Military & Aerospace

France & Nuclear Disarmament between vision & realism-I
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Issue Vol 25.4 Oct-Dec 2010 | Date : 22 Dec , 2010

In the early 1950’s with France just recovering its economic autonomy after the destruction brought by WWII, the French perceived themselves as under American dominance.

As a Secret Report on the French Nuclear Tests (La Génèse de l’organisation et les experimentations au Sahara) put it: “The strategic weight of the United States on the Alliance (NATO) was exorbitant. France could not successfully oppose the German rearmament; [but] an alternative appeared which could favorably help compensating this. The idea was [for France] to develop a force of nuclear deterrence while the same right would be denied to Germany under the terms of the Paris and London Agreements of 1954.”

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On August 20, 1954, Pierre Mendes-France, the French Prime Minister (président du conseil) ordered a report on “the constitution of a nuclear arsenal by the European Army, which would give (Europe) the possibility to play again a main role in the direction of the Alliance”. The title of the report ordered by Mendes-France was “La Guerre Atomique, Etude d’une doctrine des Forces aéroterrestres” (Atomic war: study of a doctrine for terrestrial and airborne forces).

Nehru was in a very sombre mood, and had said to senior members of his delegation that after his talks with Mao, he was pessimistic about relations with China, and foresaw a conflict in the future.

A few days later, the government decided to study the possibility of a ‘national’ nuclear force as the idea of a European Defence Community had just been rejected by the French Parliament11.

On October 2212, the Prime Minister issued a secret decree13 creating the Commission Supérieur des Applications de l’Atome (High Commission for the applications of the atom).

At the end of the year14, an important Cabinet meeting, chaired by Mendes-France took place in Paris. It was decided to go for a French atom bomb. The meeting requested the relevant authorities to prepare a budget and plan for the next steps. This date is still considered as the birth of the French nuclear program for military use.

On 28 December a Bureau d’Etudes Generales (Bureau of General Studies) was created with General Albert Buchalet as head to start the program. In 1955 the Defense Ministry (Ministre des Armées) began transferring funds in large amounts to the program.

Interestingly, it is also during the year 1954 that things took a concrete shape in India. On 3 August 1954, the Indian Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) was created with Dr Bhabha as Secretary. This department thereafter answered directly to the Prime Minister; it still continues to do so today. Both the civil and military research was on track.

In 1954, the Indian nuclear program began to move in a direction that would eventually lead to the establishment of nuclear weapons capability.

The Bomb as a Paper Tiger

To complete the panorama of Year 1954, it is interesting to mention an event which may have triggered the announcement of Rajiv Gandhi in the UN in June 1988: it is the visit of his grand-father Jawaharlal Nehru to China in October 1954.

The Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 was far away and seemed unlikely in 1954 in the hey-day of Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai.

Several years ago, while reading the memories of Sultan Khan, a former Pakistani Ambassador to China (and later Foreign Secretary), I was greatly intrigued. This visit should have marked the culmination of the Hindi-Chini Bhai-bhai15 policy, but Nehru seemed extremely disturbed during his stay in Beijing. According to Khan: “Sino-Indian relations continued to get closer, and Nehru received a very warm welcome on his visit in 1954. A few days after his visit, the Indian Embassy held a reception at which I overheard an Indian diplomat, who had acted as Nehru’s interpreter, telling some of his colleagues that just before his departure from Shanghai, Nehru was in a very sombre mood, and had said to senior members of his delegation that after his talks with Mao, he was pessimistic about relations with China, and foresaw a conflict in the future. The Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 was far away and seemed unlikely in 1954 in the hey-day of Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai. I do not know on what basis Nehru foresaw this.”

Later, when I read The Private Life of Chairman Mao, written by his private physician, I understood Nehru’s ‘sombre mood’.

According to Dr Li Zhisui, Mao blew Nehru’s pacifist mind (and probably broke his heart). Dr Li recalled the encounter during which Mao explained that the atomic bomb was a paper tiger: “I did not immediately understand, because it was so hard to accept, how willing Mao was to sacrifice his own citizens in order to achieve his goals. I had known as early as October 1954, from a meeting with India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, that Mao considered the atom bomb a ‘paper tiger’ and that he was willing that China lose millions of people in order to emerge victorious against so-called imperialists. ‘The atom bomb is nothing to be afraid of,’ Mao told Nehru. China has many people. They cannot be bombed out of existence. If someone else can drop an atomic bomb, I can too. The death of ten or twenty million people is nothing to be afraid of.”16

Continued…: France & Nuclear Disarmament between vision & realism-II


  1. Quoted by K Subrahmanyam in an article in The Times of India (8 May 1997) “Arms & the Mahatma.” This is extracted from the biography on Maj Gen AA Rudra written by Maj Gen DK Palit.
  2. See
  3. Fifteen 15 years later, India was far from being prepared when the Chinese troops attacked and descended the slopes of Thakla ridge on October 20, 1962, but it is another story.
  4. See letter from Vajpayee to Clinton after Pokhran II.
  5. Dorab Tata was Bhabha’s uncle.
  6. See
  7. See
  8. Commissariat à l’énergie atomique (CEA).
  9. The Fourth Republic was the government of France between 1946 and 1958. France adopted the constitution of the Fourth Republic on 13 October 1946.
  10. The Fifth Republic is the fifth and current republican constitution of France. It was introduced on 4 October 1958.
  11. On August 30, 1954.
  12. It was the day the elected representatives of Pondicherry met and decided on a ‘merger’ with the Union of India. It will be officialized on November 1, 1954 (de facto merger).
  13. It was not published in the Journal Official (Gazette).
  14. On December 26, 1954.
  15. “Indians and Chinese are brothers”.
  16. Li Zhisui, Dr, The Private Life of Chairman Mao (London: Arrow, 1996), p. 125.

Continued…: France & Nuclear Disarmament between vision & realism-II

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Claude Arpi

Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

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