The Venice Roundtable
François Mitterrand related the following episode several times afterward–to SPD [The German Social Democratic Party] president Hans-Jochen Vogel, Spanish prime minister Felipe González, German chancellor Helmut Kohl, and West German minister of foreign affairs Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and in Cabinet meetings.
What he had heard the evening of June 8, 1987, in Venice clearly made quite an impression on him: not only did he return to it on several occasions in the course of various conversations, but also he related the remarks he had heard in different versions.
For him, this story was exceptionally instructive, and he thought others should also hear it. Mitterrand was evidently anxious that it be understood, because he continued to mull over its significance, interpreting it even while telling it, turning it this way and that, depending on the conversation he was having, as if seeking to extract every possible message from it. What triggered this quarrel on that June evening in Venice occurred during a roundtable on the issue of nuclear war.
Seated around the table of the Palazzo Grassi for a political dinner were French president François Mitterrand, American president Ronald Reagan, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, German chancellor Helmut Kohl, Japanese prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, Italian prime minister Amintore Fanfani, and the president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors.1
They had gathered in Venice to participate in the G7 economic summits, but, for this roundtable, they had chosen to bring up the disarmament negotiations between East and West. They exchanged information, stressing one aspect or another, stating their points of view, some of which were quite different–not to say at variance.
During their discussion, Chancellor Kohl and Prime Minister Thatcher got involved in a heated exchange. President Mitterrand remained silent for some time, as he often did at this kind of meeting. In those cases, one never knew whether he was following the conversation or not (he sometimes wrote postcards while others were talking).
But it also happened–most often with Chancellor Kohl–that a strategy for the conversation would be previously agreed upon with someone else, whereby he would intervene at a very precise moment; in those cases, too, he began by remaining silent but winking at his strategic ally from time to time.
This time, his silence lasted some time, but after the argument between Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl, he ended up–impatiently, and encouraged by the liveliness of the preceding exchange–without the slightest rhetorical flourish, voicing his thoughts on the question of disarmament, the question of nuclear war.
A “Flexible Response” is Not a Deterrent
And so developed this quarrel–or “scandal” to borrow the expression that he himself used–set off by Mitterrand in Venice, providing the material for the anecdote he recounted numerous times concerning the Venice summit.2
THE PRESIDENT [MITTERRAND]: I’ve been listening to you for two hours.
I’m going to tell you what I agree on and what I don’t agree on.
The double zero option: I agree and I’ve said so.
Reducing strategic arms to 50 percent: I wish it absolutely. And I’ve said so.
But the “flexible response:”3 no. I don’t believe in it at all. To avoid a nuclear war, to deter effectively, it is necessary to rely on all nuclear weapons, in particular on the central systems.
Killing a few Russians along with a lot of Germans will not deter the Russians. It is necessary to hit the Russians on their very own territory. The idea of a limited nuclear war on European soil is ridiculous.
MRS. THATCHER: Would you use your bombs to protect Bonn?
THE PRESIDENT: No. If France is alone, only the defense of its national interest will count. On the other hand, if there is a resolution of the whole Alliance, if there is total American willingness, France will be a party, even if it is necessary to make something of a flexible response with the others.
MRS. THATCHER: How can you ask Reagan for protection of Europe that you yourself are not ready to grant?
THE PRESIDENT: That is sophistry. What would you do?
MRS. THATCHER: It’s true that my nuclear weapons are not entirely mine,4 but in any event, neither can I say in advance what I would protect. What matters are my national interests. What would I do? I shan’t say in advance.
PRESIDENT REAGAN: You don’t understand. We committed to your protection because it’s in our interest, our security, because Europe is our first line of defense. The American commitment is entire.5
Solidarity in the First Minute of War
A month after the Venice economic summit, on July 9, 1987, President Mitterrand received the man who was president of the SPD at the time, Hans-Jochen Vogel, at the Élysée. During their discussions, they quickly raised the issues of security, war, and disarmament. They had not gotten very far in their conversation when Mitterrand began to relate:
In Venice, the seven of us around the table had a very serious discussion. You are the first one I’m telling about it.
Mrs. Thatcher asked me why the French insist that the Americans intervene with their nuclear weapons at the outset of the war.
I said that it was the sole possible guarantee as long as no European defense existed. And there will be no European defense until there is political unity.
And Germany has its own particular problem: It’s divided in two. Geography placed it between East and West: it can’t look to just one side. We indeed have a Mediterranean policy. It’s geography that commands history.
In Venice, I said that we were not in favor of the strategy adopted by NATO for the past fifteen years.
Mrs. Thatcher [asked]: “And if Bonn is occupied militarily by the conventional Soviet army, do you use the atomic bomb?”
And I replied “no.”
“Then,” she said to me, “how can you ask the Americans to take this risk [of using atomic weapons] if you’re not ready to do so for the Germans?”
“Because what you’re saying is sophistry. If the Alliance stands together, this solidarity must be expressed in the first minute of the war and not on the second day. All the American, British, and French forces must be ready–not to bomb Bonn but to bomb the USSR in its vitals.
If things are like that, there will be no war. That is deterrence.”
“If you say that France is ready to launch an atomic bomb against German soil, then no. But if the Alliance plays its role, I’m ready to bring all French nuclear forces into play to respond to the aggressor.”6
Nuclear Deterrence Not Meant to Win a War
François Mitterrand continued to tell this story to his interlocutors. On August 25, 1987, Spanish prime minister Felipe González was his guest at his vacation home in Latche. Over lunch, they had a detailed discussion, and Mitterrand came back to the topic of Venice:
At the Venice summit, with Mrs. Thatcher, in the presence of Chancellor Kohl and President Reagan, I had a very heated discussion on this subject. She asked me whether, in the provocative way she sometimes has, in the event the city of Bonn were captured by the Russians, would I use my nuclear force.
I told her certainly not. First of all, because this bomb would fall on Germany, a friendly country.
Then because, for France, that would be the assurance of our destruction.
I also told her that I would be ready to have the French nuclear force intervene on two conditions: first, that the United States and the United Kingdom also intervene immediately; and second, that this intervention occur on Soviet soil.
If those two conditions are met, if that’s the case, we won’t have war. For one must always remember that nuclear deterrence is meant not to win the war, which would be impossible, but to avoid it.7
More than half the meeting that Chancellor Kohl and President Mitterrand had in Bonn on October 20, 1987, was devoted to problems of military strategy and the issue of nuclear war. Mitterrand explained that he had his own thoughts on this point and, to illustrate it, reminded Kohl of the evening in Venice:
Do you recall Mrs. Thatcher’s question in Venice? “The Russians arrive in Bonn, what do you do?”
The question’s stupid–the Russians mustn’t arrive in Bonn. The problem must be dealt with strategically. There’s a diplomatic side and a military side.
The diplomatic side is our attitude in relation to the discussions between Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev, and that’s the solidification of Europe through Franco-German solidarity.
The military side brings us back to the question: How to keep the Russians from hoping to take advantage of war? War has to present more dangers than advantages for the Russians.8
“The Famous Venice Summit” Story
To the West German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Mitterrand explained his strategic thinking on that day and once again did so by relating his answer to the question that Prime Minister Thatcher had raised in Venice:
In Venice, Mrs. Thatcher had asked me the question:
“If the Soviet troops invade West Germany and reach the Bonn suburbs, will you launch the French bomb?”
I told her: “Certainly not!”
That’s sophistry. That’s not where the problem lies. The important thing is that the USSR not come [in the first place]–that has to be our strategy. We must act before and not after. If they get to Bonn, the game’s over. And it’s not up to France alone to launch the bomb when we alone would be destroyed within the day.
“I’m going to tell you how the problem is set: either the United States, France, and Great Britain are in agreement:
–on a disarmament and peace process naturally;
–but also in threatening the Soviet Union with an all-out nuclear war on Soviet territory within the first fifteen minutes, a real threat; or else this is not the case [the agreement is not made], and in that event, France must not be asked, in the event of British and American abstention, to start a nuclear war by itself.”
Only the power of an alliance can contain Soviet power.9
The inner circle of Mitterrand’s team, of course, also heard the story of Thatcher’s question, which had allowed the British prime minister to set off this discussion in Venice, leading to such clear words. Around the Élysée, Mitterrand’s story became–in the words of one of the president’s collaborators–”the famous Venice summit story.”10
And those who had not yet heard it in the larger circle of the government in Paris learned of it at latest on July 13, 1988, at the Cabinet meeting, when President Mitterrand told it in the following terms:
To Mrs. Thatcher’s question–”If the Russians were in Bonn, would you unleash the French nuclear strike force?”
–[Mitterrand] answered, “Certainly not. It would be too late and would mean that the Alliance had not functioned. If the Alliance sticks together, there will be no war. We French will show solidarity. How about you?”
“I must say,” the president went on, “that the answer did not come either from Mrs. Thatcher or from Mr. Reagan.”11
Which is false–we must correct this point immediately–because the French president received a response from his American counterpart, even though it was not the one he would have liked (and even though, relying on his own evaluation of the American attitude, he could not in any event have expected President Reagan to answer that way).
Thatcher: “I Shan’t Say Ahead of Time.”
As if to protect the Europeans who were getting worked up about the nuclear threat on their continent, Ronald Reagan threw out soothing promises–which was indeed a response. But the sole objective remark contained in those words–our first line of defense–could only make Mitterrand wary from his perspective because he did not believe that the United States would risk the nuclear destruction of Chicago (or some other American city) to save a European city.
And it was for precisely that reason, thought he, that the Americans would initially graduate their reactions in case of the outbreak of a nuclear war; indeed, Europe would not be much more than their first line of defense, so that, to take up the concrete language used at the Venice roundtable, a threat to Bonn would not yet signify–far be it!–a threat to Chicago.
Mitterrand would have recognized the quality of “response” in Reagan’s remarks only had they basically signified this: “Europe is America’s line of defense.”
Prime Minister Thatcher was more honest. She indicated the logic that allowed her country’s nuclear deterrence to produce its effect and consequently refused to answer the question she herself had thrown out and which Mitterrand had thrown back at her by answering.
What would I do [in the case of a Soviet attack in West Germany]? I shan’t say ahead of time.
Of course not. That was precisely the deterrent effect: the fact that the potential aggressor not know when or how one would act. Yet this was precisely Mitterrand’s logic. By not giving him an answer, Margaret Thatcher gave him the only genuine answer and thereby showed, in an obvious way, to what degree the question she had asked was “stupid.”
“The Russians arrive in Bonn. What do you do?” This was not the problem. The issue that was raised was completely different: “The Russians must not arrive in Bonn.” But how might they be prevented from doing so? That was the question.
Strategy Must be Against Nuclear War
In recounting the strategic argument in Venice, however divergent each telling might have been, Mitterrand always remained attached to that question: How to guard against nuclear war, this war of total destruction that the East and West were capable of engaging in? How to avoid this war? How to protect oneself against its ever being triggered? The nature of nuclear war required that no one ever wish to wage it.
Thinking about nuclear war consequently meant–and Mitterrand continuously repeated this argument–thinking about it by starting with its prevention.
The strategy that might be conceived for this war could not be raised–one did not even have the right to do so–in terms of the objective of winning it. The strategy adapted for nuclear war should rather be–or, better, could only be–a strategy against such a war.
From Mitterrand’s point of view, any strategic thinking on nuclear war had to be deployed starting with the supreme imperative of not allowing it to break out, from preventing it at its root. How does one guard against nuclear war? In François Mitterrand’s mind, as concerned nuclear war, it was the only question to be asked on the strategic level since it was the one that immediately decided all the rest.12
Starting from this point, he developed a strategic thinking that was perfectly clear in its logic and did not shrink from the terrible implication of total destruction. For Mitterrand, thinking about nuclear deterrence was a duty of the French president. His thinking on the issue of nuclear war was unshakable.
He said to others, just as inflexibly, that the terror of nuclear war was the proper response to the threat constituted by its possibility (which did not prevent him during the same period from arguing in favor of disarmament measures, which would lead to the exclusion of atomic weapons from the arsenal of the leading powers, both in the East and the West).
Mitterand’s Clear Thinking
The rigor of Mitterrand’s strategic thinking is striking, and it might be added that this is true also of its seriousness. Nothing must be taken lightly; everything weighs heavily–that is what his words continually mean despite the very different declarations he made concerning nuclear war.
As if overcome by silent despair over the simplemindedness he encountered here and there, he sometimes threw out appeals to his interlocutors for them to think over this problem as clearly and as rationally as he did.
The threat of nuclear terror that François Mitterrand had to bear as France’s strategist did not make him indulgent regarding those who understood nothing or chose not to understand anything on this point, or even those who proved to be lightweights on this issue or whose thinking about it was fuzzy or self-interested.
For them, he felt only the most profound disdain. Sometimes he expressed it–as, for example, in regard to certain French politicians who, as he said to the German chancellor in Bonn on October 20, 1987,
[Certain French politicians] always want to believe that nuclear war would resemble a classic war. We can’t prevent people from being stupid. There’s always the same proportion of imbeciles, whether in government or in first grade. But when one is at the top, one has more knowledge if not necessarily better sense.
The way we tackle the problems of defense today plunges me into the depths of reflection.13
However, there was one problem that Mitterrand asked himself in his strategic thinking, for which he also knew a solution, but one that, as he increasingly understood and with a certain displeasure, made a casuist of him and not the strategist superior in his answer to the question asked of him.
Is Germany a Protected Area or a Battlefield?
For the Germans were expecting of France–and therefore the government headed by Mitterrand–guarantees and even certainties on a question that clearly worried them considerably: what did French thinking foresee, regarding Germany, regarding a commitment of France’s nuclear forces? To be precise: in what way was German territory integrated into those considerations–as an area to protect or as a battlefield?
The Germans were nervous about a question that concerned their very existence. As they were given no response, their worry and dissatisfaction took root, but they continued to ask the question and seek information. In addition, they proved to be so concerned that their extreme worry awoke many other worries, which France managed so well to maintain concerning the “country at risk.”
Mitterrand and those who governed with him saw that the Germans needed an answer that would liberate them from the burden of their problem. And they told each other that, nevertheless, they had to continue owing the Germans this answer by refraining, in a reassuring way, from giving it.
Germany was “dangling” on the French nuclear war doctrine and sought the support that French guarantees, from its point of view, could have provided. On the other hand, Mitterrand’s France deemed that it could give such guarantees only by abandoning the logic of its nuclear doctrine and was therefore not in a position to do so. West Germany had to try to provoke France into moving, whereas France necessarily had to remain immobile.
Thus, under the black star of nuclear terror, the two states found themselves captive in a strange game of attraction and repulsion. Owing to the nature of its nuclear strategy, it was a game with no exit. If, on the other hand, the game was conceived politically, it left room to maneuver to one of the countries but not to the other.
It must therefore be said that France found a possibility for exercising power over Germany. [It suffices to look back in order] to understand: France took the game to the political level and brandished the power it drew from it over Germany.
(for fuller citations see the bibliography in Professor Schabert’s book)
1. Also at the table, but as “accompanists” or “guides,” were interpreters and advisors.
2. “In Venice, I explained my ideas to Ronald Reagan, to Mrs. Thatcher, and to Chancellor Kohl. I caused something of a scandal.” François Mitterrand in the course of a conversation with American senators Robert C. Byrd, Samuel A. Nunn, and Claiborne de Borda Pell, March 14, 1988.
3. Mitterrand used the French term riposte graduée for the concept of a “flexible response,” by which the NATO doctrine designated a flexible–depending on evaluation and needs–and therefore, graduated reaction to an attack coming from the East against NATO territory.
4. British nuclear weapons cannot be used without American participation, that is, without the approval of the Americans.
5. Report of the “political dinner” of June 8, 1987, during the Venice economic summit.
6. Report of the Mitterrand-Vogel meeting in Paris, July 8,1987.
7. Report of the Mitterrand-Gonzalez meeting at Latche, August 25,1987.
8. Report of the Mitterrand-Kohl conversation in Bonn, October 20, 1987.
9. Report of the Mitterrand-Genscher meeting in Bonn, October 20,1987.
10. Report of the Cabinet meeting on April 26,1989.
11. Report of the Cabinet meeting on July 13, 1988. Mitterrand also spoke publicly about this Venice discussion in an interview he granted to Le Nouvel Observateur, which was printed under the title “La stratégie de la France” in the December 18-24, 1987, issue, 39-42.
12. In addition, Mitterrand was concerned with preventing not only nuclear war but also any kind of war. The way to achieve this was by responding to any threat of war with the threat of nuclear war and, as an ultimate consequence, which would prevent it, use the threat of nuclear deterrence. That was, in any event, the argument he developed during his meeting with German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher on October 20,1987, when he told him: “Every form, every threat of war must be brought back to nuclear war and consequently prevented by deterrence” (Report of the Mitterrand-Genscher meeting in Bonn, October 20,1987).
13. Report of the Mitterrand-Kohl meeting in Bonn on October 20,1987. Regarding the context of Mitterrand’s remarks, it must be pointed out that, at the time in Paris, he found himself in a sharp confrontation with the “cohabitation” government of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, especially on issues of military strategy, with Andre Giraud, the minister of defense.
Giraud, supported by members of the conservative majority, wanted to integrate the “flexible response” strategy into the French defense doctrine, but for President Mitterrand, this was unthinkable, a fundamental error. On October 15,1987, André Giraud had singularly stirred up this confrontation by granting an interview to Le Figaro in which he mentioned, in positive terms, the possibility of a limited nuclear war in Europe. That provoked Mitterrand to react as strenuously as he had in his meeting with Chancellor Kohl. To the latter, he had already expressed himself in similar terms at a luncheon on October 17 with his collaborators Hubert Védrine and Jean-Louis Bianco:
“Concerning defense, Chirac doesn’t think anything; or rather his convictions vary according to the moment. As for Giraud, he’s more of the MRP [Popular Republican Movement] tendency of the fifties. He talks about the notion of nuclear protection of French soldiers, therefore of Franco-German soldiers, therefore of German soil, and arrives at a double key, which makes no sense. There cannot be a joint weapon without joint strategy. Yet the French and German strategies are different because our nuclear status is different” (Report of that meeting).
See also P. Favier and M. Martin-Roland, La décennie Mitterrand, vol. 2, Les épreuves (1984-1988) (Paris, 1991), 639-40.
This chapter is from How the World is Made: France and the Reunification of Germany. Tilo Schabert. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2009.