N THE EARLY 1900S, FRENCH-AMERICAN DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS were in a state of rather benign neglect. French attention was focused on domestic and European affairs and the colonial empire. Meanwhile, in the isolationist United States—despite French cultural influence in cinema, fashion, architecture, and other domains—French observers like the diplomat and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabriel Hanotaux worried that emigrants from other countries to the U.S. had formed large “colonies” that nurtured a “cult of their mother countries” and an “anti-French prejudice.” In 1909, Hanotaux responded by rallying a prominent group of French statesmen and intellectuals to form the Comité France-Amérique. Their goal was to “make France known and loved in America, and America in France.”
The Comité, founded in Paris, published books and a monthly journal, France-Amérique, to inform French readers about political, economic, social, and artistic trends in the Americas. It created a French Propaganda League to defend French interests abroad and sought to develop exchanges in education, the arts, and commerce.
The Comité also set about cultivating an influential network of leaders on both sides of the Atlantic to support its cause. It sent a distinguished French delegation on a “Mission Champlain” to the U.S. and Canada in 1912 that triggered the creation of a sister France-America Committee in New York, whose mission was to “foster the intimacy of the longstanding friendship between France and the United States, and to develop the relations between the two nations in all their social, political, artistic, commercial, industrial and intellectual interests.” Sister committees emerged in Canada and several Latin American countries as well.
The France-America Committee—which would be headquartered in the Columbia Maison Française—was a Who’s Who of the East Coast establishment. Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler was a founding trustee and president of the committee from 1916 to 1924, and remained a director for life. French Ambassador J. J. (Jean Jules) Jusserand was honorary president. J. P. Morgan served as treasurer from 1913 to 1926. Other directors included three former U.S. ambassadors to France, Myron T. Herrick, Henry White, and Robert Bacon, as well as William D. Guthrie, W. K. Vanderbilt, George Foster Peabody, and Elihu Root. The sister committees hoped to create bonds among French and American elites by hosting meetings and dinners for visiting dignitaries. Guests of the Paris-based committee early on included President Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Bacon, and the presidents of Columbia and Harvard. The New York committee hosted dinners for such distinguished guests as René Viviani, André Tardieu, and Marshal Joseph Joffre. In November 1921, it organized an elaborate banquet for Prime Minister Aristide Briand and 680 guests at the Waldorf-Astoria in honor of Marshal Ferdinand Foch, after both men were awarded honorary doctorates from Columbia.
Gabriel Hanotaux later admitted that the “main thinking” in creating a France-America Committee in the U.S. was “to secure American help for France in case our country was pulled into a European conflict.” This hope would pay off with stunning success. During World War I, directors of the France-America Committee (renamed the France-America Society in 1916) led the way in directing war relief efforts, raising money, rallying public opinion, and advocating for France at the highest levels of government. Indeed, wrote Hanotaux, “Leading all the initiatives in favor of the Allies and especially France, we find our New York friends.” A. Barton Hepburn and Robert Bacon (early backers of the Maison Française) were president and honorary vice-president, respectively, of the War Relief Clearing House for France and Her Allies, the shipping agency that funneled donations from over 5,000 American war relief charities. William D. Guthrie presided over the American Society for the Relief of French War Orphans, with many fellow directors serving as vice-presidents. Former U.S. Secretary of State and Nobel Prize winner Elihu Root was a leading advocate of American entry into the war on the side of France and Britain. Myron T. Herrick, U.S. Ambassador to France at the war’s outbreak, helped set up major American volunteer enterprises bringing aid and relief to France. J. P. Morgan secured financing for the Allied victory by arranging wartime loans, including a $500 million Anglo-French loan sold through a syndicate of 1,500 U.S. banks and investors. J. P. Morgan & Co. was also the official wartime purchasing agent for both France and Britain in the U.S. After the war, Morgan would help France raise money and stabilize the franc when it was in trouble. The French lauded France-America Society President Butler, in particular, for influencing American opinion in favor of France and the Allies.
The France-America Society enjoyed its greatest influence during its early years and into the 1920s, when it operated out of the Maison Française. By the early 1930s it would move elsewhere, but it continued to exist, with waning effect, until 1989, when it merged with the Paris American Club, a social club for Francophile New Yorkers and French expatriates. Today the mission of the France-America Society is carried on in the U.S. by organizations such as the French-American Foundation. In France, the Comitébecame the Association France-Amériques, and it continues to organize events in its magnificent Second Empire building on the Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt in Paris.