198. Memorandum of Conversation0


  • European Situation


  • President John F. Kennedy
  • Foreign Minister Paul Henri Spaak of Belgium
  • Mr. Edmond Glenn, Interpreter
  • Mrs. Sophia Porson, Interpreter

The President asked Mr. Spaak whether he wanted the Belgian Ambassador to join in the conversation.

[Page 583]

Mr. Spaak said that he wished to speak to the President alone and to speak very frankly about the situation which has developed within the Alliance. Difficult decisions will have to be taken. The primary fact is that of French policies. These policies are extremely bad and have brought about great changes within the Alliance, affecting both the European Community and the Atlantic Community.

The French are preoccupied with the question of nuclear weapons. Two points might be made in this respect. The first is that General de Gaulle has made a syllogism: a great country must have nuclear weapons, France is a great country, therefore it must have nuclear weapons. He holds very rigidly to this idea and he will not change. Secondly, he sincerely believes that the U.S. is going to withdraw from Europe, and this imposes upon him the duty to be prepared for such a possibility. He is not too unhappy about such a possibility, because if the United States withdraws from Europe and if France has a nuclear force, then the hegemony of France in Europe will be assured.

This attitude was reflected in his actions on January 14 when he delivered a severe blow to both the Atlantic and European Communities. His method in doing this was entirely unacceptable, as he had not warned either the British or his own partners at the Brussels negotiations of his intentions. De Gaulle forced a change in policy by a simple statement to the press. Resentment over these tactics is very strong in Europe and has created in Europe an atmosphere in which trust is lacking. It is in this context that the questions of the multinational and the multilateral forces have to be considered. France will not accept this multilateral force. French actions create doubt as to the very principle of the unity of the defense of America and Europe. General de Gaulle believes that the U.S. may lose interest in defending Europe, and therefore it is up to France to insure that defense. This is a false idea, but he cannot be convinced of that fact. Therefore, it is up to the other members of the Alliance to insure its unity by standing together.

The President asked Mr. Spaak whether he thought that helping France in the development of its nuclear force might be a good step if it were feasible. Should the US consider, as a possible policy for the future, a withdrawal from Europe? We would, in these circumstances, announce in advance that the US would turn over to the Europeans the nuclear weapons necessary for the defense of Western Europe.

Mr. Spaak replied negatively to this suggestion. He does not believe that any such policy would be likely to improve the situation within the Alliance. De Gaulle’s ideas are based on false premises and moving in the direction of accepting them would amount to moving in the wrong direction. Minister Spaak could not imagine who would attack France alone. If war comes, all of Europe will be involved—not just France.

[Page 584]

A multilateral nuclear force could have been the solution to the French and German problems, but it seems almost impossible to achieve at this point because France wishes to pursue its own policy. The result of France’s policy has been to make Germany the number one country within the European Community, and should the Germans participate in the multilateral nuclear force, it will become the United States’ number one ally on the European continent.

Another problem is that France can create serious difficulties in the economic relations between the United States and the European Community. Mr. Spaak mentioned that during the last EEC meeting, the French attitude had been such that he had feared it might seriously affect the GATT meeting in Geneva.

Having weighed all the pros and cons of the MLF, Minister Spaak recommended that we go ahead with it, but we must realize that France will create more and more difficulties.

The President asked Minister Spaak whether he thought the United States should give nuclear aid to France. Spaak replied that he would have said yes but for the fact that France has not shown itself to be an unconditional ally of the United States. De Gaulle maintains two positions which make it impossible for the United States to give France nuclear assistance: 1) He has often referred to the Atlantic Alliance as being a momentary, transitory thing, and 2) he often alludes to his vision of the Europe of the future extending from the Atlantic to the Urals.

President Kennedy commented that we have no assurance that if we help France become stronger it will be our ally. Having studied de Gaulle’s policy, he does not consider de Gaulle a good risk.

President Kennedy said he was sure Spaak knew why we had put forward the MLF concept. There is a divergency of opinion about the MLF in Europe (for example Adenauer says one thing and Schroeder and Strauss say another). Furthermore, the President indicated he was not certain whether the MLF will ease those pressures.

Minister Spaak said that the MLF, if accepted by Germany, will solve one problem, because then Germany will not ask to have its own nuclear force. Naturally, if France refuses to participate in the MLF system, the system will not be perfect. The real question, however, is to solve the German problem, and to do that the MLF must be developed. The Foreign Minister noted that de Gaulle says he will not help Germany build up its own nuclear force, but it is very possible that he may some day offer to create a Franco-German atomic force.

President Kennedy said that if the MLF fails, then the warheads will remain under exclusive US control, which in the long run is bound to be an irritant.

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President Kennedy said that he believes de Gaulle’s policy of attacking NATO is a bad example to the rest of Europe. Taking Italy as a case in point, the President said that it would be most unfortunate if every Italian government were to have to decide on whether or not to support NATO.

Turning to Britain, he said that the British are reluctant about joining the MLF because the present government has been promoting the idea of a national deterrent and this will be a serious issue in the coming electoral campaign. President Kennedy and Prime Minister Macmillan have been corresponding on this question, and we are sending Admiral Ricketts to the UK to discuss it. We feel we should proceed with the MLF. Adenauer has agreed to surface ships and the concept of unanimity in firing. If the UK, Italy, Germany, and, we hope, the others agreed to the MLF this would be a joint enterprise with the Germans for the sixties.

President Kennedy said that he knows the concept of the MLF bothers de Gaulle, but isolated or not, de Gaulle will make difficulties anyway. Minister Spaak thought it better to have de Gaulle isolated and sulking than to give up the MLF. After all, the situation in France can change.

The President asked Mr. Spaak whether he thought de Gaulle would be in power for the next four or five years. Minister Spaak answered that de Gaulle’s term of office may end sooner than that, but it would not necessarily solve the problem, since the question of de Gaulle’s successor is an extremely dangerous one owing to France’s domestic political situation. It is not certain that a succeeding government would be more sympathetic to the United States or the UK than the present regime. Moreover, de Gaulle’s policies have already created a serious internal situation by causing a rapprochement between the Socialists and the Communists. However, there are other political figures in France who do not share de Gaulle’s thinking. Debré, for example, does not have de Gaulle’s prejudice against “les Anglo-Saxons”. In Mr. Spaak’s view Debré would not follow de Gaulle’s policy towards them if he were chief of state.

The President asked whether the six countries of the EEC might develop a joint military policy. Spaak replied that this would be unwise because the defense of Europe and the United States must be indivisible. Moreover, why should Europe seek to develop its own nuclear force when it has the strength of the United States behind it. The only reason for having a separate force would be if Europe were to be engaged in a war by itself—and if the Communists start a war it will be directed against the United States more than against Europe. It will be a total war, [Page 586] involving Europe and the United States, and the defense of Europe would just be part of the overall defense of the West.

President Kennedy then asked to what extent de Gaulle’s syllogism that France must have its own nuclear force and his statements that the United States might not defend Europe have gained support in Europe. Mr. Spaak answered that de Gaulle’s ideas have some support in all parts of Western Europe, but only among a small minority. The great majority of Europeans have faith in the United States. The United States must avoid being influenced by de Gaulle’s repeated statements that the United States will abandon Europe. The people and governments of Europe do not share de Gaulle’s feeling.

President Kennedy asked Mr. Spaak what points he should make in his statements during his German and Italian visits this June. Mr. Spaak suggested that the President reiterate what Secretary Rusk said in Ottawa, i.e. that we are bound to Europe and to its defense not out of sentimentality but owing to the political and historical facts of life. Some Europeans still think of war in terms of 1914 or 1939—but the next war would not be over Alsace-Lorraine or a border dispute, but rather for world domination.

The President remarked it was unfortunate that with people like Pearson, Erhard, Luns, Fanfani and Moro as national leaders, all committed to cooperate within the Atlantic Alliance, one man could block the flow of history. Mr. Spaak expressed the belief that de Gaulle can do great harm by awakening nationalism in France, because this can lead to a rebirth of nationalism in Germany. In Britain the political campaign will be waged on the issue of a national deterrent.

Mr. Spaak said he fears Franco-German relations will worsen. He does not think that there is much substance to the Franco-German treaty as it is, and the idea of meeting every three months to discuss points of disagreement, such as defense, Britain, the Common Market, and so forth, is a very poor one, since, in fact, there are no major points of agreement. In this connection, the President said he felt that Adenauer, deep inside, had supported de Gaulle’s stand on Britain’s entry into the Common Market.

Mr. Spaak commented that there are now two policies in Germany, that of Adenauer and that of his successor. The policy of the latter is much less “Frenchified”. He mentioned that during a recent talk Erhard had clearly shown that he was aware of the danger of a rebirth of French nationalism, which would inevitably lead to revival of German nationalism.

If we were to make a choice, the President asked, between the concept of the American-British-French triumvirate or the Franco-German alliance, which would be more dangerous? Mr. Spaak replied that both [Page 587] are bad, as either would destroy the Atlantic Alliance and lead countries like Belgium and the Netherlands into neutrality.

President Kennedy observed it is regrettable that there are such problems with and in Europe, because today’s struggle does not lie there, but rather in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The whole debate about an atomic force in Europe is really useless, because Berlin is secure, and Europe as a whole is well-protected. What really matters at this point is the rest of the world, and what we need is the type of cooperation shown by Belgium, the United States, and others in attempting to solve the Congo problem.

Mr. Spaak agreed with the President, but emphasized that de Gaulle does not see the world in that way. He sees it as it was in 1914 or 1939 when the state of Franco-German relations meant war or peace. Mr. Spaak commented that he could not imagine who would want to attack France today, but de Gaulle reasons in the past and talks as though World War II were yet to come. It would be so much better if de Gaulle could see the value of joint diplomacy, but he will not, and we must face that fact because “he is there.”

One danger that we must watch for in economic negotiations, said Spaak, is that de Gaulle might push the Common Market countries into a protectionist policy. President Kennedy stated that the economic problem is crucial to the West, because this is where our position can be weakened, viz. the U.S. balance of payments situation. It is essential that we succeed in economic matters, because a failure for the United States is a failure for Europe, too. He said he was pleased that the “Kennedy round” would not take place until later, because he did not think that the current atmosphere is favorable.

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Belgium. Secret. Drafted by Glenn and Porson. The meeting was held at the White House. Spaak was among a group of NATO Foreign and Defense Ministers who visited various U.S. military installations following the NAC meeting in Ottawa and then met with the President. A memorandum of the group’s conversation with the President on May 29 is in Department of State, Central Files, NATO 8–2.