Feature Archive: Records of the Comité de la Défense nationale, 1945-1958

Each month, a researcher shares their experiences of using a particular archive. The overall aim of this section is to create a database of the different archives available to those working on French and Francophone studies that will be of help particularly to students just starting out in research.

John William Sutcliffe IV is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Leeds.  His research explores the means by which senior military officers negotiated the armed forces’ adaptation to the ‘atomic age’ under the Fourth Republic.  Here he discusses the primary-source material available to historians at the Archives nationales’ Pierrefitte-sur-Seine site.

Many historians of France are indeed familiar with the Archives nationales’ Pierrefitte-sur-Seine location, previously featured in this blog; yet for most researchers, its vastness precludes an in-depth knowledge of its holdings.  In an effort to familiarize the SSFH’s members with the vast range of resources available, I would like to provide you with an overview of the records of the Comité de la Défense nationale (4AG/241 through 4AG/256), part of the collected papers of the Fourth Republic’s heads of state (4AG/1 though 4AG/718).  These records span the period 1945 through 1958.  

In my own historical research, which concerns the armed forces’ adaptation to the ‘atomic age’ under the Fourth Republic, I have found the records of the Comité de la Défense nationale to provide valuable insight into the manner in which civil-military relations conditioned senior officers’ advocacy for a military nuclear programme.  The committee periodically convened senior cabinet members and military officers to discuss the nation’s most pressing defence issues, from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s evolving strategy to the division of responsibilities between the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique and the defence establishment.  Alongside the official minutes of the committee’s meetings, one also finds supporting material ranging from the formal advice of the Comité des chefs d’état-major to selected records of the Comité d’action scientifique de défense nationale.  A notable example of the latter is General Paul Bergeron’s 1955 memorandum on the military nuclear programme’s origins, pictured below.  

Bergeron, Général Paul, Note sommaire d’information sur le programme atomique militaire, 4 March 1955, Archives nationales (Pierrefitte), 4 AG 255.

Given the age of the documents in question, not all are readily available for consultation.  Some headings (e.g. 4AG/254) are so fragile as to be available only ‘par extrait’; under normal circumstances, documents contained therein must be requested by name (e.g. ‘Procès-verbal du Comité de défense nationale du 12 octobre 1953’), several weeks in advance.  It should further be noted that in some cases, whether due to subject matter or to the conditions of their donation, some records may be consulted but not photographed.

Researchers interested in the French Fourth Republic’s political and military history are apt to find the records of the Comité de la Défense nationale to be a useful resource, especially with respect to the wars in Indochina and Algeria.  Moreover, these records assume even greater importance in light of the Secrétariat général de la Défense et de la Sécurité nationale’s regrettable decision to restrict access to a broad range of the Service historique de la Défense’s twentieth-century holdings: For many historians, the records contained herein now constitute an essential means of gaining insight into key military decisions undertaken during the Fourth Republic.   

Thank you very much for this, John!

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