The Fraught Relationship Between the USA and France

“Sports and politics don’t mix.” Eric Heiden

Taking placing in 1919, the Inter-Allied Games were the first major international sporting event after the socio-political upheaval of World War One. Hosted by American General John Pershing (as seen in Source A) in the suburbs of the French capital Paris, the Games were fundamentally tied to these two increasingly hostile nations.

Intended to encourage unity and fraternity among the war allies, the Games instead came to visually symbolize the escalating tension between France and the United Sates, as post-war animosity spilled onto the sporting field. Using a selection of primary and secondary sources, this short essay will strive to deconstruct the reasons for, and consequences of, this disharmonious alliance, framing the diplomatic strains through the lens of the Inter-Allied Games.

France and America’s complex association with the Games was demonstrated in its very setting; the Pershing Stadium was constructed near the Bois de Vincennes by the U.S. Military with help from the YMCA. The stadium, offered as a gift to France after the Games finished and graciously accepted, should have represented the beginning of a new era of progressive co-operation. But events off the field inevitably overshadowed those on it.

Crowd on train
Crowd on Locomotive outside of the games. Image: UMass Luna Collection.

Contrasting visions for the post-war new Europe pitted France and America at opposite ends of the negotiating table. Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, fearful of a resurgent Germany, lobbied for a harsh treaty to ensure the country remained economically and militarily crippled. President Woodrow Wilson attempted to broker a more moderate punishment, a “just peace” which wasn’t grounded in economic sanctions. Indeed, as Georges-Henri Soutou assets in the excellent The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment After 75 Years:

“When Wilson arrived in France at the beginning of 1919, he was greeted by some the most enthusiastic demonstrations of the country has ever recorded. But by the end of February hopes on both sides of the political spectrum had evaporated.” (Soutou, 1998, p. 167)

In one of history’s many cruel quirks, this polarised debate would unfold during the Inter-Allied Games, as the treaty’s conference reached its crescendo.

Numerous sources detail how this contentious relationship played out on the sporting field. Comparing the tension to the good natured spirit of the wider competition, Goldbatt remarks that “when the Americans were in competition with the French, the atmosphere became volatile – borderline riotous on occasion – especially at the Boxing and Water Polo competitions” (Goldblatt, 2016, p. 100). In a forensic assessment of the agitated atmosphere, Marshall noted that the Games “featured a triangular rugby completion between France.

rugby game
United States vs. Romania Rugby match.

The United States, and Romania.” He continues:

“The final was played at the new Pershing Stadium on June 29, 1919, the day after the signature of the Versailles peace treaty. However, there was little sign of either reconciliation or accord on the field of play, as the French won what was a horribly violent final against the Americans (8-3).” (Marshall, 2005, p. 1085)

These themes – brutality, violence and volatility – repeatedly emerge across academic discourse on the Games, resoundingly marking the competition as a diplomatic failure for the two nations. It’s worth observing that this hostility may also have been catalysed by America’s extraordinary brilliance (Squire)on the field: in the athletic points standing they scored 92 to France’s 12[1], further emasculating a nation already reeling from a tumultuous war.

Writing for the North American Society for Sport History’s Annual Conference in 1981, John Findling neatly condenses the failure of the Inter-Allied games to inspire greater solidarity between France and America by asserting that “sport in 1919 could not transcend its own level, and Franco-American relations in the political, economic, and diplomatic arenas moved ahead into the 1920s without a great deal of cordiality” (Findling, 1981, p. 42). Despite the initial lofty aspirations of unity, it would be this disappointment that would characterise the Games and, to a certain degree, the next decade[2].

Bibliography

Findling, J. (1981). The Interallied Games, 1919. In N. A. History, North American Society for Sport History Conference (p. 42). North American Society for Sport History.

Goldblatt, D. (2016). The Games: A Global History of the Olympics .W. W. Norton & Company.

Luna Image Collections. (2018, 2 19). UMass Amherst Collections. Retrieved from Luna Image Collections: http://umassamherst.lunaimaging.com/luna/servlet

Marshall, B. (2005). France and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History : a Multidisciplinary Encyclopedia, Volume 1.ABC-CLIO.

Soutou, G.-H. (1998). The French Peacemakers and Their Home Front . In G. D. Manfred F. Boemeke, The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment After 75 Years.Cambridge University Press.

Squire, J. (2018, 2 19). Inter-Allied Games. Retrieved from gbr athletics : http://www.gbrathletics.com/ic/ialg.htm

[1]Who admittedly finished 2nd, further underlining America’s dominance

[2]While the United States remained generally good-willed towards France during the 1920’s, a subtle yet tangible wave of anti-Americanism swept through France’s entrenched elites, who were fearful of America’s increasing cultural influence

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