On June 21, 1966, France made the somewhat shocking move to withdraw its troops from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This decision led by French president Charles de Gaulle complicated relations between the U.S. and Europe amidst clashing American and Communist spheres of influence. Though France remained politically in NATO, its actions cast doubt onto the organization’s future as a counter to Soviet military power and influence.
American diplomats and officials became particularly concerned about the buildup of French nationalism under de Gaulle, who was influential in calling for the French to lead a Europe “of Europeans” rather than Americans. While France would eventually rejoin NATO as a full-fledged member in 2009, its withdrawal caused problems for American diplomats working to restore trust with their formerly close ally.
At the time of France’s military withdrawal, Alan James held the position of Foreign Policy Advisor (POLAD) to the US European Command (EUCOM). As interviewed by Stu Kennedy in 1994, James describes his surprise and difficulty while facing structural changes to NATO’s military. John Leddy was Assistant Secretary for European Affairs during the NATO crisis and worked with the President to form a response that would both maintain NATO’s reputation and avoid alienating France from the US. Ambassador George Vest worked in the European bureau of the State Department just as US diplomats were forced to deal with their former ally’s withdrawal. Robert Ellsworth served as Ambassador to NATO from 1969-1971 and recalls the aftermath of the crisis and the rebuilding of military cooperation between the U.S. and France.
“It was a complete surprise to us all”
Foreign Policy Advisor to EUCOM Alan James
JAMES: Our Embassy in Paris had advance, but very brief, warning of de Gaulle’s ultimatum, a fact incidentally, that Ambassador Bohlen did not mention in his autobiography “Witness to History.” A night or two before Foreign Minister Couve de Murville called Bohlen to the Quai d’Orsay [the Foreign Ministry, at left] to receive a note formally requesting the departure of U.S. forces, a senior officer of the Foreign Office called the Minister, Robert McBride, and Political-Military Counselor, Jack McGuire, to the Quai d’Orsay to inform them of the General’s plans.
With such advance warning, Washington could at least be prepared to make a quick riposte to the French demand to withdraw. April 1, 1967 was the deadline for withdrawal of U.S. forces and EUCOM. NATO was allowed somewhat more time.
For the next year, I shuttled between EUCOM and the Embassy constantly, attending Ambassador Bohlen’s staff meetings, being briefed by my friend McGuire on Embassy contacts with the French, and generally gathering as much information as possible to be useful to Smart and officers at EUCOM. McGuire, who had preceded me as POLAD at EUCOM, was splendidly helpful. He was bright, precise and ebullient. I enjoyed a most agreeable association with him. I was supposed to replace McGuire in the Embassy sometime in 1966 but Bohlen did not want any of the players to change. So he froze McGuire’s and my transfer for a year. I passed to General Smart information I got from McGuire about French requirements for withdrawal and other information that would assist EUCOM in executing withdrawal of U.S. forces and the long, complex line of communications that stretched across France from the Atlantic to the Rhine.
This was a lively if depressing time, for being expelled from France was not a happy prospect for our military friends or us civilians close to them. John Burns at SHAPE, and McGuire and I arranged for our principals, Generals Lemnitzer and Smart and Ambassador Bohlen to compare notes regularly. Bohlen was a tower of strength during this trying time. Often these consultations took place over luncheon at Bohlen’s residence.
As I have said, McGuire and I were very friendly and talked regularly even before this crisis. I know he would have told me if he and his superiors had an intimation or were predicting that this would happen. In retrospect, it seems clear that given de Gaulle’s vision of France, his obsession with fear of domination by the United States and NATO, and his insistence that France should not allow her independence to be diluted, it was only a question of time before he sought to dissociate France from the military side of NATO and order U.S. forces out of France. But when the blow fell we were all shocked and surprised, [U.S.] military and civilian alike.
I would not venture to guess whether the French military were surprised. Our military plan for all sorts of contingencies and presumably they had a plan for just this sort of emergency, that is, for winding up the line of communications, LOC, moving stocks from France to other NATO countries, and withdrawing headquarters and subcommands. But I do not remember any officer at EUCOM saying, well it has finally happened. General Smart, I can attest, was taken aback by the news.
At EUCOM, de Gaulle’s decree was regarded as an arrogant act. Expelling U.S. forces and NATO would, it was generally felt, make defense of Europe more difficult because, among other things, the LOC henceforth would have to run parallel and not, as military doctrine required, at right angles to the potential battle line. And there was resentment; we had after all gone to the rescue of France twice in this century.
However, senior people at EUCOM were sophisticated and knew how to conduct themselves without much, if any, tutoring from me. I have the recollection that not a few French officers were chagrined by de Gaulle’s decision. Those we knew at EUCOM seemed to be. The French civilian officials I knew deplored our eviction. I think particularly of the French liaison office for assistance to Allied forces, headed by a distinguished civil servant, Pierre Dambeza, and his deputy, Louis de Beauchamp, a Proust scholar. Both were friendly to me and senior officers at the Command beyond the demands of protocol. They were too correct to criticize the General’s decision openly, but I thought they regretted and were saddened by it.
Dambeza gave a splendid farewell party in his Paris apartment for senior Embassy and U.S. military officers. Lemnitzer and Bohlen both attended. Smart was sick, I think, and did not attend. It was an imaginative affair that showed genuine esteem for the United States and its representatives. Dambeza created, in miniature, the LOC which ran, as if from the Atlantic to the Rhine, from one room in his apartment to another. In each room were laid out the specialities, the cheeses, wines, pates, pastries, of the particular region of France through which the LOC actually passed. It was a lavish affair and a Lucullan delight, but most of all it was a gesture of amity that we all deeply appreciated.
Whatever their feelings about the decision of the French Government, the American military got on with the job and did it smartly. The word went out from EUCOM that the General’s timetable would be met. There was little time to bemoan the fact that we would have to leave.
I did not detect a disposition in the U.S. military not to “uncooperate” (sic) or to drag their feet. Ambassador Bohlen and Generals Lemnitzer and Smart would not have tolerated it. They made sure that the evacuation went smoothly and that the public attitude of U.S. forces was politically correct throughout that difficult year.
We moved out of Camp des Loges quickly and smartly. Actually, we beat de Gaulle’s deadline by a couple of weeks. EUCOM was operational in France until late one afternoon, decamped overnight, and the next morning was operational in Germany. We occupied a former panzer kaserne where an American army unit had been based, known as Patch Barracks. This place was a few miles outside Stuttgart. I stayed with the Command for a couple of months and then returned to France.
How to respond to de Gaulle
Assistant Secretary Leddy
LEDDY: In March 1966 Ed Beigel, who was then following French affairs — came up to me and put on my desk a letter to the President [Lyndon Johnson] from General de Gaulle in the General’s handwriting. You can just see the General back there in Paris taking out his quill pen and writing the President of the United States. What it was a request for the United States to remove its armed forces from France as soon as possible and that France was going to cease to participate in the collective military portion of NATO, which left them participating in the political side, the NATO Council. So they were in and they were out.
So we had the thing translated. It came through channels from the French Embassy here to the State Department to be conveyed to the President. It was just put in normal diplomatic channels. So I sent it up to Dean Rusk and he sent it to the President.
It moved rapidly after that. Ed gave me a copy of this thing. I still have it. It is rather amusing. So this really caused a lot of stir in the dovecotes of Washington.
This required a great deal of thought and pontificating. George Ball got Dean Acheson in to do a draft reply for the President to consider. De Gaulle had been a thorn in the side of everybody for so long, including his concept of the European Community which was quite different from the one that say George Ball or Bob Schaetzel or Monnet had.
So the issue of how to reply to de Gaulle had George Ball, Dean Acheson, maybe even John McCloy, considering the content and tone of the reply to de Gaulle. The line that was developing was that the President ought to reply in such a way as to stimulate antipathy in Western Europe against de Gaulle and perhaps in France against de Gaulle and therefore it should be couched in such terms. Not that there was ever a thought that we could stay in France against de Gaulle’s wishes, we could not do that. We had to say we were going. But we all marched, with this letter that Acheson had labored over and everybody had looked at, over to the President’s office.
It was a very interesting experience. We all sat down, Rusk, Acheson, George Ball, and I were there. We handed him the draft and he looked at it. “I see you have all voted on this, have you?” And he dismissed us and he took it away and he completely changed the whole tone, everything. It was the sweetest reply. “Yes, General de Gaulle, we shall do our best to leave as promptly as we possibly can. We understand” etc, etc.
No attempt was made to set the French people against de Gaulle, no attempt to irritate anybody. The President was a better international politician than all his advisors put together. He instinctively knew that, if he attacked de Gaulle, this would have just made the French people more difficult to deal with, there would be resentment. You could not kick de Gaulle out by getting the rest of Europe mad at him, and you would just get the French to dig in deeper. He was right, absolutely right.
I remember one National Security Council meeting with the President on the subject. The President turned to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and said, “I want you to get those troops out of France by X day”, he gave him a deadline. Afterwards, the other Europeans were by no means going to keep NATO in France and they had to move the whole NATO headquarters out of Paris. Eventually they went to Brussels.
“We never did adopt a virulent response, which would not have changed de Gaulle at all”
VEST: I was a junior participant to the byplay that went on in Washington once word came that de Gaulle was insisting that we would have to get out of France in the NATO military. [Former Secretary of State] Dean Acheson was brought back as special advisor, and in the office up above the sixth floor, they had–I can still to this day remember–a vivid meeting in which we had the Secretaries of State and Defense, and McGeorge Bundy was there as the NSC advisor to the President, and all the other senior people, and I was the junior person there.
Dean Acheson was there and they were arguing, and they were insisting, as a result of this action on de Gaulle’s part, that we would look around and figure every single way to throw the book back at France, put our relations to the minimum, retaliate in every punitive way we could.
In other words, the hardest possible reaction policy.
I’ve never forgotten McGeorge Bundy. McGeorge Bundy said, “Well, all of this is very interesting, because what you’re saying is you wish to kick France formally out of NATO.” And they agreed, “Yes, that’s just what they wanted.”
He said, “Well, it’s very interesting, but I think that the President of the United States will want to think very carefully before we go so far as to take the act to throw France out of the North Atlantic Council.” And that ended the meeting, and, of course, we never did that. I was very impressed with McGeorge Bundy, who obviously went back to the President and they thought some more, and they adopted a much more graduated policy of coldness and reserve and of non-cooperation in certain areas, but we never took that other step.
I have never forgotten — Dean Acheson called me up and asked about the attitude of the other countries if we should attempt to throw France out. Having worked there– and not only throwing them out, but blackball France in every way–and I told Mr. Acheson that I did not believe that the majority of the European countries would do this to France, that they would simply hold their nose and go on their way. He was used to a kind of European management that he could have done right after World War II, but by mid 1960s, Europeans were not the same group of people. So that is what we did. We were cold, but we never did adopt a virulent response, which would not have changed de Gaulle at all.
The Harmel Plan
Working for Ambassador Leddy during the turbulent time for NATO was Ambassador Robert Anderson, then serving as country director for France within the Bureau for European Affairs. Anderson was involved in negotiations over an alternative plan for NATO’s future with the Belgian Foreign Minister, Pierre Harmel, that became known as the “Harmel Plan.”
ANDERSON: Pierre Harmel was the Belgian Foreign Minister. And Stevie Davignon was his Cabinet Director. Harmel had been in the States, and was trying to develop a plan whereby the 14 allies (minus France) could have a doctrine to operate in light of the acts France had taken. We had some thoughts to contribute to the Foreign Minister. He was taking the boat back to Europe to draft the doctrine later known as the Harmel Plan.
Our Assistant Secretary, John Leddy, asked me to pass on our thoughts to Harmel in New York before he left for Europe. He was staying at the Pierre Hotel. John didn’t give me much notice to get up there, as usual. When I arrived at the Pierre, Harmel and Davignon had just left to catch the ship.
So I flagged a cab, reached the ship just as fast as I could, got on board, found them, and said: “John Leddy has these thoughts.”
The Foreign Minister said: “Well, come on. We’ll go up in the bar where we can go over them.” When the time came for all visitors ashore, we held the ship, in order to give the Belgian Foreign Minister the United States’ views on his plan.
[Initiated in 1966, the Harmel Plan eventually became the Harmel Doctrine, a two-prong strategy that advocated NATO’s collective security goals while promoting greater diplomatic outreach to Soviet-bloc states. Many credit the Harmel Doctrine as paving the way for the East-West détente of the 1970s.]
Ambassador to NATO Robert Ellsworth
ELLSWORTH: The departure of France was designed by de Gaulle to destroy NATO, but it didn’t destroy NATO. And it wasn’t long–in fact by the time I got there in 1969, there was already extensive collaboration and cooperation between the French military forces and the forces of NATO. And that has, of course, continued and even deepened to this very day.