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Newly arrived U.S. F-111F nuclear-capable bomber at Lakenheath Air Force Base, United Kingdom, May 1977 (U.S. Air Force photo, U.S. National Archives)

"Consultation is Presidential Business"
Secret Understandings on the Use of Nuclear Weapons, 1950-1974

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 159

For more information contact
William Burr - 202/994-7032

Posted - July 1, 2005

Washington D.C. July 1, 2005 - A decision to use nuclear weapons is one of the most politically, militarily, and morally perilous decisions that a U.S. president, or any leader of a nuclear state, can make. Recognizing that nuclear weapons differ from any other weapons because of their immense power and danger, President Lyndon B. Johnson once argued that a decision to use them "would lead us down an uncertain path of blows and counterblows whose outcome none may know." (Note 1) Johnson, like most U.S. presidents, sought strict controls over the weapons to minimize the risk of accidental or unauthorized use. That the use of nuclear weapons could precipitate a world conflagration has made leaders of allied nations, not least those with U.S. nuclear weapons stored on their territory, keenly interested in influencing how U.S. presidents would use them. This is especially but not uniquely true of British prime ministers. Since the early days of the Korean War, when the risk of world war loomed, prime ministers have sought a voice in any nuclear use decisions of U.S. presidents. The high priority of the "special relationship" with the United Kingdom made U.S. presidents responsive to British requests even though they raised significant political difficulties. The initiatives taken by British prime ministers and Washington's need to conciliate the closest of allies are documented in this briefing book on the record of U.K.-U.S. understandings on the nuclear use decision process. Among the disclosures in the briefing book:

  • the written U.S.-U.K. understandings on nuclear weapons use from Eisenhower and Macmillan to Nixon and Heath
  • the routine practice for the British to seek reaffirmations of the agreement whenever leadership changes occurred in London or Washington
  • the strict emphasis on secrecy of the understandings to avoid pressure for agreements from European members of NATO
  • the U.S. desire for loose understandings to avoid any limitations on "freedom of action."
  • the 1965 agreement that consultations would extend to nuclear depth charges stored in the United Kingdom on behalf of a Netherlands anti-submarine warfare unit, although the Dutch would be kept in the dark about the basic UK-US understanding
  • the extension of the understanding to U.S. nuclear depth bombs in Bermuda beginning in the 1970s
  • parallel consultative arrangements with Canada, including more specific understandings on use of air defense nuclear weapons assigned to NORAD
  • a related but less comprehensive understanding with the West German government begun during the late 1960s
  • NATO's 1962 Athens Guidelines requiring U.S. consultations with the Alliance on nuclear use when time permitted it

The idea of Anglo-American nuclear weapons consultations arose during World War II when Roosevelt and Churchill signed the Quebec Agreement stipulating that neither London nor Washington would launch nuclear attacks "without each others consent." This understanding was short-lived because the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 prevented sharing of responsibility for decisions on nuclear weapons use. Nevertheless, developments during the Cold War renewed British interest in consultation. By the spring of 1948, the U.S. and British high command agreed that the United Kingdom would serve as a base for nuclear strikes against the Soviet Union. By March 1950, the U.S. Air Force was beginning to deliver B-29 bombers to the British Bomber Command. Under a covert arrangement, the U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) would take control of the bombers in event of war. Nevertheless, after the Korean War broke out and the U.S. Air Force began delivering atomic bomb casings to British bases (the nuclear capsules remained in the United States), the British Chiefs of Staff believed that their government should have a say in how those weapons were to be used. During the late fall of 1950 when Chinese forces moved across the Yalu River and began fighting Western forces in North Korea, the military crisis created apprehensions in London that the confrontation with China could escalate into general war involving Beijing's main ally, the Soviet Union. When President Harry Truman stated in a press conference on 30 November that "there has always been active consideration" of nuclear weapons use in Korea, a worried British Prime Minister Clement Atlee flew to Washington the next week for consultations. (Note 2)

During talks with Atlee on nuclear weapons use, Truman assured him that he regarded the United Kingdom and the United States as "partners in this matter"; he would not use the bomb without consulting London unless the United States was under attack. When Atlee asked that the statement be put in writing, Truman refused declaring that "if a man's word wasn't any good it wasn't made any better by writing it down." While the British pushed for language on consultation to be included in the communiqué of Atlee's visit, Truman and top advisers also refused. They agreed only to language stating that the United States intended to keep the British government "informed" of any developments which might change the situation concerning the use of nuclear weapons. (Note 3)

Whatever the Americans thought, the British left Washington believing that Truman's personal commitment on consultation would remain valid as long as he was President. Moreover, they sought a stronger understanding on the use of U.S. nuclear-capable B-36 bombers deployed at seven air bases on British territory (complete nuclear weapons were not stored at the bases until 1954). Inevitably, the British sought a commitment that the United States would not order nuclear strikes from those bases without their consent. The Truman administration could not refuse and after a series of talks with the British agreed that they could refer to a "joint decision" when explaining policy to the House of Commons. A communiqué prepared for the Churchill-Truman talks in January 1952 confirmed this: "the use of these bases in an emergency would be a matter for joint decision by His Majesty's Government and the United States Government in the light of the circumstances prevailing at the time." That language included an escape clause and Washington continued to reject British proposals to reaffirm the personal commitment that Truman had made to Atlee. (Note 4)

In 1958, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan sought something more formal than a communiqué. Eisenhower agreed to that, but he, like his predecessor and successor, never diverged from the basic premise that consultation would depend on the "circumstances at the time" and that "every possible step" to consult would be taken. The United States would not agree to a veto on any use of its nuclear forces, even those stationed in the United Kingdom, if it deemed it necessary to launch a speedy retaliation in response to a sudden attack. This was an element of unilateralism that U.S. presidents always found desirable and necessary. Nevertheless, because of the great value placed on the alliance with London, State Department officials realized that the understandings were necessary because of British "apprehension over possible consequences …of independent action by the United States-either because we might not come to its defense in time or because we might involve it in action initiated by ourselves."

Changes in the understandings on nuclear weapons use were generally a matter of British initiative. As nuclear deployments changed the Prime Minister would write to the President on possible modifications in the language. For example, when the British agreed to host U.S. nuclear missile-launching submarines at Holy Loch, Macmillan asked that the understanding apply to them as well. When the United States, the British, and the Netherlands agreed that U.S. nuclear depth bombs would be stored in the United Kingdom for use by the Dutch navy, Prime Minister Wilson asked President Johnson for changes in the language to reflect the latest development. U.S. presidents, so far as it is known, always agreed to proposed revisions.

In the early 1950s, the United States applied the same understanding to the Canadian government in light of U.S. plans to launch nuclear strikes from air bases in that country. Moreover, under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, if the United States wanted to deploy nuclear weapons on Japanese territory in a wartime emergency, it would have to make a request to the government. Otherwise, the U.S. government had broad freedom of action to use nuclear weapons in a crisis. (Note 5) Key allies and governments hosting U.S. nuclear weapons stockpiles, however, sought limitations through nuclear weapon consultative arrangements. In 1962, the U.S. and NATO allies approved the "Athens Guidelines" that included a U.S. and a British commitment to consult with the alliance on nuclear use decisions anywhere in the world "if time permits." Moreover, the Johnson administration signed a limited consultation arrangement with West Germany in the fall of 1968.

The end of the Cold War brought major changes in the U.S.'s nuclear weapons posture overseas. Not only were many land-based weapons withdrawn from Western Europe, the U.S. Navy withdrew its naval nuclear weapons from foreign bases, including the depth bombs stored in the United Kingdom and Bermuda. Moreover, in 1992, the United States closed the U.S. naval base at Holy Loch because the long-range Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) did not need berthing facilities there. Nevertheless, the U.S. Air Force continues to store nuclear weapons at Lakenheath as well as at several bases in West Germany. (Note 6) In light of the continued U.S. nuclear presence in Western Europe, the understandings reached during the Cold War probably stayed in place during the 1990s, undoubtedly modified to reflect changes in deployments and international conditions. With all of the uncertainties about WMD, "rogue states" armed with long-range missiles, and trans-Atlantic worries about U.S. policy against terrorism, it is likely that the British and the Germans have sought to preserve the understandings on nuclear weapons use. Whether the Bush White House has been responsive on this point remains a secret that will be disclosed some day.

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Document 1: Atlee-Truman Agreement
Memorandum for the Record by Special Assistant to the Secretary of State R. Gordon Arneson, "Truman-Atlee Conversations of December 1950: Use of Atomic Weapons," 16 January 1953, Top Secret
Source: Record Group 59, Department of State Records, Decimal Files 1950-1954, 711.5611/1[-53, Freedom of Information Act Release

Prepared by Gordon Arneson, whose role in nuclear policy matters stretched back to the Manhattan Project (Note 7), this document summarized the Truman-Atlee conversations during the latter's visit to Washington in December 1950. Arneson's description of the meeting and the enclosures record Truman's personal commitment to Atlee, the process by which Truman and his advisers tried to withdraw it, and the British refusal to accept a change in the meeting record.

Document 2A through C: Background on Consultation, 1951:
2A: Memorandum of Conversation by John Ferguson, State Department Policy Planning Staff, "Discussions with British regarding use of nuclear weapons," 6 August 1951, Top Secret
2B: Memcon, "US-UK Consultations on Atomic Warfare," 11 September 1951
2C: "Nature of Consultations," Excerpt from Memorandum of Conversation re: U.S.-U.K. Political Military Meeting, September 13, 1951
Source: RG 59, Records of Deputy Assistant Secretary for Politico-Military Affairs, Subject File Special Assistant For Atomic Energy Affairs, 1950-1966, box 11, Nuclear Sharing-UK Consultation Discussions 1950-1951 (for documents A and B); Nuclear Sharing-Consultation Discussions 1952-54 (for document C)

To ease British concerns about American policy, Truman and his advisers agreed to top level Anglo-American talks on the world situation, especially on the circumstances that could lead to the use of atomic weapons. These documents show the British effort to get a U.S. commitment on consultation and the complex U.S. reactions to London's quest. On the one hand, Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenberg was suspicious that the British wanted an "implied commitment," on the other hand, Secretary of State Dean Acheson observed that this "was a life and death matter for the British and they … want to know whether we are sober and responsible." The final document, an excerpt from a memorandum of conversation between senior U.S. and British officials conveys the Truman administration's aversion to "any commitment limiting our sovereignty" (Paul Nitze) while seeking harmony of views between London and Washington: "We are just as loath … to contemplate the contingency of general war" (H. Freeman Matthews) so that the British realized that Washington officials were "sober and responsible."

Document 3: "Consultations Between Governments on the Possible Use of the Atomic Bomb," Memorandum to Prime Minister [Canada] from Under-Secretary for External Affairs A. D. P. Heeney, 8 January 1951, Top Secret
Source: Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Documents on Canadian External Relations, Volume 17 1951, Greg Donaghy, editor (Ottawa: Ministry of Public Works and Government Services, 1996), 1302-1303

In the summer of 1950, during the unfolding Korean crisis, the U.S. Strategic Air Command began deploying nuclear weapons at an air base at Goose Bay which the Air Force was leasing from Canada. No consultative arrangements were in place, however, until shortly after the Atlee-Truman summit in December 1950, when the U.S. State Department told Canadian diplomats that the same loose understanding also applied to their government. Heeney informed the Prime Minister that the Atomic Energy Act precluded the U.S. government from making commitments to consult any government but that the "President will keep you informed of any developments … which may lead to the use of the bomb." In light of U.S.-Canadian discussions of providing the Strategic Air Command access to Canadian bases for nuclear strike purposes in the event of war, Heeney observed that Ottawa needed a firmer commitment. In 1952, when Churchill negotiated language stipulating "joint decision" on the use of nuclear forces stationed at British bases, "in light of circumstances prevailing at the time," the Truman administration extended the same consideration to the Canadian government. (Note 8)

Document 4A and B: Churchill and Nuclear Use
4A: Memorandum of Conversation, Truman-Churchill Talks, "Meeting on Agenda Items A: The Strategic Air Plans and the Use of Nuclear Weapons (TCT D-2/7) and B. Technical Cooperation in Atomic Energy (TCT D-2/8), 7 January 1952, 5-5:45 p.m., Top Secret
Source: RG 59, Conference Files, box 15, CF 100 Truman-Churchill Talks Wash, Jan 1952, Mins, Memcons & Communique
4B: Memorandum for the Record by U. Alexis Johnson, 30 June 1952, with messages between Churchill and Truman, 28 and 30 June 1952 respectively
Source: RG 59, Records of Deputy Assistant Secretary for Politico-Military Affairs, Subject File Special Assistant for Atomic Energy Affairs, 1950-1966, box 11, Nuclear Sharing-UK Consultation Discussions 1950-1951

Making a visit to Washington to Washington for consultations with President Truman on East-West relations and economic issues, Prime Minister Churchill heard a briefing on SAC war plans and asked for assurances that Washington would consult London on nuclear weapons use should war break out. During a meeting on nuclear issues, Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett asserted that nuclear weapons "would be used sooner or later" if general war broke out. Discussion ranged from cooperation in the nuclear weapons field to U.S. plans for air bases in North Africa, which Churchill approved because it meant that other countries would be Soviet targets. The Prime Minister raised the problem of nuclear use consultation, especially in circumstances where the United States launched a first strike: "taking the initiative of bringing things to a point." If British air bases were used, "consultations were necessary." Truman approved communiqué language that called for consultation if British bases were used and time permitted. (Note 9)

In June 1952, Prime Minister Churchill wrote Truman an urgent letter asking about rumored use of nuclear weapons to destroy dams at the Yalu River. Plainly apprehensive about such a prospect, Churchill wrote that using nuclear weapons "would be out of all proportion to Korean events and would upset the world in a way I cannot measure." U. Alexis Johnson, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, laid the report to rest-Washington had no plans to bomb the dam or use nuclear weapons, although "Harry" responded formally with an explanation of why he had approved the bombing of a power plant.

Documents 5A, B, and C: The Eden Visit, March 1953
5A: Memorandum of Conversation, "Use of United Kingdom Bases and Consultation with the United Kingdom on the Use of Atomic Weapons," 6 March 1953, Top Secret
5B: Memorandum for the President from Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, "The Eden Visit: Use of Atomic Weapons," 7 March 1953, Top Secret
5C: Memorandum for Mr. Gordon Arneson from Under Secretary of State Walter B. Smith, 12 March 1953, Top Secret
Source: Record Group 59, Department of State Records, Decimal Files 1950-1954, 711.5611, various dates, Freedom of Information Act Release

With the new presidential administration in Washington in power, Churchill and his Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden sought a reaffirmation of the private commitment that Truman had made to Atlee in December 1950. When Eden brought up the issue with Secretary of State Dulles, the latter refused and sent Eisenhower a lengthy background paper explaining why refusal was possible and necessary. Eisenhower also refused and like Dulles would only reaffirm the public commitment made by Truman concerning the use of bases. While the Americans wanted to maintain close relations with the British, limitations on "freedom of action" to wage war were impermissible. Moreover, arguing that nuclear weapons were just another kind of ammunition, Dulles and Eisenhower opposed the idea of special restrictions on their use. They also worried that other allied governments would find out and try to secure a veto on U.S. nuclear use: "there is no point in whetting the appetite of other NATO countries in this regard."

Document 6A and B: Macmillan's Initiative
6A: Memorandum from British Ambassador Harold Caccia to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, April 30, 1958, enclosing letter from Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to President Eisenhower, April 24, 1958, Top Secret
6B: Cable message from President Eisenhower to Prime Minister Macmillan, April 30, 1958
Source: National Archives, Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59 (hereinafter RG 59), Records of Deputy Assistant Secretary for Politico-Military Affairs, Subject File Special Assistant For Atomic Energy Affairs, 1950-1966, box 3, Nuclear Sharing-U.K. Consultation-Discussions-April-May 1958

In the first months of 1958, the nuclear question achieved high salience in British politics. In February Washington and London has signed an agreement on the stationing of Thor Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM) on British territory; the weapons would be under joint control through a two-key arrangement designed to prevent unilateral action. Moreover, public concern abounded about the possible dangers of nuclear weapons on British territory. U.S. nuclear deployments in the United Kingdom meant that U.S. aircraft were taking off and landing with nuclear weapons on board. Despite U.S. assurances of the safety of the bomb loads, the British public was nervous. Finally, with the Soviet Union's successful launch of Sputnik I in October 1957, the possibility of a "bolt from the blue" nuclear missile attack became more worrisome than ever. In this context, Prime Minister Macmillan, who had taken office the previous year, wrote to Eisenhower about the need for coordination on procedural matters to ensure coordination of the "decision to launch the nuclear retaliation." Macmillan proposed that Joint Intelligence Committee chairman Sir Patrick Dean represent his government in any talks. Eisenhower quickly and positively responded to Macmillan's initiative for discussions noting that the "whole matter [had to] be done on a most secret basis." (Note 10)

Document 7: Richard Breithut, Office of Special Assistant to the Secretary for Atomic Energy to Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Robert Murphy, "British Prime Minister's Letter of April 24, 1958 to the President, Proposing Discussions to Ensure Agreement on Procedure for Decision to Launch Nuclear Retaliation," 8 May 1958, Top Secret
Source: RG 59, Records of Deputy Assistant Secretary for Politico-Military Affairs, Subject File Special Assistant For Atomic Energy Affairs, 1950-1966, box 3, Nuclear Sharing-U.K. Consultation-Discussions-April-May 1958

Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles quickly agreed that Robert Murphy would represent Washington in talks with Patrick Dean. In this memorandum, Richard Breithut gave Murphy background on the history of the consultative agreements. At the end of his memorandum, he speculated why Macmillan had brought up the problem of consultations: "There is undoubtedly apprehension over possible consequences to Britain of independent action by the United States-either because we might not come to its defense in time or because we might involve it in action initiated by ourselves." While Breithut observed that "we can accept no limitation upon United States freedom of action," the high value of the alliance with London made it essential for American and British action to "be concerted to the fullest extent possible."

Document 8: The Murphy-Dean Agreement
Report to the President and Prime Minister, "Procedures for the Committing to the Attack of Nuclear Retaliatory Forces in the United Kingdom," Patrick Dean and Robert Murphy, 7 June 1958, Top Secret, excised copy released under appeal by ISCAP
Source: Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Ann Whitman File, Administration Series, Box 5, AEC 1958 (folder 2)

Within a month, Dean and Murphy had prepared a report that they submitted to President Eisenhower and Prime Minister Macmillan. In 1997 the U.S. government's Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) released an excised version of the Murphy-Dean agreement in response to an appeal by the National Security Archive. The agreement enshrined the understanding about "circumstances at the time" that had been reached earlier in the decade. If circumstances permitted a conference call between the President and the Prime Minister, the agreement spelled out the process of decision that would occur under two different situations: 1) strategic warning (longer-term warning of attack) and tactical warning ("short warning of imminent attack derived from positive radar or other means"). Strategic warning could permit a decision to launch a preemptive assault on Soviet nuclear forces, although whether any warning would be certain enough to allow such a grave decision has been a matter of debate for many years. In the event of tactical warning, military commanders could launch forces under "positive control" (also known as "fail safe); thus U.S. and British bombers would fly to a "specified line" but would not pass beyond it without receiving definite instructions.

The excisions concern the British chain of decisions as well as references to United States nuclear weapons assigned to British forces. This can be stated with certainty because during the 1990s, historians Stephen Twigge and Len Scott found a final draft of the agreement at the British National Archives and published it in a major study of British nuclear policy. (Note 11)

Document 9: Unsigned British memorandum to Deputy Under Secretary of State Murphy, May 11, 1959, enclosing "Addendum to Report Dated June 7, 1958, to the President and the Prime Minister on Procedures for the Committing to the Attack of Nuclear Retaliatory Forces in the United Kingdom," Top Secret
Source: RG 59, Records of Deputy Assistant Secretary for Politico-Military Affairs, Subject File Special Assistant For Atomic Energy Affairs, 1950-1966, box 3, Nuclear Sharing-UK-Consultation Discussions-1959

A year later, the two governments updated Murphy-Dean so it included specific arrangements for the use of U.S. and British tactical bomber units that would be under the direct control of NATO's top commander, Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), if war broke out. While SACEUR General Lauris Norstad wanted to be sure that he would control "committed forces" once a decision for war had been made, the British wanted to preclude any possibility that SACEUR would make unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. The June 1958 agreement specified that tactical bomber units committed to SACEUR "falls under the basic understanding referred to in paragraph 2"-that is, their use would require a joint decision by the President and Prime Minister to the extent that was possible. After consultations with Norstad, London and Washington developed procedures for using tactical bombers that would meet NATO needs while addressing British concerns. For example, the amendments stipulated that under conditions of tactical warning, the decision to order to "immediate readiness" Royal Air Force tactical bomber units assigned to SACEUR would be a decision by the Chief of the Air Staff, not SACEUR. (Note 12)

Documents 10A and 10B: Cables from State Department to U.S. Embassy London, July 15 and October 27, 1960, Top Secret
Source: State Department Freedom of Information Release

Another innovation in military technology, the emergence of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), produced a new wrinkle in Anglo-American consultative arrangements. The first Polaris submarine, the U.S.S. George Washington, went on its first patrol mission in November 1960 operating in the North Sea because of the relatively limited range of SLBMs. The British, who were seeking access to Skybolt air-launched-missiles (or as a fallback, Polaris submarines), had agreed to provide berthing facilities for a Polaris submarine tender at Holy Loch, Scotland. As before, they wanted to be sure that no Polaris missile was launched from British territorial waters or even beyond without their consent. Macmillan had raised the possibility of a joint decision for missile launches within 100 miles of British territory but, as Eisenhower's first message, shows he found that impractical. While he agreed with Macmillan that the missiles "would not be launched within your territorial waters without your consent," he opposed a broader form of dual control. In the end, Eisenhower would only agree to include Polaris within the scope of the assurances that he had made to Anthony Eden in 1953: "In the event of an emergency, such as increased tension or the threat of war, the U.S. will take every possible step to consult with Britain and other allies." While Macmillan wanted the Holy Loch agreement made public, objections by the Pentagon made that impossible; the British had to rely on what Macmillan called a "gentleman's agreement." (Note 13)

Document 11: Memorandum of conversation by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Livingston Merchant, "The New U.S. Administration and U.S. Nuclear Arrangements with the U.K.," 15 December 1960, Secret
Source: RG 59, Decimal Files 1960-1963, 711.56341/12-1560, Freedom of Information release

The election of John F. Kennedy raised concerns in London; would the son of a notorious Anglophobe, Joseph Kennedy, create difficulties in Anglo-American relations. While relations with Eisenhower had sometimes been tense, he was fundamentally in sympathy with the idea of a special relationship with London. The British were especially apprehensive about preserving the agreements on nuclear use consultation, however ambiguous, past the Eisenhower administration. Thus, a month before Kennedy's inauguration, a senior British diplomat, Frederick Hoyer Miller, approached his counterpart, Livingston Merchant, about the problem of "how best to assure reaffirmation by the new President" of the "assurances" that Eisenhower had made to Eden and Macmillan. The British had in mind a letter to Eisenhower mentioning the importance of briefing the president-elect on the agreements as well as a letter to Kennedy, after his inauguration, asking for "confirmation that they remain in force."

Document 12: Memorandum from Merchant to Secretary of State Christian Herter, January 9, 1961, enclosing "Understandings with the British on the Use of British Bases and Nuclear Weapons," Top Secret, excised copy
Source: RG 59, Decimal Files 1960-1963, 711.56341/12-1560, Freedom of Information release

The British learned that they had little to worry about when Merchant informed Ambassador Caccia that Kennedy had agreed that the "understandings … would continue pending a prompt exchange" with Macmillan after his inauguration. The president-elect had no "misgivings" about the agreements but believed that the two leaders needed to review them. During their meeting, Merchant gave Caccia a two page paper that summarized the understandings that had been reached during the 1950s. This document would serve as the template for Anglo-American understandings on nuclear weapons use into the 1970s and possibly beyond.

Document 13: Memorandum from Merchant to Secretary of State Rusk, January 27, 1961, Top Secret
Source: RG 59, Decimal Files 1960-1963, 711.56341/1-2761, Freedom of Information release

A few days after the inauguration, Macmillan wrote to Kennedy to follow up the latter's suggestion that "we … communicate … about these Understandings immediately after your Inauguration." Declaring that the agreements form an "essential part of the whole network of Anglo-American joint defense arrangements", Macmillan hoped that Kennedy would accept them and "renew in your own name the personal assurances on these matters given by President Eisenhower and President Truman." (Note 14) As Kennedy was considering the letter, Merchant learned from the British that Macmillan believed that a letter from Kennedy reaffirming the agreements would be satisfactory and that the paper that Merchant had given to Caccia earlier in the month "adequately reflects the British understanding of these past undertakings" except for a few points.

Document 14: Cable 3848 from State Department to United States Embassy in London carrying message from President Kennedy to Prime Minister Macmillan, February 7, 1961, Top Secret
Source: RG 59, Presidential and Secretary of State Official Correspondence, 1961-1965, box 11, UK-Johnson 64-65

On February 6, 1961 Kennedy wrote Macmillan a letter expressing his happiness to "confirm to you that these Understandings reflect the agreements in force between our two Governments." Kennedy transmitted the summary handed the British earlier in January with modifications proposed by the British. One was that the arrangements for "joint decisions" on strikes launched from bases in the United Kingdom would not include Bomber Command aircraft equipped with British nuclear weapons. Thus, the British sought freedom of action as well. Another modification left open the possibility that U.S. nuclear weapons in Britain not then assigned to NATO could be "assigned to a NATO commander in the future." (Note 15) The easy agreement that Kennedy and Macmillan had reached showed that the reaffirmation and modification of understandings on nuclear weapons use had become a truly routine procedure whenever a change of command took place in either London or Washington.

Document 15: Memorandum from Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs William R. Tyler to Secretary of State Rusk, "Confirmation of existing U.S. commitments to consult with the UK before the use of nuclear weapons," circa 9 December 1963, Secret
Source: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1963, DEF 12 US, Freedom of Information release

With a new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, coming to power after President Kennedy's assassination, the matter of nuclear use consultation with the British prime minister inevitably surfaced. Ten days before Secretary of State Rusk was scheduled to attend a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, Assistant Secretary Tyler predicted that British Prime Minister Alex Douglas-Home (the Profumo scandal had forced Macmillan's resignation) "will shortly ask the President to confirm our existing commitments" on nuclear weapons use. Tyler advised Rusk to reaffirm the commitments and provided him with a memorandum (with documentary background) for President Johnson giving background on the understandings with Churchill, Eden, and Macmillan.

Documents 16A-D: 13 Athens Guidelines
16A: Dirk Stikker, "Annual Political Appraisal Special Report by the Secretary General on NATO Defence Policy," 17 April 1962, NATO Secret
16B: "Joint Meeting of the Foreign and Defence Ministers," Verbatim Record of the meeting of the Council held on Saturday, 5th May 1962, COSMIC Top Secret
(Note 16)
16C: Statement Made on Saturday 5 May by Secretary McNamara at the NATO Ministerial Meeting in Athens," COSMIC Top Secret
16D: "Summary Record of a meeting of the Council held in the Zappeion Building in Athens on Saturday 5th May 1962 at 5 p.m., COSMIC Top Secret
Source: Copies courtesy of NATO Archives, Brussels

By May 1962, the U.S. had deployed some 5,000 nuclear weapons in NATO Europe. Agreements with host governments, e.g., with Italy on the deployment of Jupiter missiles, gave them a veto over use, but the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) had effective power to use them in an emergency. (Note 17) Nevertheless, European members of NATO wanted more of a say in nuclear use decisions. While the proposed Multilateral Force (MLF) was, in part, designed to give NATO members some sense of participation in decision making on nuclear weapons, it never got off the ground. Also troubling European members of NATO was lack of knowledge of nuclear weapons as well as uncertainty about the durability of the U.S. nuclear commitment to NATO. Could Western Europe count on Washington to make nuclear forces available in a crisis? To address those concerns, among others, NATO Secretary General Dirk Stikker prepared a report in the spring of 1962 based upon his consultations with London and Washington. It concluded with a set of guidelines that included U.S. assurances about the availability of U.S. and British nuclear weapons, the provision of information on nuclear weapons to NATO allies, and consultations with the allies about nuclear weapons use. While consultation would not be possible if the Soviets launched an "unmistakable" nuclear attack on Western Europe, it would be in the event of a conventional attack or a smaller-scale nuclear attack. The Americans and the British also declared their intent to consult with the Council on the use of nuclear weapons "anywhere in the world," but with the usual loophole: "if time permits." Stikker also raised the possibility of a "restricted group" to establish multilateral political control over the use of nuclear weapons assigned to NATO forces, but that proposal inspired little interest.

NATO ministers approved the guidelines at the famous May 1962 Athens meeting of the North Atlantic Council during which Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara gave a highly controversial and comprehensive exposition of U.S. strategy and the risks of nuclear weapons use. (Note 18) The records of this meeting include Dean Rusk's offer of sea-based Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles for a multilateral NATO nuclear force designed to give European members a voice in nuclear use decisions. Washington ultimately abandoned MLF-type solutions and interest turned to organizational solutions to give the Europeans greater knowledge of the complexities and dilemmas of nuclear weapons planning. By 1966, partly as a result of the influence of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, NATO had established the Nuclear Planning Group which became a central locus for formulating and assessing nuclear options for a NATO-Warsaw Pact confrontation.

Document 17: Memorandum of conversation, "Consultation on the Use of Nuclear Weapons," December 19, 1963, Secret
Source: Source: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1963, DEF 12 US

As Tyler had anticipated, when Rusk was in London British Foreign Secretary Butler brought up the subject of nuclear use consultation noting that the day before he had suggested to Douglas-Home that the latter write to Johnson about it. Rusk recommended that Johnson and the Prime Minister discuss the matter in more detail when they met in February. In the meantime, "the understanding which had existed between President Kennedy and Prime Minister Macmillan would continue."

Document 18: Letter from President Johnson to Prime Minister Douglas-Home, February 28, 1964, enclosing "Understandings with the British on the Use of British Nuclear Bases and Nuclear Weapons," Top Secret
Source: RG 59, Presidential and Secretary of State Official Correspondence, 1961-1965, box 11, UK-Johnson 64-65

The day after the Butler-Rusk meeting, Douglas-Home wrote to President Johnson asking about the status of the understandings on nuclear weapons use. Replying through a "back-channel, Johnson observed that the "understandings seem reasonable to me" but he did not want to make a formal decision until he met with the Prime Minister in February. After Douglas-Home visited Washington, Johnson wrote him a letter on February 28, 1964 confirming what he had told Douglas-Home earlier, that he would reaffirm the paper on "Understandings with the British on the Use of British Bases and Nuclear Weapons." The paper was substantially the same as the one upheld by Kennedy and Macmillan except that it no longer included the Thor IRBMs; that missile's technical flaws made it easy for both London and Washington to agree to end the deployment during 1963. (Note 19) This letter closely followed the signing of the February 1964 Anglo-American memorandum of understanding on Polaris submarine basing at Holy Loch, which formalized the loose commitments on the use of Polaris missiles that Eisenhower had made in 1960 and which Kennedy and Johnson subsequently reaffirmed. (Note 20)

Document 19: Letter from President Johnson to Prime Minister Harold Wilson, December 8, 1964, Top Secret
Source: RG 59, Presidential and Secretary of State Official Correspondence, 1961-1965, box 11, UK-Johnson 64-65

With the election of Labor Party leader Harold Wilson in late 1964, the nuclear use understandings were quickly reaffirmed. When Wilson wrote Johnson on December 8, the President quickly replied with a positive response: both of them had agreed to "reaffirm together the Understanding of our two governments."

Documents 20A through D: U.S.-Canadian Arrangements on Use of Air Defense Nuclear Weapons
20A: Letter from Llewellyn E. Thompson to Assistant Secretary of
Defense (International Security Affairs) John T. McNaughton, 3 June 1965, enclosing draft memorandum to McGeorge Bundy, "Nuclear air defense weapons (release to and employment by Canadian NORAD forces), and draft presidential authorization, with memorandum from Jeffrey C. Kitchen to Ambassador Thompson, Top Secret (Draft Agreement not attached)
Source: RG 59, Formerly Top Secret Central Foreign Policy Files, 1964-1966, box 4, DEF 1-4 NORAD
20B: A.R. Menzies, Department of Trade and External Affairs, to Ambassador Charles A.Ritchie, 20 July 1965, Top Secret
20C: Memorandum to the Prime Minister, "Authorization for NORAD Use of Nuclear Weapons," 20 August 1965, carbon copy, with "Approved LBP [Lester B. Pearson]."
20D: Cable from CANFORCEHED (Canadian Forces Headquarters) to CINCNORAD, 15 September 1965
Source B, C, and D: Canadian Department of Defense Access to Information Release, from Directorate of History & Heritage (DHH), Raymont Collection, 73/1223 Series 1, file 314, "Nuclear Weapons for Canadian Forces" (courtesy of John Clearwater)

During the late 1950s, with the introduction of the Genie air defense missile (MB-1s) into the U.S. nuclear weapons inventory, Washington and Ottawa negotiated an agreement requiring high level Canadian approval before the U.S. Air Force could fire the weapons over Canadian territory (although U.S. predelegation arrangements for crisis situations effectively mooted the understanding). (Note 21) The United States sought deployments of air defense and other weapons on Canadian territory, an arrangement that President Kennedy and Prime Minister Pearson negotiated in the spring of 1963. By New Years Eve 1964, Genie and other air defense weapons were being deployed in Canada, with Canadian air force units trained to use them. It took some time, however, for Ottawa and Washington to reach an understanding on how the two governments would agree to use the weapons in the event of war. (Note 22) The 1964 election and U.S. preoccupation with Vietnam undoubtedly delayed final decisions over the agreement defining channels of communication, procedures for preparatory military measures, and authorization for nuclear weapons use by the joint U.S.-Canada North American Air Defense Command (NORAD). By mid-1965, the Johnson administration had drafted a specific heads-of-state level authorization to NORAD's commander-in-chief (CINCNORAD) to "employ" U.S. and Canadian nuclear-armed forces assigned to his command "upon declaration of Defense Condition [DEFCON] I or Air Defense Emergency" or under "emergency circumstances." Through "prior consultation," the heads of state of the two countries would reach a decision to declare DEFCON I (or Air Defense Emergency), which amounted to a decision to begin military action. In the event of "emergency circumstances," however, CINCNORAD would have authority to use the weapons. This was consistent with the predelegation procedures that U.S. presidents since Eisenhower had approved or updated since 1956. (Note 23)

The Canadians wanted quick resolution of the issue when foreign ministry officials learned, in July 1965, that the U.S. Air Force had transferred nuclear weapons for U.S. interceptors at Goose Bay despite earlier claims that Washington had no immediate plans to deploy weapons there. Unlike earlier nuclear deployments, however, Ottawa and Washington had not negotiated specific authorizations for the use of the weapons at Goose Bay which led foreign ministry officials to see a pressing need to finalize the consultation agreement. The Canadians hoped that a U.S. embassy staffer, Harold Shullaw, would provide information on President Johnson's authorization so that the two governments would be playing from the same score.

On 17 September 1965 President Johnson and Prime Minister Pearson approved the consultation agreement as well as the authorization to CINCNORAD. As the memorandum to Prime Minister Pearson indicates, the Canadians had learned about highly secret U.S. predelegation arrangements: "We have been aware that the President, either officially, or on a personal and informal basis, had some time ago made an arrangement for prior authorization, to apply in emergencies." To ensure that U.S. and Canadian emergency arrangements for nuclear use by NORAD dovetailed, the State Department shared the language of President Johnson's authorization with the Canadians. Thus, the version that Pearson approved was essentially the same as Johnson's.

The presence of nuclear weapons was always a difficult matter in Canadian politics and Ottawa was relieved to return the last Genie warheads in 1984. The nuclear bombs that SAC deployed at Goose Bay in 1950 had already been withdrawn in 1971. Nevertheless, later in the decade, Ottawa and Washington negotiated an agreement allowing emergency nuclear deployments by SAC on Canadian bases; this agreement may remain in effect. (Note 24)

Document 21: Memorandum for the Record by J.C. Trippe, Bureau of European Affairs, "Proposed Storage of Nuclear ASW Weapons in the U.K. for Dutch Forces," March 23, 1965, Secret, annotated copy
Source: RG 59, Bureau of European Affairs, Office of Northern European Affairs, Records Relating to the United Kingdom, 1962-1974, box 2, Def 12-2 Stockpiling Storage 1965

The first years of the 1960s involved a huge expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in Western Europe; by the late 1960s, Washington had deployed over 7,000 weapons in NATO Europe. The deployments would include W34 (Lulu) and B57 nuclear depth charges designed for anti-submarine warfare (ASW); they and thousands of other weapons would remain at depots in Western Europe until after the Cold War ended. (Note 25) Early in the 1960s it had been contemplated that ASW weapons assigned to the Netherlands's naval forces would be stored in the United Kingdom; in time of war, the weapons would be made available to Dutch naval air operating under the command of the Supreme Allied Command Atlantic (SACLANT). Plans for storing the weapons at a Royal Air Force Base at St. Mawgan (Note 26) were underway but the Anglo-American understandings did not include any arrangements for joint consultations on the release of weapons stored on behalf of other NATO countries. As this document shows, the British had expressed interest in including such weapons under the scope of the consultative arrangements. One skeptical reader of this document noted that the British wanted more than consultation: they "want veto on their use anyway."

Documents 22A and 22B: Letters from Wilson to Johnson, August 8, 1965, Top Secret
Source: RG 59, Presidential and Secretary of State Official Correspondence, 1961-1965, box 11, UK-Johnson 64-65

After consultations between U.S. and British officials, in August 1965 Harold Wilson raised with President Johnson the broader implications of storage at the Royal Air Force Base at St. Mawgan of nuclear depth charges assigned to Dutch naval aviation. He did this in two separate letters. The purpose of one was to update the February 1964 understanding by including more general language to take into account the fact of British custody of U.S. ASW weapons assigned to Dutch forces. Wilson suggested language changes and included a version of the "Understandings" paper with the proposed revisions. The other letter proposed that the release of the nuclear depth bombs to the Netherlands for wartime use "would be the subject of a joint decision taken by the President and the Prime Minister in accordance with the terms of the understandings" reached previously by U.S. Presidents and British Prime Ministers.

Document 23: Memorandum from Ambassador-at-Large Llewellyn K. Thompson and Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs John W. Leddy to Secretary of State Rusk, "Letters from Prime Minister Wilson on Nuclear Weapons Arrangements," 29 September 1965, Top Secret
Source: RG 59, Presidential and Secretary of State Official Correspondence, 1961-1965, box 11, UK-Johnson 64-65

Johnson did not send replies to Wilson for several months; complex Anglo-American negotiations on defense and the British sterling crisis probably accounted for the delay and Johnson's gall bladder surgery in October slowed the President's schedule. (Note 27) In any event, before Johnson replied to Wilson, a number of issues had to be hashed out. Not only would Johnson have to approve a SACLANT plan to disperse ASW weapon but the foreign policy bureaucracy would have to ponder how much the Dutch should know about the arrangements as well as arrange "low key" discussions with the British about the issues. These memoranda show the state of play before Secretary of State Dean Rusk discussed the Wilson letters with the President. Senior State Department officials recommended accepting Wilson's proposals. As for the Dutch, "the less said the better," but they would have to be told something "about the conditions under which the US and the UK are entering into storage arrangements" for the ASW weapons. Nevertheless, the Dutch should be told nothing about the basic understanding because "we have no wish to spread further the explicit commitment to the personal President-Prime Minister consultation which lies at the heart of the U.S.-U.K. Memorandum of Understanding."

Documents 24A and 24B: Letters from President Johnson to Prime Minister Wilson, 11 November 1965, with attached routing memoranda, Top Secret
Source: RG 59, Presidential and Secretary of State Official Correspondence, 1961-1965, box 11, UK-Johnson 64-65

Johnson finally replied to Wilson's letters in November. In any event, with the letters, Johnson stated agreement with 1) Wilson's proposal that ASW weapons stored on behalf of the Netherlands could not be released for use without a "joint decision" by London and Washington, and 2) Wilson's proposed amendments to the memorandum of understanding on nuclear use consultations.

Documents 25A through C: Arrangements with West Germany
25A: Memorandum for the President, "Consultations with the Federal Republic of Germany on Nuclear Weapons Release," 16 March 1968, Secret, cross-reference copy
Source: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1967-1969, Def 12 GerW
25B: Memorandum from Executive Secretary Benjamin Read to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, "Your Luncheon Meeting with the President Today," 24 July 1968
Source: RG 59, Executive Secretariat Agenda for the Secretary's Luncheon Meetings with the President, box 1.
25C: Memorandum for the President from Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze and Under Secretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach, 6 September 1968
Source: RG 59, Executive Secretariat, Presidential and Secretary of State Correspondence with Heads of State, 1961-1971, box 9, Germany 1 of 3

As a front-line state in the Cold War, West Germany was the site of major U.S. nuclear weapons deployments during the Cold War--bombs, theater nuclear missiles, air defense weapons, and artillery. The deployments were so massive that by late 1964, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara explained in a NATO audience that the "aggregate yield" of U.S. nuclear weapons stored on West German soil was "more than 5,000 times the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima." (Note 28) For years, the United States had complete freedom of action in any decision to use the weapons and the West German government had become concerned about its lack of a role in top level decisions about their use. By late 1967, Bonn proposed to the Defense Department formal arrangements requiring its consent to any decisions involving the "selective" or limited use of nuclear weapons based in West Germany. Most of the documentation on this initiative remains classified or is incomplete. One of the documents included here is a one page excerpt used for cross-reference purposes by State Department records keepers; the complete document remains classified in its entirety in another file. The material that is open discloses the basic developments: 1) November 1967: West German initiative, 2) March 1968: completion of major negotiations, and 3) September 1968: exchange of letters between Johnson and Chancellor Kurt Kiesinger. (Note 28a) Compared to the arrangements with the British, the one with West Germany was substantially more limited; it did not give Bonn a say in decisions on the "general release of nuclear weapons" or all-out war. If, however, Washington sought to use nuclear weapons deployed on German soil "selectively", it would be required to consult Bonn. To facilitate consultations during a crisis, the two governments would agree to establish a hot line.

Document 26: U.S. Mission to NATO Airgram A-003 to State Department, "NPG --Consultations - Remarks by Ambassador Cleveland," 7 January 1969
Source: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1967-1969, DEF 12 NATO

The Athens Guidelines left Canadian and European members of NATO dissatisfied with imprecision in the consultative arrangements and in late 1968 a "Canadian-European" caucus in the Nuclear Planning Group Permanent Representatives proposed a new mechanism for alliance consultations on nuclear use. Responding formally to this initiative, Ambassador to NATO Harlan Cleveland observed that even "small mechanical issues" relating to nuclear weapons use had to be considered at the top levels of the U.S. government: "consultation is Presidential business." Nuclear weapons are a "form of military power whose use is reserved to the President by explicit legislation and repeated policy declaration." While Cleveland took it for granted that U.S. presidents needed flexibility on nuclear use decisions and that it was unwise to develop rigid or uniform consultative arrangements, he saw value in incorporating nuclear weapons use consultation into "broader crisis consultation procedures." Indeed, he believed that NATO had a variety of mechanisms and a wealth of experience from crisis simulation (e.g., High Level Exercises or HILEX) and crisis management that could be mobilized in a crisis. That said, he broadly criticized the arrangements proposed by the caucus because they did not "correspond to the real world" which worked horizontally, not vertically. If a crisis unfolded where nuclear weapons use became necessary, he believed that proposals would "occur to all [concerned] at the same time." Nevertheless, while advice would be welcome, in the final analysis, the nuclear powers-the United States and the United Kingdom--would make the final decisions: "The views of all, and especially those to which special weight should be given [presumably NPG members or NATO members on the front lines like West Germany], should get to the nuclear power expeditiously."

Documents 27A and 27B: "Weekly Activities Report," from Ronald I. Spiers, Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs, to Secretary of State et al., 15 August 1969 and 19 September 1969, Top Secret
Source: RG 59, Executive Secretariat. Weekly Focus Reports, box 9, Weekly Activity Report to the Under Secretary August 1969 and September 1969

With a new administration coming into power in 1969, the question of the nuclear understanding appeared on the agenda although not as rapidly as under Kennedy and Johnson. While the correspondence and briefing papers remain classified, these reports document what happened. On August 4 Wilson wrote Nixon "suggesting reaffirmation of the traditional understanding." The matter was settled the next month when Nixon wrote Wilson that the understandings remained in effect.

Documents 28A through E: U.S.-West German Arrangements
28 A: Embassy West Germany cable 15148 to State Department, 24 November 1969
28 B: State Department cable 200554 to Embassy West Germany, 2 December 1969
28 C: Embassy West Germany cable 15625 to State Department, 6 December 1969
28 D: Embassy West Germany cable 714 to State Department, 23 January 1970
28 E: State Department cable 16310 to Embassy West Germany, 3 February 1970
Source for documents 23A and C: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files 1967-1969, Def 12 Ger W
Source for documents 23B, D, and E: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials Project, National Security Council Files (hereinafter NSCF), boxes 682 and 683, Germany, vol. III and IV respectively

Like the arrangement with the British, the one with West Germany was "top secret" and neither the British nor the Germans knew that Washington had consultative understandings with both. Washington wanted it that way. Like the arrangement with the British, the U.S. side did not see any need to take initiative to reaffirm the one with West Germans but was willing to do if they asked for it. This exchange of cables (Note 29) hints at the Nixon administration's consternation that Helmut Schmidt, the defense minister for the new Social Democratic-Free Democratic coalition government led by Willy Brandt, had told his British counterpart, Dennis Healey, about the U.S.-West German understanding. Talks with West German officials in Bonn, including Schmidt, made it plain that the Germans regretted the disclosure to the British and agreed that knowledge of it should be "confined to a very small circle of top officials in each government." That the State Department worried that the embassy was not being sufficiently secretive about the matter comes through in the instruction in the last document to treat information on the nuclear arrangements as NODIS ("no distribution" except to specified officials) instead of the somewhat less restrictive EXDIS ("exclusive distribution") category.

Document 29: Haig to Kissinger, 2 October 1970, Top Secret
Source: NSCF, box 972, Haig Chron - Oct 1-[13], 1970 [1 of 2]

The change of government in the United Kingdom, from Prime Minister Wilson to Prime Minister Edward Heath, in June 1970, led to the usual discussions on nuclear use consultations. Haig's cable is slightly cryptic and the draft memorandum mentioned by Haig, or the cable from Deputy Secretary of State John Irwin, have not surfaced.

Document 30: State Department cable 203272 to U.S. Embassy London, "Nuclear Consultation with the British," 15 December 1970, top secret, excised copy
Source: NSCF, box 63, Consultations Regarding the Use of Nuclear Weapons, Mandatory review release

By mid-December, Nixon and Heath had agreed on a consultation agreement that incorporated six amendments by the British. Although background documents remain classified, what prompted some of the amendments were to bring within the scope of the understanding a deployment of nuclear depth bombs at the U.S.-leased naval base in Bermuda. By the 1970s, with the Lulu nuclear depth bomb had been long retired the ASW weapon deployed in Bermuda would have been the B57 whose explosive yield ranging from 5 to 20 kilotons. (Note 30) Details on the timing, circumstances, etc. of this deployment are unavailable but it may have related to U.S. naval reactions to the expansion of the Soviet SLBM fleet during the 1970s. Certainly, the deployment was significant enough for Henry Kissinger to have maintained several folders on the "British-US Nuclear Matter (Bermuda Exchange)" in his office files. (Note 31) This excised document follows the structure of the 1964-1965 understandings, but document 31, released in its entirety, serves as a key to the excised portions.

Document 31: State Department Cable 775886 to U.S. Embassy London, "Nuclear Consultation with UK and Use of Holy Loch by FBMS (Poseidon-Equipped)," 5 May 1971, Top Secret
Source: Record Group 84, Records of Foreign Service Posts. Embassy London, 1965-1976, box 1, 1976

Only a few months after the Heath-Nixon understanding, the deployment of Poseidon SLBMs, more accurate than Polaris and with each missile carrying 10 multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs), changed the situation. U.S. plans to replace Polaris with Poseidon at Holy Loch led to British suggestions for modification of the basic understanding. This cable includes: 1) Nixon's letter to Heath affirming that earlier understandings on consultations over the use of Polaris missiles also applied to the Poseidon deployment, 2) the modified text of the basic understanding (with references to Poseidon and ASW weapons at Bermuda), and 3) a note from Secretary of State Rogers to the British Ambassador concerning the applicability of earlier understandings to the Poseidon deployment.

Document 32: Memorandum of Conversation, "Nuclear Release Agreement; Labour Government's Defense Review; UK Polaris Program; Diego Garcia; US-Soviet Threshold Test Ban; French Presidential Elections; Middle East; Washington Energy Conference," 26 April 1974, Secret
Source: RG 59, Records of Henry Kissinger, 1973-1977, box 7, Apr 1974 Nodis Memcons

With Heath's defeat in 1974 and the return to power of Harold Wilson in 1974, Anglo-American relations improved after some deterioration during the October War. During this meeting between Kissinger and Cabinet Secretary John Hunt, the two reached a verbal agreement on the nuclear use understandings, including the weapons in Bermuda, with letters of agreement to follow. Confirming the close London/Washington relationship on nuclear matters, Hunt and Kissinger agreed on British plans to test secretly "Super Antelope," a nuclear weapon designed for the Polaris missile, at the Nevada test site later in the spring. (Note 32) The discussion closed with discussions of Middle East peace negotiations and Kissinger's amusing account of his meetings with King Faisal of Saudi Arabia.


1. Speech by Lyndon Johnson at Detroit, 7 September 1964, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963-1964, II (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1965), 1051.

2. Stephen Twigge and Len Scott, Planning Armageddon: Britain, the United States, and the Command of Western Nuclear Forces, 1945-1964 (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000), 30-36. This is the most authoritative account of British nuclear policy and Anglo-American nuclear relations in the first decades of the Cold War.

3. U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1950, Vol. VII (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1976), 1261-1262, 1462-1464; United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Documents on British Policy Overseas, Series II, Vol. IV (London, HMSO, 1991), 255, 310-311.

4. United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Documents on British Policy Overseas, Series II, Vol. IV (London, HMSO, 1991), 311; Twigge and Scott, Planning Armageddon, 26-27.

5. For the arrangement with Japan, see Lucius D. Battle to McGeorge Bundy, "Check List of Presidential Actions," 28 July 1961, at https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nsa/NC/nuchis.html#usnhdp. The 1969 U.S.-Japan treaty reverting Okinawa to Japanese control included a secret agreement requiring the United States to consult the Japanese government if it wanted to base nuclear weapons on the island in an emergency. For more information on the Okinawa issue, see National Security Archive briefing book, Robert Wampler, ed., "Nuclear Weapons and Okinawa," at https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/japan/okinawa/okinawa.htm. For a fascinating account of the Kissinger-Waikaizumi backchannel talks on the Okinawa treaty see Waikaizumi Kei, The Best Course Available : A Personal Account of the Secret U.S.-Japan Okinawa Reversion Negotiations (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002).

6. For the present situation, see Natural Resources Defense Council report prepared by Hans M. Kristensen, U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Europe: A Review of Post-Cold War Policy, Force Levels, and War Planning, at <http://www.nrdc.org/nuclear/euro/euro.pdf>.

7. For the Truman Library's oral history interview with Arneson, see http://www.trumanlibrary.org/oralhist/arneson.htm.

8. For an authoritative account of the U.S. nuclear presence in Canada during the Cold War, see John Clearwater, U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Canada (Toronto, Dundurn Group, 1999). The consultative arrangements are discussed on page 18.

9. For the Churchill-Truman meetings, see Klaus Larres, Churchill's Cold War (New Haven: Yale, 2002), 155-173. For the communiqué language see document 1.

10. Twigge and Scott, Planning Armageddon, 109-116. .

11. Ibid., pp. 326-333.

12. Ibid., 118-119, for more details on British concerns.

13. Ibid., 119-122.

14. Macmillan to Kennedy, January 26, 1961, see document 13; also published in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Vol. XIII (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1994), 1030.

15. Kennedy's letter mentions three modifications but only two are footnoted in the text; the third may have been a minor stylistic change.

16. The NATO "COSMIC Top Secret" documents reproduced here bear a series of annual year stamps because NATO security regulations required an annual mustering of highly classified documents; records managers had to stamp the documents to show that they had accounted for them. E-mail from Anne-Marie Smith, NATO Archives, 15 June 2005.

17. For SACEUR's control, see Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace, The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1953 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 169-170. For the agreements with Italy on Jupiter IRBMs, see Ray L. Thurston to B.E.L. Timmons, 16 October 1958, and Rome Embassy Despatch 1168, 2 April 1959, RG 59, Central Decimal Files, 1955-1959, 711.56365/10-1558 and 4-259 respectively.

18. For background on the Athens Guidelines, see Twigge and Scott, Planning Armaggedon, 174-180. For an account of McNamara's presentation and the NATO reaction, see Lawrence Freedman, Kennedy's Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 108-110.

19. Jacob Neufeld, Ballistic Missiles in the United States Air Force, 1945-1960 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1990), 232-233.

20. For details on the Holy Loch memorandum of understanding, see Charlie Witham, University of the West of England, Bristol, "Leverage, Leaks and Liabilities: Holy Loch and the 'Special' Anglo-American Nuclear Relationship, 1960-1965," presentation at annual meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, College Park, Md, June 24, 2005.

21. For the agreement on air defense missiles, see "Checklist of Presidential Actions," at https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nsa/NC/nuchis.html#usnhdp. For further details on the loose agreement over the Genies, see Clearwater, U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Canada, 20-32 and 52-59.

22. For the agreement by the Pearson government and the first deployments, see Clearwater, Canadian Nuclear Weapons: The Untold Story of Canada's Cold War Arsenal (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1998), 27-54. For accounts of the negotiations, see Greg Donaghy, Tolerant Allies: Canada and the United States 1963-1968 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2002), 101-103, and John Clearwater, U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Canada, 24-40.

23. For declassified U.S. documents on predelegation, see
< https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/news/predelegation2/predel2.htm>.

24. Clearwater, U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Canada, 90, 154; Clearwater, Canadian Nuclear Weapons, 216.

25. For details on the W34 and B57 weapons, see Stephen Schwartz et al., Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons since 1945 (Washington, D.C., Brookings Institution, 1998), 88-89, and Clearwater, U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Canada, 210-211.

26. For storage of the nuclear depth bombs at St. Mawgan, see Joshua Handler and William M. Arkin, Nuclear Warships and Naval Nuclear Weapons 1990: A Complete Inventory, Neptune Papers No. 5, Greenpeace International, 1990, at http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/nep5text.htm. Also on the ASW weapons and the U.S.-British-Netherlands, nuclear connection, see Robert S. Norris, Andrew Burrows, and Richard W. Fieldhouse, Nuclear Weapons Databook, Vol. 5: British, French, and Chinese Nuclear Weapons (Boulder: Westview, 1994), 85 and Duncan Campbell, The Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier: American Military Power in Britain (London: Michael Joseph, 1984), 93.

27. For background on U.S.-UK issues during this period, see Sylvia Ellis, Britain, America, and the Vietnam War (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004), 118-132.

28. For details on the deployments, see, Robert S. Norris, William Arkin, and William Burr, "Where They Were," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 55 (November-December 1999) 26-35; "Secretary McNamara's Remarks to NATO Ministerial Meeting, December 15-17, Paris," Airgram CA-6436, 23 December 1964, in William Burr, editor, U.S. Nuclear History: Arms and Politics in the Missile Age, 1955-1968 (Alexandria, VA: Proquest/National Security Archive, 1998).

28a. It recently came to the attention of the editor that the State Department’s historical series, Foreign Relations of the United States, included a significant document on the selective release issue. An excised version of a memorandum to President Johnson from Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, dated 16 March 1968, “Consultations with the Federal Republic of Germany on Nuclear Weapons Release,” [Document 25A above] discloses the basic features of a consultative arrangement that State and Defense thought were appropriate for a recommendation to West German officials. See FRUS, 1964-1968, Vol. XIII (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1995), 679-680 ( 3 January 2007).

29. The cable from the State Department, number 196674, that initiated the exchange has not yet surfaced: apparently, it raised questions about Schmidt's "indiscretion" with the British.

30. For deployments of nuclear-capable U.S. ASW forces in Bermuda, see Handler and Arkin, "Nuclear Warships and Naval Nuclear Weapons 1990: A Complete Inventory," at http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/nep5text.htm.

31. See the reference to these files in the finding aid for the Henry Kissinger Office files, box 63, at

32. For Super Antelope, or Chevaline, and its history, see John Baylis and Kristan Stoddard, "Britain and the Chevaline Project: The Hidden Nuclear Program," Journal of Strategic Studies 25 (Summer 2003): 124-155.

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