Why Did France Leave NATO at the Height of the Cold War?

A forgotten mini Cold War within the NATO

Prateek Dasgupta
7 min readApr 26, 2022


French President Charles de Gaulle and American President John F.Kennedy, 1961
French President Charles de Gaulle (left) and American President John F.Kennedy in Paris, 1961. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

FFrance and NATO have had a fascinating, and often tense relationship. Although France was a founding member of NATO in 1949, it has not always played nice. In fact, one of the most interesting scandals that rocked NATO and also rattled the Kremlin’s cage happened in 1966.

France shocked the world by quitting NATO.

Though Cold War historians argue that the decision was not out of the blue and it was coming for a long time.

But why?

Why did France leave NATO after helping to build it and hosting it for fifteen years?

Before we jump into the reasons for France quitting NATO, it is important to clarify what we mean by “quitting”, in this context.

France quit the unified NATO military command structure, but not the organization. This means that France agreed to help a NATO member if it was attacked but on its own terms. France said it wouldn’t be a part of NATO’s military operations.

France’s decision to leave the NATO command structure had a long-term effect on French and European politics, and France did not rejoin NATO until 2009.

To understand the concerns of the French leadership, let us look at the events preceding the decision by President Charles de Gaulle to pull the plug on NATO.

Simmering tensions between France and NATO

Technically, the NATO military operations could be led by any member nation. But in reality, the country’s name started with a U and ended with the “nited States of America”.

At NATO’s de facto helm, a senior US military officer was designated as the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe (SACEUR).On paper, the second-in-command may be from any NATO member, but he was always British.

France was worried about this leadership structure.

On 17 September 1958, Charles de Gaulle sent a letter to the US President Dwight Eisenhower and the British Prime Minister Harold Mc Millan proposed a tripartite Directorate of the NATO, in which Britain, France, and the USA would have an equal say in the…



Prateek Dasgupta

Top writer in History, Science, Art, Food, and Culture. Interested in lost civilizations and human evolution. Contact: prateekdasgupta@gmail.com