American high school history courses briefly mention that French intervention helped seal the success of the American Revolution, yet the emphasis in U.S. civic discourse always remains firmly fixed on the courage and resolve of the Founding Fathers. Shachtman wants to give France its due. He demonstrates the depth of the French commitment by tracing the complex negotiations behind the Franco-American alliance. The rebellious American colonists first needed to overcome their deep mistrust of the French, whom they had fought a generation before in the French and Indian War. Then the rebels sent a team to Paris headed by Benjamin Franklin, who needed years to convince France to make its scarce resources available. Even after the alliance was formed, both sides remained ambivalent: the colonists feared that the French would quit, and the French mistrusted the (already) highly partisan American Continental Congress. Yet the alliance held. In the end, French assistance made the difference between defeat and victory. Ten percent of the casualties suffered by those fighting for the American cause were French. Paris provided essential financing to pay Washington’s soldiers; shipments of guns, artillery, and ammunition; technical and engineering expertise; diplomatic support; safe ports for American privateers; skilled battlefield leadership; and, of course, the fleet and army that ensured the decisive American victory at Yorktown in 1781.
Get the best of Foreign Affairs' book reviews delivered to you.