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De Gaulle, Nato and France

‘A world in which there is one master, one sovereign’

Le Monde diplomatique.

More than 40 years ago de Gaulle took the decision to withdraw from Nato’s military command. President Sarkozy has promised to reverse that decision.

By Dominique Vidal

“France considers that the changes which have been accomplished or begun since 1949 in Europe, Asia and elsewhere, together with the development of her own situation and her strength, no longer justify from her point of view the military arrangements made after the conclusion of the Alliance.”

On 7 March 1966 Charles de Gaulle, who had defeated François Mitterrand three months earlier and been re-elected president of France, announced to US president Lyndon B Johnson the withdrawal of his country from the integrated military command of Nato – an organisation of which France had been a founder member.

De Gaulle went on to explain that in practical terms France “proposes to regain the control of sovereignty over her whole territory, which is currently compromised by the permanent allied military presence and by the use which is made of her air space; to cease her participation in the integrated command structure; and to no longer make her forces available to Nato.” Nonetheless, France remained “willing to reach agreement with [her allies] on military facilities they would provide each other in the event of a conflict in which she was engaged alongside them”. In short, France “believes she must for her own sake alter the form of the alliance without changing its substance.”

Just over a year later the withdrawal had been accomplished. On 14 March 1967 US general Lyman Lemnitzer, commander of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) and of US forces in Europe, presided over a departure ceremony at Saint-Germain-en-Laye. The starred Nato flag came down and was taken off to the new headquarters at Casteau near Mons in Belgium.

In total the United States evacuated 27,000 soldiers, 37,000 other personnel and 30 air, naval and land bases. Finally, on 22 August Lemnitzer and General Charles Ailleret, the French chief of staff, signed a protocol making provision for maintaining French forces in Germany under Nato’s operational control for a specified mission and time in the event of external aggression.

De Gaulle’s decision should have come as no surprise to political observers: on 17 September 1958, less than three years after his return to power, he had sent a memorandum to President Eisenhower and British prime minister Harold Macmillan demanding that France participate in a tripartite leadership of the alliance. They refused his demand and thereafter he increasingly distanced himself from them. In spite of this, his letter to Johnson seems to have caught the French press off guard.
’Let’s not talk hot air’

The first reaction came on 8 March 1966, the day after de Gaulle’s letter, in the rightist but anti-Gaullist paper, L’Aurore. Here André Guérin wrote: “Let’s not talk hot air. For years the presence of the Americans has been the only guarantee of national liberty for us and for our neighbours. Does the general believe today that there is no longer a danger of the Communists taking us over? Evidently, since he means to send the Americans away. Let’s just hope that we don’t forget to say thank you.” On 11 March the paper went further, accusing de Gaulle of stabbing the Americans in the back “at the very moment when the US is fully committed to the war in Vietnam, that advanced bastion of the free world in Asia.”

The pro-Gaullist Le Figaro waited till 11 March before commenting. André François-Poncet warned not only of the “Russian peril” (“A new Stalin could be born tomorrow”) but also of other dangers: “Mao Zedong is another Hitler. In his place a Genghis Khan, a Tamburlaine, or a Muhammad armed with atomic weapons could rise up, capable of rallying the starving peoples of Asia and Africa to mount an attack on the well-off and prosperous nations, the white peoples and their civilisation.”

On 12 March Combat took the counterview to this dire warning of the clash of civilisations: “If Nato wishes to persist with its increasingly improbable hypothesis of a Soviet attack, so be it. But what general de Gaulle has said no to is France being dragged into all the adventures that the US becomes involved in. For, going down a familiar path and intoxicated by its military might, the US wants its ideology to prevail everywhere.” Raising the possibility of war with China, the author of the article, Jean Fabiani, wondered “in the name of what obligation France would be bound to commit herself to such an adventure”.

On 8 March L’Humanité had underlined the unique position of the Communists, who still numbered a fifth of the French electorate. Yves Moreau wrote: “Our opposition to the Atlantic Pact has a fundamentally different character from that of the ruling Gaullists. From its creation, we denounced the Atlantic Pact as a new, reactionary Holy Alliance.” Moreau added, however: “Whatever reasons inspired General de Gaulle’s announcement to president Johnson, we approve of it, since it is a step towards disengagement and peaceful coexistence.”

Forty years later, it is impossible not to be struck by the astonishing topicality of this debate, and by the coherence of de Gaulle’s long-term strategic thinking. He clearly was not anti-American: his staunch support for the US during the Berlin crisis in 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis the following year had already given ample proof of that. What motivated him was the defence of French sovereignty and self-determination against anything which might undermine them, including the US.

As leader of Free France, he had thwarted Anglo-Saxon attempts to reduce France to the status of a protectorate after the war. On 10 December 1944, as head of a provisional government of the French Republic, he signed a treaty of alliance and mutual security with Moscow, to which he referred in glowing terms. He explained the need for a French policy which created a “balance between the two great superpowers, a policy which I believe absolutely necessary for the interests of the country and even for those of peace”. With his departure from office in early 1946 and the dawn of the cold war, France’s allegiances gravitated to the North Atlantic, especially after Nato was established in 1949.
Rapidly changing climate

When he returned to power in 1958, de Gaulle pursued his quest for sovereignty in a rapidly changing geopolitical climate. The East-West balance of power was shifting, especially as a result of the USSR recovering its strength, not least its military capacity: Moscow had detonated an A-bomb in 1949 and an H-bomb in 1953 and was now able, as the first Sputnik satellite showed, to extend its reach as far as US territory. The US for its part replaced its military strategy of massive reprisal with one of “flexible response”, based on the use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield.

This development strengthened the fear that, faced with a Soviet missile threat, the US would make war on the USSR irrespective of its cost to Europe. This awareness of the limits of the American nuclear shield should, de Gaulle felt, make France’s neighbours press for a rebalancing of power within Nato. All the more so since according to Washington “western solidarity, the cornerstone of the Alliance, must not be limited to the problems of the North Atlantic zone” but should also cover “all East-West problems wherever they are”, including Asia. The reconstruction of European economies and the foundation of the six-nation European Community (West Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) in the spring of 1957 created – at least in theory – more favourable conditions for bolstering the autonomy of European states in relation to the US.

Was this a battle which de Gaulle believed he could win? All his pronouncements make plain that he did not underestimate Washington’s determination to safeguard its hegemony, nor the difficulty European countries faced in trying to free themselves from it. But France had an advantage over her neighbours: it had detonated its first atomic bomb in the Sahara in 1963 and therefore possessed its own means of self-defence (as did Britain, though it was inextricably bound to Washington). That being so, the general knew he was on his own. And if Nato reform was impossible, then he would have to make do with freeing himself from the ties which straight-jacketed his foreign policy. It is unsurprising, therefore, that withdrawal from Nato’s military command appears as the linchpin in a series of spectacular foreign policy pronouncements:

• On 27 January 1964 France became the first western nation to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.

• On 30 June 1966 De Gaulle broadcast a speech from Moscow in which he called upon Russians and French to help each other so that “our old continent, united and no longer divided, may resume the capital role which is its due for the stability, progress and peace of the world.”

• 1 September 1966: in Phnom Penh he noted that the war in Vietnam “will not have a military solution” and called on the US to “renounce its distant campaign, since it has neither benefit nor justification, in favour of an international agreement which will organise peace and the development of an important region of the world.”

• 24 July 1967: De Gaulle shocked listeners to an improvised address given in Montreal by concluding with the words: “Long live a free Quebec!”

• 27 November 1967: after the Six-Day war, which he had condemned, he declared that Israel “is organising an occupation of the territories it has taken which can only entail oppression, repression and expulsions; resistance against it has sprung up, which Israel has branded terrorism.”

This period proved short-lived, however. De Gaulle resigned from the presidency in 1969 and died the following year. Stage by stage, his successors, Georges Pompidou and François Mitterrand, put his policy into reverse. And on 5 December 1995, as the 30th anniversary of de Gaulle’s letter to Johnson approached, France rejoined Nato’s military committee. President Jacques Chirac, a self-proclaimed heir of de Gaulle, thereby paved the way for full French reintegration into Nato, which Nicolas Sarkozy is currently working to complete


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