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15 June 2021

From the NS archive: De Gaulle and Nato

18 March 1966: The General withdraws France from the Western military alliance.

By Oliver Todd

General Charles De Gaulle was prickly on the subject of French amour propre. When he felt Nato was unduly under the sway of a US-UK alliance he demanded that France become the third senior partner. When, in turn, this proposal was rejected, De Gaulle withdrew his country from the alliance and determined to face any threat from the eastern bloc on France’s own terms. By 1966 he had already withdrawn France’s Channel and Atlantic fleets from Nato command, then came the withdrawal of French troops from Nato coordinated command and the request that all foreign troops should leave French soil. In this piece, Oliver Todd examines De Gaulle’s reasoning and finds it to be based not just on deeply felt nationalism but on canny politics too. The parliamentary elections were coming up and De Gaulle was under threat. His decision to quit Nato was a topic that could give him the edge. 


“One must get this Nato business over while I’m still in power,” De Gaulle explained to his aides. Haughty, cassant, as usual, he added: “My successor may not be able to get out of NATO – or might not want to. . .” The decision is rooted in the old Gaullist mystique of France’s “mission”. The General has always believed, and recently repeated that “it is in the nature of things that France should be first in Europe”. One can’t be first if one isn’t really and visibly independent. De Gaulle is convinced that France can only regain its complete independence and “normal conditions of sovereignty” by getting out of the integrated military system the Americans – and Stalin – imposed on their allies after the last war.

De Gaulle is not opposed to the alliance: Mr Humphrey has a point when he remarks acidly that the General wants “total protection without total participation” It’s a bit early to see in De Gaulle the leader of a neutralist bloc. France for the moment is simply the only member of her logical or illogical class. France could only be neutralist without De Gaulle. Neutralism implies a policy based on nuclear disarmament. The General has a nuclear policy: it may be a huge bluff around a dozen mini-atom bombs and a few hundred panes, under the enormous American umbrella, but it’s there, odd, unique, chauvinistic, militaristic in the worst possible sense.

Left-wingers, sympathetic to the General’s foreign policy, should not overlook this. Nor should they forget the grandly puerile psychological causes behind the required removal of 26,000 American soldiers from France. De Gaulle has always been allergic to the presence of foreign troops not under French command and even more resentful of French troops being theoretically under American command. For he knows very well that on a day-to-day basis integration is a myth, that radar coverage and early warning systems are its main purpose. After all, the whole of the French navy, the majority of the ground forces, and all air squadrons but a few, have not been under American supervision for years, whatever the generals and diplomats at Nato HQ may pretend. In fact, the Americans have nothing to say when the French shuffle their troops around. Integration was a convenient political cold war fiction. De Gaulle is now simply insisting that the inflated HQs pack their bags. He wants de jure recognition of what was almost a de facto situation.

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[See also: From the NS archive: Mr Nice Guy]

Quite rightly, Mr Johnson did not pretend to be surprised. Long before his last press conference on 21 February, De Gaulle had made it clear that he proposed to revise the 20-year-old treaty before it was due to expire in 1969. In 1959, when President Eisenhower came to Paris, De Gaulle insisted on a three-headed directorship of Nato with the US and Great Britain. Fearing trouble in Bonn, Eisenhower asked to think the matter over. When President Kennedy arrived in Paris, De Gaulle felt a young man might understand him better. He didn’t.

When De Gaulle saw President Johnson for 18 minutes after Kennedy’s funeral in Washington, the two men just had enough time to misunderstand each other. The Americans now are coyly sticking to legality, pointing out that the General acted unilaterally. They ask what would happen if everybody did the same, and surely the West must remain united? They should be a bit more Kantian and remember that in politics as elsewhere legality does not exhaust morality. They should remember that they never consulted their allies over Cuba or Vietnam. When they transferred planes from French airfields to the Congo, they didn’t bother to inform the French authorities. Nor did Nato headquarters warn the French recently when 100 Italian planes mysteriously flew over France bound north on some-puzzling errand. The Americans should remember bow infuriated they were when the French government, during the Moroccan and Algerian revolts, sent “Nato” French troops to North Africa without informing Shape HQ. Under the Fourth Republic French soldiers left Europe with antique Lebel rifles, collecting their American Garands in Rabat. Under De Gaulle they took their Garands straight from Europe to Algiers.

It’s obvious that in the Nato game nobody has behaved in a gentlemanly fashion. Why should De Gaulle stick to a gentleman’s agreement which has very little substance left? When all this is taken into account, the solemn discussions about whether the General is going back to pre-1914 bilateral alliances, as his critics maintain, or whether he is looking forward to 1980, as his supporters claim, seem entertaining but futile. Those who take the 1914 line are merely showing their bad conscience: the plain truth – unpalatable to all those western leaders who are standing with various degrees of firmness behind the Americans – is that De Gaulle has done the right thing for the wrong reasons.

[See also: From the NS archive: A Streetcar Named Desire]

He is not just staring into the distant future. The Nato affair is not simply a present which the General is taking to Moscow in June or an enjoyable way of humiliating the Yanks. With Gaullism, geo-political moves have a firm domestic grounding. The General has his eyes set on the 1967 French parliamentary elections. Gaullism – if not the General himself – got a serious beating a few months ago. Social disillusionment is growing. The opposition is reuniting under Mitterrand. His left-wing political grouping, which held its first important conclave last Sunday, will most certainly come to an agreement with the communists. The Gaullists are worried. They know that they never do as well at the polls as De Gaulle on his own. So does the General. The Nato business is a marvellous spanner to throw into the still rusty works of the opposition, which includes a lot of outright Natoists (Mollet and even Mitterrand also support Nato, with reservations). De Gaulle would love to see the opposition bickering over Nato in the next few months. Then, a few weeks before the election, he could have a snap referendum on the subject, which would give a big majority in favour of disengagement from Nato. The Gaullist consensus would re-emerge, the UNR could win the elections.

[See also: From the NS archive: The reign of anti-Semitism]

Mitterrand is taking great pains to sort out seriously the negative and positive elements in the General’s abrupt decision. It isn’t at all certain that the subtleties will be understood by the French electorate. The French left will have to do some imaginative thinking and explaining. Sad to admit it: the Old Man, global strategist and domestic tactician, seems to have done it again.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) 

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