De Gaulle and Kennedy: The Nuclear Debate

RAYMOND ARON,who is professor of sociology at the Sorbonne, is the author of a score of works devoted to philosophy,politics,and sociology. His most recent book, PAIX ET GUERRE ENTRE LES NATIONS,deals with the great theme of peace and war in the nuclear age. The article which follows is an amplification of a series which originally appeared in LE FIGARO,devoted to the controversy between Washington and Paris over the independent French atomic strike force and the issues it raises.



IN EARLY May of this year, Joseph Alsop undertook to re-emphasize the deplorable state of Franco-American relations. If we are to believe Mr. Alsop, “the aggressor in this mad and distasteful contest is quite clearly General de Gaulle.” Now, it is possible that the French government was the first to initiate a policy of pinpricks, but my good friend Alsop seems not to realize that from the point of view of the Élysée Palace, President Kennedy is the aggressor, just as Franklin D. Roosevelt was the aggressor for the head of the Free French forces in the years of the war.

Let us go back for a moment to the spring of 1961, shortly after John F. Kennedy entered the White House. What was his first objective? It was to sign a treaty banning nuclear tests, which would have had the effect of closing the door to further admissions to the “atomic club.” The Geneva negotiations which followed could only be interpreted by General de Gaulle as an attempt to paralyze the development of the French atomic program, on the pretext that they would simultaneously paralyze any similar effort on the part of Red China.

I am personally familiar with the ideas of the President’s advisers, which can be summed up as follows: an unwritten Russian-American agreement to avoid war; a belief that as more nations become atomic powers, there is an ever-increasing danger of war begun by accident or misunderstanding; and a conviction that it is in the common interest of all the Atlantic powers to leave the monopoly of decisive weapons — or, if one prefers, the trigger finger — to the United States.

The American experts are obsessed by a fear that a thermonuclear war — which they are convinced Khrushchev is as anxious to avoid as Kennedy is — might break out in spite of everything. To lessen this risk, they have sought to give American strategy a maximum flexibility in order to make allowance for the multiplicity of intermediate responses lying between the passivity of surrender and the apocalypse of war, such as ripostes with conventional weapons, or with tactical atomic weapons, or with thermonuclear weapons not to be used on cities.

This strategic doctrine is diametrically opposed to General de Gaulle’s, which aims at giving France a national strike force and a margin of autonomous maneuver. Even more, the freedom of action desired by General de Gaulle is precisely what the American analysts are above all anxious to ward off, not because they are anti-French but because a single overall command seems to them indispensable to the Atlantic alliance in the thermonuclear age.

The clash between these two conceptions was inevitable, and it is my fear that General de Gaulle has come to consider the technical arguments invoked as a mere camouflage or justification for a pre-established policy aimed at retaining exclusive control and impeding the return of France to true status as a world power.

More than a year and a half ago, I had several long talks with President Kennedy’s advisers, and I warned them at the time against the practical consequences of their theories. I knew that the French government would reiuse to have anything to do with the Geneva negotiations or with any eventual agreement for banning atomic tests, and I was convinced that the maintenance of the existing situation, based on an Anglo-American cooperation in the atomic field which excludes France, would be greeted in Paris as a sign ot persistent hostility.

This is not to say that General de Gaulle was subsequently blameless in launching a kind of guerrilla war. This strategy was to be expected from his style of action as developed during World War II. Still, it is equally true that the Kennedy Administration, like the preceding Eisenhower Administration, has refused to face up to a major truth: that neither General de Gaulle nor any other French leader can admit the official Washington thesis according to which the dissemination ol atomic weapons becomes dangerous when these weapons cross the Channel, but not when they cross the Atlantic. Many Frenchmen are dubious about the eventual efficacy of an independent “striking force" based on Mirage IV bombers; they are nonetheless unprepared to put up with a discrimination between Great Britain and France, Britain being thought worthy, and France unworthy, of receiving atomic aid.

President Kennedy’s answer to this has been to argue that he could not refuse atomic aid to the Federal Republic of Germany if he were to accord it to France. I have heard this argument put a score of times, but its mere repetition does not enhance its validity. West Germany, by the terms of the Paris agreements of October, 1954, freely renounced all claim to the manufacture of atomic weapons. Why should the policy makers in Washington assume in advance that at some future date the West German government will try to renege on this commitment? Furthermore, the Bonn republic lacks the vast space needed for carrying on nuclear tests. Hemmed in between the Soviet empire and France, the Federal Republic can only arm itself atomically with the aid of France. If anything, however, the present American policy will have the ironic result of hastening the eventuality of that Franco-German atomic force which it is most seeking to avoid.

Nor is this all. President Kennedy has been trying to ease Great Britain into the Common Market. From the Gaullist point of view, this looks like an attempt to keep any European community from wielding any degree of independence vis-a-vis the United States, England being determined, in De Gaulle’s eyes, to remain hitched to the chariot of Uncle Sam. At the same time, Britain has been acting as though it could maintain its special relationship with Washington while sharing in the advantages of membership in the Common Market. (Although the Common Market can get along without this new member, the British pound sterling is in strong need of Continental financial support.)

It looks as though, ever since 1940, the Americans and the British, while according General de Gaulle an intermittent admiration, have confronted him with a steadfast incomprehension. At present they are working together to impose on him irksome solutions and to deny him longedfor satisfactions. They then go on, in perfectly good faith, and accuse him ol being the aggressor. Does General de Gaulle believe in their good faith? I don’t know; but so long as no concession is made to him on matters close to his heart, no one in Washington or in London should harbor any illusions about the immediate future.


When Kennedy entered the White House, he was genuinely anxious to improve relations with France, and particularly to establish with De Gaulle a habit of regular consultation comparable to that which has always existed between the American President and the British Prime Minister, no matter who the particular occupants of the White House and of 10 Downing Street might be. There was no question, and there could be no question, of seLting up an Atlantic three-power directorate along the lines of the suggestion made by General de Gaulle in September of 1958. The other Atlantic allies would not have agreed to it, and Kennedy himself had no intention of surrendering his freedom of decision and action in those areas of the globe not covered by the North Atlantic Treaty. However, though a three-man directorate was not possible, a direct telephone line could and should link Washington and Paris, just as it linked Washington and London (and may recently have been hooked up between Washington and Moscow). Perhaps the Paris line still exists, but if so, it has fallen into almost total disuse.

The reason for this breakdown is not hard to find: consultations, no matter how regular, cannot by themselves guarantee agreement. Even the British often differ considerably from the American government, but their tactic consists of redoubling their efforts to win allies over to their point of view, failing which they do their best to go along with American leadership. Never has the British Cabinet tried to paralyze initiatives taken in Washington, and only in extreme circumstances does it resort to open opposition. Whether or not it may approve the convening of this or that conference, its representatives are present.

The Gaullist tactic is the precise opposite. It would almost seem as though the General derived an actual pleasure from saying no to his partners without making much effort to convert them to his own views. Once the disagreement has come out into the open, the General adopts an attitude of aloof and critical abstention without making any substantial concessions to his fellow members in the alliance. Thereafter, for the American President and his advisers, the President of the French republic stymies all possibility of joint action and spikes all consultations. On the other side of the ocean, it is thought that what the General wants from any consultations is the adherence of others to his own views; whence come the refusal to share in the costs of the UN Congo operation, the refusal to join in the soundings on the subject of Berlin, the refusal to take part in the conference at Geneva. All these relusals, whether justified or not, accustom the Americans to getting along without the approval or even the presence of the French. To this extent the method employed by the General leaves him as far as ever from his goal, assuming that a joint directorate is still the goal.

The goal of the Western powers, and indeed of all mankind, must first of all be to reduce the risks of thermonuclear war to a minimum. The Europeans are almost unanimous in believing such a war to be virtually unthinkable. American experts, on the other hand, think it unlikely but not impossible, and they are consequently moved to try to make it more and more improbable. Now, a world with four or five states possessing independent strike forces would be just that much closer to a serious explosion due to some misunderstanding or accident. The great powers could be dragged into a death struggle by an initiative, deliberate or not, undertaken by a small power. Thus, for the policy makers in Washington a curbing of the dissemination of atomic weapons is part and parcel of their peace strategy.

The French have at times objected that the American deterrent might one day conceivably lose its efficacy in view of the vulnerability of American cities; to which the American experts have replied that the American deterrent is, in any case, a good deal more formidable than the French. The strike force which France will develop between now and 1965 will be made up of supersonic bombers carrying A-bombs. Such a force, the Americans claim, will be unable to withstand a massive attack launched by the Soviet Union. The few planes which might escape destruction on the ground would have trouble penetrating the alerted network of Soviet air defenses. There would be such a disproportion between the almost total destruction wreaked on France and the slight reprisals which it might be able to mete out that it is doubtful if an aggressor would be deterred.

Moreover, as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara clearly stated in Athens, the possession of a tiny strike force is more a factor of insecurity than of security. It is insufficient to deter the aggressor, while in time of conflict it attracts enemy blows. Whereas French governmental spokesmen argue that an independent strike force would give France an additional chance of remaining neutral in a war, the analysts on the other side ol the Atlantic reach the exact opposite conclusion. In the event of a non-European conflict, the Soviets would be tempted to eliminate the French deterrent precisely because its elimination would be easy.

All right, I argued on a number of occasions, if the French strike force of 1965 is likely to be so ineffective, then why are you so hostile to it? Why is it a danger? Why keep us from playing with our own atomic toys? The answer was always the same: “The strike force won’t suffice to protect you; it will only create one more peril for you and for all of us.” To be sure, the United States would not be obliged to go to war if France were to use its own bombs or even be devastated by Soviet retaliation. But the intervention of a new actor increases the risks; and a small power, armed with a few bombs, can upset the grim match between the superpowers and jeopardize their destiny and that of all mankind.

But in this case, why help Great Britain? To this the Americans have two answers. The first is an official one: Anglo-American cooperation in the atomic field is a legacy of the last war. It is impossible to put an abrupt end to scientific exchanges which have never been unilateral. Furthermore, the advocates of the Administration add, we have made no secret to our British friends of our conviction that they are incapable of maintaining a real deterrent and that we should much prefer a single strike force (an American one. of course).

As for the unofficial answer, it should not be hard to guess for American readers: in Great Britain the generals are obedient and the Prime Minister believes in Atlantic cooperation. Which raises the vital question, are these two conditions realized in the Fifth Republic?


From this exposition of the two points of view, that of Paris and that of Washington, the only conclusion to be drawn is that no agreement is possible. There is no possibility of compromise or rapprochement between the French determination to create an independent strike force and the American determination to curb the spread of atomic weapons. As Kennedy has said, a meeting of the two Presidents would serve no purpose for the time being, and all one can hope for is to agree to disagree, as the English language so aptly puts it, or, rather, to agree to abide by a disagreement.

Since General de Gaulle’s press conference of last May 15. the problem of Franco-American relations has been raised to the level of what the New York Times labeled the “Great Debate.” The idea of a European equilibrium “from the Atlantic to the Urals” was. in the mouth of the General, nothing new; but combined with the evocation ol a Franco-German entente and a new political orientation for the six Common Market powers, it could only arouse the suspicion of France’s Atlantic partners, including that of Chancellor Adenauer, hitherto the most Gaullist of European statesmen.

There is no denying that the views of General de Gaulle are not those of all Frenchmen. Indeed, they are a source of worry to most of France’s political elite. I myself am far from supporting them. But it is regrettable that so many English and American journalists should have decided to place their trust in a still unknown successor to the General who, it is thought, will bring France back into the Atlantic fold.

I have two reasons for deploring this gamble on the future. The first is that it is always better, among allies as well as among enemies, to deal with existing governments than to dream of possible successors. Second, it is an illusion, which is far too widespread in Washington and London, to believe that the problems raised by General de Gaulle will disappear when he no longer graces the scene.

The privileged position of Great Britain in the atomic field is something which will never be accepted in Paris, no matter who may happen to be in power. I do not know if Great Britain tomorrow will enter the Common Market. I do not know if General de Gaulle wants to block Britain’s entry or not. But I must repeat that the policy presently pursued by Washington, which consists of pressuring the six Common Market countries into admitting Britain while it maintains an atomic cooperation with Great Britain which is simultaneously refused to France, would be enough to irritate a man less prone to irritation than General de Gaulle.

The American theory of atomic monopoly, which the experts in Washington are tireless in justifying on technical grounds, raises political difficulties which these same experts stubbornly disregard. It amounts to entrusting the United States with the major responsibility for the defense of Europe; of conferring on one man. the President of the United States, the almost superhuman task of charting the deterrent strategy on which depends the choice between peace and war. Great Britain was unwilling to accept this situation, and there is nothing to prove that either France or western Europe will accept it tomorrow.

“The more thought that is given to the perils and glories of our nuclear age,”said an editorial in the New York rimes, “the more we are driven to the necessity for unity.” Fair enough, but a unity in which one state, and only one state, possesses decisive weapons is a unity of a rather peculiar kind. It ends up resembling George Orwell’s Farm, in which all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.

I am more than ready to grant that the American monopoly of atomic weapons is not looked upon in Washington as an instrument of domination but as one of security. I ncreasing the number of atomic powers means increasing the risks of misunderstandings and accidents. But even supposing that the reasoning here is valid, it leaves many questions unanswered. What guarantees does the United States offer for the future? America’s commitment in Europe might well one day be questioned (and, to be sure, General de Gaulle’s policy seems destined to promote just this kind of reappraisal). And is it right that the Europeans should forever renounce possessing their own means of defense, when there is a possibility that ten years from now one or two stales outside of Europe may have acquired an atomic capability?

Nor is this all. For, while President Kennedy maintains a categorical stand against the spread of atomic weapons, Administration experts and spokesmen keep making trips to Bonn, London, and Paris to urge these various capitals to strengthen their conventional military forces. They assert that Europe can be defended without recourse to atomic arms, and they argue this thesis with as much energy as their predecessors several years ago expended in denying it. How could the advocates of national strike forces not see in this conversion to conventional weapons the omen of a kind of disengagement, of a weakening of the American deterrent and thus a confirmation of the validity of their own ideas?

The real issue is at a far deeper level, and no one has yet found the solution for it. Europe cannot resign itself to a permanent status as a protected continent, nor do I think it either probable or desirable that the “two old men,” as the Economist has labeled the two statesmen of Paris and Bonn, should take with them into retirement the European aspiration toward a political existence.


The advocates of national deterrents rely, implicitly or explicitly, on two arguments which exclude collective organization. The first, which is explicit, is one which a French General, Gallois, has given his name to, and which can be summed up roughly as follows: the risks of a thermonuclear war are so great that no state will be willing to run them unless it is directly concerned. Or, put slightly differently, a small strike force in the hands of a threatened state is worth more than a large strike force in the hands of a supposedly protective ally. Those who accept this mode of reasoning will never be convinced by the advocates of collective security.

Behind this explicit argument is another which is, quite certainly, General de Gaulle’s deeper reasoning: that a state ceases to exist as a state to the extent that it is deprived of the means of selfdefense. That this purely national defense might be insufficient without the help of allies is possible, but this insufficiency is no reason for abandoning it. In other words, to De Gaulle’s way of thinking a defense nationale is as much an end as a means. Even if it afforded less protection than America’s atomic might, he would go on demanding it, since it is the symbol and consecration of France’s political self-affirmation.

Personally, I do not subscribe to General Gallois’s argument, which, while enclosing a kernel of truth, becomes absurd when pushed too far. The French strike force of 1965, made up of fighter bombers carrying A-bombs, might perhaps not be able to penetrate Soviet defenses even if it attacked first, and it would not survive a Soviet assault. It would thus not constitute a real deterrent. And on the other hand, the United States is too solemnly committed to the defense of western Europe to allow for any doubt about the likelihood of atomic reprisals in the case of aggression. Up until 1968 or 1970, both French and European security will still be largely dependent on an American deterrent and not on a French or even European one.

And yet I think that the American analysts are mistaken in concluding that neither the English nor the French should embark on atomic careers and that the rational solution for the Europeans is to leave all responsibility for the ultimate deterrent to the Americans while the Europeans devote themselves to conventional weapons. Why are these analysts politically wrong even though they may technically be right? For two chief reasons: because they neglect the long-term view and disregard human nature.

Prior to 1965, neither France alone nor France with the aid of the Federal Republic and Italy — assuming that these countries would be willing to go along with it — would have the power to acquire a deterrent force with a second-strike capability. But it does not follow that this will still be the case in 1970 or 1975. And to acquire such a force in ten or fifteen years, one must start today. I know that many technicians in the United States claim that France alone, or even western Europe, cannot in the foreseeable future acquire a genuine deterrent force. Other technicians, however, are of a different opinion, and the disagreement between them is perhaps due to a confusion in terms.

A genuine deterrent strike force involves the possession, first of all, of atomic and thermonuclear bombs, and second, of weapon carriers capable of penetrating the enemy’s defenses when the alert has been given. It is certain that the western European states together have the financial and technical means for producing thermonuclear bombs and medium-range ballistic missiles (the qualification due to the relatively short distances separating launching sites from eventual targets). The two questions which remain outstanding are these: Will the Europeans succeed in reducing the vulnerability of their launching sites? And will the Russians, by the time the Europeans have developed their nuclear weapons, not have found a counter weapon?

I have not the technical competence to answer these questions. It may even be that the most dogmatic technicians are equally unsure as to what the final answers will turn out to be. The least that can be said is that a European incapacity has yet to be proved, and that a deterrent force which is not quite up to the latest scientific discoveries is not thereby deprived of psychological-military value. The mere fact that some missiles could get through or some bombs land on their targets would already constitute a partial deterrent. And no matter what the official relations between Europe and the United States may be, any European force will always be supported in extremis by American power.

Certain American technicians base their arguments against European deterrent capabilities on the absence of space. There will always be, they say, an enormous disproportion between the destruction Europe is bound to suffer and the havoc it can wreak in view of the disparity between the area of the Soviet bloc and that of the European community. Space, though no longer necessary for the economic prosperity of nations, has obviously reacquired military significance in an age of weapons of mass destruction. For this reason, western Europe cannot in the foreseeable future constitute a power on the same scale as the United States or the Soviet Union; but in conjunction with the United States it can become a by no means negligible power with which the Soviet Union will have to reckon, and which should suffice to remove any illusions in the Kremlin that in the case of an American abstention, no real obstacle would persist between the Iron Curtain and the Atlantic.

To be sure, our friends across the ocean may well ask why we should produce at enormous expense what the United States already has. Doesn’t this signify a deplorable duplication of effort? The fact is undeniable, but Americans should understand that people do not like their security to depend on others, and that the United States has so far not facilitated the acceptance of this situation of dependence by its allies.

To begin with, the possession of a few atomic weapons, even if militarily ineffective vis-a-vis the great powers, is a factor of prestige. The more earnestly American analysts assert that national strike forces are dangerous, the more likely certain Frenchmen are to conclude that they are diplomatically useful, since utility, in the strategy of deterrence, consists of frightening others.

Is there a way out of this dilemma, a way of avoiding the waste of resources and the resentments created by the existence of small, ineffective national strike forces within the Atlantic alliance? Here are two eventualities:

First, it is possible to imagine the European states, including France, agreeing to give up national strike forces in return for certain American guarantees. For otherwise, what assurance can they have that American policy will be the same not only in 1965 but in 1975? And how can they be sure that the United Stales will help them not to be overtaken in the event that other powers, in Asia and Africa, acquire atomic weapons?

As regards the immediate present, it is clear that the United States must proceed much further along the path recently opened at Athens. Hitherto the United States did not inform the allied governments of its intentions and plans. Cooperation and consultation must become second nature if the European states are to preserve their self-respect, make a positive contribution to their own security, and feel themselves allies and not satellites. Finally, to the extent that the Europeans renounce their pretensions to possessing strike forces, they can lay claim to receiving American help in the peaceful uses of atomic energy.

The other possibility lies in a European strike force, against which American objections would probably have less strength than against national strike forces. It does not seem to me, at first sight, that the existing balance of power or the precariousness of peace would be much altered by the subdivision of the Atlantic deterrent into two strike forces, one American, one European, closely linked with each other. Furthermore, if one day eastern Europe were to be evacuated by the Red Army and western Europe by American forces as part of a general settlement of the German and European problems, would it not be desirable, from the point of view of American interests, to be able to fall back on a European deterrent force capable of filling the gap left by the departure of close to half a million GI’s?