The President of the French Fifth Republic is indeed the only person in Europe who can freely activate a nuclear weapon. It is true that the British Prime Minister also possesses this power, in theory. But his vectors (submarines and missiles), his tests, and therefore his nuclear weapons are dependent on American technology. And if, on paper, he can decide to use them alone, in actuality it is much harder to do so without the agreement of Washington. However, in all their disdain for a Britain too tied to the Americans to be the complete master of its own nuclear weapons, the French forget what they owe to the British: the French H-bomb. Let us remember that the first version of the atomic bomb, bomb A, the bomb of Hiroshima and of Reggane [first French A-bomb, tested at Reggane, Algerian Sahara in 1960], was a fission bomb, while the H-bomb, which France exploded for the first time in August 1968, was a bomb called "hydrogen," or fusion.
This book does not lend itself to technical digressions, so we will just say that the H-bomb is incomparably more powerful that the A-bomb. It was developed by the Americans Edward Teller and Stanislaw M. Ulman [sic for Stanislaw Ulam], who perfected the Teller-Ulman [sic for Teller-Ulam] procedure. This used the X-rays emitted by the explosion of a small A-bomb to compress the elements tritium, lithium, deuterium, etc. in a thermoclear combustion and take it to fusion. The physicist Andrei Sakharov imagined a similar procedure for the Russian bomb, and the British had followed the same course. But at the end of the 1960s, French atomic scientists still did not know of any of this work and had to rediscover the procedure. It was long, it was expensive, and the head of state was stamping his feet in impatience.
Once France was in possession of the A-bomb, De Gaulle could not wait for the nation to go up one gear and acquire the famous H-bomb. The first American bomb of this type, Ivy Mike (10.4 megatons, or 600 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb), had exploded on the atoll of Eniwetok in November 1952. Then, in August 1953, the Russians exploded their first H-bomb, perfected by Sakharov, who many years later became the main Russian figure opposing the Soviet order. In 1957, it was the turn of the British, who were remarkably rapid. All this was already vexing enough. But what put De Gaulle into a black fury was the idea of the explosion of a Chinese H-bomb, which in fact came to pass in 1967. France behind China? Unacceptable...and yet!
While De Gaulle pressed the teams of the CEA [Commissariat à l'énergie atomique, the French atomic energy agency], the nucléocrates were having trouble. Not only could they not manage to find a solution, but the Élysée Palace [equivalent of White House] found that they were reluctant and dragging their feet. This was not wrong! Feeling little affinity for this project, they considered that the A-bomb France already possessed was already quite powerful enough. They were in agreement with the military men, who were just as unenthusiastic about nuclear weapons, that it was scarcely useful to acquire a weapon that could kill an enemy a thousand times, when it is already possible to kill him a hundred times. Pierre Messmer, who was Army Minister at the time, was still so angry twenty years later with those who refused to toe the line that he denounced them at a Sorbonne conference in 1989: "One of the reasons that we were relatively slow in moving from the A-bomb to the H-bomb, that is from fission to fusion, was that the scientists who worked for the CEA systematically refused all studies and research of a military character." This was a little unjust, but what matter? The army chief must be satisfied at any price!
Charles de Gaulle found himself a scapegoat, Alain Peyrefitte, his Minister for Research and Atomic and Space Affairs from January 1966 to April 1967. Just after having named him, the General browbeat him until the minister, as he recounts in his book Le Mal français, avowed the dishonorable truth. The engineers were stumbling, they were stuck, they couldn't do it: the H-bomb seemed to be beyond their capability within the timeframe fixed by the head of state in 1968. Officially, Peyrefitte solved the problem by naming an exceptional man, Robert Dautray, to the head of the H-bomb research group. Legend has it that Dautray knew how to put the teams to work, and that they then miraculously found the way to the bomb. The truth, which hides a very big secret, is a little different!
In fact, it was the British who offered the H-bomb to the French. It was the engineer Pierre Billaud, ousted by Peyrefitte shortly after the Jupiter-sized temper tantrum of January 1966, who took off the rose-colored glasses, first partially in a short book [La véritable histoire de la bombe H française, 1994], then in December, 1966, in an article in the magazine La Recherche. He reveals in them that at the time when the French atomic scientists were thrashing around helplessly, one of the[ French] military attachés in London assigned to [French] ambassador Geoffroy de Courcel-- who was a close friend of De Gaulle's-- met several times at cocktail parties a scientist who was very well informed about the laborious French research. William Cook was one of the fathers of the British H-bomb, and had worked for years at the Atomic Weapons Establishment, the equivalent of the DAM (Direction des applications militaires) of the CEA. His French conversation partner, General André Thoulouze, was not a technician and did not understand much of what his new English friend was telling him, except that he said he was ready to help the French, gratis pro deo [free for God]. Thoulouze gave an account of these conversations to Henri Coleau, the head of the BIRS (Bureau information et renseignement scientifique), the private information service of the CEA. The conversations with Cook continued, but Cook never provided the French with any document. He recounted and explained in simple terms, and André Thoulouze retranscribed everything afterwards. The information the scientist was delivering was crucial: the path to follow to succeed in exploding the H-bomb was that of the Teller-Ulman method, which the French were not aware of: the famous compression by X-rays.
A young French engineer, Michel Carayol, had indeed come up with that solution, but it was repudiated by his peers, and he himself scarcely believed in it. On September 19, 1967, an emergency meeting was called at the CEA to discuss William Cook's revelation. This time, the road was clear...The French H-bomb exploded at Fangataufa, in the Pacific, less than a year later, on August 8, 1968, and remained one of the greatest prides of Charles de Gaulle.
Of course, this story gives a big slap in the face to the theory of an exclusive [French] "national path" in access to French nuclear weapons. Moreover, when Maurice Schumann, Alain Peyrefitte's successor in the ministerial oversight of the CEA, informed Charles de Gaulle of the British contribution, the latter "almost had a stroke."* Quite a few mysteries remain, however, concerning this episode. It would be especially important to know on whose political instructions William Cook, who died in 1987 years before his role came to light, was acting. For the French are still absolutely convinced, without having proof, that it was the British government of Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson that sent him in contact. Let us recall that at the time, Charles de Gaulle had just decided to withdraw France from NATO, and that he was opposed to British entry to the Common Market. But if London hoped to make the general soften with the gift of the H-bomb, it was a bad calculation. Five months after the explosion of Fangataufa, he renewed his opposition! So ungrateful....
Oh, the British! If only they had wanted to discuss a common nuclear strategy with the French. If only they had accepted, for example, to "take the nuclear alert" with the French. In the 2000s, France had four SNLEs (sous-marins nucléaires lanceurs d'engins)[nuclear submarines] available, one always at sea. Another nuclear secret, from the Chirac era this time: from 1995 onwards, he had teams working on a rapprochement with the British in this domain. Which went far: on November 2, 1996, Jacques Chirac and John Major publicly declared in London, "We do not imagine a situation in which the vital interests of one of our two countries, France and the United Kingdom, could be threatened without the vital interests of the others being threatened too." After this declaration, the chiefs of staff met, scenarios were elaborated and war games carried out, until there was a roadblock: the integration of the British dissuasive force with the American system was such that British autonomy was very much affected...The French President, as for him, has no one to answer to... The bomb is all his!
--From Histoire secrète de la Ve République, under the direction of Roger Faligot and Jean Guisnel (Éditions La Découverte, 2006)
* Marcel Duval, À la recherche d'un "secret d'État", in Défense nationale, August-September 2004.