Jeffrey LewisA Nuclear Coup


If you liked reading Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal, wait until you see the new monograph by Bruno Tertrais, A “Nuclear Coup”? France, the Algerian War and the April 1961 Nuclear Test.

Actually, it would make a great movie.  As much as I love The Battle of Algiers, Le Petit Soldat and Day of the Jackal — the collapse of French rule in Algeria and its impact on French identity is awfully well represented in film — the movie I have always wanted to see is about France’s fourth nuclear test on April 25, 1961.

Preparations for the fourth test were proceeding — named “Gerboise verte” or “Green jerboa” — when four French generals, unhappy about steps toward Algerian independence, launched a coup against the government of Charles De Gaulle. French scientists, the story goes, rushed the detonation of the device before the Revolt of the Generals acquired a working nuclear weapon. The putsch, of course, eventually failed.

There has never been a proper account of the events leading up to the test on April 25, 1961 — until now.  Donald Brennan originally provided the bare outlines of the story in 1968.  But Brennan’s spare account — it is a mere two pages — is almost impossible to find and based largely on the account of a single, seemingly well-placed, participant described only as Dr. X.  (Here is the full text, by the way.) Most of us hear the story repeated, passed from one generation to the next, much improved with each telling.

Now, Bruno Tertrais has written a fascinating account of the events prior to the test in a paper entitled, A “Nuclear Coup”? France, the Algerian War and the April 1961 Nuclear Test.  It turns out that reality is much more subtle and interesting than the dime-story novel I was expecting.  Bruno draws on a number of historical sources, including interviews with former officials such as the late Pierre Billaud.  (Billaud has a draft memoir, by the way, but more about that another day.)

Bruno’s paper offers surprising insights into how French officials viewed preparations for the nuclear test as the coup unfolded.  The coup plotters, for instance, appeared uninterested or unaware of the value of such a device.   And although Brennan focused on the efforts of French officials to deny the coup plotters access to the nuclear device, Tertrais finds other interesting motives for the test  — including De Gaulle’s desire “to make a symbolic show of authority in the eyes of the French population, the armed forces and the world.”  (That sentence must have sang in French.)

The paper is just a draft — Bruno is seeking access to additional historical documents — but it is a fascinating read.  Now, if only some producer would option it.


  1. Allen Thomson (History)

    Wonderful point of departure for an alternate history story — what if the coup had succeeded, the bomb in their hands? Is Harry Turtledove or Stephen Stirling in the house?

    • John Schilling (History)

      With all due respect for those writers, this is a tale whose climax involves a nuclear-armed Citroen 2CV racing across the Sahara. Kubrick and Sellers are no longer with us; maybe Mel Brooks?

    • Cameron (History)

      Mel Brooks wouldn’t do the lead up well enough to make the 2CV bit really jump out of the screen. I think a Coen Brothers movie.

  2. krepon (History)

    Does Bruno get royalties?

    • Anon (History)

      for an academic paper? since when is that MO?

  3. Ara Barsamian (History)

    The original story, political and technical, of the Gerboise Verte event as told by an eyewitness (P. Billaud) is available on-line at (in French).

    • catherine kelleher (History)

      good story and there’s more, especially if you go back to the German-French-Italian discussions about a common nuclear project in 1957 and 1958, that were quashed by DeGaulle and never seriously refreshed. Incidentally, Venance Journe has interviewed Billaud several times over the past 2 years–I think he is still with us.
      Cheer, Catherine

  4. Moe_DeLaun (History)

    WWBED? (What Would Blake Edwards Do?)

    CLOUSEAU: Bonjour, messieurs, permettez-moi voir vos papiers?

    GEN. X: Ici.

    CLOUSEAU: Thank you. Have you an etamic byemb in this car?

    GEN. X: A what?

    CLOUSEAU: A byemb. An etamic byemb.

    GEN. X: A byemb?

    CLOUSEAU: Please, monsieur, do not trifle with me.

    GEN. X: I can’t understand your atrocious accent. Do you mean “bombe?” No, of course not!

    CLOUSEAU: Why then does your Citroen ride so low in the back? And what is that glowing stuff?

    GEN. X: Ah, monsieur, I must take you into my confidence. We are disposing of special Army materials that could fall into the rebels’ hands.

    CLOUSEAU: I see, you are merely disposing of Army debris. That’s good! We French must set an example…on your way, then!

  5. Alan Tomlinson (History)

    Rather ironic that the French, whose word “coup” is used worldwide, have used the German word “Putsch” to describe the brief overthrow in Algeria in 1958(“putsch d’Alger”; pg. 5). Guilt by association?


    Alan Tomlinson