FOR 16 months, now, France has had a new régime, swept into office by a broad popular movement and dominated by the personality of General de Gaulle. In the same period several decisions have affected the military relations of France and the United States within the Atlantic framework. They indicate that all is not as it should be in the alliance of the two countries, even though both believe in it as wholeheartedly as they did on the day it was founded.

Public opinion in France and the United States is alarmed, and with good reason, at the prolongation of the malaise. The first indication of it was the French Government's refusal to integrate French fighter planes into NATO's aerial defense system. Then came the withdrawal of a number of French units from the Allied Naval Forces, Mediterranean. There was also the failure to reach agreement with the French Government on terms governing the establishment and use of launching sites for medium-range ballistic missiles and stockpiles of atomic warheads on French soil. This obliged the NATO Commander-in-Chief to transfer more than 200 American fighter-bombers formerly based at French airfields.

Must it be concluded that the new French régime is inclined to withdraw from NATO? Or do these events mean something entirely different, namely, that certain aspects of the Atlantic Alliance need to be reconsidered? As one who is no less firmly convinced today than when the Atlantic Pact was signed that it is essential to Western security and world peace, and writing with absolute independence, since I do not belong to any of the parties which support the present French Government, I should like to try to give an objective answer to that question.


First let us consider the personal factors which have had a part in creating the present difficulties within the Atlantic Community.

When General de Gaulle again assumed the leadership of France, he had been out of power for 12 years, from February 1946 to May 1958. It was during this period that the Atlantic Alliance was conceived, its organization completed and its governing regulations and principles enunciated. This Atlantic organization and policy, elaborated without his coöperation, formed part of de Gaulle's inheritance from the Fourth Republic. Nevertheless I do not think that either the need for the Pact nor its goal is at issue. This has been demonstrated by the attitude of the French representatives at Geneva. At no time did they lend themselves to any manœuvre aimed at disengagement. The present government's position on this point is no different from that of its predecessors. What has happened is that a military and political mind, drawing on the lessons of the past and fortified by the well-nigh prophetic judgment it exercised before 1939 and again in June 1940, has brought its keen critical faculty to bear on the subject of NATO. Such a scrutiny was bound to be useful for the Atlantic Community. It led General de Gaulle to certain reflections and suggestions which he conveyed to President Eisenhower and Prime Minister Macmillan in a letter dispatched in September 1958.

From press reports about the contents of that letter and from the reactions of its recipients and their advisors it would seem that its meaning and implications were searchingly examined in the United States. Admittedly it gave rise to misunderstandings, and subsequent attempts at clarification have not entirely dispelled them. This situation is not something new. In the period 1940-1946 a whole series of meetings and discussions between General de Gaulle and Americans revealed how difficult it was for them to understand each other. General de Gaulle often expresses his thoughts in a very different manner from that to which Americans are accustomed. Yet eventually, after much irritation, the difficulties were always ironed out. I am confident the same will be true today. But that does not make the present misunderstanding any less deplorable, particularly as it coincides with a period of grave crisis in Europe. It seems to me that the expressions of ill feeling which it has provoked could and should have been avoided.

The changes which have taken place on the French political scene, however, are not exclusively responsible for all the current disagreements, and the American Government and public opinion would be seriously mistaken if they thought so. For a long time each succeeding French Government, whatever the régime and whoever the leader, has been asking its Atlantic partners, particularly the United States, certain basic questions. It is these questions which are at the root of the current disagreement between the French Government and some of the other NATO members as to the way the organization should function.


The Atlantic Pact was concluded ten years ago to meet a situation which has since then undergone profound changes. It was conceived as a regional pact to contain Soviet expansion towards Western Europe. Up to now it has fulfilled that task magnificently. Yet today as in 1949 NATO can still be defined as an organization of European countries resting on American arms and military resources, with the peculiarity that within the organization the United States maintains control of the decisive weapons.

During these ten years, however, considerable changes have taken place in the strategy and military resources of the Soviet Union. The Soviet rulers recognized that the military forces of NATO were determined to block Russian expansion towards Western Europe, that any aggression on the European continent would bring into action the American soldiers permanently stationed there and that American nuclear weapons would be used to protect them. The Soviet answer was to adopt an outflanking strategy, a strategy of encirclement. First Russia tested American and Western European reaction in Korea. Then it turned its attention to the Middle East and Africa. Tomorrow it may be South America's turn.

In such circumstances the geographical limitations of the Atlantic Pact have reduced its value, particularly for its members who have world responsibilities. They are three: the United States, Great Britain and France.

France, like Great Britain, has special and precise commitments to defend certain huge countries situated outside of Europe. These countries cover a considerable part of Africa. It is essential for the security not only of France and the peoples associated with it but also of the other nations of the free world that these countries be protected against Communist expansion, whatever form it may take. They are inhabited by tens of millions of people. They control important strategic points on the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic. They contain raw materials of great value which must be kept accessible to the free world. The Atlantic Pact makes no provision for the defense of areas in which countries of the Franco-African Community are situated. Yet no one can deny that if they fell into the Soviet orbit the security of every nation in the area covered by the Atlantic Pact would be very seriously jeopardized. Western strategy therefore cannot afford to ignore them.

All French governments preceding this one have sought in one way or another to draw the attention of their Atlantic partners to this grave problem--and particularly of the strongest of them, the United States. When great changes were introduced in the French Constitution, elaborating France's responsibility to defend the new republics which had joined with her in forming the French Community, it was natural and inevitable that the new French Government and particularly the President of the Republic, who is at the same time President of the Community, should raise again and more forcefully than ever the question which had not yet been answered. The difficulties entailed in answering it arise, obviously, from the fact that some aspects of the situation are of concern to NATO while others are not. Yet it is senseless to go on ignoring it.

The French proposals of 1958 sought to associate France with the United States and Great Britain in the joint formulation of a strategy adapted to dealing with the wide-ranging and varied threats available to the Soviet camp. The need for such a strategy must be recognized in the United States and the elements in it must be under constant study. Rightly or wrongly, French opinion is convinced that Great Britain in one way or another is already playing a part in the formulation of this strategy. France, the only continental member of NATO which today has defense responsibilities of comparable magnitude to the British, would also like to have the means of making her voice heard.

The French proposal of September 1958 immediately caused misunderstandings. One assertion was that France was seeking to establish a sort of directorate of three in NATO. I think this is a mistaken interpretation, for certainly the French Government is aware that an attempt of that sort would drive the other members into opposition to France and would ultimately break up the organization. What France was trying to do was simply to get the United States to realize how important it is that the nations of the West stand together against the Soviet challenge and that they be so organized that they cannot be taken by surprise whenever and wherever that challenge is presented. The French thesis is that the surprises which the Soviet Union is adept at producing in all parts of the world may at any moment directly affect the territories of the French Community; and that in view of this it would be both logical and useful to allow France to participate in the formulation of global defense plans, since these must make provision for any and all eventualities. It wants permanent cooperation with the United States and Great Britain along these lines, whether through NATO or otherwise. In the event that a sudden threat arises outside the geographical limits of NATO, France does not want to find herself confronted with a fait accompli, unable to do anything but agree to the implementation of plans which have been drawn up by others and which in this nuclear age may have incalculable consequences.

This French attitude immediately gave rise to still another fear. Some thought France was attempting to drag her Atlantic allies, particularly the United States, into the military struggle which she is having to wage in Algeria. I think this interpretation too is erroneous. Ever since the trouble in Algeria began, all French governments have insisted that the restoration of order there is a domestic affair which France alone can settle. The Government of General de Gaulle can afford even less than its predecessors to abandon that position.

What France does seek is to have a part in the joint formulation of an over-all political, economic and psychological policy for the West. She would like the three powers with world responsibilities to consult together on a continuing basis and with a minimum of organization in order to define a joint political and strategic doctrine on a world-wide scale. As soon as any problem arose it could then be expeditiously dealt with in accordance with the plan. Obviously such a continuing evaluation of the world situation, of the gains made by each of the two camps and of the risks which the West could or could not afford to take, could hardly be undertaken by 15 nations. In other words, it could not be done within NATO. Equally obviously, however, a permanent consultative arrangement of this sort would strengthen the overall position of the West, which today faces different conditions from those it faced in 1949.


In the ten years since the Atlantic Alliance came into being Soviet scientific efforts and accomplishments have completely altered the military situation. In 1949 the United States had a monopoly on nuclear weapons and it appeared that it would be able to retain that monopoly, or at least a decisive margin of superiority over Russia, for a long time to come. This superiority made the territory of the United States practically invulnerable. And it was from there, as the Soviets were well aware, that the retaliation would come if they dared launch an attack on the free world.

That thinking had to be revised, particularly after 1957. During the summer of that year Mr. Khrushchev announced to the world that henceforth his country would possess the means to deliver nuclear warheads at supersonic speeds on targets several thousand miles distant. Two months later Soviet scientists succeeded in putting the first sputnik into orbit, thereby giving substance to the Prime Minister's claims.

The Western world, which in the past had relied for its security on the commanding scientific lead of the United States, had to give up that comforting assurance. The statesmen who had the thankless task of solving defense problems found even more serious significance in the Soviet conquest of space than was immediately apparent to the public at large. Henceforth the territory of the United States would be accessible to enemy attack. It was now as much in the front line as any country in Europe. The ballistic missile had narrowed the world's horizons, virtually cancelling out the advantages of geography. There was no longer, at least in the scientific-military field, a margin of superiority in favor of the West as against the Communist world. The strength of the two sides was now in all probability almost evenly matched.

The United States was the first to realize that the loss of its atomic monopoly and the Soviet possession of long-range missiles would make it infinitely more difficult to deter an enemy from aggression by threatening retaliation. The significance of the change was described in George F. Kennan's broadcasts over the B.B.C. and later thoroughly documented in the study by Albert Wohlstetter in Foreign Affairs in January of this year.

In Britain the revelation that there was a military balance between East and West led to a reappraisal of British strategic policy. A most disturbing fact, too, was that a large segment of British public opinion adopted a stand in favor of disengagement and denuclearization.

It was therefore hardly surprising that in France, as in the United States and Britain, the new situation should have been carefully analyzed. Some of those who realized the gravity of the threat which the Soviets now held over the free world began to wonder if there was not a risk that the guarantee of nuclear intervention hitherto so generously offered by the United States to all the free peoples might not one day be limited to the stakes which the American public considered most essential to its own security. However, the firmness and clear vision shown by Secretary of State Dulles convinced Europeans that they need not fear a weakening of United States policy; and Mr. Herter has adopted the same firm stance. The alarm caused by the new Secretary of State's reply when questioned by Senator Morse in April that he could not "conceive of the President [of the United States] involving us in an all-out nuclear war unless the facts showed clearly that we are in danger of devastation . . ." was dispelled by the explanation immediately given that in using the word "we" he had had in mind not only the United States but also its allies.

Yet it cannot be denied that America's new vulnerability has produced not only in France but in other European countries as well a twofold apprehension. First, there is fear that in time a neo-isolationism may develop in the United States and that as a result it will hesitate to use its nuclear resources to defend Europe in its hour of peril. On the other hand--and this is more important, since responsible Europeans are fundamentally convinced that the United States will honor its commitments--there is the fear that the Russians themselves may make an error of judgment in this respect and open a limited action against certain countries of the free world in the belief that the United States will not be willing to expose itself to the horrors of retaliation simply because a distant country has been attacked either with conventional weapons or with tactical atomic weapons.

Stalin's successors are elated by the Soviet progress in nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. They have not forgotten that in Stalin's time the United States, though firm in its reaction to the aggression in Korea, refrained from using nuclear weapons even though it still enjoyed overwhelming superiority in them and also in the means of delivery.

In France the two fears mentioned above have produced two complementary reactions. There is a desire to be associated with the plan for using nuclear weapons; France must not risk finding herself engaged alone in a nuclear conflict. And there is a desire to possess such weapons; France must not be entirely dependent on decisions taken by the United States. The first of those fears explains the difficulties which have arisen over launching sites and atomic warhead stockpiles in France. I think it is not quite correct to say that the French Government refuses to allow these to be established on French soil; its attitude is that if missiles are to be stockpiled in France it should have control over their use.

The French position with regard to nuclear weapons seems the same as the one adopted by Britain at the end of the Second World War. Just as the British did not want to be entirely dependent on American nuclear weapons for the defense of their island and of all that they might consider vital for their existence, so the French would like to have in their own hands a means of deterring a potential enemy from attacking their territory or that of the peoples associated with them in the French Community.

The changes in the world balance of power as a result of Soviet scientific progress have also made Europeans more acutely aware of what enormous risks the United States has assumed in undertaking to defend the free world. France feels that in establishing her own atomic arsenal she will be providing an additional safeguard for herself but at the same time will also help reduce the danger of war, since the Soviets will then know that an attack on French soil, even if limited to conventional weapons, will lay them open to nuclear retaliation.

Anyone who realizes what a vast financial and technical effort is required to enable a nation to become a nuclear power will understand that the French decision in this matter is a grave one. Indeed, the resulting burden is already being felt by the French people.

I do not think it is true that the French Government is trying to bargain with the United States for information and secrets which, naturally, would enable it to reach its goal more quickly. It is willing to make the effort required. Would it not be politically wiser, however, if our American allies recognized that France has enough talent and enough scientific and technical resources to do as well as Britain does in the production of nuclear weapons? French scientists played the pioneering role in research on fissionable materials prior to 1939; and French backwardness since then in the nuclear field was the direct consequence of the fact that it was in the front line of battle in 1939. France has no intention of playing a lone hand. She wishes to uphold the Atlantic Community and, indeed, to expand her coöperation with the United States and Great Britain in all parts of the world which may be threatened by the Soviet Union. In view of these facts, is not the United States simply adding one more hardship to all those suffered by France under the German occupation by obliging her to rediscover at great expense technical formulas which the Soviet Union already possesses?


Another aspect of France's relations with NATO which has dissatisfied the present French Government is the distribution of commands.

Some military experts have over-simplified the reasons for the decision to withdraw certain units of the French fleet from the NATO Mediterranean command. The French know perfectly well that in an organization like NATO command positions cannot be distributed arithmetically according to the volume of the resources made available by each member. French concerns go much deeper, influenced by the memory of such events as the British retreat from Dunkirk in 1940. But above all they are motivated by a kind of philosophy of national defense expressed by President de Gaulle.

It should be remembered that every French Government since the time NATO was established has opposed a certain concept of military integration favored by the Anglo-Saxon countries. Under this concept each member country would have had to specialize in its military contribution. The United States, for example, would have put at NATO's disposal its nuclear weapons and strategic bombers, Great Britain would have been primarily responsible for providing tactical and defense aircraft, and the major part of the ground forces would have been provided by the continental countries, particularly France.

Our governments always countered this theory with the argument that every major power should have a balanced military establishment and that each of the principal members of NATO should accordingly furnish a part of each kind of equipment required, whether atomic weapons, aircraft, infantry or tanks. In financial terms this is not the most economical approach but it accords with certain national requirements, and the extra costs entailed for each country could be minimized by close coöperation in the matter of logistics and the manufacture and standardization of arms. This French argument, consistently upheld since the establishment of NATO, has now been expanded to include other considerations to which the President attaches great importance.

Under the Constitution the President is responsible for everything that concerns the defense of France and the Community. President de Gaulle holds that NATO, if only in the interests of efficiency, must avoid de-nationalizing the obligation to defend one's country; in democratic societies, he believes, recognition of this obligation must be rooted deep in the heart of every citizen and every leader. In an organization like the Atlantic Community there is always the danger that members will tend to rely on the efforts of others to make up for their own weaknesses or deficiencies. Steps should therefore be taken to prevent governments from gradually losing the sense of their own responsibilities for national defense. This is all the more necessary when the commands assigned to officers of a certain nationality do not adequately coincide with their own country's natural talents and vital interests. An example of a fitting assignment would be a British officer in command of anti-submarine operations; the knowledge that his own people's food supply depended on his efforts would inspire him to give his utmost in energy and efficiency.

As a matter of fact, this sort of thinking has always played a role in NATO, as for example in the assignment of the Central European Command to a French officer. Similarly, the present distribution of commands as regards Great Britain is satisfactory in this respect. The ground defense of British soil and command of the reserves stationed there are entirely a British responsibility. A British officer commands the North European theater, in other words, the northern air and sea approaches to Great Britain. Another British officer is deputy to the American Commanderin-Chief of the naval forces in the North Atlantic. Yet it is also British and American officers who are assigned to the highest naval commands in the Mediterranean.

Many French experts, taking into account the extension of French territory into Africa and France's obligation to defend African members of the French Community, feel that her responsibilities both in the western Mediterranean and in the sector of the Atlantic known as "Iberlant," which guards communications between the Gulf of Gascony and Dakar, would justify choosing French officers to fill the commands in those areas. The main problem is that of the Mediterranean. With the exception of the American Sixth Fleet, which has a special mission, the NATO forces in the Mediterranean consist entirely of British, French, Greek and Turkish naval units. In 1953 the command of these forces was assigned, in recognition of his personal merits, to Lord Mountbatten, who had his headquarters in Malta. This command was exclusively naval, and it was subdivided into sectors headed by officers of different nationalities in accordance with the size of each nation's contribution. In 1953 the French and British contributions were equal. Since then the British contribution has been reduced while the French has increased. It would be only fair that any reorganization should take that fact into account.

On the other hand, the refusal of the French Government to integrate French national air units into NATO's over-all aerial defense system cannot, in view of the size of the European theater, be attributed to military considerations. Rather it must be interpreted as an expression of the ill humor of the French Government, which now inclines to make any new commitment to NATO dependent on agreement on the proposals which it has submitted. This attitude, it should be noted, creates certain serious difficulties in equipping the French forces.


Should the attitude of the French Government be interpreted as indicating that it is weakening in its support of NATO? So far nothing justifies that conclusion. Its attitude seems to me simply to reflect two very basic concerns: one, that the West should be better organized for the protection of the free world; and two, that in the formulation of the West's global policy to meet Soviet threats France should be allowed to play a role in keeping with the scope of her capabilities, interests and strategic position both as regards metropolitan France and the Community of peoples associated with her in Africa.

Every Soviet manœuvre outside the European continent in the past few years has found the West disunited. Suez, Lebanon and Quemoy are striking examples. France insists that the three countries having world responsibilities be organized to facilitate united action. To the extent that this unity of action would not weaken the common front against Soviet threats the French position is logical.

None of the problems which General de Gaulle seems to have raised in his letter of last September to President Eisenhower and Prime Minister Macmillan were new. What had happened was that the political situation in France, the changes in the relative strength of the West and the Soviet Union and the personality of the new President of the French Republic gave these problems new importance. It is not the fact that the problems have been raised which is serious so much as the fact that NATO has shown itself inflexible in regard to them and that the West has taken so much time to solve them. Probably there are no perfect answers to them. Yet with good will, imagination and breadth of vision on both sides it should be possible to find at least a partial solution, and this would at any rate help allay suspicions and eliminate the mental reservations which now characterize Franco-American relations. What Americans should realize beyond any shadow of doubt is that the vast majority of the French people hope to see a thawing of the present situation. They know that a close-knit Atlantic alliance, in which each nation could find its place in accordance with its responsibilities and potentialities, is a prerequisite for security and peace.

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  • RENÉ PLEVEN, twice Prime Minister of France; four times Minister of National Defense; also former Minister for the Colonies and Minister of Finance; an active member of General de Gaulle's Free French Government, 1939-44
  • More By René Pleven