July 28th, 2011
01:27 PM ET

Why Americans once loved France

On this week’s show, famed historian David McCullough joined me to talk about his latest book, "The Greater Journey," which looks back at the nineteenth century, a time when elite Americans went abroad in droves to study in France, which was then the cultural center of the world. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Fareed Zakaria: We think of Americans as famously uninterested in the world. We think of America today and we don't care what's going on in the rest of the world. We don't want to borrow anything from the rest of the world. The Americans you're describing seemed fascinated by France. Why?

David McCullough: They craved, craved France, and they weren't anxious to go there because they were disenchanted with our country. They went to find out if the talent they had was really as strong as people were telling them, and in order to get the training, the experience that they could not get here. There were no museums with paintings hanging in them then. There was not one school of architecture in the United States. This is in the 1830s.

And no way to train as an artist to work in an atelier or to get the kind of training that one would need to be a sculpture or a painter. And Paris was the medical capital of the world. So they went for a multitude of – of professions and artistic careers.

If you were a foreign student in France, in Paris, you could go to the Sorbonne. You could go to the l'ecole de Medecine for nothing, free. Imagine if the students who were coming to Harvard or Yale or Stanford were coming here and going free. It was part of the policy of France at the time.

So if they could afford to support themselves - room and board - then they could go to these greatest of institutions. But American medical training, for example, was woefully behind. Most doctors in the United States in the 1830s, '40s, '50s, really right up through the Civil War had never been to medical school.

Fareed Zakaria: The Paris you describe is a place that is clearly the center of the world in a sense, and we forget now because the industrial revolution had just begun when - so you're describing the last gasp of the great agricultural revolutions, and France was probably the richest country in the world - and Paris certainly the center.

David McCullough: Well, what most people don't realize is that Paris was the cultural center of the world. And we had this city, New York, has became the cultural center of the world after World War II.

But Paris was also the center for medical education, medical science, science itself, technology. The Brooklyn Bridge, for example, stands on an underwater foundation system called caissons, which was developed by French engineers in Paris. So the engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, Washington Roebling went to Paris to find out how they do it. And that's why he was able to do it.

And most Americans don't realize that, how much we owed to France.

Fareed Zakaria: I've got to just go on a tangent here for a second, because you wrote a book about the Brooklyn Bridge. And here you are talking about the engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge and what he borrowed from France. How does it stay that fresh in your mind?

David McCullough: To me the writing of the book is like an experience in life, you never – particularly if that's a powerful experience. You never forget it. And some subjects, once I've finished with them, that's it. I've gotten it out of my system. But with the Brooklyn Bridge, there's something about it, I'm still involved. My wife and I take a walk over the bridge every year. We go back and walk through the old neighborhood in Brooklyn where we lived when we were first married.

And I think it's one of the great accomplishments of our civilization. It's both a work of technology and a work of art, and it stands the test of time, both visually and technically. It's a magnificent production.

And it also rises up out of what was really a very corrupt time, much like our own. And the idea of this emblem of affirmation can rise up out of that sort of swamp of the gilded age is to me reassuring, and particularly in our time.

Fareed Zakaria: Our times, though, do seem more parochial. I mean, the people you discuss in the book, they seem so interested in the world and in intellectual currents in France, but elsewhere as well.

David McCullough: It wasn't cool to be cynical then. It wasn't cool to be filled with self pity. People often ask me when I'm starting a book, "What's your theme?" Particularly some of our academic friends. I have no idea what my theme is. I make up something to calm them down, but I have no idea. It's one of the reasons I'm writing the book.

And one of the themes that I realized is a theme as I was about halfway through this project is work. We receive such ballyhoo constantly about ease and happiness being synonymous. Again and again, people were saying on paper in their diaries and letters, I've never worked harder in my life and this is the happiest time of my life. And they're struggling as Augustus Saint- Gaudens, the sculptor said, we're struggling with all the realities of life, the mundane, every day chores of life, struggling to 'soar into the blue,' as he says. And I think that's emblematic of that generation.

Fareed Zakaria: Do you think that we have lost some of the optimism and energy that – that you saw in the 19th century?

David McCullough: Yes, temporarily. I'm a short range pessimist, long-range optimist. I think we'll get through these troubles. We've been through worse.

When the 9/11 happened, people said, "Oh, this is the worst thing we've ever been through. Yes, it was terrible." But by no means was it the worst we've ever been through. The Revolutionary War; the Civil War. Imagine 600,000 people killed. The influenza epidemic; the Great Depression. These were terrible times.

The dark – I think maybe the darkest time was right after Pearl Harbor. We had no army. Half our navy had been destroyed. The Russians – the Germans were nearly to Moscow. Britain was about finished and Churchill came across the Atlantic and he gave a speech and he said, 'We haven't gone this far because we're made of sugar candy." That's the message we need now.

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soundoff (292 Responses)
  1. zoundsman

    I dreamt of France as a fair, and progressive place (19th century). It's where Jack Johnson ( the boxer,
    not the singer) was treated decently as Black man. Jazz was embraced. The French were no cultural
    dummies. We rioted in Chicago when the Post Impressionist show was exhibited. Our whole country
    was red-neckish, art-wise. Now, we rule, Baby (kinda).

    July 29, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Reply
  2. Sue

    I still love France! The people are very friendly if you take two seconds to be polite (same for people anywhere) them, the food is some of the best in the world, the countryside is beautiful.

    July 29, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Reply
    • palintwit

      The countryside in Buffalo, N.Y. is beautiful, too.

      July 29, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Reply
      • Gman

        No it's not... I'm from there and it's a schithole compared to anywhere in France.

        July 29, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  3. Aubrie

    After reading the bulk of these posts I'm STUNNED to realize how many Americans don't think we have a French influence in the United States. Helloooooo... Louisian Purchase??? Do you have any idea how much land was transferred over??? New Orleans and the entire surounding area was fully French speaking until just this last generation... My husand is from there, and his father spoke fluent French.... It was taught in school. Most rural areas in Louisiana STILL speak French... They have French cuisine, French names, French Street names, import a lot of linens and purfumes from France still. It operates much like Quebec does in Canada.... I too am of French decent, but not through Lousiana or Acadia. I love France. It's a beautiful country, and it has a rich culture. I studied French in school because I am proud of my heritage. My son is in college and also studies French... He just got back from a study abroad there at Rennes University... It was a wonderful experience. I don't understand this article at all.....

    July 29, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Reply
    • German Friend

      Detroit was founded by a French guy: the Marquis of Cadillac and Washington D.C was designed by a French guy: Pierre Marie L'Enfant.

      July 29, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Reply
      • rb

        I believe there is even a metro stop in D.C. that is named after that french guy

        July 30, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • salvatore

      Most places between the Mississippi and the Rockies have French or native names.

      August 2, 2011 at 5:33 pm | Reply
  4. Andree

    It was the Louisiana purchase from Napoleon, that completed this Country. Have you ever seen what land the purchase contained? It was a swat of land from Missouri to the Canadian border. If it had'nt been sold, we would be speaking French, Ido speak French.

    July 29, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Reply
  5. Sean from Chicago

    Don't confuse our love of french fries with love for the French!

    July 29, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Reply
    • FrenchInTheUSa

      Once and for all, french fries are Belgian (= coming from a European country named Belgium) not French. Sorry to ruin your joke but I felt sorry for you reveling in your ignorance.

      August 1, 2011 at 12:29 am | Reply
  6. miked

    "Fareed Zakaria: We think of Americans as famously uninterested in the world. We think of America today and we don't care what's going on in the rest of the world. We don't want to borrow anything from the rest of the world. The Americans you're describing seemed fascinated by France. Why?"

    LOL except money that is, America will always be willing to borrow that!

    July 29, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Reply
  7. palintwit

    How about that famous French detective, Inspector Clouseau?

    July 29, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  8. FrauSchmitd

    I love France and French people. You see people only hear and deal with Parisians.
    Obnoxious, rude and snotty.
    I love Paris but hate Parisians. Everybody hates Parisians.

    July 29, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Reply
  9. palintwit

    Do they still have those charming open sewers in France? Where you can stand on the street and watch your neighbor's feces float by?

    July 29, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Reply
    • Gman

      No.. Those were fixed in the 1900's

      July 29, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Reply
    • gaucho420

      When was the last time you were in France? 1785?

      July 29, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Reply
  10. ZannyTheNanny

    If you love a country for cultural or landscaping or whatever reason doesn't mean that you have to speak the language. If I like the roman culture do I have to speak latin? if I like moderm italian culture do I have to speak Italian?

    July 29, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  11. Ichbinauchschuldig

    Je trouve que la France c'est un pays incroyable. Moi je suis alle deux fois a l'ile de Saint-Barthelemy, et une fois a Paris et c'etait magnifique. Ce n'est pas vrai que les francais sont des snobs, les gens arrogants habitent en autre pays. J'etais toujour l'americain que parle francais, et comme ca les francais qu'on a connu etaient vraiment heureux de parler avec un americain anglo qui parlent francais bien avec un beau accent parisien.

    July 29, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Reply
    • Steven Turkel

      Bully for you, mon ami. Sie sind schuldig fur was?

      July 29, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Reply
  12. FerdinandIX

    Paris is vile. Go to the Dordogne.

    July 29, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  13. Carl, Secaucus, NJ

    Remember "Freedom Fries"? I'm surprised those same people didn't want the Statue of Liberty torn down too. After all, it was a gift from...France!

    You don't have to love France (they are as arrogant and self-righteous as, well, Americans) but I always wonder about this knee-jerk hatred of a country without which America literally wouldn't exist. One theory as to why there's so much France-bashing in this country is that there isn't so big a French-American community in the U.S., or at least, not such a vocal one. If people here insulted Ireland, Italy or Israel the way they insult France, you can bet they would pay a price at the voting booth from those ethnic communities. But insult France, and nobody speaks up.

    July 29, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Reply
    • FrenchInTheUSa

      I live here and hear Americans talking sh-t about the French on a quasi-daily basis. "Surrender monkeys", "losers", "freedom fries"... I was watching a Bruins-Canucks game in a bar in MA and people at the bar were shouting "F-ck the French", nobody said anything. Commentators on ESPN routinely make derogatory comments towards the French. Then you get the self-satisfied jokes about unshaved French women. They are all over this board too.

      Now, how many WW have Italy won? Oh that's right, they were fighting for the other side. It doesn't keep Americans of Italian descent from belittling the French.

      August 1, 2011 at 12:27 am | Reply
      • salvatore

        If you were watching a Bruins-Canucks game in Boston, there was a deeper culture war going on there.

        August 2, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
  14. tillzen

    France is for deep thinkers so Americans will often be confused.. The history of France and their frailty tells of a human condition that is neither linear nor an "App".

    July 29, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Reply
  15. Carl, Secaucus, NJ

    KevinH wrote above about how German-speakers played a role in setting the Midwest, and how it's a myth that America used to be a one-language country. That was true of the great state of Texas, too! There are towns with German names all over Texas. Ironically, a major reason why German-speaking communities declined in the U.S. was World War I. I say "ironically," because by that point there were third-or-fourth-generation German-Americans, who had raised families and helped develop the frontiers and cities, but once we went to war with Germany, good old bigotry raised its head, and suddenly use of German, even within your traditional community, was seen as disloyal.

    July 29, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Reply
  16. Steven Turkel

    Fareed: We think of Americans as famously uninterested in the world.
    Fareed again: Our times, though, do seem more parochial. I mean, the people you discuss in the book, they seem so interested in the world and in intellectual currents in France, but elsewhere as well.

    Fareed is the product of an elite Indian family. His elitism is evident in his statements. Those Americans who traveled to France in the 19th century were the American elite. Most Americans of the time, at least prior to the Civil War, never got much beyond their county seat, if that far.

    July 29, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Reply
  17. Mike S.

    We absolutely LOVE France, and our vacation last month (Provence and Cote d'Azur) was the trip of a lifetime. We remain grateful to have had the means to visit, and hope that everyone on this thread, at some time in your lives, can do the same. We were warmly welcomed everywhere we went, and ate like Royalty, thanks to the neighbors, shopkeepers, open air marketeers, and craftspeople in every beau village we visited. Renew your passports, take a French class and go. While you're on your way, connect through Ottawa or Montreal for a few days. Your American cardiologist will love you for it!!!

    July 29, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Reply
  18. gaucho420

    Great article as usuall Fareed. Merci!

    July 29, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Reply
  19. labandme

    Too many muslims changing the landscape in Paris. They're killing the place.

    July 29, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Reply
  20. GratefulAmerican

    I STILL love France!

    July 29, 2011 at 8:31 pm | Reply
  21. Carl, Secaucus, NJ

    >>Fareed is the product of an elite Indian family. His elitism is evident in his statements. Those Americans who traveled to France in the 19th century were the American elite. Most Americans of the time, at least prior to the Civil War, never got much beyond their county seat, if that far.

    While some of the world's richest people now are Indian, bear in mind that an "elite" in India is someone with only a middle-class income by American standards. The average yearly income in India is only $1016 a year! If you're making $30K in India a year you're "elite."

    It's true it took wealth and connections to travel to, and know about foreign countries, back in the 19th century. But international travel is affordable for middle-class Americans today, and as for information on foreign countries, anyone with Internet access can do that now. So in 2011 if the average American wants to remain ignorant about the world, or is certain they already know everything about the world that they will ever need to, it isn't because they're not "elite."

    July 29, 2011 at 8:51 pm | Reply
    • Rob

      You can't evaluate indian salaries by converting them to dollars. $1000 buys a hell of a lot more in India than it does in America. Things are much cheaper there.

      July 29, 2011 at 11:14 pm | Reply
  22. Ted Ward

    I studied in Paris for five years in the early 1980's. As an American I still love Paris. Many young people were there seeking refuge from Poland, Iran, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and there they found French hospitality and welcome and refuge. Real refulge from horrible prison, death, or unbelievable oppression. And they found hope and complete freedom to do, write, think, learn as they needed. It was a wonderful time. Long walks along the Seine, wonderful clean rain,the kind of rain that you never forget after weeks in the sahara dust, and clean air and freedom after weeks in the eastern block choking on soft coal polluted air and real fear and oppression and worrying if you can get back out to the west and home again. This American, quite rightly still loves France and will always!

    July 29, 2011 at 9:49 pm | Reply
    • Geo In TO

      I dunno ... Paris smells like diesel fuel on the best of days. Tonnes o garbage everywhere, especially beer cans ... whilst in France, do as the Romans do and just chuck your beer can and let it fall where it may ... no concept of recycling. oh, did I mention that constant hue of pollution, i.e., diesel fumes ?

      July 29, 2011 at 10:42 pm | Reply
    • Vumba

      But Ted you never did say if you got laid or not! French women ooh la la! Come on lad what else did you do in Paris for five years, besides trying to be the next Ernest Hemingway, walk along the river?

      July 30, 2011 at 12:25 am | Reply
  23. Geo In TO

    That's why I love Canada so much ... we're half French.

    July 29, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Reply
  24. Dave

    Very interesting discussion. Having grown up in Northern Maine, right on the border of New Brunswick (a Canadian province), I've gotta say that, generally speaking, I love the French. Some of them are rude and obnoxious, just like anywhere else you go, but for the most part I find them friendly, sociable and courteous. It was French Canadians that taught me how to dance, how to lighten up, how to have a good time. It was French Canadians that taught me how to laugh at myself.

    Now I've never been to France, but from what I've read about the Country they seem like fantastic people. I'd love to visit one day.

    For those of you who say (or think) that America hates France or the French... you do not speak for me, and I am an American Patriot no less than any other. I should have learned the language years ago – if I ever get the time I fully intend to do so. I think it's a beautiful language that in many instances actually makes more sense than ours.

    July 29, 2011 at 10:42 pm | Reply
    • Vumba

      Good Lord Dave, become a French citizen who is stopping you?

      July 30, 2011 at 12:21 am | Reply
  25. Reuben

    Great interview and David McCullough is an enormous scholar.

    July 29, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Reply
  26. cheese

    Yes, Fareed, America owes France.

    But don't forget that France also owes America for liberating them from Nazi tyranny and also for giving them a multibillion dollar aid package under the Marshall Plan. Without American financial assistance, France, along with Italy, would have fallen under the dominion of powerful postwar communist groups which had significant grassroots support stemming from local communist partisan activity against the Nazis.

    So well, modern France owes its prosperity to America, doesn't it? France might look something like Eastern Europe today if it wasn't for the Marshall plan.

    July 29, 2011 at 11:22 pm | Reply
    • Bazoing

      Are you certain France wanted us to free them from the Nazis? Was there a vote? Was De Gaulle our puppet, a minor minority leader? He has been proven to have been a very minor resistance member and not a hero at all. Could it be that so many French hate us because they are Nazis. Or is it because, even if they were not Nazis, but that De Gaulle was forced on them as our dupe?

      July 30, 2011 at 12:42 am | Reply
      • Bazoing

        Sorry, there should be an 'and' instead of a 'but' in the last sentence (above).

        I forgot to mention that the Marshall Plan paid for part of the damage our military did driving out the Germans. The Germans did little damage getting in there. Likewise the Marshall Plan was rather top down. It may have seemed much more meaningful if you owned millions of dollars worth of factories than if you were a wage slave in them.

        July 30, 2011 at 12:59 am |
  27. infonomics

    I love their melodious language and, apparently, I am not the only one since English abounds with their vocabulary. Must have been that Norman invasion.

    July 29, 2011 at 11:45 pm | Reply
  28. Bazoing

    France and Paris seem to be two unrelated cultures. In Paris they hate Americans, but maybe that is because of government activities that are lost in the news about so many other nasty things our "leaders" get up to. But Paris is the dog poop capitol of the world. The streets are practically paved with it. Some center of culture, your dog does it on the sidewalk, thats someone else's problem. You can enjoy the art if you cannot smell your neighbor's shoes. However, it is difficult to find nicer people than you encounter in rural France.

    July 30, 2011 at 12:29 am | Reply
    • Crockett

      Some Parisians suffer from tourist fatigue. Many are very nice, though. I agree that small city and rural French are more "abordables" and "accueillants."

      July 30, 2011 at 3:18 am | Reply
  29. Marine5484

    People do forget the history between France and America. If it were not for the French blockading the British Navy during the Revolutionary War America would of probably not have succeeded. A few years later the Louisiana purchase allowed America to expand westward allowing us to have more trade routes and resources that eventually led to the Industrial Revolution. America went to France in 1917 even though late in WW1helped the allies win. WW2 America along with British and Canadian forces pushed out the Nazis but, without the French resistance the successful landings at Normandy on June 6th 1944 may of been all but impossible. And like cheese said the Marshall Plan helped rebuild France after WW2.

    July 30, 2011 at 12:45 am | Reply
  30. Crockett

    One of the most touching moments I have ever had was in the Ameican Cemetery in Suresnes, which is a suburb on the western fringe of Paris. The comments made by the French in the guest book are humble and appreciative, and it makes you proud to be an American. I know it's often assumed that the French resent the liberation of their country, but if you should ever visit Suresnes and read the guest book, you will walk away with a somewhat different perspective.

    July 30, 2011 at 3:22 am | Reply
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