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. msaprilr

    I dunno. Maybe we loved France because they saved our colonial butts from the British. And they still have better fashion than we do.

    July 30, 2011 at 9:31 am | Reply
  2. Georges Bush JR


    July 30, 2011 at 10:46 am | Reply
    • Todd

      you're a gd moron

      July 30, 2011 at 11:07 am | Reply
      • salvatore

        And they say Americans don't understand dry wit.

        August 2, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  3. erich2112x

    Paris smells like LA all day.

    July 30, 2011 at 11:11 am | Reply
  4. Todd

    David Mculloh is my hero. Cant wait to get this book. I studied in france for 1 year and paid $150 for that. Also worked for 2 years there. France is great, and the people are only slightly different. If you go to Normandy around June 4, you'll see how grateful they are to - and in awe of - the US for liberating their country in 44 and in 18.

    July 30, 2011 at 11:22 am | Reply
  5. RM

    Great countries both of them. Vive le France. God Bless America.

    July 30, 2011 at 11:27 am | Reply
  6. The_Mick

    j. von hettlingen wrote: "An historical friendship binds France and the U.S. together. Under Marquis de Lafayette, France helped the Americans gain its independence." +++++ Central Maryland resonates with distant memories of Lafayette: in Baltimore, a main center-city road is "Fayette Street". "General's Highway," which run west and north of Annapolis, is the road on which LaFayette rushed French-trained and French-armed recruits and other reinforcements north to Washington's Army.

    July 30, 2011 at 11:30 am | Reply
  7. franco

    i you dont like it go back to fake fox news there sooo balance there lol

    July 30, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Reply
  8. Jim

    The ties between the USA and France wee much stronger, and it started pre-Revolution. so much of our nation owes its founding and exploration to French voyageurs, traders, settlers, and thinkers. The American spirit does not give up, though. So it's ironic that the interview fails to pinpoint the souring of relations between everyday Americans and France: France gave up. It surrendered to Germans.

    July 30, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Reply
    • FrenchInTheUSa

      Jim, Americans are all people who gave up on their countries of origin: cowardly Irish who lost their language and left their land behind, unemployed Italians fleeing a sinking ship... all people running scared.

      August 1, 2011 at 12:21 am | Reply
      • distantobserver

        no, the american immigrants had balls to choose a better life, even if they might not succeed. the cowards are the quivering europeans who settled. same goes for all immigrants (except blacks, who were taken by force).

        August 2, 2011 at 4:14 am |
      • salvatore

        I assume you're just visiting the US if you look down upon immigrants. BTW 1 million Irish immigrated due to the famine, not cowardice.

        August 2, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
  9. bobincal

    Only 10 ships were sunk at Pearl Harbor. At its peak, the U.S. Navy was operating 6,768 ships on V-J Day in August 1945: somewhat less in 1941. So, you could hardly say that half of our fleet was sunk. Wonder what else this guy got wrong?

    July 30, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Reply
  10. urmutha

    France is full of wonder and history. The people, on the other hand, are a bunch of a holes who are US haters and think their s ** t smells fragrant..

    July 30, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Reply
  11. big r

    The loser of W W III has to keep France.

    July 30, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  12. Biff

    I made freedom toast for breakfast and freedom fries for lunch. Then I freedom kissed my wife. For dinner we went to a Freedom restaurant, drank some freedom wine and ate some freedom crepes. I should probably go to Freedom some time and see how the Freedom people live.

    July 30, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Reply
    • FrenchInTheUSa

      French fries are not french, but belgian. When your kind started making the Freedom jokes the rest of the world couldn't believe it and was laughing at your ignorance.

      August 1, 2011 at 12:19 am | Reply
  13. Randy

    The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. He gave France the advantage over other countries by making it the most beautiful country in the world. Then, to even the score, he filled it with Frenchmen.

    July 30, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Reply
  14. albatross

    Yeah, Americans are parochial and not interested in what goes on in the world... but you expect us to NOT generalize about Muslims.

    July 30, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Reply
  15. The Offended Blogger

    Now let's talk about how much the French love the Germans as is evident by how quickly and how far over the former bends each time the latter comes marching in to conquer....

    July 30, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Reply
    • FrenchInTheUSa

      It is always sad to witness american's ignorance of history. We the French defeated the Germans in 1918, son.

      August 1, 2011 at 12:14 am | Reply
  16. ralebol

    Countries don't love other countries. They help each other when it is in their best interest to do so. France and the USA have had a lot of common interests over the last 200 years, whether it was to beat the British, to defeat German hegemony, or to keep the Soviet at bay. We should recognize our historical common interests, respect each other, but clearly understand that each country will do what right for itself, regardless of the consequences to other countires. Diplomay isen't about love or hate, it's about my interest versus yours, and sometime they are common.

    July 30, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Reply
  17. Human

    The internet is a wonderful technological advance. Having said that, the world now knows what Dumb@$$es we Americans can be.

    I have no problem with the French. I find French women incredibly sensuous and talented lovers.

    July 30, 2011 at 8:18 pm | Reply
  18. AK

    Postwar relations between France and the US were strained when we expressed our desire they not join the nuclear club. That's not something you tell a Frenchman....but their reaction opened a wellspring of native anti-capitalist, pro-Communist anti-Americanism that was quite picked up on in this country, which bristled at Gallic insouciance when so many of 'ours' lie under French soil. . Add a few incidents like the 1986 air raid on Libya, where the French government refused to allow our F-111B's to overfly; crew exhaustion is partially blamed for the loss of one aircraft and two Americans....now it's degenerated into (shades of US party politics) stereotypes and innuendo 'stupid Neanderthal Americans'....'cheese-eating surrender monkeys...'

    How sad. I spent 3 years in Germany near the French border, and all our forays into France were most pleasurable...found the people kind, friendly, and in two incidents (one, we were lost in the Paris Metro, and another, my young son was painfully injured on a street in Bayeux) extremely selfless and helpful.

    For French readers, here's one American conservative who thoughtfully lifts a glass of red to what should be a deep and enduring friendship.

    July 30, 2011 at 9:21 pm | Reply
    • Caryl-Marie

      If you do not mind, I would like to join you in that toast to France and all of the French men & women who have gone out of their way to give aide a 50+ woman traveling alone in their country, who every year did something silly and had to be rescued !! I still have family in the S & SW of France, so have traveled extensively in my "home away from home"! I love my adopted country & everything about it - the sights, sounds and even the smells !! How I wish that every American could visit these charming, delightful people in their own country !! A votre sante !!!!

      August 2, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Reply

    Love France, except Peugeot, of which I had three. Fun car but hell on relaibility! Most beautiful city in the world, Paris! Vive la France!

    July 30, 2011 at 11:47 pm | Reply
  20. Alec

    The country of France is as proud, useless, and illogical as a mime performing on an empty street. Asking why France exists is like asking why clowns paint their noses red. Nevertheless, a world without mimes, clowns, or France would be a sad world indeed.

    July 31, 2011 at 1:34 am | Reply
  21. Maire

    Pointless fluff. Everyone who clicked on this story already knew France used to be the cultural center of the universe–for everybody, not just for America. What would be much more enlightening is if they had explored WHY the love affair ended. Pretty sure it's not just because we got our own medical schools now.

    July 31, 2011 at 4:04 am | Reply
  22. Randy Dowdy

    For Sale: One French rifle. Never fired, dropped once. Cheap due to being so plentiful, France is full of wusses.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:24 am | Reply
    • FrenchInTheUSa

      That's quite funny. We are helping you out in Afghanistan though, can you say that for many other nations?

      Oh, and how is the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction going? All I see coming back from your government and army's mission over there are US soldiers in coffins.

      August 1, 2011 at 12:17 am | Reply
  23. Oltan

    What do you mean "Why Americans once loved France" ? I love France right now.

    July 31, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Reply
  24. elenore

    The French were so awesome they traded there Empire and citizens in North America into British Canadian violence for a few Slave Using Sugar Producing Islands(like Haiti) which was paying them to not be part of there Empire well into the 20th century.European Empire were so Great.

    July 31, 2011 at 2:55 pm | Reply
  25. Me

    In my 5 decades in the Colorado area I never met a French person that I know of. My sister in 1984 went to France and brought back a couple of pink mens dress shirts for my brother and I, saying their very popular in Paris. We told her they may be popular over there but here they will get you beaten up. Now I have met plenty of Germans and I have to say most of them are pretty arrogant and rude.

    July 31, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Reply
    • Suzy

      I spent a christmas one year in Germany and it was like a winter wonder land..so beautiful. I was treated with kindness and respect. Believe me as an American we have our fair share of rude and arrogant people. I believe those type of people live all over the world.

      August 1, 2011 at 7:46 am | Reply
  26. Joe

    Why are Americans so afraid of the truth? Arrogant as well as ignorant about world events.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Reply
    • salvatore

      Don't be afraid to generalize.

      August 2, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Reply
  27. Suzy

    I am an American and I have nothing against France at all. As a matter of fact 8 years ago my Husband and I traveled allot in France..Paris was wonderful..I mean who wouldn't love Paris..eating in the top of the Eiffel tower, going to Moulin Rouge..it was amazing and I am sure it still is. I also went to Germany, Belgium, Holland, England, Luxemburg, switzerland, spain and England..those were magical days. You know it's so easy to put down a country which you have probably never spent time in....as the saying goes..don't knock it till you tried it.

    August 1, 2011 at 7:32 am | Reply
  28. Jorge

    At the root of all this recent France-bashing:

    G.W. Bush-"Either you're with us, or AGAINST US."

    French (amongst themselves)-"This man wishes to embroil us in an expensive war over faulty intelligence on behalf of private financial interests or call us his enemies, what shall we answer him?"

    Answer-"SCREW YOU, GEORGE."

    August 1, 2011 at 8:20 am | Reply
  29. timestickin

    I just like the french fires.. But in all, I think the french people suck....

    August 1, 2011 at 8:31 am | Reply
    • Jacqueline R.

      So you've been to France and met all the French people there? So you can make that one sweeping comment? Come on, man, generalizations are always bad. I've been to France, and I liked the people, the culture, the language...

      August 1, 2011 at 11:02 am | Reply
  30. Aaron L.

    Why does the world hate us so much since 9/11 ? They act like we would just let 3000 people die and shrug it off.

    August 1, 2011 at 9:37 am | Reply
    • salvatore

      Probably because we invaded the wrong country in response to 9/11.

      August 2, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Reply
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