H-Diplo Article Review 1075- "Unfit for Purpose"

George Fujii's picture

H-Diplo Article Review 1075

2 December 2021

Benoît Pelopidas and Sébastien Philippe.  “Unfit for Purpose: Reassessing the Development and Deployment of French Nuclear Weapons (1956–1974).”  Cold War History 21:3 (2021): 243-260.  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1080/14682745.2020.1832472.

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Seth Offenbach | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Frédéric Gloriant, University of Nantes

Benoît Pelopidas and Sébastien Philippe’s article amounts to nothing less than a radical, systematic questioning of what the two authors see as a still dominant “triumphalist narrative” about French nuclear weapons policy until 1974 and French nuclear strategy in general (245).  Written with provocative style and an ambitious ‘tous azimuts’ (‘in all-directions’) revisionist objective, the article focusses on the initial phase of the development and deployment of French nuclear weapons, i.e., the years 1956 to 1974.  It therefore covers the presidency of Charles de Gaulle, the founder of both the Fifth Republic and the French nuclear deterrence policy.

The core of the article consists of a historical and technical study of the first leg of the French nuclear triad, composed of the bomber Mirage IVA and the atomic bomb AN11, which was deployed from 1964 onwards.  Pelopidas and Philippe argue that “even supported by the [U.S.-procured tanker aircraft] KC-135,” the Mirage IVA “could not reach Moscow” because of its limited range of action (250).  According to the authors, this fact, which was not only known (and concealed) by many French officials, but also recognized by both allies and adversaries (the U.S. and UK governments, Soviet strategists), critically undermined the independence and credibility of the force de frappe until 1974.

Pelopidas and Philippe’s interpretation goes further.  According to them, the inadequate technological performance of the Mirage IV demonstrates the absence of “any articulated strategic rationale,” and indeed of any Gaullist nuclear-based “grand strategy” (243).  Consequently, the revisionist outlook of French foreign policy regarding the bipolar order is presented as devoid of any basis: “the claim that France’s ability to challenge the Cold War order was grounded on its independent force de frappe” is “hardly sustainable” (244).[1]

Finally, focussing at the end of their article on the domestic implications of their analysis, Pelopidas and Philippe describe de Gaulle as an uninformed or at least misinformed leader, reluctant “to engage with technical details” or to formulate a consistent nuclear strategy – in short, a distant “king,” happy to “embrace his new [nuclear] clothes,” but out of touch with the disappointing reality (259).  The authors scathingly conclude that “contrary to an assumed strategic design emanating from de Gaulle himself, […] the French nuclear programme was run by a group who needed a leader to act behind,” a non-visible nuclear elite composed of “key public servants and industrialists” who were eager “to engage in the systemic nuclearisation of France,” thus “entrenching new positions of power and privilege in the pursuit of what they would themselves name – a mirage” (259).

The publication of this article, followed by an interview in the widely read French newspaper L’Opinion, sparked a heated controversy in which renowned French nuclear historians and strategists have contested the approach of Pelopidas and Philippe.[2]

Much Ado About Nothing…

The article is indeed not without problems.  The first issue involves the repeated assertion of Pelopidas and Philippe that the pioneering character of their piece of research, which is based on “new technical analysis” and “untapped primary material from across the world,” allows them to formulate the “first reassessment” of French nuclear weapons policy before 1974 (243).  This is a largely exaggerated statement.

The research methodology, which recalculates from scratch the performance of the Mirage IVA and is based on precise data and on the technical expertise of one of the authors, who is a scientist by training, is admittedly refreshing.  In this regard, the publication of the whole calculation could be useful.  The authors have also consulted a large range of rarely cited accounts of the history of French nuclear weapons-systems procurement and of the technological aspects of French nuclear trajectory. The attempt to take into account the perceptions of French nuclear endeavours by foreign actors (256-57), and, in doing so, to internationalise this history, is relevant in so far as the latter has often been written only on the basis of French sources.

However, a closer look at the archival material used in the article reveals a much thinner basis than is announced.  There is a striking contrast between the large collections of archives mentioned in the introduction and the limited number of “untapped” sources that the authors quote (about a dozen).  For example, out of the 1,300 pages of oral history interviews conducted by Admiral Marcel Duval in 1988-1991, only five interviews are cited in the notes.  Apart from the Duval interviews, the new primary sources that are referred to are rather scarce: a note of the president’s chief of staff to de Gaulle from the Service historique de la défense (n. 65), a folder of the Albert J. Wohlstetter papers from the Hoover Institution (n. 89), a 1964 report of the USSR embassy in Paris (n. 84), four documents from the U.S. and UK National Archives (n. 39, 41 and 92-96), plus an interview with General Vincent Desportes in 2014 (n. 13).

All the other references are from published documents, either primary or secondary sources, some of which have been well known for a long time.  For instance, wide use is made of Alain Peyrefitte’s publications (13 references), in particular the three volumes entitled C’était de Gaulle, published from 1994 to 2000.[3] These books are basically a compilation by Peyrefitte – a close collaborator of President de Gaulle who was then member of his government – of his weekly private interviews with the head of state. They contain many provocative statements, which are regularly (and overly) quoted in the French media, and should be taken with a pinch of salt: the difference was crucial for de Gaulle between, on the one hand, unofficial confidences in which he was not afraid of self-contradiction, exaggeration, or experimental thinking, and on the other hand, official letters, written notes, diplomatic memoranda of conversations, public speeches, where his word, in its completed form, defined the policy of France.

In short, the archival sources the authors mention in the article are only marginally new and far from constituting a solid basis on which a convincing revisionist account of the first phase of French nuclear history could be built.

As for Pelopidas and Philippe’s conclusions themselves, they too are overstated.  The technical weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the Mirage IV bomber have been known and discussed for a long time, in particular its limited range of action which would have allowed it to reach Southern Ukrainian cities but not Moscow except on a no-return mission.[4] The debate about France’s “catalytic posture” (or trigger theory) versus “asymmetric escalation” (or weak-to-strong deterrence) is as old as the force de frappe itself, and is a recurring issue on which established French nuclear experts have defended diverging interpretations.[5] As to the fact that de Gaulle did not formulate such a thing as a fully-fledged, forever fixed, nuclear strategy, again, historians have established a consensus on this at least from the 1980s;[6] consequently, the authors’ claim to have discovered that “the components of the force were selected and budgeted before the strategy was defined” is just pushing at open doors (246).

A Biased Archival Methodology and a Lop-sided Framing of the Subject

The exaggeration about the novelty of sources and arguments is, unfortunately, not unusual in academia, and there would be no need to highlight it if it was the only problem in the article. But there are three other serious issues of historical methodology: the use of sources, the conceptual framing of the research question, and the thematic framing of the subject.

Going back to the issue of primary sources, the careful reader cannot help getting the sense that a selective use has been made of them, quantitatively as already shown above, but also qualitatively, which is even more problematic.  A striking example is the use made of the papers of Admiral Duval.  In note 102, the authors quote from a statistical evaluation regarding the average number of nuclear submarines available at all times from July 1974 to August 1976 and imply that the date of acquisition by France of a credible second-strike capability “remains an open question” (259).  This formulation is misleading, in so far as it uses only one factor among others – called in French la permanence à la mer (the availability at sea of at least one nuclear-capable submarine) – to call into question the overall credibility of the submarine component of the French deterrent after 1974. A more balanced presentation of the situation would have mentioned that there was a progressive increase in the credibility of the submarine component of the French deterrent, and that this process could not happen all at once.  Moreover, this piece of evidence does not reveal something new, since, as the historians Dominique Mongin and Maurice Vaïsse rightly point out, Duval “wrote as of 1993 that French strategic armaments reached only at the end of the 1970s a ‘sufficiency level’,”, that is, what de Gaulle defined in simple words as the ability to “tear an arm off the aggressor.”[7]

Regarding the foreign primary sources used at the end of the article to show the lack of credibility of the French force de frappe in the eyes of foreign actors, one cannot help suspecting that early French nuclear policy has not been subjected here to a fair trial that would permit an even-handed adjudication.  First, there is a lack of contextualisation of certain sources: for example, Pelopidas and Philippe, when they cite the two highly critical articles by journalist Joseph Alsop, should have mentioned that they were written in the midst of one of the worst crises in French-American relations in the 1960s, just after de Gaulle vetoed the offer of nuclear partnership made by President John Kennedy and UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and the UK entry into the European Economic Community on 14 January 1963.[8] The intensity of anti-French feelings in the United States at that time should not be underestimated and could add important perspective for the criticisms expressed by Alsop against the French force de frappe. Other archival material from the same period shows that the French nuclear effort towards independence was taken seriously by Kennedy himself, and therefore had a certain political credibility, even though it had not yet materialised in the shape of an operational deterrent.[9] Thus, there seems here to be a highly selective use of facts, quotations, estimates, all of which go in the same direction and cannot be considered as providing the whole picture.

This leads to the second methodological issue, which has to do with the concept of “strategic rationality.” The theoretical definition given in part I is not unusual in itself – “the definition of strategic goals preceding and driving the choice of military means to serve them; the belief that the chosen means/weapons systems can adequately serve the previously defined strategic goals; and the meaningful articulation of these two relationships through strategic discourse and doctrine” (245-46).  However, when defined as such, this concept can only be considered as an ideal type, which means that, by definition, historical reality will be more complicated and contradictory, full of twists and turns which will not entirely and not always meet the three criteria of strategic rationality.  Does it mean that the whole undertaking should be deemed “chaotic” and “absent of any strategic rationality” (258)?  The judgement made here follows an all-or-nothing logic.  According to Pelopidas and Philippe’s simplistic approach, any complex weapons programme would fail the test of strategic rationality.  A more fruitful method would have involved taking into account the always dialectical relationship between strategy and technology, the mutual interactions and adaptations between intentions and results, the dynamic back-and-forth process between stated objectives and limits imposed by technological progress and economic constraints – in a word, an iterative, non-linear evolution that any historian of science and technology would be familiar with. Using such a methodology would have allowed Pelopidas and Philippe to avoid the black-and-white logic that can be seen at play in the article’s conclusions, and to reach a more nuanced judgement about the rationality of the French nuclear programme, even at the time of its difficult beginnings.

Finally, the thematic framing of the subject poses a fundamental issue of historical epistemology.  In note 9, the authors state that in contrast with the “triumphalist narrative” that they denounce, their approach will assess the performance of the weapons systems, and will not focus “on policy intentions only” (245). The problem, however, is that this focus on military, technical performance ends up being exclusive of all other perspectives.  By the same token, any consideration of the foreign policy context or of the politico-strategic dimension of nuclear issues is, by hypothesis, excluded. This is highly problematic in the case of de Gaulle, who considered the nuclear weapon above all as a political one. This reductionist approach is particularly visible when Pelopidas and Philippe claim to demonstrate that there was no such thing as an articulated, pre-existing Gaullist nuclear “grand design.” In this respect, the authors miss their target precisely because of their initial methodological assumption – basically the dismissing of the diplomatic dimension altogether – and the conceptual confusion between “nuclear strategy” in its strictly military sense and “political strategy.”[10]

Regarding “nuclear strategy” sensu stricto, the only one that Pelopidas and Philippe do take into account, de Gaulle was indeed in essence a pragmatist, had no “ready-to-use” nuclear theory, and his discourse thereupon progressively emerged and evolved, in interaction with diplomatic environment and technological advances (or lack of advances) of French nuclear programme.[11] Not surprisingly, in contrast to the American strategists of the 1960s and to a lesser extent Raymond Aron, who was largely influenced by them at the time of the “Great Debate”, de Gaulle never thought that it would be possible and useful to predict and scientifically model all the possible scenarios of nuclear warfare.[12] In fact, there undeniably was a Gaullist “political strategy” or “grand design” from the beginning of his presidency, which was based on the (future) possession and national control of nuclear weapons. De Gaulle’s strategy in this larger sense is clearly visible – which does not mean it was always successful – when one studies the position of France during the Second Berlin crisis, the issue of France’s relationship with NATO, or even the role of France within the European integration project.[13] This Gaullist “grand design” encompassed not only the military, technical aspects of defence, but also the deeply political issues of France’s sovereignty and the issue of Euro-Atlantic linkage (that is, how Europe and the U.S. should relate and organise their cooperation for the defence of the West). In a nutshell, when he came back to power in 1958, de Gaulle did not have any ready-made nuclear strategy, but he perfectly knew which long-term politico-strategic aims and foreign policy objectives he wanted to achieve thanks to the (future) possession of an independent nuclear deterrent.[14]

In short, the problem with “Unfit for Purpose” is both the lack of nuance and the inconsistency between its ambitions and the means deployed.  The ‘pointillistic’ use of archival material does not allow the authors to develop a dynamic, sufficiently contextualized narrative of the evolution of the French nuclear deterrent policy.  The reader is left with a static description of the first phase of the French nuclear program, listing its inconsistencies and difficulties in isolation from the diplomatic context.  The profoundly dynamic, evolutive character of de Gaulle’s nuclear policy, its dividends in terms of influence on the diplomatic Euro-Atlantic and East-West scenes, and its longer-term impact in terms of French nuclear trajectory during the 1970s and 1980s are left aside.

When measuring the impact of de Gaulle’s nuclear policy in terms of “security,” it is far too simplistic to consider the technical performance of the force de frappe at a given moment in a static way; a more sophisticated and dynamic approach is necessary and should also encompass the potentiality of the force de frappe, i.e. what it virtually is, and what it has the potential to become in the foreseeable future by taking duly into account the plans and (limited) means of France.

In a word, Pelopidas and Philippe’s bold argument could have been more convincing if it had remained within more limited confines – a study showing the technical weaknesses and the lack of credibility in the military sense of the first component of the French deterrent, the Mirage IVA.  But in less than twenty pages and about a hundred notes, the authors claim to come to an overall conclusion and definitive judgement about the French nuclear weapons policy during the presidencies of de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou in terms of credibility, independence, and strategic rationality.  This discrepancy between ambitions and means renders the article unconvincing, and the research methodology deployed here seems simply…  “unfit for purpose.”


Frédéric Gloriant is Associate Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Nantes, at the CRHIA (Centre de recherches en histoire internationale et atlantique).  His research interests mainly focus on the Franco-British relationship during the Cold War, strategic and nuclear issues, and European integration history.  He has published several articles on nuclear history, among which is “To adapt to the Cold War bipolar order?  Or to challenge it?  Macmillan and de Gaulle’s rift in the face of the Second Berlin Crisis,” Cold War History 18:4 (2018).


[1] On the revisionism of French foreign policy, see Frédéric Bozo, “France, ‘Gaullism,’ and the Cold War,” in Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd A. Westad, eds., The Cambridge History of the Cold War, vol. 2, Crises and Détente (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010): 158–78.

[2] Interview of B. Pelopidas and S. Philippe by Jean-Dominique Merchet, “Pendant longtemps, la dissuasion nucléaire française n’a pas été crédible,” L’Opinion, 23 February 2021, https://www.lopinion.fr/edition/international/pendant-longtemps-dissuasion-nucleaire-francaise-n-a-pas-ete-credible-237163; Maurice Vaïsse and Dominique Mongin, “Une entreprise idéologique de déconstruction,” L’Opinion, 2 March 2021, https://www.lopinion.fr/edition/international/dissuasion-nucleaire-entreprise-ideologique-deconstruction-maurice-237941; Bruno Tertrais, “Histoire du programme nucléaire français : quand des chercheurs du CERI découvrent la Lune,” Bulletin n°83, Observatoire de la Dissuasion, Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, February 2021; see also the response made by B. Pelopidas and S. Philippe to these criticisms, “Contre les récits triomphalistes, preuves à l’appui,” L’Opinion, 5 March 2021, https://www.lopinion.fr/edition/international/dissuasion-nucleaire-preuves-a-l-appui-benoit-pelopidas-sebastien-238298.

[3] Alain Peyrefitte, C’était de Gaulle, vol. 1-3 (Paris: Fayard, 1994-2000).

[4] Marc Theleri, Initiation à la force de frappe française: 1945-2010 (Paris: Stock, 1997), 11, 85-96, 204-213.

[5] See the archival material published in 2001 by Jeffrey W. Vanke, “Document – De Gaulle's Atomic Defence Policy in 1963,” Cold War History 1:2 (2001): 119-126; see also Bruno Tertrais, “Destruction Assurée: The Origins and Development of French  Nuclear Strategy, 1945-81,” in Henry D. Sokolski, ed., Getting MAD: Nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction, Its Origins and Practice (Carlisle: US Army War College, 2004), 51–122 (72-74).

[6] Institut Charles de Gaulle, ed., L’Aventure de la bombe: De Gaulle et la dissuasion nucléaire 1958-1969 (Paris, Plon, 1985), 200; Frédéric Bozo, Deux stratégies pour l’Europe: De Gaulle, les États-Unis et lAlliance atlantique, 1958-1969 (Paris: Plon, 1996), 121.

[7] Maurice Vaïsse and Dominique Mongin, “Une entreprise idéologique de déconstruction,” L’Opinion, 2 March 2021, referring to the book published in 1993 by Marcel Duval and Dominique Mongin, Histoire des forces nucléaires françaises depuis 1945 (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1993), chapter IV, part IV, “L’évolution de la doctrine de dissuasion.”

[8] Joseph Alsop, “The French Mystery” and “The Mirage of the Mirage,” New York Herald Tribune, 18 January 1963 and 18 February 1963.

[9] See e.g. the record of the NSC Executive Committee Meeting on 31 January 1963 (FRUS, 1961-63, vol. XIII, no. 64, p. 156-163), in which Kennedy, in the wake of de Gaulle’s double veto of January 14 and the signature of the Franco-German Élysée Treaty a week afterwards, seemed to fear that the latter could include secret “nuclear arrangements,” envisaged as a conceivable scenario that “de Gaulle might try to organize the Six and create a nuclear force responsible to this grouping,” and was seized by a retrospective fear regarding the “disaster” the U.S. “had narrowly averted” thanks to the U.S.-UK nuclear agreement in Nassau, namely “a French/British nuclear arrangement…if the British had decided to join with de Gaulle in a nuclear arrangement.” True, all these fears resulted from major misinterpretations of de Gaulle’s intentions, but they are evidence of the strong impact made by the perspective of a future independent French nuclear deterrent.  According to Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 319-321 (notes 128-129), Kennedy’s assumption at that moment was that “Europe was becoming less dependent on the United States as the French built up their own nuclear force.”

[10] On this distinction, see L’Aventure de la bombe, 200.

[11] See in Charles de Gaulle, Lettres, notes et carnets, juin 1958-novembre 1970 (Paris: R. Laffont, 2010), 604, the letter to General Beaufre, author of an Introduction to Strategy: “in this matter [nuclear strategy], the only practice that is worthwhile is by virtue of men and according to circumstances” (9 December 1963).

[12] Documents diplomatiques français, 1962, vol. II, no. 206, conversation between de Gaulle and General Norstad, 20 December 1962.

[13] On Berlin, see, for example, Frédéric Gloriant, To adapt to the Cold War bipolar order?  Or to challenge it?  Macmillan and de Gaulle’s rift in the face of the Second Berlin Crisis,Cold War History 18:4 (2018), 465483.  On France and NATO, Bozo, Deux stratégies pour l’Europe, and Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace: the Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).  On France and Europe, Georges-Henri Soutou, L’alliance incertaine: les rapports politico-stratégiques franco-allemands, 1954-1996 (Paris: Fayard, 1996) or, forthcoming, Nicolas Badalassi and Gloriant, eds., France, Germany, and Nuclear Deterrence (New York: Berghahn).

[14] This is manifest in the episode of the tripartite memorandum sent to President Dwight Eisenhower and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in September 1958, which is analyzed in Gloriant, “Londres et la proposition gaullienne de ‘directoire nucléaire tripartite’ de septembre 1958: réception, conséquences, symbole,” in Céline Jurgensen and Dominique Mongin, eds., Résistance et Dissuasion – Des origines du programme nucléaire français à nos jours (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2018)” 235-258.