Jean Monnet
Jean Monnet; drawing by David Levine

It is hard to tell what Jean Monnet’s eventual reputation will be. At the moment, his name is enough of a household word to have appeared in the Sunday, March 12, New York Times crossword puzzle: forty-four down, “originator of the Common Market.” The American diplomat Robert Murphy considered Jean Monnet “the most influential man in France of his generation, …in many respects more remarkable than de Gaulle himself.” Yet Jean Monnet was always more celebrated outside France than within. Although these memoirs reached the French best-seller list for thirteen weeks in 1976, there was virtual silence in the book columns. It was as if Monnet’s voice had become a mere object of nostalgia.

Jean Monnet’s position in France was always anomalous. He stood outside all the usual networks of influence in his own country. He never ran for elective office, preferring, he tells us, to further one project at a time from behind the scenes. He was not a fonctionnaire. Indeed he was usually at pains to exclude civil servants, whom he regarded as irremediably hidebound, from the private conversations in which he pressed some new departure on political leaders. Nor was he an intellectual in the French mold. He was a halting and pedestrian speaker and writer who impressed by force of conviction rather than by brilliance, an “intermittent genius” as the French political journalists Serge and Merry Bromberger called him. He was not even a technocrat, though he surrounded himself with them. He had no specialized economic or administrative training, and was notorious for getting his statistics muddled.

Jean Monnet also managed to miss most of the experiences that shaped his compatriots’ attitudes in this century. He escaped most of the impress of the French school system, abandoning his desultory studies after the first “bac” to sell his father’s cognac in Winnipeg and Chicago before he was out of his teens. He spent the First World War in London. During postwar reconstruction he was in Geneva, as deputy secretary-general of the League of Nations. He witnessed the Depression from Shanghai and the Popular Front from New York, where he was working as an international banker. He was in London during the collapse of 1940 and in Washington at the Liberation. His view of the world could hardly resemble that of most of his compatriots.

Jean Monnet claims that his influence rested simply upon having clear, sensible ideas at crucial moments. That, along with unlimited self-confidence and a worldwide network of friends. Monnet learned at once to sidestep the screen of underlings and go right to the top. In September 1914, unknown and not yet thirty, he wangled an interview with Premier Viviani and explained to him that Britain and France must pool their overseas purchases and shipping. As these steps were indeed forced upon them, Monnet emerged as the principal French economic official in wartime London.

Thereafter he never ceased to widen his circle. He was evidently both charming and persistent. Lindbergh’s diary recounts how even after Lindbergh had declined to assist in a plan to build aircraft factories in Canada for France the two continued to walk and lunch together arguing about the decadence of democratic France. In 1939, when General “Hap” Arnold was reluctant to let the French purchase the new P-40 fighter plane, Monnet was able to go directly to Hyde Park. On the eve of the French Armistice, he persuaded Churchill, de Gaulle, and Premier Reynaud to espouse a Franco-British union that went against the grain for all three. Convinced after the war that the individual European states were too small to withstand Soviet and American pressures, he devised the Schuman Plan for a European Coal-Steel Community in 1950 and the Pleven Plan for a European Defense Community in 1951, and led in the conception of Euratom and the Common Market in 1955-1957. M. Monnet does indeed seem to have combined an outsider’s clarity of vision with an insider’s gift for persuading powerful people to adopt his projects. With some reason he appears in these memoirs as The Man Who Was Right.

Jean Monnet could also be wrong. Sometimes he admits to error, as in his choice of Joseph Avenol to succeed him at the League of Nations, a rare example of personal condemnation in these benign pages. We learn less of other errors. He expected little of the obscure Brigadier General de Gaulle in 1940, and his wording here suggests that he expected London to fall. It is a good bet that Monnet supported his protégé René Pleven against Mendès-France in 1945. It is now generally accepted that Mendès’s austerity plan offered a good chance of controlling postwar inflation, but de Gaulle preferred to make the more facile Pleven minister of finance. It would be fascinating to know whether Monnet’s habitual closeness to his “team” influenced this significant choice.


Memorialists rarely minimize their own contributions, and Monnet, though self-effacing, was not modest. British historians such as Donald Cameron Watt attribute a larger role to Sir Robert Vansittart in the Franco-British union scheme of 1940 than does Monnet. Paul-Henri Spaak calls the Dutch Foreign Minister J.W. Beyen the true author of the new start of 1955 toward the Common Market. The French engineer Louis Armand is supposed to have thought up more than just the name of Euratom.

Circumstances, at least as much as M. Monnet’s round table and powers of persuasion, favored his most durable project: the Commissariat au Plan and its “indicative planning,” which brought French government and industry together in a process of projecting national production goals. The planning mechanism has been credited with injecting dynamism into the French economy since 1945. Counterpart funds generated by the Marshall Plan enabled Monnet to free the plan of parliamentary control at the beginning; until 1947, Communist unions’ cooperation made it possible to place productivity above working conditions. Monnet presents the plan as “a leap in the dark,” without breathing a word of the Vichy studies of postwar investment priorities which the Commissariat took over in toto, as Richard F. Kuisel has recently shown.1 It would help, too, to know how the Depression and Occupation experiences prepared French industrialists to accept the plan, but these are the kinds of background questions Monnet is hardly inclined to consider.

This peaceable man was most effective in catastrophe. He does not seem to have understood that only crises made his outsider’s vision acceptable. He believed in a natural harmony of human interests. “When you take people from different backgrounds, put them in front of the same problem, and ask them to solve it, they are no longer the same people. They’re no longer there to defend their separate interests, and so they automatically take a common view.” The changes “which some seek through violent revolution can be achieved very peacefully if men’s minds can be directed toward the point where their interests converge. That point always exists, but it takes trouble to find it.” In a way curiously parallel to the 1930s corporatists, Monnet thought that the agenda and the structure of a negotiation could neutralize class, sector, and national interests.

Hence the famous dining room at the Commissariat au Plan, where Monnet broke with Paris tradition by continuing over a Spartan lunch his work of coaxing agreement out of industrialists, trade unionists, and civil servants. But the much-vaunted methods that Monnet keeps urging on his readers probably also require the artificial unifier of war and its sequels.

M. Monnet keeps telling us that his ideas were simple and self-evident. But there were many competing paths to reorganizing Europe, and Monnet’s serene and deliberately unpolemical tone masks the controversial character of each of his choices of one approach over another. Jean Monnet was a “functionalist.” As against the “federalists,” he doubted that a unified Europe could be created by some sweeping idealistic gesture, such as Churchill proposed from the luxury of opposition, at the Hague Congress of 1948, or that political union could come first. He believed that Europe could be created only step by step, by bringing together limited functions that would work so much better in common that businessmen “would want to meet again tomorrow.” A lasting Europe would have to satisfy “men who cannot afford to make mistakes, bankers, industrialists, lawyers, and newspapermen.”

This pragmatism sometimes set Monnet against other Europeanists, and he was by no means the automatic anti-Gaullist of Gaullist legend. Like a good Frenchman he still does not understand why Churchill would not commit the RAF to French battlefields in June 1940. He helped engineer de Gaulle’s triumph over Giraud in Algiers in 1943, despite Roosevelt’s wishes. He lent public endorsement to de Gaulle’s 1958 referenda, despite their earlier mud-slinging contest over the European Defense Plan, which de Gaulle fiercely opposed. He wanted to give the Fouchet Plan a try in 1961-1962, believing that the Belgians and Dutch erred in not letting this purely confederal scheme for frequent consultation among the six heads of state develop its own federal momentum later. He thought Walter Hallstein, the ambitious German professor who became president of the EEC’s Commission—the office responsible for executing the treaties—went too far too fast in trying to turn the common agricultural tariff into an autonomous source of revenue for the commission in 1965. This step provoked a French walk-out and an indefinite delay in proceeding to majority voting and to direct election of a European parliament. By that time, it seems likely that Monnet wanted merely to outwait the general rather than to goad him into renewed fulminations against supplanting the distinct nations of Europe by supranational Frankensteins and their language of Volapük.


The general charged that a “functionalist” Europe without political direction at the top—he preferred the term “apatride,” stateless—“would inevitably follow the dictates of America.”2 This was not mere chauvinism. Monnet may indeed have been insufficiently wary of American corporate power. His formative experiences, since 1914, had involved bringing American goods and funds to Europe. He brushed aside the objections of treasury officials and industrialists to investing French gold in American airplane factories in 1939. Subsequently he sided with the United States on the need for antitrust legislation in the Common Market, and he gives little attention in these memoirs to the matter of encouraging the formation of Europe-wide enterprises capable of competing on a world scale. In retrospect, as the theorist of international integration Ernst B. Haas put it, “one of the major beneficiaries of the Common Market proved to be the American multinational corporations, with their command of advanced technology.”3

Jean Monnet advocated a “little Europe,” built around the original “Six”—France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. He essentially opposed British admission to the Six without integral British acceptance of the common institutions, though he hoped for that in the long run. He never asks whether the Six or the Nine—including Britain, Ireland, and Denmark, which joined the Common Market in 1973—aligned with the United States, perpetuated the division of Europe. The name of the Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rapacki and other proponents of a larger but unaligned Europe do not appear here.

In the longer run, Monnet was sure that this limited Europe had a better chance than any other to grow into a real European state and, beyond that, into “the organized world of tomorrow.” Though he does not use the term “spill-over” devised by Ernst B. Haas in the early 1960s, he still believes that the common functions will generate their own expansion. Haas supposed that supranational institutions limited to precise but necessary functions would produce incomplete and unsatisfying decisions, whose very shortcomings would require a widening of the common agenda. Similarly, Monnet thought that “we should start with the difficulty itself, using it as a lever to initiate a more general solution.” Something has begun, he claims, “something which can no longer be stopped.”

That faith is harder to sustain since the halt of 1965, and particularly since the spectacle of some of the Nine withholding oil from Holland under Arab pressure during the Yom Kippur war. What guarantees are there that supranational institutions must grow? One basic commodity chosen to advance functional integration—coal—thereupon began to lose its central role in the economy. During the twenty-five years following the creation of the Coal-Steel Community, coal’s share in providing European energy dropped from three-fourths to a little over one-fifth. After 1960, the coal community, originally committed to an unrestricted and unified market for both products and labor, was riddled with special exclusions as it attempted to allocate the burdens of decline. Concurrently, a growing energy source, atomic power, proved even more recalcitrant to supranational administration because one state, France, was too far ahead of the others, and another, Germany, found it much cheaper to obtain technology from the United States than to develop an indigenous European technology.

Ernst Haas now writes, in The Obsolescence of Regional Integration Theory, about “spill-back” and about the “turbulence” of a system in which it has become extremely difficult to calculate whether the Nine can find better solutions in common than each could find with outside partners.

When journalists asked Jean Monnet in late 1974 what the next step should be, he replied, “continue, continue, continue.” Yet he admits that the integration process has so far stopped short at each approach to political union. The next stage, perhaps the monetary union or the directly elected parliament in the wings since 1974, can only be reached, he says, by “another creative act.”

Now we understand better the purpose of these memoirs. They are only secondarily the story of a life. They are an exhortation to the faithful. Willy Brandt’s recent memoirs referred to Monnet, Brandt’s “fatherly friend,” as a preacher. This book is full of homiletic asides about how to get people to agree, the advantages of gradualism, the need for patience, and the dangers of perfectionism. We hear that insistent, repetitive voice again, as dozens of heads of state have heard it over the last forty years, insisting, persuading, cajoling, for a European state which seems farther away than ever, and which, if created, might not be the agent of peace Monnet intended.

This Issue

November 23, 1978