“Lafayette, here we come!”
This rallying cry of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was popularized after their 1917 arrival in France. Much is known about the military role of the United States after it entered the First World War. Yet, popular culture largely eschews the role played by U.S. diplomats in France from 1914 through 1917, even though their efforts deepened the bilateral friendship.
Why focus on this aspect of U.S.-French relations? The larger story is well-known: Benjamin Franklin secured French military and economic assistance during the American War of Independence (1775-1781), which was crucial to the American victory. He also brokered French recognition of the United States as an independent state and the establishment of diplomatic relations (1778). Since then, the two countries have enjoyed active and friendly relations, despite periods that have tested this friendship. Various turning points in the relationship evolved around heads of state or events. In contrast, the role of diplomats is often overlooked, even though people-to-people diplomacy was -- and remains -- important to fostering strong bonds.
U.S. diplomats in France worked overtime in the first frantic months of the war, despite U.S. neutrality. They protected U.S. interests; evacuated U.S. citizens; oversaw German and Austro-Hungarian interests; ensured that those countries’ POWs and interned civilians had food, medical supplies, and shelter. U.S. Ambassador to France Myron T. Herrick, his wife, Carolyn, members of the U.S. diplomatic community, and American expatriates volunteered their time at the American Ambulance Hospital (and other medical clinics), and raised funds for organizations such as the American Relief Clearing House to provide for war widows, orphans, and disabled veterans.
In addition to this work, Herrick was beloved for remaining in the capital to safeguard many national interests when the French government fled to Bordeaux in September 1914. He felt he was in a position to reason with the Germans, should they enter the city, not to destroy it and refused to evacuate despite German instructions to do so. When Herrick returned in 1921 to serve as ambassador for the second time, he received an exceptionally warm welcome. According to the daily Matin, Herrick was greeted in a way “as has never yet been accorded to any ambassador…This is because a friend, and a very dear friend, has come back to us.”
The actions of the American diplomatic community in France made a lasting impression and created closer ties of friendship. In 2014, we will examine the roles played by the embassy officers, staff, and their families who donated time, money, expertise, and in some cases, their lives, to deepening the French-American relationship at the beginning of the Great War.
About the Author: Lindsay Krasnoff is a historian in the Office of the Historian.
For more information:
- On February 11, the White House will host French President Francois Hollande for a State Dinner. On February 10, White House Chef Cris Comerford and Pastry Chef Bill Yosses are taking over the White House Instagram account to give a look behind the scenes and inside the kitchen. Go to WhiteHouse.gov for the latest updates on the French State Visit.
- On February 11, at 2:30 p.m. (EST), join PBS LearningMedia and Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Evan Ryan for a live discussion about the history of state dinners and their relevance to the diplomatic process.
- Visit to history.state.gov to learn more about the history of U.S. diplomatic and consular relations with France.