De Gaulle and NATO

General de Gaulle's attitude to NATO, progressing from overt mistrust even before 1958 to his decision in 1966 to withdraw French forces from the integrated military organisation, was part of his plan to provide France with an independent defence policy, while his relations with successive American governments evolved.

In 1947 he supported the Marshall Plan's contribution to the reconstruction of a Europe sheltering under the US nuclear umbrella from the threat of the Soviet bloc. He accepted the creation of the Atlantic Pact in April 1949 to counter that threat, but the subsequent creation of NATO with its regime of integrated forces created a situation of subordination that France could no longer accept.

On his return to power in 1958, General de Gaulle judged it time for France to reclaim its independence: the country was now in a position to act alone in Europe and worldwide, and would develop "a nuclear force such that none shall dare attack us without fear of suffering the most terrible injuries". He decided to pull France out of the integrated structure set up by NATO under US command, in a phased withdrawal designed to smooth relations with our allies.

In September 1958, he set out his views in a memorandum addressed to President Eisenhower and Prime Minister Macmillan: in essence, NATO's geographical coverage should be extended to the whole world, and the Alliance should be led by three countries, no longer exclusively by the Anglo-Saxons. The response he received was unsatisfactory, so General de Gaulle set about making his dispositions: France's Mediterranean fleet was withdrawn from NATO command in March 1959; the positioning of American nuclear weapons on French soil was banned, and French air defence forces were returned to national command; an annual application would have to be made for authorisation for allied aircraft to overfly French soil; units returning from Algeria would not be incorporated into NATO. An offer of US nuclear weapons, which would not be under France's exclusive control, was turned down. Finally the nuclear programme launched under the Fourth Republic was made a national priority and culminated in the explosion of the first French atomic bomb on  13 February 1960, at Reggane in the Sahara.

These decisions were bitterly resented by the USA and criticised by the other allies. General de Gaulle assured them that France's solidarity was unchanged. The Berlin crisis in 1961 and then the Cuban missile crisis in 1962  provided him with an opportunity to assure President Kennedy that, in the event of war, France would fight alongside the USA.

After Kennedy's assassination, relations deteriorated with the Johnson administration which was preparing to reinforce the integration of NATO and had adopted the doctrine of graduated response, which in turn cast doubts on the guarantee provided by the US nuclear umbrella. This added to General de Gaulle's unwillingness to accept integration, which deprived France of its own independent resources and risked embroiling the country in conflicts that it did not wish to fight in. He also thoroughly disapproved of the ever-increasing involvement of America in Vietnam.

On 7 March 1966, General de Gaulle announced to President Johnson that France was withdrawing from the integrated military organisation. On 1 July 1966, French representatives stepped down from positions in the military organisation. NATO moved out of its headquarters in Versailles and Fontainebleau on 1 April 1967.

General de Gaulle nonetheless maintained French participation in the Atlantic Council. France remained a member of NATO and all its structures except the integrated military command. Instructions were given to prepare for co-operation between French and NATO forces in the event of war, subject to France's decision to participate. The Lemnitzer-Ailleret agreements made comprehensive provisions for possible French intervention alongside allied forces. Lastly, France maintained its land forces already stationed in the Federal Republic of Germany.

With this final move, de Gaulle had achieved his aim of seeing France reclaim her full sovereignty.

Reactions abroad were strong, especially in the USA where anti-French demonstrations were held, but also in Great Britain and Holland. The Germans were anxious. The over-riding feeling was one of incomprehension. The Soviets applauded and some voices were keen to exaggerate the importance of the General's visit to the Soviet Union in June 1966.

For two years the strategic debate between France and America remained lively, but General de Gaulle fully intended to stand by the alliance with the USA. Tension eased at the end of 1968 with the election of President Nixon, who was well-disposed towards France. He and de Gaulle developed a relationship of mutual confidence. The General decided to continue France's membership of the Atlantic Pact when it came up for renewal in 1969.

General de Gaulle's strategic doctrine largely continued to be followed until the collapse of the Soviet bloc.