After being friends as undergraduates at the University of Michigan, it took a 20-year reunion to revive an old friendship and to inspire the book “Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France.”
John J. Miller and Mark Molesky were attending a reunion dinner for The Michigan Review, the campus’ conservative newspaper, and discussing the war in Iraq. At the time, the war had just begun. Soon, they started complaining about France’s opposition to the war and both questioned why France was considered the United States’ oldest friend.
When they returned home, Miller to Northern Virginia and Molesky to Massachusetts, they started researching the history of France’s relationship with the United States.
“We thought we saw more conflict than friendship,” Molesky said. “We realized we had something … and we wanted to put the present situation into context.”
Within a few weeks, Miller and Molesky began work on “Our Oldest Enemy.”
The two authors were in constant contact the year it took to write the book but hardly ever saw each other.
“We saw each other maybe three times and only once was a meeting to discuss the book,” Miller said. “We talked a lot on the phone and e-mailed a ton.”
Molesky, who was then a lecturer at Harvard University, would get books from the campus library and mail them to Miller. Each author would write a chapter and then e-mail it to the other for editing.
“We were always on the same page as far as the argument, but we have very different writing styles,” Molesky said.
The book starts in 1704 with the French massacre of colonists in Deerfield, Mass. Miller and Molesky wrote, “From this blood shed, it is possible to glean the beginnings of an American national identity forged in opposition to the constant threat from New France.”
The book details the next 350 years of the United States’ relationship with France. It follows the two countries’ dealings throughout the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I and II, and the current war in Iraq.
“We can talk about Lafayette and Yorktown, but this idea that it has been 200 years of sweetness is wrong,” Miller said. “It has been 200 years of friction.”
Molesky views the cause of the conflict between the two countries as France’s “hyper-nationalistic sense of their role in the world.”
“France has refused to come to grips with its diminished status as a country whose greatest general was a foreigner, whose greatest warrior was a teenage girl and whose last great military victory came on the plains of Wagram in 1809,” Miller and Molesky wrote in “Our Oldest Enemy.”
France’s opposition to the war in Iraq did not surprise either author, but they were dismayed by the country’s continuing proclamations of friendship with the United States. Miller was shocked the French government said France was friends with the United States at the U.N. Security Council but then showed support for Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s view that the war in Iraq is illegal.
Miller and Molesky do not view the book as an attack on the French.
“We don’t attack French culture as a whole,” Molesky said. “We’re simply telling the history as it is.”
“It is obviously a critical look at the history,” Miller said. “I hope [readers] will realize that the book tells a series of fascinating but little-known stories. … The history of Franco-American relations is much more interesting and complex than is commonly understood.”
In Miller and Molesky’s opinion, this relationship is not likely to change in the future and should be approached with “cautious pessimism.”
“There is little reason to think things will change dramatically,” Miller said. “Europe is important. Relations are worth improving, but don’t hope for too much. … The more things change, the more they stay the same and our leaders need to recognize this.”