From selling cognac to shaping a continent, Jean Monnet, known as one of the founding fathers of the European Union, spent a lifetime laying the groundwork for the post-World War II transatlantic alliance.
The Frenchman, who first came to the U.S. as a teenager to find new markets for his father’s cognac business, forged deep connections to Washington, D.C., where in his later years he would reflect on Europe’s postwar reconstruction during long walks in Rock Creek Park, not far from his home on Foxhall Road.
On May 18, French Ambassador Philippe Étienne welcomed guests to his residence to unveil a traditional Parisian bench that will be installed in the park where Monnet formulated his ideas for bringing the U.S. and Europe closer together.
The unveiling comes at a time of renewed transatlantic purpose in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The war currently taking place on European soil illustrates that the European project remains the cornerstone of our future,” Étienne told guests.
“Celebrating the memory of Jean Monnet reminds us not only of the role he played in our alliances, and for our freedom in World War II, but also of his dream fulfilled after the war — that enemies could through reconciliation and pooling of their sovereignty lay the foundations of peace and defend together more efficiently our values,” the ambassador said.
Monnet was impressed by those values and the “vast, dynamic world of possibilities” he saw in the U.S., which stood in contrast to the inward-looking nations of Old Europe, according to Monnet’s grandson, Jean-Marc Lieberherr, president of the Jean Monnet Institute.
Lieberherr said his grandfather never felt a “greater sense of purpose than here in Washington in 1942.”
That sense of purpose was partly informed by the collapse of the League of Nations, where Monnet served as deputy secretary-general — and where he watched in frustration as governments sought to “defend their own interests [more] than to resolve the common problems with which they are confronted,” according to the Jean Monnet Institute.
Monnet went on to become a well-connected international banker who advocated for a Franco-British union shortly after the Nazi invasion of France in 1940.
His campaign was narrowly defeated, but then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill tapped Monnet to secure arms from the United States to shore up the Allies’ defenses.
Monnet’s connections to the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration paid off when the U.S. doubled military preparations under its Victory Program, turning the United States, in the words of FDR, into “the arsenal of democracies.”
British economist John Maynard Keynes reportedly said that because of his efforts in Washington, Monnet probably shortened World War II by a year.
After the war, Monnet turned his attention to rebuilding Europe, both physically and philosophically.
“His experience and the discussions he had here with U.S. and European friends did a lot to shape his vision and plans for a united Europe,” Lieberherr said.
“All European nations were too small on their own in this possible world. We needed larger markets, broader access to capital and resources, higher ambitions, and of course we needed lasting peace, which only a united, interdependent Europe could guarantee,” Lieberherr added.
“In other words, we needed our own United States, the United States of Europe.”
Monnet was instrumental in creating the European Coal and Steel Community, a precursor to the EU.
Congressman Jim Costa (D-Calif.) said the U.S. shared Monnet’s vision for a “fledgling European Union” that “has resulted in the longest peacetime period in Europe for the last 72 years — until Feb. 24.”
That’s when Russia invaded Ukraine, a reminder, Costa said, that “freedom is not free” and that the world should not take for granted the postwar multilateral institutions championed by Monnet that ensured those freedoms.
Costa was among several members of Congress in attendance who supported a congressional enactment to have the bench placed in Rock Creek Park because, as Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del) joked, “believe it or not, in the United States, there is some bureaucracy — just a little.”
The bench was quickly put to use as the centerpiece of an original play by the Picnic Theatre Company featuring Steve Rochlin as Monnet and Christina Sevilla as Silvia, his wife of 45 years. They both sat on the bench and ruminated on the future of Europe, punctuated by the appearance of a cast of characters, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy — representing Monnet’s real-life supporting cast.
“Our European nations are too small,” Rochlin says. “Their prosperity is impossible unless they form themselves into a European Federation. This must be done through the creation of new institutions because if nothing is possible without men, nothing lasts without institutions.”
But it was one man whom JFK credited with creating those enduring institutions, as he wrote in a 1963 letter read during the play: “Dear Monsieur Monnet, for centuries, emperors, kings and dictators have sought to impose unity on Europe by force. For better or worse, they have failed. But under your inspiration, Europe has moved closer to unity in less than 20 years than it had done before in a thousand.”