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10-03-2015, 09:57

Centrifugal pressures in the West: de Gaulle and early Ostpolitik

President Charles de Gaulle, at times described as “a neutralist for nationalistic reasons," hardly requires an introduction.277 De Gaulle ruled France for over a

Decade after 1958, during which time he attempted to raise his country into a new position of prominence in Europe. The flip side of this was, of course, that de Gaulle wished to limit the American and (if less obviously so) Soviet roles on the continent. He withdrew France fTom NATO's integrated military structure, pursued the development of an independent French nuclear capability, strengthened the Franco-German special relationship (for example, the 1963 Franco-German Treaty), and embarked on independent initiatives with regard to Eastern Europe (Romania, in particular) and the Soviet Union.278 De Gaulle even stirred trouble in America's backyard: while visiting the city of Montreal in 1967, he declared that the Francophone bastion should move towards independence ("Vive le Quebec Libre"), thus helping to stir the pot of nationalism. And there were many other tense moments over Vietnam, over foreign investment, over de Gaulle's decision to recognize the PRC without consulting the United States. President Lyndon B. Johnson undoubtedly agreed with his confidant, Senator Richard Russell, when he said that "we've really got no control over their (France's) foreign policy."279

De Gaulle was ultimately unsuccessful because his policies were often either contradictory or overtly ambitious. He could neither make Western Europe independent of the United States nor claim for France an unambiguous leadership position among European countries. Even with the force de frappe, even when he took France out of NATO's unified military command in 1966, even when he attempted to practice independent detente with the USSR, de Gaulle was unable to claim that he had removed the American 'yoke' fTom Europe. Nevertheless, of all the centrifugal tendencies in the history of NATO during the Cold War, it was the prominent role embraced by France under de Gaulle to lead a more independent Europe that caused the severest headaches in Washington. His potential impact on American-European relations might have been very far-reaching. As Assistant Secretary of State William Tyler put it, de Gaulle: "gave expression to a certain sentiment not only in France but in Free Europe as a whole in varying degree: a confused sense that it is possible, indeed natural and necessary, for Europe to have interests within the framework of an alliance with the United States which do not in all cases spring from a conception of the world identical with that held by the United States."280

American diplomats did not “panic” as a result of France’s withdrawal from NATO in March 1966, and they were equally calm when de Gaulle visited Moscow a few months later. They were confident that de Gaulle’s talk of a “Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals” was likely to remain just that, talk. As a May 1966 intelligence memorandum confidently maintained: “[It is] unlikely that Moscow overestimates De Gaulle’s value. [It] recognizes that America is the real power, and would prefer to deal directly with Washington.”281 Indeed, had de Gaulle been the only one in Western Europe challenging the logic of bipolarity, his impact, direct or indirect, on East-West relations in Europe would likely have been limited.

Alas, he was not alone. In the 1960s, West German policymakers were expressing increased doubts about American leadership. To be sure, the leaders in Bonn had none of the global pretensions that were so evident in de Gaulle’s politics and, in particular, the Frenchman’s grand rhetoric. West German politicians, whether Christian Democrats or Social Democrats, were ultimately concerned over a nationalist goal, reunification. De Gaulle may have removed France from NATO’s integrated military structure and embarked on an independent course with regard to Moscow in order to enhance France’s significance as a player in international relations, but Ludwig Erhard, Kurt Kiesinger, Willy Brandt, and other West German leaders gradually established independent ties to the East largely because the policies ofKonrad Adenauer had failed to substantially advance the unification of Germany.282

The first steps towards Ostpolitik, the so-called “policy of movement,” was in large part a reaction to the Wall, the apparent lack of Western commitment to German unification, and the failure ofthe Hallstein Doctrine to advance the cause of unification. From the West German point of view, it must have seemed as though the rest of the world, their American allies included, were in fact quite happy to see Germany divided.283 Some observers predicted in 1963 - in the aftermath of de Gaulle’s first veto of British membership in the European Economic Community (EEC) and his signing of the Franco-German friendship treaty - that a strengthening of the Bonn-Paris axis might result in the rupture of NATO and the unification-neutralization of Germany.284 From the US perspective, the worst-case scenario was that:

External events could cause neutralist feeling in West Germany to grow. In time, and especially if the sense of direct Soviet threat to Western Europe continues to diminish, the West Germans' conviction that NATO is essential for their security could weaken. Conceivably even the necessity for the continued presence of American forces might be put in question.285

During the following year there were, of course, a number of such "external events": de Gaulle announced France's withdrawal from NATO and made his visit to Moscow, America's involvement in Vietnam deepened, and the Soviets - facing an increasingly threatening situation in Asia (that is, the Sino-Soviet split) - appeared more amenable to developing better relations with the West. There was, then, adequate reason for the growing concern about "losing" West Germany, through unification, neutralization, or the maneuverings of de Gaulle.

While France and West Germany represented the most profound political challenges to American dominance, historians have also illustrated the increasingly limited control that Washington exercised over Western trade policy. For example, by the late 1950s, Britain had taken a leading role in the transatlantic bargaining process over export controls vis-a-vis the Soviet bloc. Thus, the utility of the so-called Coordinating Committee (COCOM) - the Western grouping established at the onset of the Cold War to control the export of "strategic" items to the USSR and its satellites - was being increasingly challenged. By the 1960s, the Americans faced a virtually unanimous - and increasingly more prosperous - West European front calling not only for improved political relations with the Soviet bloc, but also seeking to challenge American leadership on matters of East-West trade. 286 Ironically, there was similar tension within the Soviet bloc.