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Garret Martin’s Interview

Garret Martin is a professor at American University’s School of International Service and is the author of “General de Gaulle’s Cold War: Challenging American Hegemony, 1963-68.” In this interview, Martin discusses the rise of French President Charles de Gaulle and France’s decision to build an atomic bomb. He also elaborates on the Franco-American relationship, the changing role of France in NATO, and the impact of the Algerian War and the French nuclear tests in Algeria. Martin concludes with an evaluation of nuclear weapons and energy in France today.

Date of Interview:
June 27, 2018
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation, and this is June 27, 2018. I have with me Dr. Garret Martin, and my first question for you is to say your name and spell it.

Garret Martin: My name is Garret Martin, Garret is spelled G-a-r-r-e-t and Martin M-a-r-t-i-n.

Kelly:  Perfect. We always like to have people identify themselves, so maybe you could just briefly tell us about where you’re from, your life, how you got into a career of history.

Martin: Absolutely. I am of Irish parents, but I was born and raised just outside of Paris and I stayed there until I finished high school. I went to a bilingual school, international school. I always had a fascination for history, which was very much nurtured also by my parents. It was a regular subject of dinner table conversation, so that definitely fueled my interest, and it’s a subject that I really I got into. 

I went to study at the London School of Economics. I studied a dual degree in history and international relations. Since I really enjoyed the professors, I really enjoyed the subject matter, I just sort of stumbled into a Master’s degree first. I had to write a thesis. One of my professors suggested looking into the 1960s and looking at the relationship between France and the United States, looking at [Charles] de Gaulle in particular, and NATO.

I wrote my Master’s thesis, really enjoyed it, and then was offered a scholarship to do a PhD and again, I suppose, stumbled into it. Four years later, after arduous work and a lot of research, finished my PhD. Then along with my wife, we moved to Washington, D.C. I’ve now been teaching at American University. I’ve kept a foot in the discipline of history, but I also teach very much about contemporary trans-Atlantic relations.

Kelly:  Perfect. Since we’re talking about France in the ‘50s and ‘60s, tell us about Charles de Gaulle and the transition, what he was doing for Free France during World War II, where he was, and then how he made a comeback in France.

Martin: Obviously, Charles de Gaulle was very much a military man for much of his career. He served in World War I, he rose through the ranks, and he was a very prominent already military official in 1939 and 1940. He joined the French government really late, in May of 1940, and was able to witness the terrible defeat and the German invasion.

But unlike a lot of his other fellow members of government, who advocated an armistice and cooperating with the German invader, de Gaulle really took a very ambitious move to seek refuge in London, and to make a very solemn declaration on the 18 of June, 1940, to continue the fight, saying that “France had lost the battle, but they had not lost the war.”

It was definitely very audacious. He didn’t have necessarily great legitimacy to start with, but he was able to muster together a number of other people who fled, other soldiers, to create a small enough force. He was able to make himself often—a difficult partner sometimes for Winston Churchill and for the Americans, but he was able to kind of impose the fact that there was a French alternative. There was a group of French who were ready to fight, and ready to try and make a contribution to defeating the Nazi enemies.

De Gaulle was able to be part of D-Day. He landed in June 1944, a couple of days after D-Day, and was able to place himself at the head of the Provisional Government in 1944, once most of France was liberated.

Now, in that initial phase, though, there was a lot of turmoil. There was a lot of major challenges for France in the initial end of the war. De Gaulle was also very frustrated with the traditional political parties. He abruptly left in January 1946, thinking that in a sort of bluff that that would strengthen his hand. But the parties moved on, they were able to set up the Fourth Republic, and de Gaulle was kind of on the sidelines for a number of years. He tried to create his own political party. He stayed involved, to a certain degree, in some domestic and international matters. But certainly by the middle of the 1950s, it looked as if de Gaulle was just going to live his golden age outside of politics.

Really, it was the worsening of the Algerian War, which had broken out in 1954. Algeria was a French colony, and it erupted a large fight for independence. The war just became increasingly a quagmire for the French government, which seemed unable to defeat the Algerian opposition. The worsening of the crisis and the worsening of the war effort really created a momentum, a sense that the Fourth Republic was ill-equipped to face this war and therefore, they needed to consider other solutions.

Increasingly the name of de Gaulle, because of his legitimacy from the war, from the Resistance, was brought forward. That allowed de Gaulle to come back to power in 1958, to be able to institute a constitutional change and create a new Fifth Republic with a strengthened executive, a strengthened position of president, and allowed to come back to power for the next eleven years. A very tortuous story, a very unlikely story, but that’s how de Gaulle comes back to the forefront of French politics.

Kelly:  What was going on with respect to France’s nuclear program? Let’s go back a bit with Frédéric Joliot-Curie. What was his role during the Vichy government, and then what emerged after the war?

Martin:  Frédéric Joliot-Curie and a number of others, all prominent scientists, had made a certain number of scientific breakthroughs in the 1920s and 1930s. Maybe the most impactful, I believe in 1939, was his findings about nuclear fission. But of course with the war, and specifically France being invaded by Nazi Germany, a lot of those important breakthroughs, a lot of these important innovations, were put on hold. Some of the scientific team went in different directions. 

Frédéric Joliot-Curie, to his credit, decided to stay in France and become part of the Resistance. But one of the consequences, and one important part of the story here, is that the French were essentially kept out of the Manhattan Project. They were somewhat kept abreast or they had an idea of what was happening, but they were not intimately or directly involved in the project. I believe—if memory serves me correctly—that Charles de Gaulle, as leader of the Free French, does find out about it sometime in 1944. He is somewhat briefed about the fact that there is this ongoing project, but is well aware that the French are sort of marginalized and not involved.

As soon as the war ends essentially, if I’m not mistaken, in 1945 de Gaulle meets Joliot-Curie. They decide to create a Commissariat à l’énergie atomique, or the Atomic Energy Commissariat, a structure in order to continue to build upon the scientific discoveries of the French scientists before the war. That became even more urgent once the two atomic bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For de Gaulle and Joliot-Curie, at least at that time period, there’s a meeting of interests. They don’t necessarily come from the same angle, but they have a shared interest in seeing France pursue and develop a nuclear program.

For Joliot-Curie, it’s mostly a scientific interest, a belief also that nuclear energy can be harnessed for social good. I don’t think he’s interested—he was very uncomfortable with the military dimension. But he still believes that despite that, there is social and economic and other benefits from nuclear energy. For de Gaulle, there’s very much already a political understanding, that this is a new significant development, it’s a new significant innovation. And that also for a variety of reasons, for energy needs, for France’s status in the future, being able to harness this technology would be important.

At least in 1945, there is a sort of meeting of the minds there that France needs to get serious about this, knowing full well that it will probably take years. Initially, there’s a sense that you have to harness nuclear energy for civilian purposes first, and then maybe later on, they could consider military implications. But at least the priority is very much focusing on civilian energy first.

Kelly:  How did that play out, this first focus on civilian energy? Who were the players, and how did that happen after the war?

Martin: That’s what’s an interesting feature here is, it really sort of goes through three different authorities, and there’s real continuity despite some of the changes in political structures.

The initial decision, the initial impetus from the breakthroughs of the pre-war, are done by the provisional government with de Gaulle. The real concrete implementation of the building of the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique, the Atomic Energy Commissariat, is finding a site, finding the personnel—all of that is done under the Fourth Republic. You have a number of key figures that play a key role, like Félix Gaillard and others. That happens really under the Fourth Republic. Later on, when they make the decision—secretly at first—to also develop a nuclear weapons program, that is started under the Fourth Republic, but it’s culminated under the Fifth Republic under Charles de Gaulle.

There’s an interesting continuity of goals and ambition, despite the changes in political structure. Some of those key figures served not only under the Fourth Republic, but they also served later on. The two key players—you do have that Commissariat I mentioned on the scientific dimension. But also within the military establishment, within the military elites as well, they’re increasingly at first paying attention to the implications of this new nuclear weapons, keeping abreast of developments elsewhere, whether it’s this transition to thermonuclear technology in the early ‘50s, looking at the capacities of other countries—first the Soviet Union and then Great Britain—who are able to also develop nuclear tests. They are a second important player here in the development of the French nuclear program.

Simon Mairson: How prevalent was communism in France during this time, and what effect did it have for scientists in government who were communists?

Martin: Communism is certainly a pretty significant political force for a large period of the postwar in France. You have to think that the Parti communiste français, the French Communist Party, was several times the largest party in French politics, if you look at the number of votes they received. It’s actually part of government briefly in the first couple of years after the postwar until 1947, I believe. It remains, even after that, often polling close to 20%.

That speaks volumes to the size and the influence of the French Communist Party in French politics. They are not part of government afterwards, for a variety of reasons, but they have a large kind of blocking role in French politics. The decline of the French Communist Party happens much later, in the ‘70s and ‘80s. At least in the period we’re talking about, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, they remain an important component. They remain a very important presence.

They have an impact also, to a certain degree, on international affairs as well. Because when it’s on matters that could affect the Soviet Union, the French Communist Party can be often a force of opposition and protest.

That happens, for instance, when there is very vigorous, very virulent debates in France over the European Defense Community, an aborted attempt to create supranational integration between initially six countries, the Benelux countries––Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg—France, Italy, and West Germany to create supranational integration in the realm of defense. The French Communist Party there is very much opposed to that, and they play a key role in ultimately wrecking that initiative. 

Now in terms of the impact for scientists, I can’t say I can really speak with any great authority on that matter. I do know that, of course, it played a part in Frédéric Joliot-Curie being revoked and dismissed as head of the Atomic Energy Commissariat. I think that played a role, along with his part in the Stockholm Appeal.

In a sense, by the turn of the 1950s, for a variety of reasons—partly because of the international climate being more dangerous, being more tense between the two blocs, between East and West—there was increasingly a move towards—amongst French political figures, amongst French military figures—to start contemplating the need for a weapons program. Frédéric Joliot-Curie, because of his real moral opposition to nuclear weapons, that put him increasingly at odds. His communist sympathies played a role, but it’s also his more pacifist attitudes and his role in the Stockholm Appeal which really put an end to his role in the Atomic Energy Commissariat.

Kelly: You mention in your book the term “independent nuclear force.” What does that term mean, and why was it important to France?

Martin: It was tremendously important for Charles de Gaulle in general. When he’s talking about an independent foreign policy—to put it in the larger context—it’s an idea that France would not be completely subordinated to its superpower ally of the United States. That it could at times have a certain margin of action to follow its own decisions, without having to always consult and defer to the United States.

There’s that general sense, a general foreign policy principle that very much guides de Gaulle. He was someone who believed or who had a vision of international relations where it was driven by nation-states. And that a nation could not be completely sovereign if it didn’t have that kind of independence, specifically for great powers. De Gaulle most certainly viewed or believed that France was a great power that had a real global role to play on the world stage. So there’s that element.

From the nuclear force, that has to be put also in the context of changes in NATO’s nuclear strategies and changes in nuclear technology, and concerns about the credibility of the American nuclear umbrella. That’s probably the best way to put it.

As long as the Soviet Union has not developed intercontinental ballistic missiles, the so-called ICBMs, essentially the American territory was invulnerable to Soviet nuclear attacks. Once that changes in the late ’50s and early ‘60s, that has real implications. Because if there was to be some kind of military incursion in Western Europe, in a hypothetical scenario, if Soviet tanks started trying to invade West Germany, the question would be, if you’re summing it up, “Would the United States risk New York to defend Munich? Would they take the risk of responding to a Soviet attack with a full nuclear reaction, even if that led to a nuclear exchange and that could lead to major American cities being destroyed?”

There is a real fear or concern amongst Western European allies in general about the credibility of the nuclear umbrella in that kind of new configuration. That becomes even more acute in the early 1960s when there’s a change in American nuclear doctrine, and a change in NATO’s nuclear doctrine away from what they called massive retaliation, which essentially suggests that any Soviet military incursion, the response would be immediately a nuclear response, to a new doctrine called flexible response.

From the American perspective, the idea of nuclear holocaust or nothing was not very palatable. If your options were to immediately have to go the nuclear option, then that seemed to be very off-putting and could be potentially very dangerous. The idea of flexible response was to try and develop more conventional forces, more conventional weapons in the arsenal, to be able to have a graduated response, if there was any sort of Soviet incursion. That you would only resort to nuclear weapons if you were in a desperate position.

Again, from the position of Europeans, including the French, they interpreted that as a sign of, possibly of the decoupling of the American nuclear umbrella, of the United States moving away from the unambiguous commitment to defend Western Europe at all costs. There’s that overall context.

From the French perspective, there was a sense that if they developed their own nuclear arsenal in which they could keep complete control, that they would keep the French finger on the nuclear trigger, to put it very bluntly, they felt that would give them more options. There’s that element first. In case the unthinkable happened, they would still have that force of deterrence against the Soviets. Knowing full well that it would be significantly smaller, it wouldn’t be able to match the Soviet nuclear arsenal by any means, but it would give them something to think about.

De Gaulle talked about the dissuasion du faible au fort, which suggested that the deterrence of the weak to the strong. “Even if you are more powerful than me, the atomic weapon can be a great equalizer. I just need to have a big enough arsenal to potentially be able to inflict enough damage to make you think twice about invading.” There’s that element as well. It’s kind of an extra hedging on the part of de Gaulle.

You also have to think, finally, that nuclear weapons for de Gaulle were both a means and an end. It was a means towards being able to, as I mentioned, have that hedge to be able to deter the Soviets. But it was also an end in itself, because he viewed it as being part of a very exclusive club at the time. When the French test their first nuclear weapon in 1960, they were only the fourth country to join the club. There’s also a sense for de Gaulle that it’s prestige. By being a nuclear power, it symbolically speaks to France’s importance.

Kelly:  Did it work?

Martin: That’s a very difficult question. It’s very much in the eye of the beholder. There was certainly—and I would argue probably for all other subsequent nuclear power states—a sense that being able to harness the technology, being able to develop the scientific knowledge to do so is important. It’s a sign of prestige in itself. It also cemented France as one of the five veto-wielding states in the Security Council of the United Nations.

Kelly: How did that affect France’s relationship with the United States and with NATO?

Martin: It didn’t really help because again, you’re talking about two very different principles there. For de Gaulle, he came back to power already with a certain amount of animus toward NATO, a belief that NATO’s integrated military structure essentially subordinated great powers like France to American control and to American leadership.

From his perspective, if only the United States really, essentially had the control and had their finger on the nuclear trigger, that only exacerbated their importance. He’s already not very well disposed to NATO, believing that it essentially kept the French down. As a military man it was particularly difficult for him, this idea that French troops would be under the command of foreign generals. So there’s that element.

Of course, from the American perspective, a belief that you can’t really divide, you can’t really spread around this notion of control over the nuclear arsenal. From the American perspective, they viewed those smaller nuclear programs as expensive, obsolete, and not really capable of providing sufficient guarantee. There’s a real difference of perspective here that’s not easy to reconcile.

But I would argue that even if you didn’t have this nuclear element, there was enough subject of disagreement between the French and the United States as it pertains to NATO. Even if the French hadn’t been able to develop a nuclear program in the early ‘60s, there’s still a very strong likelihood that de Gaulle would have eventually followed the path that he did, which is to withdraw France from the integrated military structure. Fundamentally, it didn’t sit well with him, this notion that the French military forces were under sort of foreign control anywhere.

Kelly: Bring us up to today. Where is France relative to NATO?

Martin: After forty-three years of exile from the integrated military structure—this is an important subtlety, that the French remained a member of the alliance, but they were excluded from certain committees because they were not members of the integrated military structure. But they remained members of the alliance. Essentially, to make a sort of simple story, once the Cold War came to an end, incrementally there was a bit of a rapprochement between France and its NATO partners.

France slowly started rejoining a number of committees. It was active in some of the out of area operations that NATO conducted in the Balkans, whether it’s Bosnia in ’95, Kosovo in ’99. It was part of the operations in Afghanistan. It was a member of ISAF [International Security Assistance Force]. In a sense, when the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, formalized France’s reintegration into NATO’s integrated military structure in 2009, it was just essentially confirming what was practically already happening in practice.

Mairson: The one question I had was why France was able to do tests in Algeria, even after Algeria gained its independence, and during the early tests during the war.

Martin: The choice of the tests in Algeria, I believe, was taken in late ’57 or early ’58. That’s again an interesting example, that this was taken basically in the waning months of the Fourth Republic. They decided to pick this location, and they fixed themselves a timeline of completing a first test by the first quarter of 1960, which eventually they were able to fulfill.

The first test, if memory serves me right, happened on the 13th of February 1960, in the Algerian desert. They picked that location because it was probably quite remote, away from population centers. Although subsequent studies or subsequent evidence that came out later showed that there was a lot of environmental damage, and there was a lot of environmental costs to nearby populations.

Now the question about how were they able to conduct tests after 1962, once the Algerian war came to end and Algeria became independent? Really, the simple answer is that there was a secret annex, there was a secret part of agreement that was not made public, where France was allowed to conduct a certain number of tests over a period of four years after independence. They had the authorization to continue tests, at least until 1967. I believe they conducted about ten or eleven additional tests in Algeria up to 1966, before moving in 1967 or 1966 to conducting tests in Polynesia.

Kelly: One of the collaterals in the testing was harm to the civilian population or environment. Can you elaborate on that?

Martin: I would need double-check to be more specific. I know radioactive waste travelled several thousands of miles. They were able to find traces much further south in other major West African cities as far as Mali, I believe.

They conducted four over-ground tests in 1960, ’61, before shifting to underground tests. But even when they conducted underground tests, there was some sort of leakage or some of the radioactive—I’m not a scientist, so I may misspeak—but even some of the radioactive material was able to sort of surface. There were certainly some environmental costs that were kept hidden for many years, and they’ve only become more public in recent years.

Mairson: You mentioned that they started doing underground testing, but why were they opposed to the Limited or Partial Test Ban Treaty?

Martin: The opposition to the Partial Test Ban Treaty of August 1963 has to be viewed as primarily—there was a technical aspect, if I’m not mistaken—but it was primarily political. The technical aspect is the French nuclear arsenal, what they call la Force de frappe, still needed additional tests. It wasn’t quite complete. There was concern that by signing on to this agreement, it might preclude the ability to conduct these additional tests. That was the initial, very practical reason for the opposition.

The political opposition has more to do with a sense from de Gaulle in 1963 that this is essentially a U.S.-Soviet agreement. That the superpowers are negotiating separately without real consultation with allies, and they’re trying to impose this agreement and restrain other would-be nuclear powers, like France. There’s that element, this opposition to superpower condominium or superpowers leading, and taking decisions for the rest of the world. De Gaulle often liked to invoke the memory of the Yalta Accords in 1945, which were often depicted as the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain carving up Europe. De Gaulle often invoked this image of Yalta, and he sometimes made references to this agreement being a similar logic.

Thirdly, a more indirect cause of opposition was that the West German government under Chancellor Konrad Adenauer did sign onto this agreement, but were very upset by the fact that East Germany was one of the signatories. At the time, the West Germans had the position that it did not recognize East Germany as a legitimate state. They claimed that West Germany was the only legitimate representative of the German people.

This was in a context where under de Gaulle, there had been a real impetus to try and cement a Franco-German reconciliation after many decades of opposition, of multiple wars. De Gaulle was trying to play on this West German resentment towards a treaty, to try in a sense drag West Germany closer to France and away from the United States. All of these very disparate reasons played a role in de Gaulle being opposed and refusing to sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty.

Kelly: Let’s move on then to talk about the beginning and then the progress of the French energy front, harnessing the energy of the atom in their power reactors. How did that begin, and how did it develop in the ‘50s and ‘60s?

Martin: If we’re talking about nuclear energy, I would point to a slightly later period as even maybe more significant. Certainly, in the 1970s when you have the oil shocks, which suddenly led to a significant increase in the price of oil, there was a very conscious decision made by the French government to invest heavily in nuclear energy as an alternative, to not become dependent on the vicissitudes of oil prices, to not be beholden, to not be so energy dependent. There was a very significant buildup and investment in nuclear energy as an alternative in the 1970s. That has been arguably a major cornerstone of the whole French energy approach ever since.

Even to this day, about three-quarters of French energy needs domestically are provided by their large networks of nuclear reactors. To this day, I believe they have about 58 nuclear reactors on 19 different sites. That’s been very much a cornerstone domestically.

But also even in terms of exports, the French have had, through Areva and other companies, they’ve had a very active approach in helping other countries to build nuclear reactors for civilian purposes. That’s also been a very important economic, trade, and commerce component for the French government. And of course, it helps to cement the political ties, and it’s been very much a state-driven enterprise.

One of the interesting anecdotes—of course, in recent months, there’s been a lot of focus on the Iran nuclear deal. France, among others, played a role in the 1970s before the Iranian Revolution, to try and supply support for the Shah of Iran to try and build up his domestic nuclear energy program. One of the great sort of historical ironies.

Interestingly though, in recent years now, the last two or three years, an important law was passed in 2015, where the French are trying to sort of move away from this high degree of dependence on nuclear energy to supply energy needs. There’s a pretty ambitious goal of trying to move from about 75% of energy being supplied by nuclear energy, to more around 50% in the timeframe of about 10 to 15 years. 

There’s concern about the cost, concern about the security of some of the older nuclear reactors, concern also about some of the recent accidents that have happened, of course, including Japan in Fukushima. That’s played a big role in trying to reduce some of the level of dependence. And also a desire to try and build up more renewable energy. Currently, France is quite on the lower end when it comes to its renewable energy, as compared to its partners of the European Union. 

The willingness and the desire to move away, on the French part, from too much dependence on nuclear energy, is conflicting also with some of the engagements made as part of the Paris Accords on climate change. Because temporarily at least, there’s a risk that France’s CO2 emissions will go up as they try to make that transition. They’re really trying to balance two very different forms of engagements. 

It’s also—I don’t have the exact numbers—but I believe close to about a quarter-million jobs in France are tied to general nuclear energy. If you try to reduce dependence, that could also lead to a loss of jobs. Of course, the environmental groups and others will argue that this can be balanced by the new jobs that will be created by renewable energy. But there’s still a concern, of course, in this day and age, of what it could mean to a number of people who are working in the world of nuclear energy.

Mairson: What is the legacy of Charles de Gaulle in France today, and what is the role of nuclear weapons both as a security deterrent and as a symbolic part of French power?

Martin: I would argue that Charles de Gaulle still has a very large legacy, a very looming legacy. It’s very much carved in stone, if you think about the number of streets in France that are named after him. He’s got a very significant presence. He’s essentially the founding father of the Fifth Republic.

His most enduring legacy is in the realm of foreign policy. This notion that there is a certain French role, a certain independent French role, there’s an independent French voice on the world stage, and that means sometimes being somewhat independent from allies at times. It has really endured, and it has survived presidents of the left, presidents of the right, and has not been fundamentally questioned.

That’s also true, I would say, for the French nuclear program. It’s not been subject to great debate. It seems to have been accepted as a given that the nuclear arsenal will remain a key part, a fundamental part of French security. President Emmanuel Macron in a speech in January of this year spoke about it as being a cornerstone of French security in the last five decades. That seems to be a principle that’s not been fundamentally debated.

There are at times laws passed to continue to modernize the French nuclear arsenal in subsequent years. But we haven’t seen anywhere near the same kind of virulence or strong debates that you had, for instance, in the United Kingdom when it comes to the modernization of the Trident program. It’s still a key part of the French strategic doctrine and the French deterrence doctrine.

As far as we know, the French nuclear arsenal has about 300 nuclear warheads. It’s mostly divided between a sort of submarine force and I think a force that can be used by French bombers.

Kelly: It’s interesting to drive around France and seeing all the reactor cooling towers on the landscapes. It’s very much of a presence. You notice it when you drive around the countryside.

Martin: Oh yes. The French Green Party, if you compare it—in Germany, for instance, the German Green Party has been a far more sizable force in the electorate. They’ve been really able to weigh more heavily when it comes to environmental discussions, in a way that it’s not been as much a case in France.

The [French] Greens at times have been members of governmental coalition. So they’ve been able to have an input, but not, I would say, of the same magnitude as has happened in Germany.

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