In May 2022, diplomats, lawmakers, and other guests gathered at the Embassy of France in Washington D.C. to watch ambassador Philippe Etienne unveil a green park bench – the kind found in any French jardin public. Its final destination will be Rock Creek Park, Northwest Washington’s 1,700 acres of sprawling parkland. The commemorative plaque paid tribute to the French statesman Jean Monnet, an avid user of the park’s many trails during his long stay in the American capital.
A foreign embassy in Washington requires authorization from the U.S. Congress to erect a statue or other permanent commemorative symbol of one of its citizens in the District of Columbia. Hence the introduction of U.S. Senate Bill 3579, requesting approval of a park bench “to honor the extraordinary contributions of Jean Monnet to restoring peace between European nations and establishing the European Union.”
By 1939, as the clouds of war gathered over Europe, Monnet had set aside his career as a Cognac salesman and international financier and was in the United States seeking to procure planes and armaments for the French. After the fall of France in 1940, he accepted Winston Churchill’s invitation to work with the British Purchasing Commission in Washington, with the specific aim of enlarging its scope. As a result, for the rest of World War II, Monnet was at the center of the entire American arms supply operation so vital to the Allied effort.
President Franklin Roosevelt was a man much admired by Monnet. His main contact in the White House was Harry L. Hopkins, the president’s top aide, and he had a wide circle of connections in and out of the Roosevelt administration. He also had powerful opponents, not to say enemies. Besides the problems of arguing against the Neutrality Acts and a strong isolationist lobby, he had to deal with Henry Morgenthau Jr., the Secretary of the Treasury, who had an innate distrust and suspicion of investment bankers. The country’s chief financial officer was kept out of at least one meeting between Roosevelt and the Frenchman to avoid negative input.
Toward European Unity
As Hitler gained ground in Europe, opposition to the war in Washington eased. In 1941, President Roosevelt, with Churchill’s support, launched the Lend-Lease Program and promised that America would become “the arsenal of democracy.” But on his long walks in Rock Creek Park, Monnet was already thinking ahead on how to immunize postwar Europe from its deadly cycle of conflicts. In 1943, he traveled to Algiers and addressed the leaders of the Free French government, including Charles de Gaulle.
“The countries of Europe are not strong enough individually to be able to guarantee prosperity and social development for their peoples,” he told them. “The states of Europe must therefore form a federation or a European entity that would make them into a common economic unit.” Following the liberation of France, de Gaulle called on Monnet to implement a national modernization plan to revive the French economy. In this, he was greatly influenced by his experience of the American system of government and way of life.
The American Founding Fathers completed, and then signed, the Declaration of Independence that established the United States at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia. The founding fathers of Europe took the first concrete steps towards a united Europe at Monnet’s French home, a thatched cottage in the rural hamlet of Houjarray, close to Paris. Monnet had bought it in 1945, shortly after his return from Washington. Rock Creek Park was replaced by the surrounding woods for his early morning walk.
It was at Houjarray in the spring of 1950 that Monnet drafted the proposal to merge French and West German coal and steel production, key raw materials of war, “under the control of a senior authority in an organization which will remain open to membership of other European countries.”
The document on the French-German initiative was rewritten nine times before both sides were satisfied, but on May 9, 1950, France’s Foreign Minister Robert Schuman announced the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, calling it “the first concrete step towards a European federation, imperative for the preservation of peace.” Soon, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands also signed up, laying the foundation of the European Community.
A European Project with American Backing
Just like today, Washington was the world’s networking capital and Monnet, recognizing the importance of American support if his dream of a united Europe was to succeed, made sure he had strategic friends. His main backer was John Foster Dulles, an old friend from when they both worked at the League of Nations following World War I, who had risen to be President Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of State.
In April 1952, Monnet gave a lecture at the Washington Press Club which began, “We find ourselves at an opportune moment to talk about the creation of Europe.” He went on to outline “the main steps on the road we are taking, and the objectives we hope to achieve for Europe,” listing the planned European institutions, including a European court of justice, and the deployment of a European defense force (the one issue that has been much debated but remains undecided).
An English translation of Monnet’s speech was sent to the American president, but Eisenhower already supported the concept of European integration, and had himself made a plea for an economically and politically united Europe a year earlier in London. The unification of Europe had become – and remains – U.S. foreign policy.
In 1955, Monnet founded the Action Committee for the United States of Europe, pulling together political parties and European trade unions to become the driving force behind all initiatives in the direction of the future E.U. This included the creation of the European Common Market, the European Monetary System, the European Council, and the European parliamentary elections. On March 25, 1957, the treaty “to establish the foundations of an ever-closer union among the European peoples” was signed in Rome by the leaders of the six original member nations – France, West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Luxembourg.
Monnet died in 1979, satisfied with the result of his effort in America and convinced to the last that “peace and prosperity could not be guaranteed except through the union of peoples.” From his retirement in Houjarray, he urged governments to “continue, continue: There is no future for the people in Europe other than in union.”
What about the park bench? In the American capital, it is seen as a gesture of recognition – long overdue – of Monnet’s legacy in transatlantic relations. But also, with Brexit, both Washington and Paris see a gap where the Anglo-American so-called “special relationship” used to be. Gone is the British claim that, as a European Union member, the U.K. was well positioned to act as an interlocutor between the U.S. and Europe. Today, it is President Macron who has been honored with the first state visit to Washington by the Biden administration.