Monday, May 22, 2006

Everybody Knows

Everybody Knows

Back when I was at school, I remember some story or other about the French having bailed out the Colonial rebels (at the time) during the Revolution. Some guy called Lafayette? At university, it was made clear that this wasn't necessarily because the French loved the rascally rebels, but that they liked the English even less than rebels did. But the bailout part? pretty much the same. Showing up in WWI was presented as a kind of "thank-you" -- a repayment of a debt of honor.

I'm teaching World War Two this week (doubtful I'm going to get past "and then the Berlin Wall fell"). I've noticed this before, but a reference to this article elsewhere made me think of it again. Here's my question, oh internets:

When did the common trope for US involvement in WWs I & II become, "the Brits and the French were a bunch of useless idiots who couldn't fight a war to, er, save their own bacon, so we (the US) had to come in and do it for them!"?

I just don't remember growing up with this. It wasn't in the movies I watched (and I've seen pretty much all of the big war films of the 50s, 60s, and 70s). It's not true in the newsreels of the time (although the Brits are often praised for their pluck in the face of adversity in a pretty patronising manner) -- at least not in the ones I've seen. And this is the even weirder thing to me: I get this from students who are taking a class that began with the French Revolution. We have discussed the Napoleonic Wars, second-wave imperialism/colonialism, and other things that might make a person think that France and Great Britain have indeed been forces with which to be reckoned. But we get to WWI, and it all goes out the window.

Does anybody have a clue on this one?


meg said...

Well, the bailing-out-their-sorry-asses was certainly the model I grew up with in the 1960s. My grandfather (who fought in both world wars) went to his deathbed chewing that bone.

That said, our schoolbooks did NOT pitch that version of events. Perhaps it's the difference between historians writing history and veterans writing history?

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Oh -- maybe. My family's military service record is extremely limited. One grandfather served stateside (bad heart), the other one was too old and also worked in an oilfield, so he didn't go. Nobody in VietNam, either. Dad was Navy between Korea and VN, uncles were in school/saved by varicose veins. But maybe that's why there's none of that in my family? Or maybe because we are more than half German?

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I never got this at home (my mom being British maybe had something to do with this), but especially WWI, yeah, I have heard it put in those terms - e.g., they (Europe) all sat there stalemated, and nothing happened till the US joined the party. And I've heard that a little bit for WWII (not at home - my dad was in WWII, but he was in the Pacific, so it's a different perspective) - more about the French than the Brits. Seeing that the French actually were occupied, I can kind of see where it comes from (not that I explain the WWs in that way). It wouldn't surprise me at all if more recent war movies play things this way.

meg said...

I just checked with Special K (the pacifist WW2 fanboy), and he verifies my suspicion that all the sissy-continental jokes* date from mid-war.

My family was, and is, pretty militarized, sorry to say. Both grandfathers fought in WW1, one in WW2; my father was part of the Bay of Pigs invasion; my uncle did three tours as a fighter pilot in Vietnam; my cousin is in charge of Baghdad airport as we speak. Funny -- I hadn't realized how hawkish the genes are. My grandmother was even a deputy sheriff -- her 15 minutes of fame was being the escort for Ma Barker. No wonder authority in the classroom has never been a issue for me!

*"For Sale: One Italian rifle. Never been fired, only been dropped once."

"For sale: French tank. One forward gear, three reverse."

Et alia.

Terminaldegree said...

Yep, that's the way I learned it as a kid in high school: the US came into the war in to "save the day." As a student this really upset me, because when we learned about the holocaust, I thought, "If the US jumped in to 'save' Europe, what took us so danged long when millions were dying?" My history teacher didn't have an answer for that one.

I don't remember learning much about Pearl Harbor, BTW. My high school history classes tended to focus more on the European part of WW2 than on Japan.

deeni said...

Vera Brittain remembered the US entry into WWI as very dramatic and a definite turning point. (She was from the English upper class, a nurse during WWI, wrote her memoirs in the early 1930's). There's a section in her memoir where she describes seeing the American soldiers marching by, and focuses on the fact that, unlike the English and French, they weren't exhausted after years of war and were very much viewed as England's potential saviors.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Well, my great-great aunt was in the American Expeditionary Forces (signal corps, I believe), and I'm pretty sure she went over before the US officially entered WWI. But as I was typing this, I realized she was almost certainly born in Scotland, so maybe that had something to do with her going over.

Anonymous said...


View from England (I think fairly typical, both my parents and and all their friends served in WWII):

You guys joined in because a. Japan bombed your navy and b. Hitler declared war on you. It's therefore an unacceptable stretch to say that you voluntarily "came in" at all. OTOH, you did save the day, mainly through lend-lease, both to Britain and to the USSR, who, it is not forgotten here, actually did most of the fighting in Europe. Many thanks to all your grandparents for that.



What Now? said...

Chiming in with Chris: Even here in the U.S., I've often heard the Anglophilic version that the British did all of the hard fighting and only then did Americans swoop in to grab all the glory.