U.S. Secret Assistance to the French Nuclear Program, 1969-1975: From "Fourth Country" to Strategic Partner
After two rounds of clandestine talks with national security adviser Henry Kissinger and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, French Defense Minister Robert Galley made a public visit to Washington in late September 1975. Here Galley, Schlesinger, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Thomas Moorer stand during a ceremony outside the Pentagon on 25 September 1973.
The Nixon administration secretly reversed a policy of opposition to, and non-cooperation with, the French nuclear program that began to emerge during the final years of the Eisenhower administration. After the French made a series of decisions to establish a nuclear weapons capability in the mid-1950s, U.S. government officials saw France as the most likely "fourth country" -- that is the next country likely to go nuclear after the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom.1 While Washington was divided over the degree to which a nuclear France posed a risk or a threat, before and after the first French nuclear test in 1960, key U.S. government officials did not want to do anything to assist it. Why they took this stance had a complex history, partly rooted in disputes with Paris over the organization of the Western alliance system, but in part senior officials worried that that a French nuclear capability could instigate an arms race in Western Europe or even "trigger" a nuclear war. Yet, by the end of the 1960s, high-level U.S. attitudes shifted. Equivocal about nuclear proliferation and open to the possibility of nuclear assistance to France, President Richard M. Nixon took a new course.
Nixon's decisions stayed secret until the summer of 1989 when Princeton University political scientist Richard Ullman published an article in Foreign Policy magazine on "The Covert French Connection." 2 Drawing upon interviews with over 100 former officials, Ullman sought to puncture two myths: that the French strategic force ["force de frappe"] was "entirely homegrown," and that, owing to Washington's restrictive policy on the diffusion of nuclear technology, only the British had been a recipient of direct assistance. Supporting the decision to aid the French was the assumption, held by Nixon and national security adviser Henry Kissinger, that making French nuclear forces more effective would strengthen the U.S. strategic position against the Soviet Union. As Ullman explained, Nixon and Kissinger "sought to make it clear that they did not oppose the French force, but that they appreciated the contribution it made to Western security."
Years after Ullman wrote his influential article, documents on the U.S. side of the nuclear arrangement began to trickle out of the archives, mainly from the Nixon Presidential Library but also State Department records at the National Archives and the Ford Presidential Library.3 The documents, some released only a few months ago, confirm the essential validity of Ullman's account, if not all the details. After French President George's Pompidou's meetings with Nixon in February 1970, the White House approved a series of measures, including aid to the ballistic missile program and advice on operational nuclear safety procedures. The documents partly confirm one of Ullman's major revelations, that U.S. officials provided "negative guidance" to help the French design more advanced nuclear weapons. That it, the executive branch would indirectly circumvent Atomic Energy Act restrictions against the transfer of nuclear weapons design information by telling them whether the steps they were taking or were contemplating were in the right direction. Recently declassified documents show that during the summer of 1973, French defense minister Robert Galley directly asked for "‘negative guidance' on the trigger for the French nuclear warhead." (Document No. 47)
While generally confirmatory, the documents go significantly beyond what Ullman could learn from interviews, possibly because his sources had faulty memories or were out of the loop on some key developments. Ulmman's sources told him that 1973 was the starting point for U.S. strategic nuclear assistance, but Nixon made the fundamental decision in February 1970, after he met with Pompidou. Declassified documents also show how the program of assistance evolved, through fits and starts, with assistance relatively limited at first to improving the reliability of the then current generation of French missiles. Taking those steps was controversial within the government, but less contentious was a proposal for aid on nuclear weapons safety procedures. Assistance on safety was also limited, but as Kissinger explained to Nixon, by taking these steps, the U.S. was making a "political gesture to Paris without involving us in a major change of nuclear policies toward third countries." (Document No. 22) Initially, Washington sought no direct "quid pro quo," but as Kissinger later argued, the "real quid pro quo is the basic orientation of French policy." (Document No. 47)
Kissinger did not spell out the problem of “third countries” but it was very likely a major reason why the White House wanted to shroud nuclear aid to France in secrecy. If word got out that Washington was assisting France, it could complicate relations with other allies who might want similar largesse. Moreover, to the extent that the United States ever provided nuclear weapons design information to France it would raise questions about U.S. good faith in ratifying the NPT during Nixon’s first year in office. Although Nixon and Kissinger were equivocal in their support for the cause of nonproliferation, the State Department and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency took the NPT seriously and also worried that nuclear aid to France would have adverse implications for U.S. relations with Germany and the Soviet Union.
The French credited the limited assistance that Washington provided with saving them "time and money" on their ballistic missile program, but they asked for more aid in 1972 and later. During secret talks with Kissinger and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger in July and August 1973, Defense Minister Robert Galley brought up a variety of problems where the French wanted help, such as multiple reentry vehicles, hardening of reentry vehicles (RVs/warheads), "negative guidance" for nuclear weapons design, and developing underground test sites so that atmospheric tests could end. The aid that the French were seeking would amount to assistance for a new generation of French missiles. As Kissinger aide William Hyland observed, this meant "crossing a line that was observed during previous cooperation." (Document No. 48)
Galley's request came at a time when U.S.-French relations were deeply troubled by Kissinger's "Year of Europe" initiative. The new French foreign minister Michel Jobert saw the "Year of Europe" as a design to put the EC down and to bring France and its nuclear weapons back into NATO.4 Worried that the European Community was a potential threat to U.S. interests Kissinger thought that strategic aid to France could help him manipulate the situation to U.S. advantage. He could "use" the French to break European unity, thus encouraging an "orientation" that was more compatible with U.S. interests. The British-French relationship within the EC was already uneasy and Kissinger believed that he exacerbating Anglo-French nuclear rivalry could "keep Europe from developing their unity as a bloc against us." Aiding the French would make them feel that they might be able to "get ahead" of the British, e.g., on MIRVs, but Kissinger only wanted to "keep them even." (Document No. 47)
Not wanting to reduce White House leverage by giving the French too much, too soon, Kissinger wanted to "whet their appetites" by going slow, making few commitments, and giving them only "tid-bits" in the short-term. Thus, to make sure that the program was not "too fast-paced and extensive," Kissinger kept control over decisions on what information the French would receive and when. Consistent with this, NSC staffer Helmut Sonnnefeldt carefully monitored developments to ensure that Kissinger made final decisions on what the French would learn. Complicating matters was that the French disclosed to Pentagon officials some of their discussions with White House aides, a security breach that Sonnenfeldt tried to close. (Document No. 51, Document No. 54, Document No. 55)
On "negative guidance" on nuclear weapons design, Ullman's sources go beyond what the documents presently available can show. The concept was controversial and no less so during 1975, with Sonnenfeldt telling French officials that that the Atomic Energy Act was a barrier to such indirect aid. While Delpech had believed that Scowcroft and Sonnenfeldt had approved "negative guidance," Sonnenfelt told one of Delpech's aides that that the White House had only said that it "would look at the problem" and that "we could give no assurance of assistance in this area."
When "negative guidance" on the booster trigger became available is not disclosed in the documents available to this editor. While the trend during 1975 was to foreclose this option, future declassifications may shed light on whether the Ford administration changed its mind or whether the Carter White House took the decision. The possibility exists that it was the Carter administration because Ullman makes the point that the "nuclear collaboration … was probably at its most intense when Jimmy Carter was in the White House and … Giscard d'Estaing was in the Elysée Palace." Yet, Ullman also notes that his interview subjects acknowledged that "they had no confidence that anyone really knew what American scientists and engineers said to French colleagues over lunch and dinner once they had been given a basic license to talk." 5 Thus, the actual conveyance of "negative guidance" may have been a matter outside of White House control.
Certainly much more needs to be learned about the U.S. program of assistance to France. Policy developments during the Ford administration have been only partly disclosed and decisions taken by the Carter White House need to be explored. So do developments during the 1980s and the mid-1990s when Presidents Jacques Chirac and Bill Clinton presided over a renewal of U.S.-French nuclear cooperation.6 As for French documents on the "covert connection," they are apparently wholly unavailable; according to sources in Paris, a French archival law has severely restricted access to records on nuclear weapons matters.7 As it took nearly 10 years to get some U.S. documents from 1973 declassified, it may be some time before a reasonably full account of the "covert French connection" during the 1970s becomes possible.
Documents 1-7: Opposition to French Nuclear Weapons
In the wake of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" initiative, his administration had to grapple with the reality that the diffusion of nuclear technology risked the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities. While Eisenhower came to understand the risks of nuclear proliferation, his thinking on the "fourth country problem" was complicated by his favorable stance toward the dissemination of nuclear capabilities to key NATO allies. Understanding that the French sought nuclear weapons to reduce their reliance on the U.S. deterrent, Eisenhower was willing to share nuclear weapons technology with them, although the Atomic Energy Act prevented it. Other figures, like Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, were uneasy and wanted to "drag their feet" on nuclear assistance issues. Thus, proposals that surfaced during 1960 to liberalize the Atomic Energy Act to permit nuclear sharing with France, met opposition. (Document No. 2) 8
When the Kennedy administration came to power, France had already staged its first nuclear test, but high-level opposition to aiding the French and to further nuclear proliferation to "9th countries" was strong for a variety of reasons, including the possible impact on Germany. While some Pentagon officials were interested in helping the French, they met strong resistance from Secretary of State Dean Rusk. By 1964, the Johnson White House formalized that opposition in National Security Action memorandum 294.9 (Document No. 7) U.S-French relations became more and more difficult, reaching their nadir in 1966 when de Gaulle withdrew France from NATO's military structure.
Document 1: Memorandum of Conversation between John Foster Dulles and Selwyn Lloyd, "Atomic Energy Items: (1) French Request (2) Test Limitation," 23 March 1957, Top Secret
Location of Original: National Archives, Record Group 59, Records of the Department of State [hereinafter RG 59], Executive Secretariat Conference Files, 1949-72, box 127, CF 861 Bermuda 1957 Memcons
Document 2: Memorandum of conversation, "Nuclear Sharing," 24 August 1960, Secret
Location of Original: RG 59, Records of Policy Planning Staff, 1957-1961, box 116, Atomic Energy – Armaments 1960
Document 3: Department of State cable 5245 to Embassy United Kingdom, message from President Kennedy to Prime Minister Macmillan, 6 May 1961, Top Secret
Location of Original: FOIA release
A: Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Foy Kohler, "Secretary McNamara's Views on Nuclear Sharing," n.d. [Mid-March 1962] Secret
B: Memorandum of Telephone Message from Foy D. Kohler to Paul H. Nitze and Roswell L. Gilpatric, 9 March 1962, Secret
Location of Originals: RG 59, Bureau of European Affairs NATO and Atlantic Politico-Military Affairs, Records Relating to NATO, 1959-1966, box 7, Def 12 Nuclear France 1962
Document 5: Memorandum by Edward Biegel, Bureau of Western European Affairs, "WE Answers to the Ball Questionnaire (Why the US Has Not Shared Nuclear Weapons with the French)," 28 May 1962, Unclassified
Location of Original: National Archives, RG 59, Bureau of European Affairs. NATO and Atlantic Politico-Military Affairs, Records Relating to NATO, 1959-1966, box 7, Ref 12 Nuclear France 1962
Document 6: Memorandum from Under Secretary of State George W. Ball to President Kennedy, "A Further Nuclear Offer to General De Gaulle," 8 August 1963, Secret
Location of Original: RG 59, Records of Undersecretary of State George Ball, box 21, France
Document 7: National Security Action Memorandum 294, McGeorge Bundy to Secretary of State et al., "U.S. Nuclear and Strategic Delivery System Assistance to France," 20 April 1964, Secret
Location of Original: See Document 15 below.10
Documents 8-10: Nixon Moves Toward a New Approach
When Richard Nixon became president one of his foreign policy goals was to improve relations with France. He took an important step in that direction during his first overseas trip as president, to Western Europe, where he met with French president de Gaulle, of whom he was a great admirer.11 The meeting quickly invited speculation whether the two had discussed military cooperation. British Defense Minister Dennis Healy made such a conjecture during a talk with Kissinger, but the latter denied it acknowledging, however, that the NSC would review the issue and consider it on the "merits" "without prejudice." Kissinger passed "talking points" for the Healey meeting to Secretary of State Roger telling him (misleadingly) that Nixon had approved them before the conversation. (Document No. 8a, Document No. 8b) Kissinger also did not tell Rogers that Healey and he had agreed that both governments would let each other know if either received an approach from the French on the question of nuclear assistance. This was a commitment which reemerged (and was reconfirmed) when Nixon met with Prime Minister Wilson during the summer. (Document No. 10)
That Nixon was open to nuclear assistance came across in Kissinger's conversation with Ambassador Sergeant Shriver, although Kissinger did not claim to know exactly what Nixon's preferences were. A visit to Washington by President Pompidou, which the White House saw as a priority, would give Nixon an opportunity to focus his thinking on this issue.
Document 8A and 8B
A: Memorandum from Henry A. Kissinger to President Nixon, "Guidance to State and Defense Department on Our Attitude Toward Military Cooperation with the French," 15 April 1969, Secret
B: Memorandum from Henry A. Kissinger to William P. Rogers, U.S.-French Military Relations," 22 April 1969, Top Secret
Locations of Originals:
A: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, National Security Council Files [hereinafter NSCF]. Box 681. Germany Vol. 1 through Apr 69
B: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1967-69, Def 4 FR-US
Document 9: Memorandum of Conversation between Ambassador Shriver and the National Security Council, "Conversation with Schriver on Pompidou Visit, Military Cooperation with France, and Middle East," 27 June 1969, Secret
Location of Original: NSCF, box 675, France Vol. III
Document 10: Memorandum from Theodore L. Eliot Jr. to Henry A. Kissinger, "British Position on Nuclear Cooperation with France," 21 October 1969, Secret
Location of Original: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1967-69, AE 1-1 Fr-UK
Documents 11-12: The First French Request
Shriver may (or may not) have passed a hint to the French, but by the end of 1969 the Armaments Ministry had filed a request with the Pentagon for assistance to their ballistic missile program, including information on reliability measures, star-tracker navigation (stellar inertial guidance), and re-entry vehicles. Kissinger aide Helmut Sonnenfeldt was "appalled" that it took the Pentagon a month to report the contact, but the White House recognized that Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird's organization followed its own compass. While Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard (one of the founders of Hewlett-Packard) put the contacts with the French on hold, he provided Kissinger with a background study on French requests for military technology and the legal restrictions on U.S. assistance.
Document 11: Memorandum from Helmut Sonnenfeldt to Henry A. Kissinger, "Memo from Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense on Assistance to France on Ballistic Missiles," 23 January 1970, Secret
Location of Original: NSCF, Box 676, France Vol. IV 11/69-31 Jan 70
Document 12: Deputy Secretary of Defense Packard to Kissinger, 20 February 1970, enclosing "US/French Interchange in Area of Ballistic Missiles," Secret
Location of Original: NSCF, box 676, France Vol. V Feb ‘70-Apr ‘70
Documents 13-16: The Pompidou Visit and Nixon's Decision "To be Forthcoming"
A visit by French President Pompidou to Washington during February 1970 provided the circumstances for White House decisions on strategic assistance. Although protests of French policy toward the Arab-Israel conflict cast a cloud over the visit,12 Pompidou may have found the meeting with Nixon worthwhile nevertheless. Both leaders wanted to re-start U.S.-French relations and were interested in discussing defense policy in particular. Rejecting the view that Paris and Washington had irreconcilable differences, Nixon called for a "new spirit of Franco-American relations." Pompidou agreed with Nixon's approach and both supported the notion of coordinating military policy. Acknowledging France's strategic weakness and the possibility that French missiles would not reach their targets, Pompidou did not quite ask for assistance, but he noted the moribund status of a U.S.-French steering committee on technological exchanges. Nixon later observed that the "nuclear question" could be a subject of talks on cooperation.
Within a few weeks, Nixon had approved a request to Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Andrew Goodpaster to explore opportunities for greater cooperation with the French military; moreover, he signed off on a Kissinger memo to Laird asking for Pentagon advice on "courses of action and difficulties associated with them" that could be taken in the missile assistance area. Kissinger advised Laird that you "You should be guided by the President's decision to be forthcoming."
Document 13: Memorandum from Helmut Sonnenfeldt to Henry A. Kissinger, "French-US Military Relations," 18 February 1970, Secret
Location of Original: Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. NSCF, box 676, France Vol. V Feb ‘70-Apr ‘70
Documents 14A and 14B:
A: Memorandum from Henry A. Kissinger to President Nixon, "Summary of My Conversation with President Pompidou," 23 February 1970, Top Secret
B: Memorandum of Conversation, Nixon and Pompidou, 24 February 1970, Top Secret
Locations of Originals:
A: Nixon Presidential Library, HAK Office Files (hereinafter, HAKO), box 852, Camp David Vol. II
B: NSCF, box 1023, Memcons - The President and Pompidou Feb 24 & 26, 1970
Document 15: Memorandum from Helmut Sonnenfeldt to Henry A. Kissinger, "Military Cooperation with the French," 28 February 1970, Top Secret
Location of Original: NSCF, box 676, France vol. V 01 Feb 70-Apr 70
Documents 16A and 16B
A: Memorandum from Henry A. Kissinger to President Nixon, "Follow-up Actions on Military Cooperation with the French," 10 March 1970, Secret
B: Memorandum from Henry A. Kissinger to the Secretary of Defense, "French Requests for Assistance in Connection with their Missile Program," 16 March 1970, Secret
Locations of Originals: NSCF, box 676, France vol. V 01 Feb 70-Apr 70
Documents 17-19: The Foster Mission and Some Doubts
Responding to Kissinger's directive, Laird suggested that Washington could provide information to help the French improve the reliability of their missiles and also on re-entry vehicle materials. But on "star tracker navigation technology," Laird was dubious because it would help the French achieve a level of accuracy needed for counterforce targeting, which could have a negative international reaction if ever found out. To get a better understanding of exactly what the French needed, Laird proposed that Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering John Foster meet with Armaments Minister Jean Blancard in Paris for exploratory talks.
Kissinger approved Foster's June 1970 trip to Paris; the discussions resulted in a more specific wish-list from the French, who wanted to find ways to "save time and money" in developing land-based and sea-based missiles. For the land-based missiles they sought information on better fabrication techniques, more reliable solid-fuel engines, and material for re-entry vehicles that would be more resistant to nuclear effects (this also applied to sea-based missiles). Foster made it clear that Washington could not help with star-tracker technology, but inertial guidance for missile submarines could be explored. In the meantime, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) director Gerard C. Smith, who shared a return flight with Foster, advised Kissinger: "please don't" help the French strategic program. Not only could it harm strategic arms talks with Moscow, it could "hurt our relations" with Germany. Not long after the Foster mission, Sonnenfeldt provided Kissinger with the state-of-play of nuclear cooperation, including talks between French and U.S. military commanders and a French request for Nuclear Planning Group studies. He also discussed the need for a "doctrinal basis" for U.S. aid to the French nuclear program. While a French nuclear force could "make life more complicated for the Soviets," aiding it was not necessarily consistent with SALT which aims at "creating a more stable relationship with the Soviets," although it would be some time before the French had forces that were "very threatening." The U.S. also needed to determine its stance toward a possible "Anglo-French [nuclear] combination." According to Sonnenfeldt, explicit "Presidential doctrine" was necessary before decisions on issues such as computer exports and missile assistance could be made. A clear "doctrine" appears not to have emerged, although Kissinger and Nixon may have developed one for their own purposes.
Document 17: Memorandum from Helmut Sonnenfeldt to Henry A. Kissinger, “Assistance to the French Ballistic Missile Program,” 16 April 1970, Secret
Location of Originals: NSCF, box 676, France Vol. V Feb ‘70-Apr ‘70 and Vol. VI May-Sep 70
Document 18: Letter from Gerard C. Smith to Henry A. Kissinger, 30 June 1970, Secret
Location of Original: FOIA Release
Document 19: Memorandum from Melvin R. Laird to Henry A. Kissinger, “Assistance to the French Ballistic Missile Program,” 14 July 1970, Secret
Location of Original: FOIA Release
Document 19A: Memorandum from Helmut Sonnenfeldt to Henry Kissinger, "Franco-American Military Relations" 3 August 1970, Secret
Location of Original: NSCF, box 676, France Vol. V Feb '70-Apr '70 and Vol. VI May-Sep 70
Documents 20A-B: NSSM 100 Interagency Review
It took almost a year for the White House to make decisions on the French request, partly because it had asked the agencies to conduct a policy review of military aid to France, National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM) 100. Designed to produce some clarity on the reasons for U.S. aid to France, NSSM 100 also looked closely at various actions that Washington could take. Aid to the missile program was one of the actions covered in an analytic memorandum (Document No. 20B), but also on the agenda was the sale of high-speed computers and nuclear safety. The French had been seeking more powerful computers for some time which they needed to “produce more reliable and effective nuclear weapons.” Earlier in the 1960s, the French had ended discussions of nuclear safety with Washington, but they revived the issue in 1970 and U.S. officials were responsive partly because they saw such talks as useful for improving knowledge of the French arsenal.
Sonnenfeldt passed the "analytical summary” to Kissinger, noting that the study was “deficient” in its exploration of reasons for U.S. aid and that it was necessary to develop a better understanding, for example, was the purpose to “bring the French up to the British level, or the British down to the French, or both to an intermediate one.” Moreover, which purposes were most important, e.g. to improve bilateral or to help France fit into a larger project (e.g. Anglo-French nuclear cooperation)? These questions needed further exploration, as did how far the U.S. should go in providing aid because missile aid and the computer sales had been the subject of “heavy controversy” within the executive branch. The drafters of NSSM 100 made no recommendations, but in Kissinger NSC-style provided options, e.g., ranging from no missile assistance (NSAM 294) to providing “limited assistance” or to “be prepared to expand gradually to sensitive areas.”
Documents 20A and 20B:
A: Memorandum from Helmut Sonnenfeldt to Henry A. Kissinger, “Interim Report on NSSM 100--U.S. –French Military Relations,” 9 January 1971, Top Secret
B: Report of the National Security Council Staff, “NSSM 100 – Military Cooperation with France (Analytical Summary),” n.d. [circa December 1970], Top Secret
Locations of Originals:
A: NSCF, box 677, France vol. VII, 1 Oct 70-Mar 71
B: Nixon Presidential Library, National Security Council Institutional Files [NSCIF], box 174, NSDM 100 (3 of 3)
Documents 21-25: “Minimal Aid”
Missile assistance and advanced computer sales remained contentious in the executive branch, and extraneous problems, e.g., Laos, had slightly soured relations with Paris, but Sonnenfeldt and Kissinger agreed that a response was necessary. Doing nothing would be seen as a rebuff; it would be going against the “President’s expressed intention to Pompidou” and Washington could not be “negative” because it had initiated the missile talks in 1970. Thus, Kissinger recommended, and Nixon approved, “minimal aid” as well as middle positions on nuclear safety and computer exports. (Document No. 22) The French would be told that there were “limits” to U.S. aid: Washington would help them improve existing systems, but not develop new ones. Kissinger presented the three decisions to agency chiefs in National Security Decision Memoranda (NSDM) 103, which covered missiles and computers, and 104, which covered nuclear safety.
The decisions remained highly contentious in the executive branch to the point where Kissinger, worried about delays in informing the French, told the State Department and the Defense Departments to inform the French what Nixon had decided (Document No. 24B). On 27 April, a month after Nixon’s decision, Sonnenfeldt informed Kissinger that the State Department and the Defense Department had sent out letters and telegrams informing the French.
Document 21: Memorandum from Helmut Sonnenfeldt to Henry A. Kissinger, “Decisions on Military Cooperation with France,” 19 March 1971, Top Secret
Location of Original: NSCIF, box 222, NSDM 103 [2 of 2]
Document 22: Memorandum from Henry A. Kissinger to President Nixon, “Military Cooperation with France,” 25 March 1971, Top Secret
Location of Original: NSCF, box 677, France vol. VII, 1 Oct 70- Mar 71
Document 23: National Security Decision Memorandum 103, “Military Cooperation with France,” 29 March 1971, Top Secret
Location of Original: NSCIF, box 222, NSDM 103 [2 of 2]
Documents 24A and 24B:
A: Memorandum from Helmut Sonnenfeldt to Henry A. Kissinger, “Follow-up on Military Cooperation with France,” 8 April 1971, Top Secret
B: Memorandum from Henry A. Kissinger to Melvin R. Laird and William P. Rogers, “Military Cooperation with France, NSDM’s 103 and 104,” 15 April 1971, Top Secret
Locations of Originals:
A: NSCIF, box 222, NSDM +103 [2 of 2]
B: NSCF, box 678, France vol. VIII, Apr-Dec 1971
Document 25: Letter from Henry A. Kissinger to John S. Foster Jr., Memos and Letters on Offers to French of Military Cooperation, 28 April 1971, Top Secret
Location of Original: NSCIF, box 222, NSDM 103 [2 of 2]
Documents 26-27: “Ground Rules” for Missile Assistance
What followed Nixon’s decisions was a visit by Foster to Paris to brief officials and then discussions in June 1971 on ways and means for Washington to help the French missile program within the White House’s parameters. Reiterating that U.S. experience could help them “save time and money,” the French participants asked for help to “improve reliability and operability” through assistance on technical problems ranging from propulsion to electrical connectors. The meetings produced “ground rules” for meeting French requirements: they would send summaries of the technical problems, the U.S. would respond with advice, and follow-up talks would ensue. During the June 1971 meetings, the French took the U.S. team to Bordeaux to show them missile production facilities and the missiles themselves. Sonnenfeldt advised Kissinger that “a good start” had been made and that the work plan “should improve our general political relations if we make a sincere effort.”
Document 26: Letter from David Packard to Henry A. Kissinger, Possible U.S. Assistance to the French Ballistic Missile Program, 25 May 1971, Top Secret
Location of Original: RG 59, Numeric-Subject Files, 1970-73 Top Secret Files, box 5, DEF 12 FR
Document 27: Letter from Melvin R. Laird to Henry A. Kissinger, with “Summary of Agreement for U.S. Assistance to French Missile Program; Understanding Between U.S. and France Concerning the Substance and Procedures of Ballistic Missile Cooperation Paper,” 29 July 1971, Top Secret
Location of Original: FOIA Release
Document 28: Memorandum from Helmut Sonnenfeldt to Henry A. Kissinger, “Status Report on Missile Cooperation with France,” 10 August 1971, Top Secret
Location of Original: NSCF, box 678, France Vol. VIII April-Dec 1971
Documents 29-33: Nuclear Safety Talks
The following documents highlight the opening phases of the safety talks, which took longer to get off the ground than the discussions of missile reliability. Nothing could happen, however, until the U.S. Congress’s Joint Committee on Atomic Energy was brought on board, which required the cultivation of Chairman Senator John Pastore (D-RI) by key Pentagon and State Department officials. Once that had happened, in November 1971, guidance for the talks went out, which included instructions to not share Restricted Data on nuclear weapons design or Formerly Restricted Data (Document No. 29). As the latter included safety and storage information, a fine line had to be walked, for example, principles of permissive action links (PALs], used to lock nuclear weapons to prevent inadvertent or unauthorized use, could be divulged, but not their details. Nevertheless, a loophole (Document No. 31) suggested that some details of FRD would be divulged. The talks did not actually begin until June 1972, but they led State Department officials to conclude that the French were taking a “conservative” (that is, risk avoidance) view on safety. The British were kept apprised of the developments, despite an agreement with the French that neither side would tell “third parties” about the talks.
Document 29: Cable from William P. Rogers to American Embassy Paris, “Military Relations with France,” 15 November 1971, Top Secret
Location of Original: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1970-73 Top Secret Files, box 1, AE 1-1 70-71
Document 30: Memorandum from Theodore L Eliot Jr. to Henry A. Kissinger, “Joint Committee on Atomic Energy Hearings on Projected Nuclear Safety Talks with the French,” 16 November 1971, Top Secret
Location of Original: NSCF, box 678, France Apr-Dec 1971 Vol VIII
Document 31: Memorandum from Theodore L Eliot Jr. to Henry A. Kissinger, “Briefing the British Regarding Our Special Defense Programs with the French,” 7 December 1971, Top Secret
Location of Original: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1970-73, Pol UK-US
Document 32: Memorandum from Holsey G. Handyside, Director of Politico-Military Affairs, Office of Atomic Energy and Aerospace, “Status Report on Proposed Nuclear Safety Talks with the French,” 3 May 1972, Top Secret
Location of Original: RG 59, Numeric-Subject Files, 1970-73 Top Secret Files, box 1, AE 1–1 FR–US 1973
Document 33: Cable from Holsey G. Handyside to Ronald I. Spiers, “Guidance on Nuclear Weapons Safety Talks with French,” 16 June 1972, Top Secret
Location of Original: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1970-73, Top Secret Files, box 1. AE 1-1 FR-US 1973
Documents 34-35: The Debré Visit
An official visit to the United States during July 1972 by defense minister Michel Debré was the public face of a new U.S.-French relationship.13 While the press speculated whether nuclear cooperation was discussed, Debré denied it and no word of the talks on nuclear safety and missile aid surfaced. During a meeting with Kissinger, Debré asked for intelligence information on Soviet ABM defenses; Kissinger responded positively but, suggesting he might have to work around the bureaucracy, advised against an official request from the French ambassador. Later in the conversation, Debré emphasized that West Germany should receive no nuclear aid; Kissinger agreed “that we do not favor German nuclear weapons and would not consciously support Germany’s getting them. Of course, there’s always stupidity.”
State Department officials were shut out of Debré’s White House and Pentagon talks, but their sources told them that the French had given Foster a new “wish list” for information in more sensitive categories, including design assistance for the “next generation” of missiles, miniaturization of warheads (including the “physics package”), and the operation of ballistic missile submarines. (Document No. 34B) From what the State Department heard, Foster went further than he should have in promising more information and Laird had to undertake damage control measures to ensure that “no new departures” were taken, at least until before the 1972 elections. Apparently Laird told British Ambassador Cromer that the “French had repeatedly pressed hard for an unrealistic amount of technical assistance.”
Documents 34A and 34B:
A: Briefing Book, “Meeting of Dr. Kissinger and French Minister of State for National Defense,” 1 July 1972, Top Secret
B: Memorandum from Helmut Sonnenfeldt to Henry A. Kissinger, “Your Meeting with Debre: Additional Points,” 6 July 1972, Top Secret
Locations of Originals: NSCF, box 678, France Vol. IX January-July 1972
Documents 35A and 35B:
A: Memorandum for the Record from Helmut Sonnenfeldt, “Meeting Between French Minister of Defense Michel Debre and Dr. Kissinger, Friday, July 7, 1972, 9:50 a.m. at the Western White House,” 11 July 1972, Top Secret
B: Memorandum from Ronald I Spiers, Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs, to Under Secretary of State John N. Irwin II, “Military Cooperation with France: Outcome of the Debre Visit,” 28 August 1972, Top Secret
Locations of Originals:
A: HAKO, box 24, HAK’s Germany, London, Paris Trip 9-15, 1972 Misc. cables & documents
B: RG 59, Numeric-Subject Files, 1970-73 Top Secret Files, box 25, POL 7 FR
Documents 36-39: Whether to Take Missile Assistance Further
The French were apparently pleased with the results of the technical exchanges on missile programs that Nixon had authorized in 1971, but pressure for more information continued in the months following Debré’s visit. When Laird left office in early 1973, he advised Nixon that the missile assistance program had reached its limits and that the White House needed to decide whether to expand its scope into more sensitive areas. He suggested several possibilities: information on nuclear effects simulators and the sale of small simulators, hardening technology for missiles and reentry vehicles, and intelligence on Soviet ABMs, but with quid pro quos (e.g., settlement of U.S. financial claims against France). U.S. defense attaché in Paris Vernon Walters had already provided information on the last category which meant there already was “momentum,” Sonnenfeldt informed Kissinger (Document No. 37).
In early March, Nixon authorized the dissemination of information in the four areas and the new Secretary of Defense Elliot Richardson duly informed his counterpart, Defense Minister Robert Galley (who had taken over from Debré). Subsequently, Foster met with Blanchard in Paris in May for extended discussion of the new guidance and the problem of “where to draw the line” between existing missile programs and a new generation (Document No. 48, 21 May 1973 attachment at end of PDF). Some consideration was also being given to a future phase of assistance. For example, Foster suggested the possibility of providing information on warning systems so that the French could have a launch-on-warning option supposedly to strengthen the deterrent value of their nuclear force. That could be accomplished by tying the French to US missile warning systems, although that risked an adverse reaction from the British and others.
Document 36: Memorandum from Ronald I Spiers, Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs, to the Deputy Secretary of Defense, “US – French Military Cooperation: Status Report,” 24 January 1973, Top Secret
Location of Original: RG 59, Top Secret Subject-Numeric-Files, 1970-73, box 1, DEF
Document 37: Memorandum from Helmut Sonnenfeldt to Henry A. Kissinger, “Missile Assistance to France -- New NSSM,” 3 February 1973, Secret
Location of Original: NSCIF, box 222, NSDM 103 (2 of 2)
Document 38: Memorandum from Helmut Sonnenfeldt to Henry A. Kissinger, “U.S. Assistance to the French Missile Program,” 19 April 1973, Top Secret
Location of Original: NSCF, box 679, France Vol. X Augu 72-Apr 73
Document 39: Memorandum from Richard T. Kennedy to William G. Hyland, “Jobert Meeting: US-French Nuclear Cooperation,” 27 June 1973, Top Secret
Location of Original: NSCF, box 960, France Vol XI April 73-31 December 1973
Documents 40-48: Meetings with Galley: Discussing the Next Stage
Richard Ullman’s sources told him that a meeting between Kissinger and Foreign Minister Michel Jobert in late June 1973 was decisive for the history of the U.S.-French nuclear relationship. No record of this meeting has surfaced, but Galley told Kissinger that Jobert was “not in this” discussion of the new stage of missile/nuclear assistance. (Document No. 41) In any event, what may have been decisive was Pompidou’s request, during talks with Nixon and Kissinger at Reykjavik, Iceland in late May 1973, to go beyond the discussions on missile technology into the realm of nuclear weapons technology. That led to decisions to send the new Defense Minister Robert Galley, to the U.S. for secret meetings with Kissinger and the new Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger.14 These discussions remained secret for years; although State Department officials determined that Blancard had made a surreptitious visit (Document No. 44), the Galley visits in July and August were not in their radar screen.
Before the first Galley visit, the Defense Department had completed its part of a major study on the problem of expanding nuclear assistance to France (the NSSM 175 study); document 40 includes a massively excised version of the report (still under appeal with the Nixon Library). While the agency recommendations remain obscure, other documents disclose the types of information that the French were seeking. As Galley explained to Kissinger, there were several basic (overlapping) categories: 1) missile penetration, including hardening of RVs, penetration aids, and multiple warheads for submarine missiles, 2) weight/size of booster triggers, and 3) assistance with underground testing. (See Document No. 48 for the French lists) Blancard later acknowledged that what the French wanted to do was go beyond the 1971 agreement by getting help for “developing the next generation” of ballistic missiles.
Getting U.S. advice on nuclear weapons development was a tricky issue. The possibility of “negative guidance” was a central theme in the late August Galley-Kissinger discussion. It would be interesting to know where the concept originated, but both Galley and Kissinger had the same understanding. As Kissinger put it, the U.S. could “information and guidance on the wrong and the right road.” That is, “we can critique what you are doing. We can say, ‘That’s the wrong way.’” Such a method, Kissinger believed, did not require the consent of Congress, apparently because it was not the direct transfer of information regulated by the Atomic Energy Act. That was fine with Galley, who asserted that “choosing between two ways of triggering doesn’t need Congressional approval.”
During their private discussions, Kissinger, Schlesinger, and Foster candidly reviewed strategy and tactics. Bluntly asserting that the French had the “worst nuclear program in the world,” Foster believed that the “rate of progress could be speeded up.” 15 While Kissinger wanted France to have a “good deterrent” and not “duplicate our mistakes,” he wanted to control carefully the rate at which Washington doled out information. Taking an especially manipulative approach, to further his European diplomacy, Kissinger wanted to make Galley “drool,” but not give him anything for a while. (Document No. 42) The talks with Galley should look like a “step forward” but it should only be an “impression.” This was related to Kissinger’s desire to use military aid to tie France closer to the United States, despite the difficulties over the “Year of Europe.” Nevertheless, he believed that the aid should be meaningful when it was provided so that the French would be “over the hump” by 1976.
Document 40: Sonnenfeldt to Kissinger, “Supplementary Checklist for Meeting with French Defense Minister," Top Secret, 26 July 1973
Location of Original: NSCF, France Vol XI April 73-31 December 1973
Document 41: Memorandum of Conversation, 27 July 1973, Top Secret
Location of Original: HAKO, box 56, French Exchanges (2 of 2)
Document 42: Memorandum of Conversation, “French Nuclear Discussion,” 9 August 1973, Secret
Location of Original: Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, National Security Advisor, Memoranda of Conversation, box 2, 8/9/73 Kissinger Schlesinger
Document 43: Memorandum of Conversation, “Visit of French Defense Minister Galley; Strategic Programs,” 17 August 1973, Secret
Location of Original: Ford Presidential Library, National Security Adviser, Memoranda of Conversation, box 2, August 17, 1973 Kissinger, Schlesinger, John S. Foster (DOD)
Document 44: Memorandum, from Holsey G. Handyside, Director of Politico-Military Affairs, Office of Atomic Energy and Aerospace, to Seymour Weiss, “Speculation: Possibility of High Level Contact Between U.S. and French Governments,” 24 August 1973, Top Secret
Location of Original: RG 59, Numeric-Subject Files, 1970-1973. Top Secret Files, box 5, DEF 12 FR
Document 45: Brent [Scowcroft] to Henry [Kissinger], 30 August 1973, enclosing material for Meeting with Galley, Including List of Requirements, Outline for Meeting, and Foster’s Points, no classification marking
Location of Original: HAKO, box 56, French Exchanges (1973-1974) (1 of 2)
Document 46: Memorandum of Conversation, 31 August 1973, Top Secret
Location of Original: HAKO, box 56, French Exchanges [2 of 2]
Document 47: Memorandum of Conversation—Kissinger and Schlesinger, 5 September 1973, Top Secret
Location of Original: Ford Presidential Library, Gerald R. Ford Papers, National Security Adviser, Memoranda of Conversation, box 2, September 5, 1973 – Kissinger, Schlesinger
Document 48: Memorandum from Helmut Sonnenfeldt to Henry A. Kissinger, “Nuclear Cooperation with France -- Gallery-Schlesinger Meeting, September 25, 1973,” 24 September 1973, Top Secret
Location of Original: NSCF, box 960, France Vol XI April 73-31 December 1973
Documents 49-50: Status of Missile and Nuclear Safety Talks
Galley and Schlesinger met on 25 September 1973, but a record of their meeting has not surfaced, although it may have been a rehash of the talks in July and August. During the following year, missile assistance under the March 1973 program expansion went forward, and talks on nuclear safety also continued. The new topics (“negative guidance” etc.) that Galley had brought up, however, were “essentially dormant,” a senior DDRE official told Schlesinger at the close of 1974. With Kissinger favoring a dilatory approach to providing sensitive aid, the fact that relations with France took a rocky course during October 1973 and the months that followed strengthened that inclination. U.S. relations with France, and with Western Europe generally, soured because of disagreements over U.S. policy during the October War and the Middle East peace negotiations. . Kissinger’s fury was evident in his comments to French ambassador Koskiusko-Morizet on 25 October: “our experience in this crisis with the Europeans is that they have behaved not as friends but as hostile powers.” 16
Some of the implications that U.S.-French tensions during 1973-74 had for nuclear cooperation are spelled out in Sonnenfeldt’s memorandum. As he reminded Kissinger, the strains in U.S.-French relations during and after the Arab-Israeli War were so significant and serious that U.S. defense attaché in Paris Vernon Walter delivered a back-channel message to Galley informing him “in effect that French policies were removing the political basis for the earlier understandings on military matters.” Sonnenfeldt was not sure that the French understood the message and observed that “Pompidou and Jobert professed great bitterness about what they claimed was going back on our word.” The implication was that Washington would not talk about Galley’s new initiatives, even if earlier nuclear-missile assistance, e.g. hardening reentry vehicles for SLBMs, continued. Thus, the answer to General Wickham’s question in April 1974 (document 49) about not beginning discussions of new subjects was very likely “yes.”
Pompidou died of cancer in May 1974 and the subsequent election of a new French president, Valerie Giscard d’Estaing, who was not implicated in the previous controversies, had potential for clearing the air, resetting U.S.-French relations, and approving some new initiatives. As Sonnenfeldt suggested, Kissinger could advise to Giscard that a “couple of people come to Washington quietly whenever they are ready.” Nevertheless, as the documents that follow suggest, Kissinger did not move quickly on resetting.
Document 49: Memorandum from Donald R. Cotter, Assistant to the Secretary for Atomic Energy, to Major General Wickham, “Nuclear Safety Talks with France,” 1 April 1974, Top Secret
Location of Original: HAKO, box 56, French Exchanges (1 of 2)
Document 49A: Memorandum from Sonnenfeldt to Secretary Kissinger, “US-French Military Cooperation,” 4 July 1974
Location of original: RG 59, Records of Henry Kissinger, box 5, Nodis Memcons 1974 folder 5
Document 50: Memorandum from John B Walsh to the Secretary of Defense, “Ballistic Missile and Nuclear Safety Program,” 6 December 1974, Top Secret
Location of Original: HAKO, box 56, French Exchanges [1973-1974] [1 of 2]
Documents 51-55: “Footdragging”
Galley’s wish-list from mid-1973 had become “dormant” when the French started to inquire about slow progress in early 1975. Then Jean-Laurens Delpech, Blancard’s successor as Minister of Armaments, wrote to Deputy National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft about the possibility of updating the 1971 Blancard-Foster understanding. When Delpech met with Sonnenfeldt, the latter discouraged talk of updating and claimed that the delay was not “deliberate policy,” but reflected a need to conduct a “detailed technical analysis.” With respect to French interest in using the Nevada Test site to conduct underground tests, Sonnenfeldt observed that the Limited Test Ban Treaty and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty complicated that possibility. Indeed, Ford soon ruled against such assistance, although on 23 June 1975 he directed the study of ways and means to help the French conduct underground tests. (Document No. 52)
On the same day, 23 June 1975, President Ford issued a directive to Secretary of Defense Schlesinger (Document No. 53 ) authorizing an expanded program of assistance to France to “improve the operability and reliability, and decrease the nuclear vulnerability” of its strategic missile forces. The program would include RV and missile hardening, information relating to multiple reentry vehicle (MRV) technology (as long as it did not contribute to capability to target warheads independently), and “basic knowledge” of “materials behavior related to nuclear weapons design.” Restricted data would not be provided nor would the French be allowed to expose RV materials at the Nevada nuclear test site.
Apparently, the assistance flowed at a leisurely rate because a few months later French president Valerie Giscard d’Estaing brought up the slow pace of nuclear cooperation with Kissinger and Ford saying, with reference to MIRVs and submarines, “if you could tell more to our people negatively, it would help.” Kissinger said there was “footdragging” at the Pentagon and that Congress would give the White House a “hard time” if it approved the export of advanced computers. (Document No. 54) Decisions on computer exports lingered for some months, but assistance moved forward on underground testing technology, on MRVs, and submarine vulnerability. While the French kept pressing for negative guidance for the French booster trigger, Sonnenfeldt explained that the White House had not issued its approval because of concern about a possible violation of the Atomic Energy Act.
Document 51: Memorandum from Helmut Sonnenfeldt to Henry A. Kissinger, “Meeting with French on Missile Cooperation,” 23 April 1975, Secret
Location of Original: RG 59, Records of Henry A. Kissinger, 1973-1977, box 11, April 1975 Nodis Memcons
Document 52: National Security Decision Memorandum 299, “Cooperation with France,” 23 June 1975, Top Secret
Location of Original: Library, NSCIF, box 222, NSDM 103 [2 of 2]
Document 53: President Ford to Secretary of Defense, “Missile Cooperation with France,” 23 June 1975, Top Secret
Location of Original: RG 59, Office of the Counselor (Helmut Sonnenfeldt), 1955-77, box 14
Document 54: Memorandum of Conversation, “Economic Policy/Cyprus; French Nuclear Programs; Energy,” 1 August 1975, Secret
Location of Original: RG 59, Office of the Counselor, 1955-77, box 4, France 1975
Document 55: Memorandum for the Record by Helmut Sonnenfeldt, “Conversation with Delpech,” 9 October 1975, Top Secret
Location of Original: RG 59, Office of the Counselor, 1955-77, box 14
Document 56: Memorandum of Conversation between Roger C. Molander and M. Conze, “Meeting with M. Conze of France, November 24, 1975,” 25 November 1975, Top Secret
Location of Original: RG 59, Office of the Counselor, 1955-77, box 14
1 For background on the origins and sources of the French nuclear program, see Jacques E. C. Hymans, The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation: Identity, Emotions, and Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 85-113.
2 Richard Ullman, “The Covert French Connection,” Foreign Policy, No. 75 (Summer, 1989), 3-33.
3 Georges-Henri Soutou has made extensive use of U.S. and French sources on the “covert connection” in “Le président Pompidou et les relations entre les États-Unis et l’Europe,” Journal of European Integration History 6 (2000):111-146. A more recent study is Marc Trachtenberg’s “The French Factor in U.S. Foreign Policy during the Nixon-Pompidou Period, 1969–1974,” The Journal of Cold War Studies 13 (2011): 4–59. This is an important interpretation, which readers of this material will use to their benefit. See also Vincent Nouzzile, Des secrets si bien gardés: Les dossiers de la Maison-Blanche et de la CIA sur la France et ses présidents 1958-1981 (Paris, Fayard, 2009), especially 291-316.
4 Daniel Moeckl, “Asserting Europe’s distinct identity: The EC Nine and Kissinger’s Year of Europe,” Matthias Schulz and Thomas A. Schwartz, editors, The Strained Alliance : U.S.-European relations from Nixon to Carter (Washington, D.C: German Historical Institute ; 2010), 202.
5 Ullman, “The French Covert Connection,” 20.
7 Article L213-2 of the French archival law prohibits access to records which are likely to lead to the diffusion of information relating to the “design, manufacture, use, or location” of nuclear, chemical, biological, and related weapons. Read in French here.
8 Marc Trachtenberg, A Contested Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 228-229.
9 For useful coverage of Kennedy and Johnson’s policy toward the French nuclear program, see Erin Mahan, Kennedy, de Gaulle and Western Europe (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 67-84, Sean Maddock, Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the Present (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 155-159 and, 164-168, and Thomas A. Schwartz, Lyndon Johnson and Europe in the Shadow of Vietnam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 41, 93-94. Foreign Relations of the United States 1961-1963 Volume XIII Western Europe and Canada (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1994), provides extensive documentation on the administration’s stance and internal debate over the French nuclear program; see, for example, 369-376, 654-656, 678-679, 687-688, 737-739.
10 This document is also published in the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968 Volume XII Western Europe (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2001), 50-51.
11 For Nixon and de Gaulle, see Sebastian Reyn, Atlantis Lost: the American Experience with de Gaulle, 1959-1969 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010), 331-350.
12 Serge Bernstein and Jean-Pierre Roux, The Pompidou Years, 1969-1974 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 24. For a full account of the Pompidou talks with Nixon, see Soutou, “Le président Pompidou et les relations entre les États-Unis et l’Europe.”
13 “Debre, Laird Holds Arms Talks Here,” Washington Post, 11 July 1972.
14 Soutou, “Le président Pompidou et les relations entre les États-Unis et l’Europe,” 137.
15 Foster’s evaluation stood in marked contrast with Ullman’s sources who found the French program to be highly sophisticated.
16 See Mӧckl, “Asserting Europe's distinct identity: The EC Nine and Kissinger's Year of Europe,” 208-210 and 215-216. For further detail, see Trachtenberg’s, “ The French Factor in U.S. Foreign Policy,” 43-51.