The French Prime Minister on America’s Entry into the War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

French prime minister Alexandre Ribot spoke to the French Senate, the upper chamber of the legislature, on the good news of the American entrance into the war against Germany shortly after the American declaration of war on April 6, 1917. In his speech, he emphasizes the long-standing cultural and political bonds between the two countries and their shared commitment to democracy against the authoritarian militarism identified with Germany. The address is devoid of specifics and operates on a very high level of abstraction. Ribot avoids making specific references to the material aid that the United States could supply, which, at the time, was an unknown quantity.

Summary Overview

French prime minister Alexandre Ribot spoke to the French Senate, the upper chamber of the legislature, on the good news of the American entrance into the war against Germany shortly after the American declaration of war on April 6, 1917. In his speech, he emphasizes the long-standing cultural and political bonds between the two countries and their shared commitment to democracy against the authoritarian militarism identified with Germany. The address is devoid of specifics and operates on a very high level of abstraction. Ribot avoids making specific references to the material aid that the United States could supply, which, at the time, was an unknown quantity.

Defining Moment

Ribot’s address followed almost immediately on the American declaration of war on the German Empire on April 6, 1917. France was well into its third year of war, and the situation was desperate. Early hopes for a quick victory over Germany had faltered, and trench warfare had proven enormously costly in French (and other Allied) lives. France suffered nearly 400,000 casualties in the 1916 Battle of Verdun alone. In an attempt to break the stalemate of the trenches, the recently appointed French commander-in-chief, Robert Nivelle, with Ribot’s support, was on the verge of launching the Nivelle Offensive, an ultimately failed attempt to break through the German lines. French and British leaders feared that if the Nivelle Offensive failed, it would be the last major offensive effort France could make, such were the losses in manpower the French had sustained in the preceding two-and-a-half years. Although Russia was still in the war, Russian forces had not done well against Germany, and the consequences of the recent Russian Revolution were unforeseeable. Nor was the war progressing well for France and its allies on the Italian and Romanian fronts by that point.

The entrance into the war of the United States, with its unmatched resources in both wealth and troops, offered a ray of hope to beleaguered France. The Allied Powers–foremost among them France, Britain, Russia, and Italy–were on the verge of exhaustion, but Germany and its allies, the Central Powers, were not in remarkably better shape. The United States, which had remained neutral, not only then possessed the world’s largest economy, but one that was also largely untouched by the war and an untapped supply of manpower, which, if mobilized, could bring the Allies to victory. However, the United States had only a small military by European standards, and before American troops could arrive in any significant number, they would have to be recruited and trained, not to mention shipped across an Atlantic patrolled by German submarines. American industry would also have to be retooled to produce weapons of war in large quantities. The immediate military help France needed would not be forthcoming from the United States, but the long-term picture had brightened considerably.

Author Biography

Alexandre Félix Joseph Ribot (1842–1923) was prime minister of France on four separate occasions, two of them during World War I. Perhaps more than any other French diplomat, he embodied the wartime alliance. He was a lifelong Anglophile who had written two books on English governance and had played an important role in the making of the Franco-Russian alliance, which he was the first to announce in 1892. He was also married to an American woman, Mary Burch, the daughter of a Chicago banker. After serving for a few days as prime minister at the beginning of the war, he served as finance minister, raising money chiefly by borrowing from Britain and the United States. He was prime minister, serving concurrently as foreign minister, for fewer than six months in 1917, the last time he would hold the office. Discredited by the failure of the Nivelle Offensive and the widespread mutinies that followed in the French Army, Ribot would lose his position as prime minister in September 1917. After falling from power, he retired from politics.

Document Analysis

Ribot’s audience extended well beyond the French Senate: his words were translated into English and published in the New York Times, reaching an American audience as well. Ribot’s speech is a rhetorical serenade to the Franco-American relationship, devoid of specifics about how the entry of the Americans would affect the French war effort and symbolized by the “starry” American flag floating beside the tricolor, the flag of the French Republic. He drew on the long history of Franco-American relations going back to the alliance between France and the American rebels during the American Revolution. He does not refer to any of the other countries that were part of the Allied coalition, such as Britain or Russia, despite his own previous relationship with those two countries and the recent democratic revolution in Russia. Such is the level of abstraction and focus on Franco-American relations in Ribot’s oration that not even Germany is named specifically. As he depicts Franco-American history, the two countries were inspired by a love of liberty and democracy that continued from American Revolution up to then and that was embodied in the speech of US president Woodrow Wilson. The very birth of the United States was connected to American’s reading of French Enlightenment philosophers.

Ribot’s approach to the war in this address is idealistic rather than pragmatic. French soldiers are portrayed not as fighting for the French national interest or to recover territory lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, but rather for “a new order of things” based on “the ideals of liberty and justice.” American participation in the war is also not portrayed as based on concrete American interests, such as the harm done to American shipping by German unrestricted submarine warfare, but in selflessly vindicating “the liberty of modern society” against German “military despotism.” This rhetoric was in harmony with the line taken by US president Woodrow Wilson, and by employing it, Ribot further enhances the idea of the United States and France as allies. The idea of the war as a fundamentally transformative effort that would lead not to another reshuffling of the European powers, but to a new world founded on better principles was also congenial to Wilson and the Americans. By avoiding specifics, Ribot also avoids overpromising, raising expectations of immediate American assistance that the Americans were not in a position to fulfill. France still had hopes, embodied in the soon-to-follow Nivelle Offensive, of winning the war before it would become possible to bring American troops in large numbers to Europe.

Essential Themes

Ribot himself was gone from power by the time American aid to France became effective on a broad scale. The idea of the war as a crusade for democracy and freedom, however, played an important role in Allied propaganda during the war, as did the image of French suffering and courage, which had a great deal of popularity in America. However, the idealistic vision of the war was largely discredited in the postwar years with the revelations of the secret deals made by the Allies during the war and the compromises of the Versailles settlement. Few nowadays view the war as a noble struggle for freedom and democracy against German militarism, and the view of the war as a struggle of good and evil is now usually applied in popular culture to World War II rather than World War I.

The idea of the United States as a fighter for liberty would have a long history, but its specific application to relations with France are another story. Relations between France and the United States, while strong during World War I, have waxed and waned in the years since it ended. After the war, Americans blamed the French for an excessively vengeful attitude toward defeated Germany and for their inability to pay back the considerable sums of money they had borrowed, with Ribot’s support, from the United States. Disgusted by the war and what they saw as the cynical attitude of the French and British, Americans turned back toward a policy of non-involvement in European affairs and refused to join the League of Nations. The image of French courage and endurance displayed in World War I was lost by French surrender to Nazi Germany in World War II, and France charted a more independent course than most of America’s Western European allies during the Cold War. Unlike the other major Western European powers, France also stood off from full participation in the American-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance. Franco-American relations further suffered in the early stages of the Iraq War, which US Secretary of State Colin Powell portrayed in Wilsonian terms as a war for freedom, as France stayed out of the “coalition of the willing.”

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Bruce, Robert B. A Fraternity of Arms: America and France in the Great War. Lawrence: U of Kansas P, 2003. Print.
  • Doenecke, Justus. Nothing Less than War: A New History of America’s Entry into World War I. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2011. Print.
  • “France Aroused by Our Decision.” New York Times 6 Apr. 1917, sec. 1: 1+. Print.
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