The French and German embassies to the United States sit just a few blocks from each other in a leafy, upscale part of Washington. They are both imposing compounds, surrounded by fences and adorned with huge flags. In walking distance from both, at 2415 Foxhall Road Northwest, stands a red-brick house that blends into its neighbourhood. Passers-by hardly give it a glance, but it has arguably played a more important role in influencing transatlantic relations than either of the grand embassies.
This pretty but unremarkable house was the home of a remarkable man: Jean Monnet. To most, Monnet is known as the founding father of the European Union and the visionary behind the Schumann Plan, the seventieth anniversary of which is this week. By contrast, few know the critical role that Monnet’s time in Washington played in the creation of what became the EU.
Monnet’s stay on Foxhall Road is mostly unremembered. My husband and I lived across the street for some time without knowing one of our heroes had lived there – until the owners of the house told us that he (and, years later, former secretary of state James Baker) was among the previous inhabitants. After months of research, we were able to confirm Monnet’s residence at the address through his FBI file, assembled while Monnet was under surveillance by US authorities in the early 1940s.
Monnet’s mission to America is better documented. In the mid-1990s, political scientist Clifford Hackett edited an impressive history of Monnet’s engagement with Washington’s political elite called Jean Monnet and the Americans. A Frenchman on the payroll of the British government, Jean Monnet moved to the US from London in summer 1940, only a few months after the fall of France. His mission, personally authorised by Winston Churchill, was vital to the British war effort against Nazi Germany. He was tasked with convincing the Roosevelt administration to make the US the “arsenal of democracy” and support the British.
The networks and personal relationships Monnet built in Washington during the war years helped mobilise American support for the idea of a united Europe.
The challenges Monnet faced sound familiar to us today. President Franklin Roosevelt faced an isolationist “America First” movement and a public that was sceptical of foreign entanglements. Monnet’s efforts were thus fraught with difficulties, including the pushback he received from close aides of Roosevelt, such as Secretary of State Cordell Hull and, initially, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, who were wary of allowing a Frenchman into the inner circle of US decision-making.
Monnet was, nonetheless, able even before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to mobilise US resources in support of the British war effort, including through the vital lend-lease programme. His success can be partly attributed to his character traits – he was driven, focused, persistent, and persuasive; good at identifying influential allies and convincing them to promote his ideas to the president. He was a man who, as Pascaline Winand puts it, “knew how to develop an idea and find the person who had sufficient power to apply it”; interested in not self-promotion but rather “providing the ideas and letting others take the credit when they used them”.
It was his knowledge and insights that impressed the influential men around the wartime president and convinced them to promote his ideas to Roosevelt himself. His allies eventually included Secretary of War Henry Stimson; Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter; Harry Hopkins, a close aide of Roosevelt; and Dean Acheson, then assistant secretary of state.
In the years that followed, as the US and the United Kingdom became ever-closer allies in the effort to defeat the Axis powers, Monnet became intimately involved in the decision-making of the Roosevelt administration. The term “arsenal of democracy”, first used by Roosevelt in a December 1940 speech promising support to Britain, was coined by Monnet. So was much of the input for the Victory Program announced by Roosevelt after the Pearl Harbour attack.
By the time he left Washington in 1945, Monnet had established a wide network of contacts throughout the US political elite. The networks and personal relationships Monnet built in Washington during the war years helped mobilise American support for the idea of a united Europe, without which the EU as it is today would have never emerged. This network of support included General Dwight Eisenhower, who was convinced by Monnet’s ideas on European economic and political integration. These ideas featured prominently in Eisenhower’s speeches as both Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and, later, as a president.
Monnet helped convince his American friends that European integration was the only guarantee against future conflict. This idea entered America through that house on Foxhall Road near French and German embassies. Through Monnet’s influence and networks, the concept of European integration soon became a pillar of US post-war policy. Monnet’s vision thus informed the policies on European integration of US administrations – Republican and Democrat alike – for seven decades.
European integration was never distinct from, or opposed to, a strong transatlantic relationship or American interests. To the contrary, the idea was formed in a quiet part of Washington and in the crucible of war, by visionaries who understood that European integration cannot succeed without firm American support and that the US thrives in alliance with a strong and united Europe. Many on both sides of the Atlantic have forgotten those lessons. Indeed, there are some Americans who believe – wrongly – that Europe came together to stand against the US.
In thinking about how Western countries’ integrated economies can recover from the pandemic, one should remember that they will recover together or not at all. The likely change in the nature of globalisation that covid-19 will create provides an opportunity for transatlantic re-convergence – provided there is someone in the White House willing to seize it. In looking at the long-term rise of China, India, and the Global South, one should know that Western societies, which generated much of the global prosperity of the last 70 years, will become far less influential if they are divided.
On the 75th anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe and the 70th anniversary of the Schumann Plan, it is perhaps time for Europeans and Americans to return to the house on Foxhall Road and prepare for the next 70 years.
I am grateful to Professor Sherry Wells of George Washington University for her conversations and insights.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.