270. Letter From the Ambassador to France (Bohlen) to the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy)0

Dear Mac : I am writing you directly because of the subject matter which I am particularly anxious should not in any form leak out but do wish to get it to the eyes of the President.

You will have seen the telegram that I sent Eyes Only for the President concerning an extremely confidential conversation I had had with Louis Joxe, giving a few of his personal opinions in regard to the present state of mind of de Gaulle.1 I certainly hope that this message will be kept as labelled since any leakage would be ruinous for Joxe.

I had lunch with Joxe last Tuesday following his talk with de Gaulle on Monday. The first item of direct interest to us is that Joxe is cancelling his proposed trip at the end of March to New York under the auspices of France-Amérique, during which he expected, as you know, to come to Washington to see you and presumably the President. The reason for the cancellation was obviously his talk with de Gaulle who seemed to have objection to his going to Washington on the grounds that a visit by a French Cabinet Officer might give rise to speculations of an unnecessary character. This is obvious nonsense and Joxe virtually admitted it to me and in the circumstances asked my opinion of the desirability of his making a trip just to New York. I told him that I thought it would be better to cancel the entire trip since to go only to New York and not to Washington would create more speculation than if the entire visit were cancelled. He is sending a message to Bill Burden in New York giving the excuse of some general work here and holding out the hope of some future date later on.

I hate to belabor the point but I do wish to emphasize how extremely important it is that the de Gaulle element in this matter be kept quiet since, as Joxe told me, should it leak he would be in very serious trouble with the General.

In addition to this, Joxe told me he found General de Gaulle in a very bad humor; he seemed to be suspicious of virtually everyone and [Page 763] everything and appeared to be brooding about something. Joxe said he was unable to extract from him any information of any value on international affairs and was of the private opinion that de Gaulle is thinking of some move in this field. Joxe admitted that he had no evidence or reason to support this view which appeared to have been based entirely on his past knowledge and association of de Gaulle’s character. He, however, ruled out completely again any question of any “deal” with the Soviet Union unless de Gaulle became absolutely convinced that a US/USSR deal was about to be announced, in which case, according to Joxe, he might try and move first. However, this probability was dismissed as a complete fabrication by both of us.

We ran through a number of other subjects which might be conceivable, such as some move for the reorganization of NATO, some move towards the Six or even one toward England, but could find no satisfactory explanation. The only thing that is certain is that according to Joxe de Gaulle was in an extremely bad frame of mind and seemed to be brooding over some possible move.

The thing that strikes me most about the present governmental situation in France is the extraordinary ignorance of de Gaulle’s Ministers, even those with whom he has had long and relatively intimate association, and who like Joxe have performed great services for him, of de Gaulle’s intentions on any given question, particularly in international affairs. This certainly goes for Couve de Murville, who is extremely agreeable personally but obviously has very little knowledge as to what the General will or will not do. This, as you can well imagine, sets up a situation which makes it very difficult for a foreign diplomat, especially in present circumstances an American one, to operate at all with this government.

I have, I suppose, talked in the last month with at least ten Cabinet Officers in general on the subject of French policy and the General’s intentions and have received almost as many different interpretations as there were people asked.

I am reasonably convinced, however, that our estimate of de Gaulle is not perhaps as accurate as it could be. He is not, I am convinced, a Machiavellian plotter who thinks through his various moves in foreign affairs with any calculated purpose to be immediately achieved in mind. He has, as demonstrated by his various writings, particularly “The Edge of the Sword” written in 1932, and his “War Memoirs”, set forth I think in considerable clarity some of these simple conceptions that he has in mind. In the first place it is important to remember that de Gaulle is distinctly a part of that half of France (or less than one-half) which has been since 1789, and still is, conservative, hierarchical, religious and military. This was one of the reasons for his bitterness against Petain. He is also the product of French military training [Page 764] pre-World War I and II in that he tends to approach a given problem from a highly analytical and rather simple point of view. His ignorance of the operation of other countries is, I would say, very great, and this is particularly true of the United States. I am sure he has no understanding or indeed interest in the constitutional structure of the United Sates and its bearing on foreign affairs. He is a man of considerable natural courtesy on the surface but extremely cold-blooded and even brutal in his handling or dismissal of immediate subordinate officials if he considers that the need of the country or of the regime requires it. His central thought seems to be that the State (Etat) is the natural and indestructible unit in national affairs. Ideologies—le communisme passera mais la France restera—are passing phenomena which change, but the State as an entity as it has been understood in Europe, is the infrangible permanent unit upon which I would say all of de Gaulle’s policy is based.
It follows from this conception that he would be very much against any form of integration—anything that would water down the authority of the fundamental unit. He is, as I have said in an earlier telegram, prepared to combine French power with that of other countries in the classic form of alliance, but is not ever disposed to merge or share French power with the power of others, especially if the latter is superior.
He views the present situation in Europe as an abnormal one stemming from the particular circumstances of World War II. He unquestionably looks forward to some distant time in the future when there will be a disappearance of the Soviet menace as it is today, i.e., the ideological content will gradually pass away from the Russian scene and Russia the State will resume the normal pursuit of its national interests. At that time de Gaulle envisages the retreat of the United States from Europe since the need would no longer exist. Whether this will take 10, 20, 30 or 40 years, I think to de Gaulle it is relatively unimportant. This habit of talking in general terms about the future with no indication of time is one of de Gaulle’s puzzling habits. The press and many people often think he is speaking of actual policy when he is really talking about events which may be half a century off. When this happens it would be extremely important for France to have its own nuclear power which, in my opinion, he envisages not so much for eventual use against Russia but as a means for French security and assurance against Germany. And it is here that I believe that the least thought out or the least deeply felt of de Gaulle’s policies is to be found. He obviously believes in Franco-German cooperation and harmony with, however, a healthy dose of suspicion stemming from the past. He believes this union or cooperation to be the cornerstone of the future Europe, but he has not fully thought through or indeed in all probability does not have any definite clue as to the resolution of the nuclear problem with Germany. As you [Page 765] will recall in his interview with me in early January2 he spoke of the inevitability of Germany acquiring the bomb, but here again the time element was extremely fuzzy and the circumstances even more so.
On the subject of his opposition to Great Britain’s entry into the Common Market, this is certainly no new factor in his thinking, but I now believe it possible to set forth relatively clearly why he chose January 14 to announce this fact to the world. It must be remembered that de Gaulle found upon his return to power in 1958 France already engaged by the Rome Treaty. He therefore accepted the situation which would have been too difficult to have attempted to change. He did, however, successfully veto the institution of any supranational authorities in Europe (again because of his belief in the eternal, basically unalterable nature of the State). In short, I am convinced that by January 14 he had come to the conclusion (in part because of the Nassau Agreement) that England was not genuinely ripe to become part of Europe and he was definitely concerned lest the other five members of the Common Market for political reasons were prepared to compromise the one economic aspect of the Common Market which was of genuine interest to France, namely agriculture. What was surprising about this press conference was less the content than the tone and final brutality with which he raked Great Britain over the coals and the general nastiness of his comments about the United States. The Nassau shift is more difficult to analyze, but my best guess is that it was George Ball’s statements re MLF, plus the President’s background press conference in Palm Beach.3

As to Franco-American relations and American relations to Europe as a whole, I would like to make a few observations which really are for your and the President’s eyes, although I certainly have no objection to your showing this letter—indeed I wish you would—to Dean Rusk personally.

Insofar as Franco-American relations are concerned, I see very little that can be done at the present time to improve them. My relations as far as I can make out with all the French officials continue to be good, and it is, of course, possible for me to see de Gaulle at any time when I have anything particular to take up with him. On the other hand, I think it would be a great mistake to endeavor to see him just for the sake of seeing him when I would have no particular subject for discussion to bring up. Therefore, insofar as France and the United States are concerned, for the immediate future I can see no particular moves that we can make [Page 766] beyond going on with day to day questions and matters as they come up. I see no prospect of any real dialogue developing between the President and de Gaulle and I am reasonably certain that de Gaulle does not wish to meet with the President because he is not by nature a dialoguist or a discusser. He apparently will often listen to his Ministers but does not ever seriously discuss questions with them, and in his meetings with Macmillan and Adenauer the circumstances have been so different that they would not be applicable to a Kennedy/de Gaulle encounter. Insofar as Europe as a whole—and particularly NATO—are concerned, I would strongly agree with the merits of a multilateral nuclear force, but only if we are able to obtain from Congress the abolition of the American veto power inherent in the idea of unanimity in the body that would exercise supreme decision over the use of that force. As I have already said, if this veto remains, it will be regarded by every European (even though some governments for political and other considerations find it desirable to go along with us) as confirming the correctness of de Gaulle’s view about American monopoly and control of nuclear matters. It seems to me so obvious that it must be just as apparent to you as it is to me.

The French have constantly maintained and many Europeans believe that there will be American reluctance to use the nuclear weapon in the event of a Soviet attack on Europe because increasingly nuclear conflict would mean the destruction of many American cities. Therefore, anything that gives us the power to prevent nuclear action under certain circumstances feeds this thought and tends to confirm it. The fact that our veto over the use of a multilateral force would be shared with other members of the Council or command structure would not affect this basic principle. It is no longer as it was several years back—the European fear that American “irresponsibility” or “hot headedness” would lead us to premature use of the nuclear weapon, but rather the opposite.

I fully realize how terribly difficult it may be to obtain any Congressional consent to the removal of the veto and, as reported in my discussion with Livie Merchant and others with him, I gather this came out rather bleakly in the Congressional discussions they had before coming over. In fact, you will have seen it has appeared already in the French press as part of the American existing position. But it seems to me that we should be very careful that we do not get ourselves out on any limb if in our very best and considered judgment it is impossible to remove the veto. Any other form of voting, whether by three-fourths majority or majority vote minus one, or any other gimmick of this nature, would resolve the problem since it is not the operation of the system in the real event of war that is of importance but its appearance and the interpretations that might be read into it in time of peace. I merely state this as a serious warning and one to be kept in mind as we go down the road.

[Page 767]

It seems to me that basically the difficulty of our policy in regard to Europe is that we have not fully adjusted to the fact of European recovery. I do not mean only the economic and financial recovery, but also the moral and spiritual vigor that seems to have accompanied this process, coupled with a very serious but nonetheless real line of thought to the effect that the danger of a Russian attack (particularly after the Cuban crisis) had greatly diminished and, in fact, is non-existent in the eyes of many Europeans. Incidentally, I am sure that it is a factor in de Gaulle’s thinking which tends to regard the Cold War as over and the beginnings of the process that he sees for the long-distance future as already in operation.

I have also heard the arguments, and they are extremely convincing, of those who believe that to let Europe leave the existing situation unchanged from a military point of view (i.e., abandon the MLF if we can’t get the veto removed) would be a dangerous if not suicidal policy on the grounds that sooner or later we would find ourselves building for the Germans the medium ranged ballistic missiles which they would then man while keeping control of the warheads, as is now the case with tactical weapons in some countries. This is conceivably true but I am not quite able to understand why we would have to agree to make available MRBM’s to the Germans although admittedly there are some six hundred Soviet missiles that could rain down on Europe. It should, however, be possible to offset the effect of the Soviet missiles with the increase of our Polaris submarines and, of course, further and continued evidence of our willingness to go to general nuclear war in the event of any attack on Europe. I do hot for one minute suggest the withdrawal of any of our forces from Europe unless our dollar balance position makes this an absolute necessity and the Europeans genuinely welsh on their defense commitments. We would still have the problem of the French force de frappe but I am afraid this will be a problem no matter what we do, whether we succeed with the MLF or not. I am well aware of the President’s thinking, as it was up to the time I left Washington, on the consequences of a French force de frappe, with which I fully agree, but this will take a good many years to develop and there are also all sorts of possibilities that might occur in the intervening period.

In other words, what I am suggesting as a possible alternative in the event that the MLF, because of the presence of the American veto, proves to be unworkable is really in effect to leave Europe alone politically and, in large measure, unchanged militarily. I would not continue to press the Europeans hard for an increase in conventional forces because certainly conventional and nuclear forces are very closely interrelated.

The question of conventional forces by themselves is very little understood or appreciated by European governments who merely see in [Page 768] them (the nuclear situation being as it is) an element of increased costs without any really convincing military advantage. It is a very hard point to argue since it is extremely difficult to see that there is any probability at all of a Soviet military action (short of an accidental brush of no consequence) which is likely to occur. I realize, of course, the importance of the Berlin question and the need for a certain amount of conventional forces in order to carry out existing plans. I have just seen a summary of Paul Nitze’s speech, made out West somewhere, on this subject and it seemed to me that it represents a viewpoint which will have little positive effect here.

I have not dealt with the aspect of the European picture insofar as economic matters are concerned or, in fact, in general with the problem of Great Britain (since I think we can accept as reality that there is no prospect of Britain’s joining the Common Market within any reasonable future). Others I know are working very closely on this problem. There is one possibility in regard to France which I have considered somewhat and which might help matters, but I am by no means sure on this point. This would be for the President to sit down and write a very thorough and detailed analysis of United States policy towards Europe which would deal very thoroughly and very carefully with:

Our entire defense interests and posture in regard to Europe;
Our economic policy present and future in regard to the “Atlantic Community”. It would be very important in this point to make clear in irrefutable terms that we had no hidden purpose of domination of European markets, etc., etc.
Some thoughts on the problem of the Soviet Union. If there is one factor that seems to crop up rather continuously in French thinking it is that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. are in some fashion either actually negotiating under the table or definitely intend to. I fully realize the difficulty of disproving something that does not exist by mere words, but I would think it would not be too difficult to work out something in this field.

In short, what I have in mind now is the trying out of a dialogue in writing between the President and de Gaulle, not so much for the purpose of attempting to change de Gaulle’s attitude but rather to attempt to avoid a deepening of his suspicion and an increasing tendency to take every minor action of the United States and feed it into a preconceived pattern. This is somewhat of an afterthought to the rest of this letter but I would appreciate very much your views and, of course, those of the President on any such possibility.

I hope you do not think that my analysis of de Gaulle in any sense means that I agree with him, because I distinctly do not, but he is, however, a factor which we will have to contend with for a good many years to come and the better we can understand him, the better off we will be.

I am sure there are absolutely no new thoughts in this letter but I wanted to get it off my chest.

[Page 769]

I am completely recovered now with only a slightly dimmed sight in one eye, but otherwise just as well as have ever been—in fact possibly better since I am off smoking.

Incidentally, I was very pleased to see the nice article in Newsweek on you which I read with great pleasure.4


  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security Files, Aides Files, Mc G Bundy. Secret; Personal. No drafting information appears on the source text. Also printed in part in Charles E. Bohlen, Witness to History, 1929–1969, p. 502.
  2. Telegram 3360 from Paris, February 23, which, in addition to the points noted in Bohlen’s letter, reported that de Gaulle had been brooding for some time and at a Cabinet meeting on January 9 had spoken with considerable violence about the United Kingdom. (Department of State, Central Files, Pol 15–1 Fr)
  3. See Document 263.
  4. For Ball’s report to the North Atlantic Council on January 11, see Document 164. For a partial transcript of the President’s press conference on December 31, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1962, pp. 913–915.
  5. On March 7 Bundy replied that he and the President had read this letter “with great interest,” and that the President was quite willing to consider a written dialog with de Gaulle. (Johnson Library, National Security Files, Aides Files, Mc G Bundy)