Is she or isn't he?
That conundrum's central to a new diplomatic history of Franco-American relations during the late 18th century revolution by which erstwhile colonists drove Britain out and established the United States of America. As told by our colleague Joel Richard Paul (below left), the tale is rich, and not just for its rich insights into how states form, and how they conform (or not) to international law. The title, Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution (2009), promises much -- and Joel, who's Professor of Law and Associate Dean for International and Graduate Programs at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, delivers on that promise.
► The spy is the s/he of the story: Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d'Eon, a Captain of the Dragoons who helped King Louis XVI keep confidential some of her/his father's embarrassing state secrets. Successful completion of that task led, by twists and turns, to d'Eon's secret dealings with others -- dealings that laid groundwork by which the French eventually provided the American rebellion money, arms, and troops that were essential to its ultimate success. Without spoiling the ending, suffice it to say that the story of this spy -- known at various times and places as the Chevalier or the Chevalière, d'Eon -- is a rollicking yarn.
Equally captivating are the book's portraits of 2 others whose derring-do set the stage for a diplomatic coup typically attributed to Benjamin Franklin. (Taking implicit issue with articles like the one here, Joel demonstrates that Franklin did not arrive in Paris until after much of the hard work had been done.) The 2 are:
► Silas Deane, a Connecticut merchant sent to Paris even before the Declaration of Independence was signed. Deane was instructed to use trade as cover for his true task of persuading France to aid the Americans.
► Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the writer of Le Barbier de Seville and other comédies, who, with the covert OK of official France, provided munitions to the rebels.
These character studies not only enrich understanding of the times, but also serve as an important reminder that happenstance and idiosyncrasy often affect the course of history.
Also significant are the many passages in Unlikely Allies that provoke thought on issues still current in international affairs. For example:
► The long reluctance of the French sovereign to aid independence abroad, lest the rebel spirit be roused at home (as, indeed, it soon was, in a Revolution that cost Louis XVI his head);
► The duplicity and intrigue that underlie much of the information that's branded "intelligence";
► The consequences of a terrorist attack committed upon the initiative of an anti-British pyromaniac; and
► The French Foreign Minister's refusal of an invitation to join Spain in attacking Portugal, about which Joel writes:
A preemptive war would 'soil oneself with a notorious injustice, which would be invincibly repugnant to the feelings and principles of the two monarchs.' ... The argument for preemptive war was as tempting as it was dangerous. A wise leader would never commit his country to a foreign war in the name of preemption when no imminent threat existed.
(pp. 113-14) The passage resounds with echoes of post-9/11 debates about the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, a fact that underscores the contemporary significance of this superb historical account.