet, says that Araud has “a thirst for Twitter” and “quick fire fingers [that] have landed him in trouble in the past.”
It’s no surprise then, that he said something that people wouldn’t take well, on a day that ensured they wouldn’t take it well. He seems to like the attention.
So, on to evaluating his claim, which is, well, unclear. Simply stating that the “US . . . committed mistakes in the 30s” doesn’t do a whole lot towards building any particular case. (Side note: it seems that Araud uses Google translate or a similar program to translate his tweets from French to English instead of a human translator. After reading his twitter feed, I kept having moments where things were grammatically correct, but not said in the way a trained speaker would say them. In my opinion, many Americans would say “made mistakes” or “committed errors,” but would probably not say “committed mistakes”).
The closest I can come to understand what he meant is to show you this tweet that Araud retweeted immediately after posting the previous one:
— Avi Woolf, WTF Conservative🌍 (@AviWoolf) December 7, 2017
For the record, it’s worth pointing out that Araud never specifically mentions isolationism. If it wasn’t for the fact that he retweeted someone’s tweet that tried to explain his earlier tweets, it would only be possible to speculate as to what he meant. (Is anyone tired of Twitter yet? I’m tired of Twitter).
But, let’s assume that he meant to talk about isolationism. Put simply, isolationism was the idea that America should avoid fighting in any more foreign wars, spurred in part by all the deaths that World War I caused, and by the horrible economic devastation brought on by the Great Depression. At least, that’s the case that the State Department makes. Elsewhere, they make the case that
“[t]he perception that the turn inwards had in some part contributed to perpetuating the horrors of World War II caused U.S. foreign policy makers to play a major role in world affairs after the war in order to avert similar disasters.”
It’s important to note that this is a historical reinterpretation of the Second World War based on information that wouldn’t have been available to those advocating for isolation. Things like the Holocaust, the development of nuclear weapons, and the more than 50 million deaths that war caused would certainly cause a second-guessing of isolationism.
Is it possible that the United States could have flexed its military might and warded off some, if not all, of World War II?
Perhaps. Saying it could have done so is a historical counterfactual. It’s just not provable. And given that in 1939, the Army of the United States was the 19th largest in the world, smaller than even Portugal’s army, it is likely that any deterrent the United States would have been able to provide would have been dependent on future threat rather than present capability.
Context is important, though. Around the time of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, Americans were bombarded with claims that arms manufacturers had “had unduly influenced the American decision to enter the war in 1917. These weapons suppliers had reaped enormous profits at the cost of more than 53,000 American battle deaths.”
This point of view was spread by Senator Gerald P. Nye, head of the “Senate Munitions Committee,” formed in 1934, which tried to prove that arms manufacturers had goaded Americans into war. The committee was disbanded in early 1936 when Nye was caught making claims about former President Wilson that weren’t grounded in fact.
However, despite the committee’s failure to prove its case didn’t stop the claim from spreading (Fake News! Fake News!), and was influential in the passage of the Neutrality Acts of 1935, 36, 37, and 39, which banned munition exports and loans to belligerents, as well as to competing sides in civil wars, and banned U.S. ships from carrying such supplies to belligerent ports.
But, so far, this is all internal. Just change a couple of things, and the United States is free to intervene earlier, right?
Well, maybe not.
In fact, the United States could not legally declare war on Germany.
You see, the United States had signed the General Treaty for Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy, in which the signatories promised not to declare war, and advocated for peaceful negotiations between nations as an alternative to war.
Other notable signatories included the United Kingdom, Poland, Italy, Japan, Germany and the Soviet Union. Additionally, when the United States Senate ratified the treaty, they added a clause that stated that the treaty did not violate the United State’s right to self-defense, which in light of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, seems like a great addition.
But, Ambassador Araud seems to have forgotten that the General Treaty for the Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy has a more common name: the Kellogg-Briand Pact.
It was named for the two men who initially negotiated the treaty in 1928, Frank B. Kellogg, the U.S. Secretary of State, and Aristide Briand, the Minister of Foreign Affairs for France. The treaty itself was signed in Paris.
That’s right, France was one of the contributing members of an anti-war treaty.
A quick rundown of the early events of World War II.
March 12, 1938—Hitler peacefully annexes Austria.
March 15, 1939—Hitler somewhat more forcefully annexes much of Czechoslovakia
September 1, 1939—Hitler invades Poland
September 3, 1939—France and the United Kingdom declare war on Germany
June 22, 1940—France surrenders to Germany
December 7, 1941—Japan attacks the United States
December 8, 1941—The United States declares war on Japan
December 11, 1941—Germany and Italy declare war on the United States. Later that day, the U.S. responds in kind.
Since the U.S. never declared war without first being directly attacked, or declared war upon, it is hard to make the case that it violated the treaty. On the other hand, a case could be made that the French did. It is perhaps forgivable that Ambassador Araud does not know American history. It’s more embarrassing that he doesn’t know his own.
In conclusion, Araud’s claim is one that can be best made in retrospect. He is, in some ways, technically correct. The U.S. could have done more to prevent Hitler’s militarism, even though it was mired in the Great Depression and intellectually beset by isolationism. Though in all fairness, the same claim could be made for Sweden, or Switzerland, or Mexico, or just about any country in the world. The U.S. was not special in its lack of opposition to Hitler—that was a collective failure.
Unfortunately, Araud’s claim doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, even if understood as some sort of moral, instead of political or military, appeal. Hitler invaded and annexed parts of Czechoslovakia before he invaded Poland. Just as surely as America had no specific alliance with France before the war, Czechoslovakia had no alliance with France, yet the Czechs could, in theory, complain that France didn’t do enough to stop Hitler when the invasion occurred.
Would Ambassador Araud be willing to own up to that failure?