France Withdraws from NATO’s Military Structure

Perceiving the Cold War polarization of the world’s powers as detrimental to its own interests, France withdrew from the military structure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, initially leaving the alliance more vulnerable defensively.

Summary of Event

In a televised press conference on September 9, 1965, President Charles de Gaulle of France startled his Western allies with a threat to pull his country out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) by 1969 at the latest, when its twenty-year term expired, because of his wish to “end the subordination which is described as integration.” Suddenly, the essentially political and defensive Atlantic Alliance, which for a generation had stood as Western Europe’s seemingly indispensable bulwark against possible Soviet aggression, was in jeopardy of collapsing from within. France;withdrawal from NATO
North Atlantic Treaty Organization;French withdrawal
Cold War;France
[kw]France Withdraws from NATO’s Military Structure (Mar. 7, 1966)
[kw]NATO’s Military Structure, France Withdraws from (Mar. 7, 1966)[NATOs Military Structure, France Withdraws from]
France;withdrawal from NATO
North Atlantic Treaty Organization;French withdrawal
Cold War;France
[g]Europe;Mar. 7, 1966: France Withdraws from NATO’s Military Structure[08850]
[g]France;Mar. 7, 1966: France Withdraws from NATO’s Military Structure[08850]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Mar. 7, 1966: France Withdraws from NATO’s Military Structure[08850]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Mar. 7, 1966: France Withdraws from NATO’s Military Structure[08850]
[c]Cold War;Mar. 7, 1966: France Withdraws from NATO’s Military Structure[08850]
Gaulle, Charles de
[p]Gaulle, Charles de;Cold War
Johnson, Lyndon B.
[p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;Cold War
Couve de Murville, Maurice
Pompidou, Georges

De Gaulle’s pronouncement reflected his long-held fear that France was losing its independence in foreign policy by participating in NATO’s combined military command dominated by the United States. In the weeks following this press conference, while campaigning for his reelection as president, de Gaulle raised a new and more concrete objection to NATO. Through the organization, he warned, France might be unwillingly drawn into the growing American involvement in Vietnam to which de Gaulle objected strenuously.

Since joining NATO, France had concluded its own Algerian War and had become a nuclear power with its own strike force. At the same time, the Soviet Union’s status as a formidable nuclear power may have convinced France that the destructive consequences of a possible nuclear conflict would give the United States pause before coming to the assistance of its NATO allies.

Accordingly, de Gaulle resolved to leave NATO’s integrated military structure forthwith. Within two months of his reelection in December of 1965, he made his decision public. At a further press conference on February 21, 1966, the French president reiterated his fear that the Vietnam War might become a general conflagration in which Europe might become involved through NATO even when it did not wish to be. To avoid such a possibility, he would withdraw all French units from NATO command and allow no NATO forces in his country unless under direct French control. And indeed, on March 7, 1966, France formally notified the Atlantic Alliance of its decision, spelling out the details later that month. In a letter of March 9 to President Lyndon B. Johnson, de Gaulle explained: “France intends to restore within her territory the full exercise of her sovereignty—currently modified by the permanent presence of Allied military forces or by the use made of her air space—to end her participation in the integrated command and no longer to place her forces at the disposal of NATO.”

By July 1, 1966, all French troops in Germany were to be removed from NATO command. By July 23, all French officers would be withdrawn from the NATO War College. Finally, by April 1, 1967, all foreign bases and troops (twenty-six thousand Americans and Canadians) were to leave French soil. NATO headquarters, known as Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), were also to be moved from Paris by then. For all that, France would remain a member of the Atlantic Alliance.

De Gaulle’s unilateral action and short notice for withdrawal in 1966—the major agenda topic at the Atlantic Council’s ministerial meeting on June 7 and 8—shocked and angered France’s NATO allies, yet his decision to abandon the organization’s military structure had been clearly foreshadowed. France and its allies had clashed on various issues since the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty on April 4, 1949. In the early 1950’s, the French had opposed the addition of German forces to NATO and a plan to combine all Western European forces in a single organization, the European Defense Community (EDC).

France never really challenged the fundamental purpose and structure of NATO, however, until Charles de Gaulle returned to power in 1958. By that time, the introduction of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) was putting into question Western Europe’s role as America’s first line of defense against the Soviet Union and thus raising doubts about Washington’s determination to stand by Europe in a crisis.

These doubts were exploited by General de Gaulle in his efforts to undercut American dominance in NATO military planning. In September of 1958, while he was still France’s prime minister, de Gaulle called for a three-power directorate consisting of France, Great Britain, and the United States to formulate NATO military strategy, including nuclear strategy, yet the United States refused to share authority over its atomic arsenal. This refusal must have catalyzed the French leader’s idea to build his independent nuclear capability and correspondingly to withdraw from NATO’s nuclear umbrella.

Thus, in 1962, President de Gaulle withdrew the French Mediterranean fleet from NATO command. In 1963, France removed its Atlantic fleet from NATO command. In September of 1964, French units did not participate in NATO’s naval maneuvers, and in May, 1965, France boycotted NATO land maneuvers as well. Thus, over a period of years, de Gaulle had set the stage for France’s complete military withdrawal from NATO.

In addition to his grievance against American dominance in the multilateral organization, de Gaulle also read the political evolution as justifying his move. Following the Soviet setback in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962, he believed that the Communist bloc posed a lesser potential threat to Western Europe. De Gaulle began to envision an independent Europe, led by France, playing an important role in world affairs similar to that of the United States and the Soviet Union. Feeling blunted by Washington in his wish to establish parity with the United States in NATO, de Gaulle abandoned his efforts to expand French influence there and engaged in reducing its participation in the organization and in pursuing a new foreign policy.


France’s allies protested the lack of consultation and the apparent violation of the North Atlantic Treaty requiring two years’ notice before the withdrawal of a member’s forces. Yet the West Germans were the first to accept France’s new position. Facing the imminent withdrawal of French forces from Germany, which would have left a strategic gap in its defenses, the government in Bonn agreed to have French troops remain in West Germany outside the NATO framework. In France itself, domestic opposition to the withdrawal was overcome in April, 1966, when Prime Minister Georges Pompidou and Foreign Minister Maurice Couve de Murville successfully defended the decision before the National Assembly, where the motion to censure the government failed by a large margin. For good or ill, the earlier united Western military front had unraveled. France;withdrawal from NATO
North Atlantic Treaty Organization;French withdrawal
Cold War;France

Further Reading

  • Flynn, Gregory. French NATO Policy: The Next Five Years. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 1990. An update of an earlier study by Carl H. Amme, Jr., on the impact of the French withdrawal from NATO’s military structure. Flynn’s five-year projection about France’s continued nonreintegration into the organization turned out to be incorrect.
  • Grégoire, Joseph Philippe. “The Bases of French Peace Operations Doctrine: Problematical Scope of France’s Military Engagements Within the UN or NATO Framework.” Carlisle Barracks, Pa.: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2002. U.S. Army assessment of the underlying policies and doctrines behind France’s military actions and alliances at the turn of the twenty-first century. Also published online at
  • Harrison, Michael M. The Reluctant Ally: France and Atlantic Security. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981. A scholarly but readable work, based heavily on French sources with an authoritative bibliography. Harrison analyzes the effects of France’s moves on NATO and its defense strategy.
  • Kelleher, Catherine M. The Future of European Security: An Interim Assessment. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1995. This work traces the increasing involvement of France in the former Yugoslavia through NATO’s Military Committee, heralding its formal reintegration into NATO’s military structure.
  • Millon, Charles. “France and the Renewal of the Atlantic Alliance.” NATO Review 44 (May, 1996): 13-16. Considers the implications of France’s decision of December 5, 1995, to resume its earlier military participation in NATO.
  • Rose, François de. European Security and France. Translated by Richard Nice. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984. Written from the French perspective, this work cogently explains de Gaulle’s decision to withdraw from NATO’s integrated military structure in 1966.
  • Sherwood, Elizabeth D. Allies in Crisis: Meeting Global Challenges to Western Security. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990. Sherwood discusses the context in which France’s withdrawal from NATO’s integrated military structure occurred. The endnotes to the chapters contain excellent bibliographic references.

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