The French Bomb, with Secret U.S. Help
Documents from Nixon and Ford Administrations Show U.S. Assistance
for French Nuclear Forces Earlier Than Previously Reported

Kissinger Sought to make French "Drool" for Nuclear Aid

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 346

Posted - May 26, 2011

For more information contact:
William Burr -

After two rounds of clandestine talks with national security adviser Henry Kissinger and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, French Defense Minister Robert Galley made a public visit to Washington in late September 1975.  Here Galley, Schlesinger, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Thomas Moorer stand during a ceremony outside the Pentagon on 25 September 1973  (thanks to the Office of the Historian, Office of Secretary of Defense, for this digital image)

Washington, D.C., May 26, 2011 - The U.S. government secretly helped France develop its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program, and much earlier than previously realized, according to declassified documents compiled and edited by National Security Archive senior analyst William Burr and published jointly with the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, an Archive partner.

Over twenty years ago, Princeton University political scientist Richard Ullman revealed the existence of this program in a headline-making article, "The Covert French Connection," published in Foreign Policy magazine. Drawing upon interviews with former officials, Ullman disclosed that the Nixon administration, believing that a more effective French nuclear force was in the U.S. interest, began a secret program in 1973 of information sharing on ballistic missiles, nuclear weapons technology, and nuclear weapons safety, which continued into the Ford administration and beyond. The documents published today move the timeline earlier, to 1970-71.

Ullman's most sensational revelation was that U.S. government officials had circumvented atomic energy laws by providing the French with indirect assistance to their nuclear weapons program. Through "negative guidance," Washington indirectly--20-questions style--helped the French perfect their nuclear warheads. Today's publication fills out, and goes beyond the record established by Ullman. Declassified documents indicate that:

  • The French made the first move in December 1969, earlier than Ullman's sources had indicated, when the Armaments Ministry asked the Pentagon for assistance with the ballistic missile program.
  • A key moment was a February 1970 meeting between President Nixon and French president Georges Pompidou when the two tacitly agreed on the possibility of "nuclear cooperation" which led Nixon to make a "decision to be forthcoming" to French requests.
  • Reflecting internal controversy within the U.S. government, in 1971 the Nixon administration made a decision on "minimal" aid: besides assistance with nuclear safety and computer exports, the United States would help France improve the reliability of existing missiles, but not develop new ones.
  • The French valued U.S. assistance on ballistic missile technology (propulsion, quality control, reliability), but during 1972 and early 1973 they stepped up pressure for more information, including warhead miniaturization and "physics package" and submarine-launched ballistic missile technology, so they could move into the "next generation" of ballistic missiles.
  • To make France's case for more advanced technology, during mid-1973 defense minister Robert Galley met secretly twice with senior U.S. officials, including national security adviser Henry Kissinger and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger.
  • A key issue in these discussions was the possibility of "negative guidance" which Kissinger said would allow Washington to "critique what you are doing. We can say, 'That's the wrong way.'"
  • Seeking to manipulate France for his European diplomacy, Kissinger wanted to whet Galley's appetite for more information--to make him "drool"--but "negative guidance" was controversial and it is not clear when it actually became available.
  • In June 1975, President Gerald Ford, continuing Nixon's efforts to improve relations with Paris, updated the 1971 guidance by authorizing aid to decrease the vulnerability of French missiles, including reentry vehicles and missile hardening and information on multiple reentry vehicle technology.

Also included in today's publication are background documents on developments during the late 1950s and the 1960s, when U.S. government policy prohibited aid to the French nuclear program. When top Eisenhower and Kennedy administration officials discussed the possibility of nuclear cooperation with the French, some disclosed post-World War II suspicions arguing that it would "raise pressures from the Germans" for nuclear weapons. President John F. Kennedy made this connection explicit in a letter to British Prime Minister Macmillan, asserting that if the United States reversed its opposition to nuclear proliferation and aided the French nuclear program, the "likelihood that the Germans would eventually wish to acquire a nuclear weapons capability would be significantly increased."

The documents published today have a variety of sources.  Many of them are from National Security Files at the Nixon Presidential Library, where they were declassified as a result of National Security Archive requests. Other documents are from collections of State Department records at the National Archives. Owing to legal restrictions at French archives, documents on France's role in the "covert connection" are unavailable.