The French government shocks its allies by announcing that it is withdrawing its navy from the North Atlantic fleet of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The French action was viewed in the West as evidence that France would be pursuing an independent policy regarding its nuclear arsenal.
In the months prior to the French action, the United States had been pushing its NATO allies to accept a plan whereby the NATO North Atlantic fleet would be armed with Polaris nuclear missiles. The ships would have crews made up of personnel from various NATO nations. This plan, however, conflicted with a French plan to base much of their nation’s nuclear arsenal in their navy. Obviously, France wished to maintain absolute control over its ships to carry out this program. Thus, French President Charles de Gaulle’s government issued a brief statement indicating that the French ships in the NATO North Atlantic fleet were being withdrawn.
Many NATO members expressed surprise over the French action. In the United States, surprise was also mixed with dismay and no small degree of anger. The French announcement came just as President John F. Kennedy was preparing to go to Europe for a series of talks with America’s allies. Privately, some Kennedy advisors were quite vocal in condemning de Gaulle’s highly nationalistic independence in moving away from his nation’s NATO commitments, thereby threatening the security of France’s European allies. And, although the French withdrawal from the NATO North Atlantic fleet did not drastically affect the fleet’s military effectiveness, the United States worried that France’s action might set a disturbing precedent. NATO was still considered by U.S. officials as the first line of defense against communist aggression in Europe, and France’s “defection” was distressing. Kennedy, during his European sojourn, attempted to persuade the French to rethink their position, but de Gaulle stood firm in his decision. America’s fears were unrealized, however, as no other nations followed France’s example. French naval forces never rejoined the NATO fleet.