107. Memorandum of Conversation0



Paris, May 31–June 2, 1961


  • United States
    • President Kennedy1
    • Mr. Glenn (Interpreter)
  • France
    • General de Gaulle
    • Mr. Lebel (Interpreter)


General de Gaulle opened by mentioning that the questions of Angola and of Latin America had been discussed in the morning meeting.2 What is now the pleasure of the President?

The President said that an important subject of this session is NATO and the manner in which this Alliance could be made stronger [Page 310] and more efficient, or possibly, what other instrument might be conceived in preference to NATO to insure common defense.

General de Gaulle said that he wanted to discuss this very important question with utmost frankness. NATO is in fact two different things: first an Alliance, second an organization. No one questions the need for the Alliance. There is complete agreement on this subject. There might possibly be some discussion whether it would not be useful to make it clear that this Alliance which was forged for the defense of Europe extends also to other parts of the world. This, however, is something which it is almost unnecessary to say because it is quite clear that if war were to break out regardless where, the Alliance would still be operative.

The second aspect of NATO is that of an organization which grew upon the Alliance. This organization was based on two principles: First, the fact that at the time, nearly eleven years ago, when the Alliance was established, the U.S. had the practical monopoly of nuclear weapons. Therefore, the essence of the organization was a defense of Europe by American nuclear weapons. There were, of course, also some additional means of defense, a shield of conventional forces, the purpose of which was to gain enough time to permit the deployment of the American nuclear forces. All of this was perfectly natural at the time. The other principle upon which this organization was based was the weakness of the European powers. Speaking for France, the General said that France at that time was weak. She was weak economically, a prey to political disorder and having lost international influence. She was no longer a great power and had no ambitions to become one again. She could not live by herself either in war or even in peace. Germany was in a similar situation. She had been defeated. She was militarily, morally, and politically weak and devoid of national ambition. This still applies to a large extent to Germany because even though Germany is now very productive and economically strong, she has a “broken back” as a nation because of moral condemnation under which she still lives. Likewise for Italy. Italy has also made great progress in production but has not regained national ambition. In contrast to the European powers, the U.S. was intact and strong. The U.S. had the means and therefore the ambition to assume the position of leadership. These circumstances were implemented as two organizational principles. First, NATO was an American defense of Europe. Second, in consequence, such European contributions that could be made to that American defense of Europe were integrated under American leadership.

But the situation has greatly changed since eleven years ago. First of all there is no longer a nuclear monopoly. On the contrary, the Soviets and the Americans are more or less equal and each can destroy the other. As a consequence, the U.S. is now in danger and in consequence [Page 311] of the danger of being destroyed (even while destroying Russia) the U.S. will find it extremely difficult to make the decision to use nuclear weapons. Of course, such a decision will be easy to take if the Soviets do not strike with nuclear weapons then the U.S. might not strike either. It is, in particular, not clear whether if the Soviets launch an aggression by purely conventional means, whether the U.S. will be the first one to use nuclear weapons. Thirdly, the U.S. is committed not only in Europe; alongside with crises such as that of Berlin, there might arise crises in Africa, Asia, in Latin America, and elsewhere. The very simple idea which equated defense with the defense of Europe no longer applies. This has changed the situation in regard to the defense of Europe and Europe herself has also changed. France is now a little stronger than she was (although the General is not under any illusions that she is genuinely strong yet) but the fact is that she has gained some strength in the economic field and in the political field. She even has some means of defense.

(She is, of course, still encumbered by the Algerian situation and by the last stages of decolonization, but this is about over.)

There is also a difference in French psychology. Eleven years ago France had given up all ambition. Today she has again some ambition as a nation. This brings about a need to consider the position in regard to French national defense. The fact that a country with strong traditions and even strong military traditions does not have its own military defense is something which is bound to be greatly disliked. There is no national defense in Europe today but only integrated defense under U.S. command. This is not acceptable to France.

One might think of some incident such as the recent one in which some generals had revolted for a short time against the Government. The causes of the mentality of the generals who disobeyed their Government may be due to the fact that defense had become denationalized and since the generals did not have the responsibility for French national defense (being under international command) they did not see fit to obey a Government to which they were no longer used to be directly answerable.

(The General did not wish to imply that the revolt of the generals was encouraged in any way by NATO or directly caused by NATO but simply that the state of mind of the generals in respect to the Government was to a large extent due to the supranational character of defense in Europe.)

France sees that defense is no longer national defense and France does not accept it. It is difficult for the French to have a stable state and a stable Government under any circumstances and it is almost impossible to have them without a feeling that the Government is responsible for national defense. If the people do not feel that the State and the Government [Page 312] fulfill that part, it will not obey the Government. That is why France cannot continue under a system of integrated defense and without her own responsibility in the field of defense.

What is more, the absence of national defense is not good for the Alliance itself. The war, if it comes, will be terrible and cannot be waged without the full support of the people. Therefore, it is necessary to reestablish national defense. This, of course, within the Alliance and with mutual help between the members of the Alliance. Such help is, of course, traditional in history as the U.S. has shown it at various times. However, the defense of France must once again be French defense.

Of course, we are at present in an atmosphere of an international crisis, at a time when the President is about to see Mr. Khrushchev and where the possibility of unpleasantness over Berlin is very real. France does not have any intention of weakening NATO at this moment but France wishes for a different type of organization for the future.

This also could be based on two axioms. The first one is that it is not certain that the U.S. will strike first with atomic weapons. Second, that in Europe the bigger of the European powers (for the smaller ones do not really count) should have their own national defense.

Of course, in speaking of the nuclear situation one has to take into account the opinion according to which there is a difference between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons and that tactical weapons would be used immediately even if strategic ones were not. The General does not think that this distinction is very real. If it were real, however, then what would be the consequences? Western and Central Europe would be laid waste by Soviet and American tactical nuclear weapons respectively, while both Russia and the U.S. remain unscathed. There is nothing in such a possibility to make Europe very happy. Moreover, it is rather doubtful that once a first step in the use of nuclear weapons is taken, the second one and the last one would not be taken also.

In the last and final analysis, the General believes that American nuclear power remains a major part of the defense of the free world and it would be good that power be not only maintained but even strengthened. It is, however, something to be used only in the last resort. As for the defense of Europe, it should be assured by the European countries, not without the U.S., of course, but not exclusively through the U.S. The major European powers such as France, Germany, and up to a point Italy, should develop their own national defenses. The U.K. already has some national defense of its own. This is what France wants and this is what France will develop as soon as the Algerian business is over. In the European defense (which would receive U.S. help), each major country should play a special part. The smaller countries count for very little and it is a mistake of NATO to assign an equal place to every nation, large or small. The roles of the major powers would be coordinated, Germany [Page 313] being the vanguard, France the second line of defense, Britain covering the northern flank and insuring communication by sea, and Italy covering the southeast in the Alps. As for the U.S., it would be the reserve to be committed fully but not at the first moment. As President Roosevelt had said the part of the U.S. is to be the arsenal of democracy. In each case, each country would be acting according to its nature and its traditions. This, of course, is in the case of a non-nuclear war. There can be no nuclear war, only total nuclear destruction. It is clear, of course, that each country will play its part with the help of the others but, nevertheless, within the system of its own national defense.

The President said that he would like to reply with equal frankness. For the United States, as well as in his own personal opinion, the defense of Europe and the defense of the United States are one and the same thing. The loss of the resources and the manpower of Europe and the possibility that these might be taken over by the enemy would spell a certain defeat for the United States. This was the American position in both World Wars and today this is clear to all Americans. [5–1/2 lines of source text not declassified] This is one of the reasons why American troops were placed in Europe so as to make the Soviets understand that any attack by them on the European allies would be physically and automatically an attack on the United States. [4 lines of source text not declassified]

[1 paragraph (5 lines of source text) not declassified]

It might be true that there are some psychological advantages in strictly national defense establishments. Yet, the problems created by integration could not be solved by national defense establishments. Among the countries of Europe only Germany, France, and the U.K. could possibly afford nuclear weapons. In such a case, this would not resolve the psychological doubts of the other nations which would then tend towards neutralism in such a way that the entire Alliance would fall apart.

General de Gaulle interrupted the President saying that he did not have in mind national defense establishments which would include nuclear weapons. Not only the number of countries which could afford such weapons would be small, but also Germany is legally prevented from having any, and the disadvantages deriving from German possession of atomic weapons would be far greater than the advantages.

The President said that he had inferred that President de Gaulle wanted to see atomic weapons in national arsenals. This is, however, a misunderstanding and, as a result, the President requested that a part of his remarks not be interpreted.

[Page 314]

The President asked, however, that some remarks dealing with the possible placing of U.S. atomic weapons at the disposal of the Alliance be interpreted:

There is consideration on the part of the United States to transfer some atomic weapons to NATO control as a means of strengthening NATO unity and mutual trust of NATO members. Such a transfer would create difficult problems of command. Who in fact would give an order that such weapons be used? The President would be willing to see General de Gaulle be the spokesman of Europe in respect to solving this question.

It is only if the will to use nuclear weapons in case of necessity is obvious that the Soviets will believe in the deterrent which such weapons represent. The problem is how to build trust within NATO and deterrents without.

The President said that there are two different questions before us. The first one is the French decision to obtain an independent nuclear capability. A decision seems to have been taken on this point. The second question is quite different. This is the question of defense of Europe. It is quite certain that countries such as Italy, Turkey, and Greece will not have a nuclear capability and, therefore, will have to depend on the guarantee of others for their defense. There is no conflict between the first and the second question. The point is how to strengthen the Alliance. If France has a nuclear capability of her own, she may add her guarantee to that of the United States. The point remains that such a guarantee wherever it comes from must be trusted by friend and foe alike in order to be effective. If there is no trust, the Germans may say that they are not confident that the French will use their atomic bomb in order to protect the Germans in the same way in which it is heard that France does not have the confidence that the U.S. will use its nuclear capability in order to defend France. There is no end to such implications and the problem still remains with us. How shall we solve it?

General de Gaulle said that he quite agrees with the President that it would be good to make the Soviets believe that American atomic weapons will be used in the defense of Europe. The General is by no means certain that the Soviets do believe that. Furthermore, he is not certain that even the United States believes it, or that Turkey and Greece believe it. Likewise, no one believes that any country will place its atomic weapons in the hands of others. This is why he does not ask the United States for atomic weapons, either in the form of a gift of weapons or in the form of help in developing them. France would not either give her nuclear weapons to anyone once she has them. This is simply because those weapons are too frightful.

The President reaffirmed [4 lines of source text not declassified] the defense of Europe is a necessity for the United States. Once again, the problem [Page 315] is how to convince others of the seriousness of one’s own intent. When France has nuclear weapons, how will she convince the Germans of her intent to use them in the common cause? How will she create that confidence which we are trying to create now and which is the only thing that can discourage the Soviets?

General de Gaulle said that it was not his impression that the U.S. would never use nuclear weapons but only that the U.S. would use nuclear weapons in the sole case where it felt its territory directly threatened. The same thing in his opinion applies to the Soviets and to France when France has nuclear weapons. Now the President says that for the United States, U.S. territory and European territory are one and the same thing from the point of view of defense. “Since you say so, Mr. President, I believe you,” but still, can one be certain? At what moment will the U.S. consider that the situation calls for the use of atomic weapons? One hears that the United States intends to raise the threshold for the use of atomic weapons. This must mean that the United States has decided that such weapons will not be used in all cases. When are they going to be used? This is the question which preoccupies Europe. It is not known at what point they will be used and the General feels that if he were in the President’s place, he would not know that either.

The President said that the raising of the threshold for the use of atomic weapons simply means an attempt at obtaining better control of those very widely dispersed weapons. At the present moment, some U.S. companies and certain U.S. battalions have nuclear capabilities. This means that a local unpleasantness, for example Berlin, might lead to the use of atomic weapons. It is only to improve control over the use of such weapons that the U.S. seeks to increase its conventional capabilities and raise the threshold for the necessity of using nuclear weapons [2–1/2 lines of source text not declassified]. Raising the threshold does not mean decreasing U.S. commitments but merely increasing effective control.

The President thanked General de Gaulle for the views which the latter presented with such frankness. He wanted, however, to underscore that there was a great difference between the United States in World War I or World War II and the United States today. Even far in World War II, the United States was still isolationist but at the time of the Korean war, the United States moved in unhesitatingly. This should be a cause of confidence for America’s allies and what is most essential now is to strengthen the mutual confidence of the allies because only this could make the Soviets realize that we mean business.

General de Gaulle said that he certainly was quite willing to convince the Soviets of the seriousness of our intent. For the rest, he expressed his appreciation to the President for the frankness and the conviction with which the latter stated the U.S. views. This is something [Page 316] on which conversation should continue in the future or even from now on. There is another point which the General would like to make. That is, that in the present crisis situation, France will do nothing to weaken NATO even though she may have some concern about the overall validity of the way in which NATO is organized.

The President thanked the General for his presentation of this important question of which the President would like to continue discussing the next morning. He would like in particular to come to grips with the question on the manner in which trust could be fostered since the same arguments which are used to say that U.S. nuclear weapons might not be used for common defense can be used also for other cases as, for instance, between France and Germany.

General de Gaulle said that some geographical considerations must be taken into account in the latter case. The Rhine is much narrower than the Atlantic and, therefore, France might feel more intimately tied to German defense than we might feel tied to French defense. It is fine if geographical considerations may make the French guarantee more trusted by the Germans. The fact remains that our problem is how to foster more trust within the Alliance since we cannot suffer from an excess of it.

  1. Source: Department of State, Conference Files: Lot 66 D110, CF 1891. Secret. Drafted by Glenn. The meeting was held at the Elysée Palace.
  2. Kennedy visited Paris May 31-June 2 before his meeting in Vienna with Khrushchev. For a memorandum of his conversation with de Gaulle on the Common Market, see Document 11. For de Gaulle’s account of the visit, see Memoires d’Espoir, Le Renouveau, 1958–1962, pp. 267–271.
  3. A memorandum of the conversation during the morning, US/MC/3, is in Department of State, Conference Files: Lot 66 D 110, CF 1891.