This article was written in spring 1997, in an attempt to give a brief while complete history of the french H bomb adventure. No monthly french historical review accepted to publish this text. (May 1997, reviewed June 1998).
The incredible story of the French H-bomb
A chaotic process and a scandalous historical falsification
1965-1966. A 180-degree about-turn
Stubborn harassment of the Directory of Military applications
1967. The almost clandestine emergence of the solution
A providential information. Accelerated march towards success
1967-1968. Robert Dautray
Distribution of awards
1976. The return of Alain Peyrefitte. Le mal français
1993. Intervention of the FIGARO, the cup runneth over
1996. The state secret unveiled. Finally, the truth.
A last minor historical enigma. Misguided zeal?
In conclusion, a last disillusioned reflection
At the time of our first magnificent nuclear success in February 1960 (four times the yield of Hiroshima), we had no doubt of having to carry on with the next step, the H-bomb. Three years before, the English, after the Russians and the Americans, had reached the thermonuclear level, only five years after their first A-bomb explosion. Of course, our priority programmes at the time concerned the fitting of a warhead to the Mirage IV, and an H programme was rather for the medium term. In fact, we were surprised enough at the frankly negative attitude of the Defence officials with regard to an immediate H effort, even only scientific. Apparently, the question had been decided upon at the very top: "no H priority, we'll see about when time comes". These questions were examined and decided upon by the Defence Council, still headed at the time by General de Gaulle in person, and so it was clear that the General had accepted, if not approved, this "H" non-priority. Proof of this was recently provided to us by Alain Peyrefitte's mention of a brief conversation that he had with the General in July 1962, after a Council of ministers' meeting during which Gaston Palewski had mentioned 1970 as the possible date for an eventual H experiment ( in A.Peyrefitte : C'était De Gaulle. Fayard 1994. Page 67) :
"AP : - Don't you think that 1970 is a long way off for the H-bomb?
GdG.- Well, yes. I wonder if we couldn't shorten the timeframe. But, you see, these types of things take a lot of time..."
The President's reaction, relaxed to say the least, was in stark contrast to the near hysteria which he would display four years later, upon realising that the Chinese - who had put a lot of effort into the H phase from the very beginning - were going to get ahead of France. Apparently forgetting that he had supported contrary directives only a few short years before, the President pounced on Alain Peyrefitte, recently named minister of research and of atomic and space matters (in A. Peyrefitte : Le mal français, chapitre 9. Plon 1976. Page 81) :
"Find out why the CEA (Commissariat à l'énergie atomique, the french AEC) hasn't managed to make an H-bomb. It's taking forever! (...)... I want the first experiment to take place before I leave! Do you hear me? It's of capital importance. Of the five nuclear powers, are we going to be the only one which hasn't made it to the thermonuclear level? Are we going to let the Chinese get ahead of us? - How much time are you giving us? (asks Peyrefitte) - 1968 at the latest... Figure it out!"
Until then, for atomic questions dealing with military applications, the main contact people for the DAM (Directory of Military Applications) had always been the Minister of the Armed Forces and his representatives, and notably the Ministerial Delegation for Armament's official atomic representative, all of whom had steadfastly refused us any budgetary efforts with regard to H studies. One can thus wonder if de Gaulle, with a certain degree of machivellianism, hadn't decided to push the Minister for research into H studies in order to avoid any dissent from the other minister. He thus gave this position to Peyrefitte only in order to stimulate the CEA, knowing that Peyrefitte, in his former capacity as minister of information, had no access to the Defence councils and thus was unaware of any previous government disinterest in H terms. And Peyrefitte, with his total lack of serious experience in scientific research, didn't take the time to consider the major change of directions which was being imposed on the CEA, and contented himself with passing on de Gaulle's orders like a drill sergeant : "I don't want to hear it. Figure it out!" (Le mal... p.82).
And so, in 1966 and 1997, the DAM was subject to destructive pressure, with its director, Jacques Robert, constantly threatened with dismissal if the promised results were not delivered quickly, or, failing that, if changes were not immediately made in the scientific hierarchy. What, however, was the situation in Limeil, the DAM centre in charge of H research, and of which I had been in charge since 1962? The organisation of the theoretical research department (Mathematical physics) was well suited to the work arising from the current defence programmes (which excluded the H-bomb), i.e. the development of high performance fission weapons, the research for which involved rather an extrapolation of already acquired data, additional probing, and optimising of the methods, etc... On the contrary, the H-bomb was a completely different objective, a conceptual jump requiring one or more innovations beyond the known domain, meaning a pure discovery. Everyone who has had an occasion to participate in a real discovery knows that such a result cannot be obtained "under the gun", or by comments such as "so what's the news with the H-bomb? Is it going to be today or tomorrow?" For my part, I had carried out a mild reorganisation of the theoretical department, consisting in naming Luc Dagens as the head of H research. The appointment of this young physics scientist significantly improved the innovative potential of the department. The other human resources were also of high quality, and in all likelihood, perfectly up to dealing successfully with the H problem, as later events would prove. All that was necessary was to let the teams think and focus on the problem, and only intervene in case of a clearly unproductive tangent. In December 1965, results stemming from new and very encouraging bases had been obtained, and I myself came up with a promising conceptual idea, unfortunately not initially approved by my colleagues. When Robert asked me to leave Limeil, under pressure from Peyrefitte, this situation - though encouraging - was not such that I could promise short term results without bluffing. I thus resolved to leave, sad and disappointed.
Until that time, the director at Limeil had de facto been the highest scientific authority for theoretical nuclear research at the DAM. I was replaced by Jean Berger, a learned scholar in dense matter and shock waves physics, but with little or no expertise in nuclear physics and related disciplines. As a result, thermonuclear research was no longer seriously directed at the highest level, and was basically left to the initiative of Dagens, who unfortunately, in 1966, led it down a poorly promising way. In addition, in order to multiply the chances for a useful breakthrough, Robert had created an informal group, supposed to compete with Dagens' department, which included the best engineers and scientists from other departments at Limeil. However, 1966 drew to a close without a truly encouraging new result. We had thus lost nine months.
In January 1967, I published an important report wherein I presented and developed my idea of late 1965, left idle since. While studying certain results obtained by Dagens in December 1965, I had come to the conclusion that the obligatory condition for obtaining a good thermonuclear yield lay in acting on the light combustible in two successive and quite distinct stages, first by a strong compression without heating, and then by a temperature increase. While not solving the entire problem, this publication unleashed a new round of reflections and indirectly promoted a positive stir amongst the many engineers and scientists at Limeil firmly desiring to meet the challenge and win it. I would like to point out the assistance of Jean Ouvry, who helped me to evaluate the energy required to put my idea into practice, of Edouard Moreau, who devised the ideal mathematical law for the compression of thermonuclear combustible medium, and of Michel Carayol, for the first simulation of an H assembly close to the objective. However, I had no opportunity to join in the decisive discussions. What took place during the first quarter of 1967, is related by a major witness, Jacques Bellot, who would later be put in charge of directing the preparations for the first French H experiment; his testimony is entirely supported by that of another major participant, Bernard Lemaire. According to Bellot:
There were many informal working meetings of small groups in the X department discussing at the blackboard. The usual participants were Lemaire, Lidin, Carayol, Besson, Crozier, and myself, sometimes other people, and occasionally Dagens. I thus had an insider's view of the events leading up to the "Carayol note". Later on, I discussed the discovery process with the main protagonists of these events, and we all agreed on the following. The starting point was an observation of Crozier who, in certain computation sessions, recorded a disturbing phenomenon which he could not explain. In fact, it was a local phenomenon of "radiative compression", and it was Lemaire who, to his credit, was able to explain this physical phenomenon. The idea of exploiting this began to enter our minds (Lemaire particularly made efforts in this direction). Carayol's discovery consisted in giving this a concrete shape, and imagining the geometry and modus operandi which we know today. There is no doubt in my mind that the "fundamental" idea must be ascribed to Carayol.
In early April 1967, Carayol published a brief paper wherein he presented, and justified mathematically, his architectural idea, which was the key to the solution for an efficient thermonuclear explosive device, consistent with the current data about American H weapons. Thus, and bearing in mind other recently acquired knowledge, the solution had been found as of April 1967. All of the parts of an efficient system had been sketched out, if not precisely defined, and in particular, all of the essential phenomena had been identified, worked out and, in part, evaluated. And yet, by a twist of fate, Carayol's draft was not welcomed with the seriousness that it merited. I can confirm that Dagens was seriously behind it, and that Paul Bonnet, the deputy at the DAM, wanted to pursue its development. Personally, I was hesitant and perplexed, as were most other scientists who were not directly involved. In any case, had I still been in charge of the H research, I would certainly have asked for particular efforts with regard to this possibility. Given the lack of enthusiasm, these results remained practically locked up within Limeil, and thus not fully appreciated by the DAM or any higher authority, considered as still in a groping phase. No claim of a significant advance was issued.
Desiring to accelerate things, however, Alain Peyrefitte happened to think of creating a special "H committee" which would bring together the main directors of the Commissariat in secret each month (Le mal... p.82). Asked to report on results they ignored or had little knowledge of, this highly ranked directors could do nothing but get entangled in as hazy as little credible explanations, thus increasing the minister's mistrust and his frenzied efforts to get things moving.
At the beginning of the second quarter of 1967, Robert was forced to change the director of the research sub-directory of the DAM, and he chose to appoint Jean Viard, who had previously been in charge of testing. Like Berger, Viard had originally been trained in detonations and dense matter physics, but was not familiar with nuclear disciplines. It took him five months to evaluate the situation, and to prepare his actions. With the nine months without valid results after my departure from Limeil, the various reorganisations imposed on the DAM had succeeded in delaying the progress of research efforts by more than one year! However, Viard decided in August that he would organise a conference intended to bring things up to date and to elaborate conclusions and orientations vis-à-vis the H-bomb. This conference took place on September 4th and 5th in the DAM centre in Valduc (in Burgundy), and it brought together the scientists and engineers who had worked on the problem. Also, in May, Robert Dautray - to whom we shall return later on - arrived at the DAM with the title of Scientific Director of the research sub-directory, subordinate to Viard. Dautray was present at Valduc, but in no way participated in the discussions. In conclusion, Viard decided upon a test schedule for the summer of 1968 inluding Dagens' T models and a device along Carayol's design. This latter project, which had been more or less disdained until then (even by Professor Yvon), was thus brought out of mothballs "in extremis".
Strangely enough, this meeting in Valduc, though intended to bring out ideas and strip away controversies, left me with a lacklustre memory. No disagreements, no debates. Perhaps it was the fact that everyone was waiting to see what would be the actions of the new director (Viard), who hosted the meeting but lacked assurance with regard to nuclear questions, and of the new scientific boss (Dautray), who never opened his mouth. One can easily imagine that this general inhibition was largely due to the trauma inflicted on the DAM over the course of the eighteen preceding months. Before then, there had been precious bonds of friendship and confidence, bonds which transcended the hierarchical structures and which favoured the sharing of ideas. Alas, these bonds had been foolishly destroyed.
Two weeks later, on September 19th exactly, and while the work resulting from the Valduc decisions had not yet concretely gotten underway, we received a providential visitor from London bearing information from a qualified source (Sir William Cook, former director of H research at the British centre for atomic military applications, at Aldermaston), according to which the Carayol's outline could be labelled as correct (Cf article de La Recherche). Had this outline not already been in existence, we would have had a difficult time understanding the information, and may have suspected an attempt of misleading us. In fact, there was a kind of reciprocal validation: Carayol's sketch authenticated the seriousness of the source, while the latter confirmed the value of Carayol's ideas. From that moment, things moved briskly.
Forty-eight hours later, during a meeting presided over by Robert, the news was communicated to all interested scientific management personnel interested, and the test schedule was redirected towards the new design. Two devices were planned out a few days later, one of them entrusted to Bellot (objective of several megatons), and the other to me (approximately one Mt, with an advanced thermonuclear yield). Right away, the DAM's admirable machine started working towards its objectives, deploying its considerable resources of scientific know-how, precision and - when necessary - audacity bordering on risk. Being in charge of a device, I was in constant contact with the cooperating departments of the DAM, thanks to correspondents from each department who had been assigned to my project. Everything was co-ordinated during regular meetings, and I would immediately arbitrate any problem or possible conflict. As soon as possible, I fixed material choices: shapes, sizes, masses, and other important parameters, such that the technological departments could work without delay and upon definite and stable data. Most often, these choices resulted from hand calculations, followed by complete machine simulations carried out by the teams of Dagens and Lemaire and the specialists from the Applied Mathematics department (under the direction of Jean Guilloud). Every week, I informed the DAM meeting of the progress of the project, and I remember that I hardly had to ask for a single technical decision from higher level, as I always stayed exactly within the bounds which had been set for me. In all of these engrossing tasks, I was very ably seconded by my deputy, Jean Ouvry. Naturally, Jacques Bellot operated in a similar manner on his side, with the assistance of the members of his team, notably of De la Mothe-Dreuzy, Deléaval, and Farrugia.
During the September 29th meeting, we were told that information had been received from abroad, and that it should remain confidential. The people attending the meeting were to refrain from discussing it with others, and a list of "initiates", twenty odd people, was established and kept up to date. Very few people outside the DAM were present on this list, and in particular, the minister for research and atomic questions had not been included, which fact would later have unexpected and unfortunate consequences. The artificial segregation thus introduced within the research teams as a result of this particular secret, was not exempt from creating a few embarrassing situations. For example it happened that two young "non-initiated" engineers from Limeil, Jean-Pierre Plantevin and Jean-Louis Champetier, who were carrying out H part simulations for the coming experiments and who had tried various architectural configurations, were unable to understand why a certain diagram was being imposed upon them (obviously inspired by the secret information), even though they believed to have come up with another more attractive solution. They went so far as to present their point of view to Viard, who was forced to dismiss them, sad and perplexed, without being able to give them any good reason why this direction should be maintained. In actual fact, they were right, and even today, I still wonder how this particular point managed to get away from the simplest, and the best, solution. As it may be, and as of September 29th 1967, the existence of decisive information from a foreign source remained a heavy secret d'état which, to the best of my knowledge, was not divulged significantly within the CEA until 1996.
I arrived in Papeete for Bellot's experiment on August 24th 1968 (Operation Canopus), and watched it from the PC/DIRCEN (Directory of the Nuclear Experimentation Centres). After an agonising hitch (the immediate visual observation having been prevented by thick clouds), it appeared that the experiment was a total success. Similarly, two weeks later on September 8th 1968, my device functioned perfectly (Operation Procyon); the weather was perfect which allowed for the taking of photographs (much used subsequently by the media).
One must now return to the presence with the DAM, in 1967 and 1968, of Robert Dautray, who would be much in the news some eight years later. Alain Peyrefitte, the minister charged by de Gaulle to get results from the CEA "at any price", did not limit himself to threatening and shaking up the existing teams. Though a stranger to the world of scientific research, and neglecting the warnings of competent directors, he did not hesitate to carry out a personal diagnosis, and decided that results could only be obtained through a change in the management of the research teams (Le mal... p.83-84). Better still, he decided that he would find the "adequate" person himself. As a man of letters knowing science only through a few conventionnal representations, Peyrefitte was convinced that titles and diplomas were a sure guarantee of the greatest inventiveness, a belief which is - as demonstrated in laboratories every day - a total error. And so, he cast his regard on a young physicist from Saclay, Robert Dautray, whom he sought to impose on the CEA so that he should effectively direct the thermonuclear research (Le mal... p.84). The general administrator, Robert Hirsch, was quite annoyed : he could not refuse the minister, and yet he knew perfectly well that this order could not be carried out as such. One cannot drop in an unknown research director little aware of the scientific domain in question without running the risk of apathy and wait-and-see attitude from the researchers. Moreover, the hierarchical responsibility for the works was on the level of the research sub-directory (Viard) and, higher up, on that of the DAM (Robert). Imposing a new director of H research with full authority over the relevant departments at Limeil, meant dispossessing Viard and Robert of their responsibilities, without substituting a similar degree of competence. For that reason, Viard and Hirsch together came up with the solution, at least for the duration of an initial observation period, of granting Dautray an official title of scientific director, without giving him any actual hierarchical authority. This position allowed Dautray admittance everywhere and free access to all the technical information on the past or current activities. Of course, he was free to express himself orally or in written form, and was even able to actually "take control" if he managed to impose his authority over the researchers by displaying unquestionable capabilities, which would have certainly have been enshrined by a more explicit official title. This was the common sense solution to which Peyrefitte refers with the words: "Robert Hirsch skilfully did his utmost to resolve the delicate human problems resulting from such a reorganisation" (Le mal... p.84). The title attributed to Dautray satisfied the minister, Maurice Schumann, who never asked for a clear explanation of the exact extent of Dautray's responsibilities, and who thus remained convinced that Dautray was truly directing the H research efforts. In any case, I can confirm that Dautray was welcomed within the DAM openly and without mental reservation, as any other new fellow researcher.
Dautray was administratively assigned to the DAM on May 8th 1967, having been privy beforehand to many interesting technical reports. From that date until September 27th, i.e. for almost five months, he studied documents and visited the departments involved in the H problem. To everyone's surprise, he remained totally in the background, silent during meetings, and he issued no paper, note, report or anything else. Normally, a competent scientist in such a situation, knowing that he had been designated as the potential saviour of a situation in jeopardy, and aware of the short time remaining (de Gaulle having set 1968 as a deadline, which left only one year to achieve results), would have considered it a clear obligation to express himself as soon as possible, say after a month or two at the very most, by making known his initial conclusions as to the best directions for research and experiments. Even during the Valduc conference, intended to settle these questions, he abstained totally. How can one explain this ghost-like behaviour, this vacuity? Several hypotheses can be put forward. One cannot completely exclude the possibility that, after five months, he had understood absolutely nothing of our work. More likely, however, he might have grasped the essential pieces of information and results obtained, but did not yet feel capable of drawing a definite conclusion. Also, he could have been inhibited by a blind fear of making a mistake, a reason which can be combined with the preceding hypothesis. In any case, Dautray did not, apparently, realise the evidence which was to me as big as a mountain, i.e. the complete valueless of the projects in course at Limeil in 1966. At the beginning of 1967, I was still the only one to openly state that current designs excluded any hope of an efficient H-bomb, and to ask that we look in other directions. Indeed, the Antarès experiment in June 1967 had been disappointing with this type of formula. Nevertheless, at Valduc on September 5th, Viard himself - still not very comfortable with thermonuclear questions, one must admit - thought it appropriate to put two experiments of this type at the head of the 1968 programme, without any objections from Dautray, who had nary a word to say.
After the fortuitous information at the end of September, the DAM instantaneously returned to its traditional activities and its deepest reflexes, and Dautray remained - with regard to design and realisation - completely out of the circuit, and did not contribute, in any way whatsoever, to the decisive experiments of 1968. However, in October 1967, Viard came up with the idea of assigning Dautray the special task of providing regular information to the minister (Maurice Schumann, at that time). This kept the party in question occupied and comforted the politically responsible person, while also calming any of his possible outbursts of impatience. This was indeed the result of this manoeuvre, one which freed the people involved in the coming experiments from any pressure or political constraints.
One month after the second experiment, on October 10th 1968 to be precise, Robert Galley, the new minister for research and atomic questions held a special luncheon to celebrate recent successes, to which were invited nine people, including the main management personnel of the DAM who were involved in the H programme. To my great surprise, Robert Galley addressed the floor solemnly and identified Dagens, Carayol, and myself as the three main scientists responsible for the recent successes. He then listed our respective contributions : Luc Dagens, for the complete elucidation of the decisive reactions in the thermonuclear combustible material, Pierre Billaud for his cold compression thesis which proved indispensable for the proper development of the reactions, and Michel Carayol for his original idea of the two-stage architecture coupled only by radiation. The friendly meal suddenly turned into an official award distribution ceremony. In addition to the minister and the three above-mentioned people, the other people present at this lunch included Robert Hirsch, Jacques Robert, Jean Viard, Robert Dautray, Jean-Luc Bruneau, and Jacques Bellot. Two of them, Robert and Viard, have unfortunately left us since then. All of this remained confidential (given that these discoveries were classified at the time) and known only within the CEA, wherein we officially remained the three main people responsible for the H successes of 1968. Shortly thereafter, we were exceptionally awarded the Légion d'Honneur (with many other people, including Bellot). Subsequently, Carayol decided to return to his original domain, i.e. Armaments. The other returned to their normal activities and, for my part, I would, two years later, give concrete shape to the development of the primaries (first fission stages) intended for the future H weapons of the submarine fleet. Bellot was in charge of developing the whole of the assembly, in particular the H part. I was in particular responsible for the design and preparation of the Andromède and Cassiopée primary experiments (May 15th and 22nd), as well as those for the Dragon operation (May 30th 1970), an innovative megaton scientific experiment which had been particularly entrusted to me by Viard.
Eight years after the historical events which we have just described, the DAM was busying itself with its new tasks which resulted from the application of thermonuclear possibilities to the armaments programmes. André Giraud was the General Administrator, and the DAM was directed by Jacques Chevallier, a former designer and highly skilled creator of the propulsion system for nuclear submarines. Personally, I was in charge of matters pertaining to nuclear safety, a major parameter in the design of nuclear warheads. It was from friends that I learned I was mentioned in the very recent best-seller by Alain Peyrefitte, Le mal français (The French Malaise - trans.). Upon purchasing this book, I found that, indeed, my name was listed towards the end of the book and in relation to the French H-bomb. I also discovered, much to my great surprise, the fantastic fable which identified Dautray as the main person responsible for the turnaround of the DAM in 1967 (Le mal... p.84-85). Apparently, Dautray had used his position as the provider of information to the minister in 1967 and 1968 in order to pass himself off as the person responsible for the progress made within the DAM. He could propagate this lie easily since the people to whom he reported were unaware of the decisive information which the DAM had received from a foreign source at the end of September 1967, and which was the real cause of the sudden acceleration in the DAM's activities as of October. Also, in the minds of the minister and others, Dautray's title of "scientific director" implied an actual authority over the researchers, which was in fact non-existent. Of course, no-one at the DAM suspected that Dautray might be scheming in such a manner when reporting to the minister, and I must also add that at the time, the question of the discoveries "paternity" was the least of our concerns, absorbed as we were in our task and the great challenge it meant. That was not the case, apparently, with Dautray. Most probably, Alain Peyrefitte, the minister of national education since May 1967, was following the development of the thermonuclear activities within the DAM at a distance, doubtlessly kept informed by confidences from his former advisers, who had stayed in place with his successor, Maurice Schumann, and who were completely intoxicated by Dautray and his supposed role as genius and saviour. One can easily imagine Peyrefitte's intense satisfaction, upon seeing the very positive results of his decision to impose Dautray on the DAM, and in return, his own worth as the "Saviour of the Homeland". He noted all of this in his personal journal, with the thought that, one day, it all might prove useful...
I learned at the time that the CEA had protested prior to the book's publication, but that it had only succeeded in obtaining some explanatory notes at the end of the book. It was only much later that I learnt somewhat more. The General Administrator, André Giraud, had left Robert Camelin, the DAM deputy and a witness to the events of 1967-1968, the task of responding to Peyrefitte when the latter submitted to the CEA the proofs of the pages which mentioned it, which he did just before the book's publication. Peyrefitte refused to make any modifications to the main text, claiming that the printing could not be delayed. In his note, Camelin explained the truth of the facts and identified the scientists who were truly responsible for this success, a group which did not include Dautray in any way. Refusing, despite the evidence, to change his own version, which would basically have obliged him to remove the entire passage relating to the H-bomb, Peyrefitte thought it sufficient to credit the CEA by mentioning the three actual scientific authors of the success, in note 12 on page 499, though not without reducing the worth of this mention to zero by incessantly asserting the supposedly essential role of Dautray (Le mal... notes 11 et 15, pp 498-499).
Peyrefitte, a privileged witness to events of undeniable historical importance, thus committed a serious professional error, with full knowledge of the facts, by morally slighting the deserving scientists, and by taking advantage of his renown as an author to impose a totally false version in which he appears in a positive light. This behaviour was severely condemned within the DAM, but in the absence of a reaction from the authorities who were in a position to oppose effectively, this insult was born in silence. With time, we got used to it, but we never forgot. Through the fault of Alain Peyrefitte, and with the implicit support of the authorities, this version thus became a sort of official truth, in fact a genuine state lie. This version was subsequently propagated by Jean Lacouture, in surprisingly laudatory terms, nearly ridiculous for anyone knowing the truth (in J. Lacouture : De Gaulle III. Seuil 1986. p.464). Of course, Dautray himself could well have contradicted the errors contained in Peyrefitte's book, which he did not do for reasons which are simple to imagine : on the one hand, it would have meant admitting the original swindle of 1967-1968, while on the other hand, he would have deprived himself of a precious renown which was sure to open him a promising career. One does not willingly throw away an advantage of such importance merely for commonplace ethical reasons, especially if one is sick with ambition. However, he had to wait years before reaping any true rewards from his disloyalty. In 1985, he managed having himself elected to the Academy of Sciences, and 1993, he coveted the prestigious position of high commissioner for atomic energy, which he succeeded in obtaining despite the clear warnings of the previous high commissioner, Jean Teillac.
In the summer of 1993, fourteen years into my retirement, I was staying in the Vendée region and writing up a few memories of that crucial period from 1965 to 1968, with the intention of providing the CEA with an historical record. In this text, I sought to correct the fable propagated by Peyrefitte, without any particular animosity towards either the guilty or the accomplices. On October 5th, unaware of the intrigues that had preceded the nomination of the new high commissioner, I was astonished to read an unsigned article in Le Figaro entitled "Portrait of an unknown : Robert Dautray, the new high commissioner for atomic energy" (Cf reproduction of this article in the book mentionned below), wherein the author had not contented himself with raising up this person to the level of a world-wide renown scientist, but even went so far as to plainly deny that any scientists other than Dautray had contributed to the "development of the French H-bomb". The gist of the article was as follows: if other scientists have remained practically unknown, it's because they didn't discover anything, whereas Dautray has become famous, and thus must have done everything. The idiotic author of this sophism had not stopped to consider the fact that, since the activities in question were classified, the people responsible for the discoveries were automatically deprived of any public recognition. This article led me to send the Figaro a vigorous protestation, which fell on deaf ears, and to request that the Administrator General of the CEA do something, also without result. I thus decided to publish the truth in a little book which was published in December 1994, and which included the text which I had already prepared, as well as an energetic refutation of the Figaro's article. In this book, the purpose of which was to unveil all the truth, I could not simply erase the events surrounding the still classified information provided by the English at the end of September 1967, and so I managed to talk about it in roundabout terms, describing it as providential and unexpected, and totally independent of the will of the actual protagonists. The book had a certain degree of success as a curiosity within CEA, but almost no-one outside the list of "initiates" managed to decrypt the many veiled allusions to exterior information. Total silence from the CEA and Defence authorities. No reaction from the accused.
QSome time later, in 1996, I was contacted by a journalist from a weekly publication, who said that he had taken an interest in my book and that he was planning to write an article about it. I accepted to meet with this young journalist, who was nice and open. He eventually admitted to me that he had learnt, through a French non-CEA source, of the existence of secret information from England, to which he had found veiled references in my book, and that he was planning to centre his article on that point. I could not help him without breaking my former oath of secrecy. And yet, the facts in question had occurred almost thirty long years ago, the usual length of time for maintaining the secrecy on such subjects. Moreover, I was convinced that the foreign source had provided this information to France upon the orders of his government or at least with its agreement, and that consequently, I was almost sure that such a disclosure would have no negative consequences on his reputation. The journalist, however, had developed a romantic idea about those facts, and was persuaded of the presence of all of the classical elements of such an event, including a mole, a case officer, mysterious letter boxes, suitcases full of banknotes, etc... I was thus practically obliged to set him straight, fearing an absurd crisis amongst our English friends, by clearly informing him that it was our source who had initiated the contacts, and had done so in a most banal manner. I didn't quite manage to convince him, and he decided to give his article the title "Comment les Français ont volé le secret de la bombe H"9 (How the French stole the secret of the H-bomb). (Vincent Jauvert : Le Nouvel Observateur 1638. 28 mars 1996. p.110-112). Also, he insisted on attributing great importance to this information, leading to the conclusion that we would have come to nothing without it, even though a device of the Carayol type had already been programmed before we received this information. The main benefit of the information was that it allowed us to immediately abandon the T option, which was of no interest value, and it also freed us from the ministerial harassment to which we had been constantly subjected. Given my considerable personal experience with regard to the study process accompanying full-scale tests, I would estimate that we gained approximately two months. In an effort to correct past errors or unjustified deviations, I decided to offer the scientific magazine La Recherche a summary article of a primarily historical nature. Given the clear identification of the English source, this article attracted the interest of the great scientific journal Nature, in the form of a pertinent commentary by Declan Butler, the magazine's correspondent in Paris (D. Butler : Did UK scientist give France vital clues about H-bomb? Nature. 5 dec 1996. p.392). That commentary, finally, inspired me to write the present essay, the purpose of which is to sweep away the last cobwebs still obscuring the complete historical truth.
It is not normal for a newspaper of the importance and reputation of Le Figaro to publish such a committed article without a signature. Some people have surmised that Dautray himself wrote it. I hardly consider this to be a plausible hypothesis, first of all because he is much too cautious to risk provoking a dangerous reply, and secondly, because of his, shall we say, modest skills of expression in French. Personally, I am certain that Alain Peyrefitte, author of Le Mal français and chairman of the Figaro editorial committee, contributed to the preparation of this article. Had he been the only author, why would he not have signed it? In any case, the article contains expressions such as the "fresh brain", which are found in various forms many times in the book.
A droll hypothesis has been suggested to me. The person behind the article might be someone close to Dautray (let's call him Z), fully unaware of Dautray's real role in 1967-1968, or rather, of his total lack of participation in the results, and, on the contrary, very proud of his (artificial) reputation as the great inventor of the French H-bomb, on an equal footing with Teller in the United States and Sakharov in Russia. Z was quite shocked by the incomprehensible discretion of the media at the time of the appointment of his hero to the position of high commissioner. Deciding to take matters upon himself, and without Dautray's knowledge and perhaps wishing to prepare a pleasant surprise for him, Z would have submitted an article draft to the Figaro. The newspaper's management thus would have decided to ask Peyrefitte, doubly qualified in this regard, to put the article into an acceptable journalistic form. Under these conditions, any signature would have been inconvenient, or out of place in any case. These authors would certainly never have imagined that they were about to unleash a potentially devastating reaction which would release almost twenty years of repressed revolt.
If this hypothesis were to prove to be the truth, then it once again confirms the words of La Fontaine: "Nothing is as dangerous as an ignorant friend" (in Fables: L'ours et l'amateur des jardins), and I would be tempted to add "especially if there's a Peyrefitte there to encourage him". But who is to blame here? Can we reproach for unfortunate and catastrophic assistance somebody whom one has carefully kept in the dark?
Yet, there is another less amusing hypothesis, wherein Peyrefitte may have perfidiously exaggerated the content in order to elicit a reaction against Dautray who had led him into a shameful falsification. Who knows?
This all but commonplace story illustrates, almost to caricature, the stupidity of the method of "kicking the anthill" to ease a scientific discovery. Upon the testimony now available, we still cannot say to which extent de Gaulle participated directly in the brutal pressure which was brought on the CEA in 1966 and 1967. But Alain Peyrefitte, given his arbitrary judgement and total refusal to trust the DAM teams that he complacently displays in his book Le mal français, does indeed appear as the main and zealous instigator of this stubborn action which was, ultimately, detrimental to the intended objective. Entrusted with a very important mission by the highest authority in the land, he chose the wrong way from beginning to end.
October 2000: See the situation of the history of the french H bomb in year 2000 (in french)