41. Memorandum From the Acting Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Thompson) to the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy)1


  • Denials of U.S. Nuclear Weapons and Delivery Vehicle Assistance to France

This memorandum has been prepared in response to your recent request for detailed information on denials under our policy of not assisting France in her nuclear weapons effort, and on French probing of that policy.

In addressing the subject of U.S.-French nuclear relationships, it is important to recall that neither General De Gaulle nor any other high-level French official has ever specifically asked for U.S. Government cooperation with France in achieving a nuclear weapons capability. [Page 73] This is not to say that General de Gaulle is opposed to such cooperation and would reject it if offered; it is only to say that there has been no U.S.-French dialogue at any high political level which could reasonably be termed a French request for help met with U.S. denial.

Our policy vis-á-visthe French or any other independent nuclear weapons effort has been expressed principally in general statements made in the NATO context or elsewhere. The French have not overtly challenged or even discussed with us this policy as such; their probing has come principally in the form of requests to buy specific items of equipment or technology. The French approach has been a pragmatic and generally quite honest and above-board one, which could be described as follows: General de Gaulle has decided that France should press on with an independent program, getting whatever items of practical assistance may be needed and available, but persisting with the program irrespective of the availability of this assistance, and working toward self-sufficiency in all important aspects.

The French officials responsible for implementing the program have of course been well aware of the general U.S. policy and have not even approached us with requests for direct weapons assistance—warheads, design data, fissionable material for weapons, etc. There have been many requests for marginal or contributory assistance of various kinds, especially on the delivery vehicle as contrasted to the warhead side of a national nuclear weapons capability. In this connection, it should be noted that during the first few years of the French program, we were comparatively more concerned with controlling warhead assistance than delivery assistance, whereas we now give close attention to both.

The attached annexes compiled by State’s Office of Munitions Control, and including contributions from the Department of Defense and the three Services, furnish details on specific denials since 1958 of items coming within the purview of the policy currently expressed by NSAM 294.2 They show that there have been denied to the French over the years in question a substantial variety of hardware, information, and technological data.

The Atomic Energy Commission played an important contributory role in many of these cases, and in others mentioned below which did not involve direct denials. The AEC has also denied access to its facilities by French CEA representatives upon occasion. Records available at this time show 21 such AEC denials since 1961. Commerce has played virtually no role in this area as yet, but is expected to do so increasingly in the future because of our Test Ban Treaty obligations.3 As [Page 74] of the present, six license applications for export to France have been denied by Commerce. They were for boron trifluoride, lithium, gallium, synthetic rubber products, and high-speed camera parts. Both NSAM 294 and Test Ban Treaty considerations were involved.

Study of the annexes will give a good over-view of the practical results of our policy in terms of specific items the French sought and failed to obtain from the U.S. in the 1958-64 period. In addition, it is useful to summarize some key approach-response situations over the years, because they give a flavor of French “probing” and U.S. response, even though formal denials may not have been involved. It is also useful to sketch the relationship to the problem of the Test Ban Treaty, since it introduced a new factor into the situation.


French interest in nuclear propulsion for submarines antedates De Gaulle’s return to power and stems in part from a U.S. offer of general assistance in this field made in the context of the 1957 NATO Heads of Government meeting, and thereafter repeated specifically to France. Nothing came of this, for reasons of both a policy and security nature, and the 1959 agreement under which we undertook to furnish fuel for a land-based prototype reactor was a “consolation prize” to the French, inasmuch as no U.S. technology is involved, and the French are entirely on their own in developing the reactor.

In late 1961, the French indicated to AEC Chairman Dr. Seaborg an interest in acquiring fuel for an operating submarine. Preliminary consideration was given this matter within the U.S. Government and a decision was reached in early 1962 that while it would be necessary to know more of French plans before seriously addressing the subject, it would be undesirable to engage in any detailed discussion with the French unless and until we were prepared to imply that we might be willing to supply fuel under some circumstances. This we were not willing to do, and this particular French probe was therefore turned off with a “no-response” tantamount to denial.

In 1962 an Administration spokesman indicated to the French that it might be possible to sell them a nuclear submarine of the Skipjack (hunter-killer) class, indicating at the same time that it would be necessary to secure approval of the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. The French were definitely interested, and preliminary discussions with JCAE had been held when the De Gaulle press conference of January 14, 1963 took place,4 slamming the door on U.K. entry into EEC. This also slammed the door on the Skipjack sale, and in [Page 75] answer to a French inquiry a few months later, they were told that the events of January made it impracticable to pursue the matter.

Gaseous Diffusion Plant

The French also expressed to Dr. Seaborg in 1961 an interest in acquiring unclassified conventional equipment for use in their gaseous diffusion plant. They were told that there would be no objection to their purchasing such equipment from commercial suppliers, provided the sale and transfer would not involve in any way the communication of Restricted Data.

The actual French shopping list when received called principally for compressors and regulators, items of very considerable importance to the operation of a gaseous diffusion plant. The final outcome was that while a flat “no” was never given the French, a response in early 1962 imposed conditions and qualifications of such a nature that the French dropped the subject.

Request for Information on Joint Task Force 8

In 1963, on a Navy-to-Navy basis, the French requested information on the detailed composition and methods of operation of Joint Task Force 8, which had provided the logistic and instrumentation support for our Pacific test operations in 1962. The French were candid in stating they wanted the information because it would be helpful to their Navy in participating in French nuclear tests.

The U.S. decision was that while complying with the request would probably not mean giving the French any information of significance, to comply fully would only encourage further and more difficult requests. The response was, therefore, confined to referring the French Navy to published information.

Observation of U.S. Underground Tests

In addition to routine requests for visits to AEC facilities which the French have made from time to time, and which, as indicated above, have resulted in 21 turndowns over the past few years, they asked to send observers to the 1962 weapons test series in Nevada. Since access to the test site during operations might have compromised weapons information, this request was not granted. In response to a related inquiry, however, the French were told that we did not propose to discontinue the practice of permitting sale to France of unclassified instruments useful in weapons tests. (See below for bearing on this position of Test Ban Treaty subsequently concluded.)

Lavaud Mission

In early 1962 a French military mission to Washington headed by General Lavaud submitted an extensive shopping list including items [Page 76] of importance in guidance, propulsion, and general design aspects of missile development. It was made known to the French that these could not be considered favorably and this request was not pushed. (The compressor-regulator order described above was also connected with the Lavaud Mission.)

Participation in Plutonium Effects Tests

In May, 1963 the French informally requested permission to participate in plutonium effects tests at our Nevada Test Site. No response was given and after the French learned that combined US-UK tests were in progress they did not raise the matter again.

Test Ban Treaty

The conclusion of the Test Ban Treaty introduced a new factor into U.S.-French nuclear relationships, particularly with respect to furnishing equipment which might be used in French tests. After consideration of our obligations under the Treaty, we provided the French Government last February with the attached Aide-Mémoire, expressing a U.S. intention to deny to France any material, equipment or technology which would be used in the devising, carrying out, or evaluation of tests, as long as France contemplated conduct of tests in environments prohibited by the Treaty.

In October, 1964 an important test case was decided when Secretary Rusk approved a recommendation for denial of export of unclassified equipment intended for instrumentation of French underground testing. This equipment was of a type which the French had previously purchased with U.S. Government knowledge and approval. Steps are now under way which will enable us to bring our policy and intentions on export control under the Test Ban Treaty to the attention of American manufacturers and exporters generally, since some items may be involved which have not previously been controlled by either State or Commerce.

Summary Evaluation

The policy currently expressed by NSAM 294 has in large part been in effect for several years. While the French have never overtly challenged it, it is clear, from the cases sketched above and from the detailed annexes, that they have extensively and systematically probed U.S. implementation of that policy by attempting to secure from U.S. sources a variety of hardware, information and technological data that they presumably considered would be of value in achieving their program goals.

Our denials have undoubtedly been troublesome to those charged with carrying out the French program, and it is a reasonable assumption that the cumulative effect of our denial policy has been to delay [Page 77] attainment of program goals. It is also a reasonable assumption that another effect has been to force an increased degree of French self-sufficiency, given their intention, which has so far prevailed, of carrying out the program irrespective of the availability of outside assistance. These two offsetting factors require careful assessment against a background evaluation of just where the French stand in their program as of end-1964, in order to determine those areas in which a U.S. denial policy can operate effectively against French purposes in future.

Llewellyn E. Thompson 5
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, S/S Files: Lot 70 D 217, Bundy. Secret. Drafted by George and cleared by Kitchen.
  2. The annexes are not printed. NSAM No. 294 is Document 30.
  3. For text of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, signed at Moscow August 5, 1963, see 14 UST 1313.
  4. For extracts, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1963, pp. 378-380.
  5. Printed from a copy that indicates Thompson signed the original.