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France: The Cautious Amorist

2 minute read

Raising his champagne glass, Charles de Gaulle affably wished a happy new year to the newsmen invited to his annual press reception at the Elysee Palace last week. But he refused to discuss the issue upper most in every reporter’s mind: President Kennedy’s proposal to supply France with Polaris missiles. When a newsman brashly reminded France’s President that “Kennedy is offering them to you,” le grand Charles turned, stared down his questioner, and replied with heroic restraint: “Are you really sure?”

No one—not even Charles de Gaulle-could say with certainty what form the Polaris offer might finally take. Kennedy promised at Nassau to equip British nuclear submarines with the missile on condition that the government commit its Polaris fleet to NATO for the defense of Western Europe as a whole (TIME, Dec. 28). The terms cabled to De Gaulle were “similar,” Administration officials said; they could not be “identical” without drastic changes in U.S. law. For, unlike Britain, France would almost certainly need U.S. help to miniaturize its own crude warheads, which weigh twice as much (1,543 Ibs.) as the Polaris payload; France would also need help in designing nuclear submarines for the missile.

Such technical details, De Gaulle pointed out in a maybe-yes, maybe-no reply to Kennedy last week, would need close study, though he acknowledged that the proposal was both “interesting and important.” His letter wound up by reminding Kennedy of France’s “national imperatives,” meaning France’s independent nuclear deterrent.

The U.S., which badly wants De Gaulle to restore to NATO command the troops and ships that he has pulled out of the alliance, plainly hoped that the potent, durable Polaris might prove an alluring offer. After a flying trip to Palm Beach for consultation with Kennedy, U.S. Ambassador Charles E. Bohlen returned to Paris to tell De Gaulle in person that there is ample room for negotiation on the U.S. offer. No quick decision seemed likely. As De Gaulle himself said: “These are immensely far-reaching problems. One doesn’t give them a single answer. One responds to them every day for ten years.”

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