In March 1966, President Charles de Gaulle announced that France was withdrawing from Nato and that all Nato troops must leave by the following April. The bust-up had been a long time coming: France had acquired its own nuclear deterrent and de Gaulle had long chafed under Nato’s “Anglo-Saxon” leadership. Back in 1958 at a briefing on Nato forces in France, he had asked General Norstadt, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, to tell him the location of US nuclear weapons in France and their targets.
“I’m afraid I cannot answer those questions unless we are alone,” said Norstad. “Very well,” said de Gaulle. The entourages of the two generals left. “Well?” “Well, General, I’m afraid I can’t answer your questions.” “General,” de Gaulle concluded, “this is the last time… that a French leader will hear such an answer!”
Come 1966, de Gaulle wrote to President Lyndon Johnson:
“The will of France to rule itself, without which she would soon cease to believe in her own role and be useful to others, is incompatible with a defence organisation where she is subordinate… France is determined to regain on her whole territory the full exercise of her sovereignty, at present diminished by the permanent presence of allied military elements or by the use which is made of her airspace; to cease her participation in the integrated commands; and no longer to place her forces at the disposal of Nato.”
John Leddy, Assistant Secretary for European Affairs in the White House, recalled:
“The line that was developing was that the president ought to reply in such a way as to stimulate antipathy in western Europe, and perhaps in France, against de Gaulle. We all marched with this letter over to [Johnson’s] office. It was a very interesting experience. We all sat down. 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.
“The president was a better international politician than all his advisors put together. He instinctively knew…