NUCLEAR FILES : The U.S. Nuclear Presence in Western Europe, 1954-1962, (Part I-Part II)

The U.S. Nuclear Presence in Western Europe, 1954-1962, Part I

A 280 mm. nuclear-capable cannon being set up for test firing by the 39th Field Artillery Battalion at the Grafenwohr Training Area, West Germany, 28 September 1958. The M65 cannon could fire the W9 nuclear warhead, which had an explosive yield of some 15 kilotons. A gun-type atomic weapon, it was the same kind of weapon that was used to destroy Hiroshima. (National Archives Still Picture Division, Record Group 111-CS, box 31)

Published: Jul 21, 2020

Briefing Book #714

Edited by William Burr

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv

Germans and Italians Did Not Seek Formal Agreement to U.S. Nuclear Weapons Storage on Their Territory

Declassified Records Reflect Debates over Nuclear Weapons Stockpile, Use Decisions, and Independent Nuclear Capabilities

New Document Shows French Concern that U.S. Might Not Use Nuclear Weapons in a Crisis

Nukes in Europe Peaked in 1960s at 8,000; over 100 Remain Today, and Are Still Controversial

Washington D.C., July 21, 2020 – In the 1950s and 1960s, some NATO allies, notably West Germany and Italy, were remarkably compliant to U.S. wishes regarding the storage of nuclear weapons on their soil – and ultimately their potential use in a European war, according to newly released State Department and Defense Department records posted today by the nongovernmental National Security Archive. The governments in Bonn and Rome made no objections when Washington came calling and did not even pose questions about when or how the weapons might be used.

Other governments, notably France, did raise concerns but sometimes very different ones. In one important new document reporting on a sensitive North Atlantic Council meeting from October 1960, the Greeks wondered whether the Americans would consult with their allies before resorting to nuclear war, while the French, who wanted their own force de frappe, told the group their worry was Washington might not use their weapons at all in a crisis.

Today’s posting provides a significant window into the delicate issues surrounding the creation and management of the nuclear stockpile in Europe. Much about this topic is still classified. Along with allied perspectives, the documents describe inter-agency disputes between State and Defense over issues such as whether to grant certain allies custody over the weapons.

President Dwight Eisenhower did not oppose sharing possession of nuclear capabilities – in order to strengthen NATO and reduce dependence on the U.S. – but he also insisted that the U.S. should have full freedom to deploy its arsenal at will.

Stockpile issues are still being debated today in parts of Europe, particularly in Germany.

* * * * *

The U.S. Nuclear Presence in Western Europe, 1954-1962

by William Burr

Part I: from MC-48 to the Atomic Stockpile System, 1954-1960

Since the mid-1950s, during the Dwight D. Eisenhower presidency, the U.S. military has stored nuclear weapons at military bases on the territory of its European NATO allies for use in the event of conflict with the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation. At the time, State Department officials believed that as long as the U.S. was seeking to store nuclear weapons in Europe and to obtain “the use rights which we require,” it “must be prepared to pay some price.” Part of the price that Washington decided to pay was to develop arrangements that have been in place for decades: training NATO allies to use nuclear weapons delivery systems and making available nuclear weapons for use by alliance forces in the event of war.

In emergency conditions, the U.S. CINCEUR [Commander in Chief European Command] could order the immediate use of the weapons by NATO. In other circumstances, use of the weapons required the consent of NATO’s top policymaking body, the North Atlantic Council. But the U.S. president had a controlling voice in decisions to use American nuclear weapons. Thus, President Eisenhower’s “emergency actions pouch” (later known as the “football”) would include a directive authorizing the transfer of nuclear weapons to NATO forces.

The deployments were consistent with policy priorities established in late 1954 by NATO Military Committee document 48, which mandated nuclear weapons use in conflict with the Soviet Union, including a Soviet conventional attack on Western Europe. But NATO’s endorsement of MC 48 did not mean widespread acceptance of its ideas in Western Europe. According to Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Alfred Gruenther, it would take time before Europeans saw the bomb as a “conventional means and they stop being afraid of it.”

Much about the U.S.-NATO nuclear enterprise has been secret since its inception. The numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons deployed and their locations in NATO Europe was classified secret during the Cold War and has remained so (for example, in 2018 the Netherlands Council of State, with U.S. support, rejected an appeal for information on U.S. nuclear weapons in that country). The current numbers of nuclear bombs and their locations is an official secret, although it is widely understood that about 100 to 150 bombs are kept at air bases in Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and Turkey.[1] Before the early 1990s, however, the U.S. had thousands of nuclear weapons in NATO Europe, with the late 1960s a peak in the range of 8,000, but when the Cold War ended the U.S. drastically cut back on the deployments.

Controversy has surrounded the nuclear deployments for years, especially in Germany and a debate has resumed there, begun mainly by Greens and Social Democrats, over whether that country should spend large sums on modernizing its nuclearcapable military aircraft or whether nuclear weapons should even be based in Germany. In the United States an attempt is being made to initiate a broader debate over whether forward-based nuclear weapons are essential to the integrity of NATO and the deterrence of Russia.[2]

To provide perspective on the long-term – if now attenuated – U.S. nuclear presence in NATO Europe, the National Security Archive publishes today a special collection of declassified documents on the early years of U.S. nuclear deployments on the continent in the context of alliance nuclear policy and nuclear use consultation arrangements. Central to the posting are documents on the creation of the stockpile arrangements by which nuclear weapons would be made available to trained units of NATO countries in the event of an East-West conflict. Other documents illuminate the NATO strategy which provided the context for the stockpile system and the problem of nuclear use authority raised by U.S. control over nuclear weapons deployed to NATO countries.

Some of the documents in today’s posting were published previously by the National Security Archive in various compilations distributed on the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) subscription service, including the Berlin Crisis, 1958-1962, U.S. Nuclear History, 1955-1968, and Nuclear

Nonproliferation, 1955-1968. Other documents are published on-line for the first time, including a number of items obtained from the U.S. National Archives.

The Nuclear Alliance

With the nuclear-armed United States a leading member and a guarantor of European security, NATO was a nuclear alliance from the beginning, but nuclearization accelerated in the mid1950s. Key developments were the deployment of nuclear weapons to West Germany and Italy, documented in this collection, but also the acceptance of Military Committee 48 which made nuclear weapons central to alliance defense and deterrence strategy. With the U.S.’s central role in NATO, however, President Eisenhower assumed that any nuclear use in an East-West war in Europe would depend on a decision from Washington: the “U. S. must retain freedom to use atomic weapons on its own decision in the event of threat to our own forces.”[3]

Putting nuclear weapons at the heart of alliance strategy left the European allies in a difficult position because they had no access to the weapons. To solve that political and diplomatic problem, State Department officials supported training NATO forces in the use of nuclear weapons and making arrangements to provide them with such weapons in the event of war, with the U.S. retaining custody of them otherwise. This was consistent with Eisenhower’s policy preferences, which were that European allies needed nuclear capabilities to reduce their dependence on the United States. While the Defense Department would propose turning over custody of the weapons to allies such as France, the AEC and the State Department rejected that option as potentially destabilizing and inconsistent with nonproliferation policy.[4]

Declassified documents posted today chart the negotiation of the bilateral agreements that established the stockpile system. Each participating country, which included West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Turkey, among others, signed an agreement covering the introduction of U.S. custodial and training personnel and financial costs. Creation of the stockpile system also required agreements covering special arrangements for the sharing of nuclear weapons information with military units.

Even though French officials had been early proponents of the stockpile, France refused to participate. With its own nuclear weapons program in the works and the highly nationalistic Charles De Gaulle in power, the French leader refused to allow the introduction of nuclear weapons to which another country had legal title, even if they were to be assigned to French forces. However, Paris and Washington agreed to a plan for French military units in West Germany to participate in the stockpile. As long as the weapons were not on their territory, the French had no objection to a proposal to assign U.S. nuclear weapons to their forces in Germany.[5]

That the West Germans would participate in the nuclear stockpile raised objections by the Soviet bloc, which had not forgotten German aggression only a few years earlier. To assuage those concerns, the United States would assert that it had “exclusive custody” of the weapons [see Part II of this posting, forthcoming] but ownership and legal control of the weapons and authority to order their use was one thing, while the requirements of military readiness were another. The latter left wide berth for attenuation of U.S. control. As shown in the Defense Department’s history of custody, the U.S. military depended on the host nation for security of stockpile sites. Moreover, the Defense Department permitted storage of weapons on host nation strike aircraft, which would cause great concern when it became known to members of Congress in 1960. As for President Eisenhower, he was more relaxed about custody, believing that a strong NATO required effective nuclear roles for the allies.

So far, the only NATO countries where the U.S. government has acknowledged that it deployed nuclear weapons are Germany and the United Kingdom, but the details remain secret.[6] The record of the stockpile negotiations also remains classified although archival sources on the Italian negotiations are available (to be discussed in more detail in Part II of this posting).

One of the key issues with the U.S. nuclear presence in Western Europe and U.S. guarantees for European security was the matter of consultations over the fateful problem of nuclear weapons use. This became an especially concerning issue within NATO once the Soviets began developing ballistic missiles. Even with the stockpile system in place, the U.S. still had official control of the weapons and members of NATO’s top decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, wondered whether the U.S. would consult them adequately before making a nuclear use decision.

A never-before-published record of a NAC meeting in October 1960 illustrates the range of concerns about U.S. control of nuclear weapons and consultation with allies in a crisis: whether the U.S. would use the bomb without consultation or whether it would use the bomb in a crisis. A French diplomat argued that France “would not fear the U.S. using atomic weapons, but [feared] that the U.S. might not react.” He also declared that France’s “capability to launch atomic weapons would be pressure on the U.S. to do so.”

Part II of this posting will document developing State Department and congressional concerns about nuclear stockpile arrangements, including the extent to which the United States had “exclusive custody” over the weapons. Concerns about the security of the weapons and the risk of unauthorized use led the new Kennedy administration to halt temporarily U.S. nuclear deployments to NATO forces and to press for the development of Permissive Action Links (PALs) to tighten U.S. control of the weapons.

Read the document

I. 1954: New Deployments and MC 48

Document 01

Letter from Livingston Satterthwaite, Office of Political Adviser, U.S. European Command, to R. Gordon Arneson, Special Assistant to the Secretary for Atomic Energy Matters, 29 March 1954, Secret


Source: Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) (ProQuest)

This letter to a State Department official gives an overview of a course on “special weapons (atomic)” given by the U.S. Army Europe for NATO senior officers. It was during this period that the U.S. military was beginning to deploy nuclear weapons components and delivery systems in the United Kingdom and other European NATO countries, including West Germany. Moreover, the Eisenhower administration was determined to make nuclear weapons central to NATO strategy

The letter covered some of the substance of the course offering along with the reactions of attendees, which included both U.S. and European military officers. One of the conclusions reached was that “the wide-spread use of atomic weapons … would definitely not mean that armed forces could be decreased.” This was a notion with which President Eisenhower would have disagreed – he believed that nuclear weapons reduced the need for conventional forces. Other conclusions were that civilians faced “high relative vulnerability … compared to troops,” and “that in most cases atomic weapons favor the aggressor.” The latter meant that “there is less likelihood … of waiting for the other side to be the first to use them.”

An interesting point gleaned from military maneuvers in West Germany was that it would take at least five hours and forty-five minutes, even as long as seven-and-a-half hours, to “get the final O.K. to expend an A-bomb, after a field commander decides to use one.” The students agreed that was far too long because in wartime conditions a “tactical target would remain a target” for a relatively short period of time. The letter does not describe the steps of the process for getting authorization for use, but probably communications (including coding and decoding messages) were a major hurdle.

Document 02

Gerard C. Smith, Special Assistant to the Secretary for Atomic Energy Matters, “Memorandum of Negotiations Looking to Obtain Storage and Use Rights for Atomic Weapons in Western Germany,” Draft, 12 August 1954, Top Secret


Source: DNSA

On the frontlines of the Cold War, West Germany was one of the U.S.’s initial atomic weapon storage sites in continental Europe. The Defense Department asked the State Department to make the diplomatic arrangements necessary for German approval of the deployments. In July 1954, the State Department directed U.S. Ambassador James Conant to inform Chancellor Konrad Adenauer at an “appropriate time” that the U.S. “proposed to introduce atomic weapons under its rights as an Occupying Power, and he was requested to inform Adenauer of this decision.” The Department also asked Conant to discuss with Adenauer the matter of “arrangements for the storage and use of nuclear weapons during the Post-Contractuals period.” That is, after the formal end of the military occupation system, a contractual agreement with West Germany would be in place allowing the U.S. to keep its forces in the country.

On 12 July, while informing Adenauer that the U.S. intended to deploy “nuclear components for artillery shells,” Conant had asked “for assurances that the U.S. would have the right to store, and in an emergency to use, atomic weapons from U.S. bases in Germany after the Bonn Conventions [terminating the Occupation regime] come into effect.” Conant said he would make a formal request. What Conant requested was narrower than what Washington had in mind – more than nuclear artillery – but it did not matter because one of Adenauer’s top aides, Walter Hallstein, advised Conant that the U.S. request was approved and that a formal approach to Adenauer was unnecessary. Indeed, the U.S. did not need a written agreement with Germany on the deployments because “the reserved powers and military rights in the Bonn Conventions could be interpreted to give such rights without formal consent of the German Government.”

Those circumstances led Gerard C. Smith to recommend that negotiation with West Germany be dropped and that no further consideration be given to a proposal for a formal agreement with Adenauer because rights to deploy the weapons “already exist and that no further commitments from the Germans are necessary.” With the green light from the State Department, the U.S. followed the deployment of nuclear artillery by introducing nuclear warheads for Corporals and Honest John rockets in 1954, followed the next year by Matador missiles.[7]

Document 03

Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (International Security Affairs), “State Defense Conference with SACEUR on ‘New Approach’ Atomic Planning,” 6 October 1954 – 3:35 p. m. – Room 2E-859, The Pentagon, Top Secret, Excised copy


Source: U.S. National Archives, Record Group 59, Department of State Records (RG 59), Central Decimal Files (CDF), 711.5/10-654

Having placed nuclear weapons in the center of its “massive retaliation” military strategy, the Eisenhower administration sought similar arrangements for NATO. In December 1954 NATO’s Military Committee approved MC 48, , which assumed early use of nuclear weapons in a conflict with the Soviet Union.[8]

The U.S. played a central role in developing MC 48 and this transcript of a State Department-Defense Department meeting sheds light on high-level thinking about nuclear strategy for NATO and the necessity for developing a broad consensus in the Alliance on its validity. As Vice Admiral Davis put it, the purpose was to find out “how best and most tactfully to inoculate our NATO friends with the idea of the atomic weapons concept.” The participants agreed that it was necessary “to get in NATO the basic concept is that you have to fight this war as an atomic war and that atomic weapons have to be used initially whether the enemy uses them or not.”

The group discussed a schedule for getting approval of the “yellow piece of paper” that was apparently an early text of MC 48, but they also had in mind the need for the “psychological preparation” of European populations for a nuclear strategy. According to SACEUR General Alfred Gruenther, “it would take time before Europeans see the bomb as “conventional means and they stop being afraid of it.” As an example, he explained how it would take time to persuade the Danes to accept atomic warfare but that he had argued to journalists that “in any war of the future we are going to have to use atomic bombs, unless you, your country is willing to make up the deficit in conventional forces” which he did not think was likely because “already you are kicking about taxes.” Gruenther said he had been meeting with NATO Foreign Ministers and Permanent Representatives to NATO and had made a similar point: they had already made the decision to use atomic weapons “by limiting us to these [conventional] forces” in the face of Soviet armies. In other words, NATO had failed to follow through on the goals for conventional forces established at NATO’s Lisbon conference in 1952. According to Gruenther, the Belgian representative André de Staercke said: “I think we ought to put this on paper,” but some of the governments had doubts about that. Apparently, the Portuguese representative argued that Gruenther was the one to decide on nuclear weapons use. “My advice to you is don’t tell us about it. If you do wrong, we’re going to cut your throat anyhow.” The governments didn’t want that problem put to them.

With the perceived shaky consensus among the NATO leadership, the State-Defense group agreed on a strategy for developing consent first by getting the paper accepted by the Military Committee and then by the chiefs of staff of the 14 government who would “support it with their political leaders.” Gruenther thought it possible for NATO ministers to agree to it at their December meeting but the matter should be “brought to a head as soon as it is convenient to do it.”

Document 04

Colonel A. J. Goodpaster, Staff Secretary, memorandum to the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, 8 December 1954, Top Secret


Source: RG 59, Executive Secretariat Conference Files, 1949-1972, box 65, CF 426 NATO Meeting Paris Dec, 1954 Documents & Exchanges

As part of the process for approving MC 48, President Eisenhower met with senior advisers on 8 December 1954 where he made it clear that the United States would be the controlling voice in any NATO nuclear use decisions: the “U. S. must retain freedom to use atomic weapons on its own decision in the event of threat to our own forces.” If the U.S. was to keep troops in Europe, “we must and will retain the freedom to initiate use of these weapons.”

During the discussion, Eisenhower agreed with JCS Chairman Admiral Radford’s point that the NATO Council should make it clear in any approval action that the Military Committee’s recommendations were not “to be construed to prejudge final decisions by governments on the implementation of [the] plans developed in support thereof.” In other words, MC 48 was for the purposes of military planning and preparations. NATO Ministers recognized nothing was written in stone when they approved MC 48 on 17 December 1954: in the final communique they stipulated that “this approval did not involve the delegation of the responsibility of governments to make decisions for putting plans into action in the event of hostilities.”

Consistent with the preferences of U.S. policymakers MC 48, as approved, assumed early use of nuclear weapons in a conflict with the Soviet Union. In the event war broke out in Europe, it was “militarily essential that NATO forces should be able to use atomic and thermonuclear weapons in their defense from the outset.” Toward that end, NATO forces needed an “integrated atomic capability for use as rapidly as possible in order to give them maximum deterrent power and the ability to participate effectively in an immediate atomic counter-offensive in the event of war.”

II. Encouraging Nuclear Readiness, Discouraging Proliferation

Document 05

Robert G. Barnes, Executive Secretariat, to [Livingston] Merchant and [Gerard C.] Smith, “European Atomic Problems,” 5 March 1956, with memorandum from Merchant and Smith to Secretary of State attached, Top Secret


Source: DNSA

With nuclear matters a major subject in Western Europe and U.S-European relations, Merchant and Smith recommended to Dulles a “coordinated study” to consider the varied problems, such as nuclear proliferation, NATO and deterrence, and peaceful uses of atomic energy. Making those issues especially salient was that the U.S. was seeking to deploy and store nuclear weapons in NATO countries (France, Italy, etc.) and considering arrangements for nuclear air defense in Canada and NATO Europe. Moreover, France was seeking training in the use of nuclear weapons while moving forward with its nuclear weapons program.

According to this State Department analysis, the central problem facing the U.S. was that it was seeking European cooperation in “building an effective deterrent” based on nuclear weapons, while at the same time it was trying to discourage independent national nuclear programs in Europe (although Eisenhower himself was far less worried about that prospect). Yet the U.S. was “not presently willing or able to furnish our allies with such weapons from our own resources.” As long as the United States sought to store nuclear weapons on the territories of European allies and the “use rights which we require,” it “must be prepared to pay some price.” At a minimum, the price would be the provision of “nuclear know-how, assured availability of weapons for their own defense, and participation in decisions with respect to use.”

In addition, there were issues concerning the peaceful uses of nuclear energy that had to be explored, for example, how the U.S. should support EURATOM and whether Washington could link peaceful uses assistance to a moratorium on weapons development by “4th countries”, such as France. To investigate these and other issues, Merchant and Smith recommended that a State Department working group prepare a “political analysis.”

Barnes informed Smith and Merchant that Dulles had not seen their memorandum but that they should go ahead and prepare a study “along the lines recommended.”

Document 06

Secretary of State Dulles to Secretary of Defense Wilson, 12 April 1956, Top Secret


Source: DNSA

In light of the Defense Department’s decision that it was necessary to deploy nuclear weapons at U.S. bases in Italy, Dulles informed Wilson of a recent discussion between U.S. Ambassador to Italy Clare Booth Lucie and Italian Defense Minister Paolo Taviani of the propose deployment. Taviani assured Luce that the United States had “full authority” to initiate the deployments and Luce had recommended that they “proceed without further discussion with the Italian Government.”

Dulles agreed with the proposed action and reminded Wilson of his earlier letter in which he had made a commitment to inform the Department when the deployment had taken place. When it had, Dulles planned to authorize Luce to inform the Italian chief of staff of the “general location” of the nuclear sites “if she deems this necessary in light of her conversation with Taviani.”

Document 07

[Assistant Secretary for European Affairs Burke] Elbrick to the Acting Secretary, “Program to Increase NATO Nuclear Capability and Secure Certain Base Rights,” 7 November 1956, with attached memoranda and cover memorandum, including undated memorandum to President Eisenhower, Secret


Source: DNSA

While MC 48 had given nuclear weapons a central role in NATO military strategy, most of the members had no prospect of acquiring the atomic capability that NATO had deemed all-important for defense. It was for this reason, among others, including facilitating NATO cohesion and U.S. plans to disperse nuclear weapons, that in the fall of 1956 U.S. officials discussed training their NATO partners in the use of the weapons.

Political considerations influenced thinking about the training offer. The Suez Crisis had just ended with the collapse of the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt, which Washington had opposed with financial pressure. In that context, the “earliest possible recementing of the ties among the allies” was seen as an important reason for a nuclear initiative.

The training offer was to be made at the NATO ministerial meeting. According to the memorandum to Eisenhower, if the allies asked whether the U.S. would make the weapons available to them, the U.S. was prepared to “reply … that we would make atomic weapons available to NATO forces trained in their use if and when this should become necessary in view of an emergency facing NATO.” Both the Defense Department and the State Department interpreted such a move as consistent with the Atomic Energy Act. Whether such a discussion took place at the December 1956 NATO meeting remains unclear, but in remarks to the NATO Council Secretary of Defense Wilson made an offer of training in the use of “new weapons.”

Document 08 NEW

Memorandum from the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense to the President, “Provision of Nuclear Capability to U. S. Allies,” Draft, 7 November 1956, Top Secret, Prepared by Office of International Security Affairs, Department of Defense, attachments not available


Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, White House Office, Office of the Staff Secretary. Subject Series, Alphabetical Subseries, box 17, Miscellaneous (2)

The same day that State Department officials made the nuclear weapons training proposal to higher-ups at the Department, Defense Department officials were trying out an idea that they would support in the years ahead: amending the Atomic Energy Act so that it would be possible to transfer the “custody of atomic weapons” to select NATO countries and other allies. In this way they could achieve a state of “atomic readiness.”

Defense officials envisaged transferring weapons and weapons information first to the British and the Canadians (air defense weapons), then to NATO countries (“defensive weapons”), and later “defensive weapons” to other allies including Australia and New Zealand, and possibly to Japan and the Philippines. To make such transfers possible, the Atomic Energy Act would be amended to “vest the authority for transfer of information in the Secretary of Defense and for the transfer of custody of atomic weapons in the President.”

The memorandum noted the dissenting view of the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission who questioned the “wisdom” of the proposal and whether Congress would support it. One of the chairman’s concerns was “the possibility of serious breaches in U.S. security with respect to atomic information.” According to the draft memorandum “notwithstanding these difficulties, the proposal merits any possible effort to secure favorable Congressional action.” Moreover, the “net advantages militarily and politically … warrant the calculated risk of a possible breach of U.S. atomic information security.”

The Defense Department would make more proposals for the transfer of custody of atomic weapons, and it would meet similar objections from the AEC and also the State Department (see document 25).

III. 1957: Debates over an Atomic Stockpile for NATO

Document 09

C. Burke Elbrick and Gerard C. Smith to the Secretary, “NATO Atomic Stockpile,”1 July 1957, Secret


Source: DNSA

With the French proposing a NATO atomic capability and the NATO Council supporting nuclear stockpiles (see Document 10), Merchant and Smith argued against Defense Department proposals to change U.S. law permitting the peacetime transfer of nuclear weapons, in part because of the risk of irresponsible use of the weapons. Nevertheless, the U.S. had already gone far in endorsing a nuclear role for NATO forces, with its support for MC 54, by offering dual-use weapons systems such as Honest John missiles, and by making offers to train NATO forces in the use of those weapons. “The inevitable next step in the program is to assure our allies that their forces trained in the delivery thereof would have nuclear warheads available to them in the event of hostilities.”

The warheads “would remain the property of the United States” and in the custody of the Commander-in-Chief European Command [CINCEUR]. An emergency transfer of the weapons from CINCEUR to the national military authorities of NATO countries would require the assent of the North Atlantic Council. In an extreme emergency, however, SACEUR could approve transfer action by CINCEUR, who could make the necessary transfers in accordance with Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and the “spirit” of the recently approved NATO Political Directive which called for the “use of nuclear weapons at the outset” in response to “armed aggression” (although conventional forces could be used in the event of “local hostile actions”).

The whole idea would be to give the proposed arrangement as much of a “NATO flavor as possible,” even though the weapons would remain under U.S. control, thus preventing their “irresponsible use.” Elbrick saw some outside chance that the proposal would “have some influence on the French decision to embark on a nuclear weapons program.” The United States could not explicitly ask the French for a pledge of “abstention” in return for participation in the stockpile plan unless it was prepared to provide them with nuclear weapons “without any conditions on their use.” Nevertheless, the thought that the stockpile arrangement would help discourage further nuclear proliferation in Europe would remain an element in U.S. thinking.

An alternative method to wartime transfer of weapons would be amending the Atomic Energy Act to authorize peacetime transfers of nuclear weapons with their use prohibited except as authorized by the North Atlantic Council or by CINCEUR in an emergency. As Elbrick and Smith noted, those would only be “paper safeguards” and it was doubtful whether such a solution would be acceptable in Washington or Western Europe.

They recommended that Dulles approve a letter to the secretary of defense that said it was not “feasible nor desirable” to change the Atomic Energy Act. Instead the U.S. government should pursue arrangements to share nuclear weapons with allies in emergency conditions as a means of assurance to NATO. This issue would not be quickly settled because the Pentagon remained interested in amending the Atomic Energy Act for several years ahead.

Document 10

C. Burke Elbrick to the Secretary, “NATO Atomic Stockpile,” 3 September 1957, Secret


Source: DNSA

Pressure was growing for NATO nuclear arrangements, with the French proposing an integrated NATO stockpile and U.S. ambassadors in Western Europe recommending action on the proposals for a stockpile. Meanwhile, U.S. forces in NATO Europe were increasingly equipped with nuclear-capable delivery systems and hundreds of NATO personnel were receiving training in “techniques of delivery of nuclear weapons.” In that context, “there is a natural desire on the part of our allies to know that the final step needed to give meaning to all the previous steps will in fact be taken—that atomic bombs and warheads will be available to them in event of hostilities.”

According to Elbrick, the inter-agency process in Washington was stuck with the Defense Department “unresponsive” to State Department proposals for moving forward. He recommended that Dulles inform senior Defense officials that the atomic stockpile issue “should be pursued as a matter of urgency.”

Document 11

C. Burke Elbrick to the Secretary, “NATO Atomic Stockpile,” 14 October 1957, Top Secret


Source: DNSA

A few days after Elbrick turned in this memorandum, one of Dulles’s aides, Joseph Green, informed him that President Eisenhower and the National Security Council had met and approved the concept of a NATO atomic stockpile. It was simply a matter of State and Defense working out a proposal. Nevertheless, Elbrick’s memorandum is useful because it summarizes an important message sent from SACEUR General Lauris Norstad on the “Minimum Force 1958-1963” prepared by his staff at SHAPE [Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe]. According to the message the minimum force had “two basic building blocks.” One was the creation of a nuclear delivery capability for NATO forces “without regard to national or command affiliations.” The other was dispersal of delivery systems. But the two blocks would only be useful, Norstad argued, as long as nuclear weapons were also dispersed.

According to Norstad, NATO needed a “store of weapons of appropriate numbers and types so located that the Allied delivery systems can use them effectively.” Elbrick supported this concept, treating it as “imperative that the U.S. Government be in a position to announce its intention of proceeding with [such] a stockpile.”

Document 12

C. Burke Elbrick to the Secretary, “NATO Atomic Stockpile,” 23 October 1957, Top Secret


Source: DNSA

In the midst of the policy review of the atomic stockpile, on 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first Earth satellite. The Soviets had already tested an ICBM a few months earlier, but their latest technological feat raised alarm in Washington and NATO because it portended a capability to launch missiles to targets in the West. Thus, on 22 October Dulles told Eisenhower that in the new context U.S. alliances were "approaching a somewhat precarious state” and that the U.S. had to move quickly on the atomic stockpile proposal on which the Defense Department had been moving slowly.[9]

The State Department supported the idea of a multilateral NATO stockpile under the control of SACEUR General Norstad. While atomic weapons depots would be located in a number of countries, the weapons would “form part of a single stockpile and the weapons held in the NATO stockpile would not be reserved or earmarked for the forces of any particular country.” Designating the stockpile as a “NATO stockpile” would have important “political advantages” but the U.S. would have control.

Complicating matters were the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who objected to the multilateral stockpile that Norstad and the State Department had in mind because of its “dangerous implications.” According to the Chiefs, it implied the “commitment of weapons to individual nations or their transfer to international control or infer the allocation of weapons on the basis of the desires of individual countries, rather than on the basis of NATO approved requirements.” Instead, the Chiefs envisaged “bilateral country-by-country agreements for storage sites.”

Elbrick was highly critical of the JCS’s smaller-bore approach: the NATO stockpile “cannot serve its intended political and military purposes” unless it is “genuinely multilateral” and “common.” More needs to be learned about the debate that unfolded in the following weeks, but the JCS conception was the one that prevailed.

Document 13

John Foster Dulles, Memorandum of Conversation with Chancellor Adenauer, 14 December 1957, Top Secret


Source: DNSA

Dulles made a formal stockpile offer at the NATO meeting on 26 December 1957; in addition, he offered NATO deployment of U.S. intermediate range ballistic missiles, presaging the Jupiter missiles in Italy and Turkey. But even before the NATO meeting, the U.S. had been sharing its thinking with allies. Thus, Adenauer opened up the substance of this meeting by telling Dulles that he was “confident that his Parliament would approve of the storage of nuclear weapons and the establishment of nuclear sites” (not mentioned were the U.S.’s existing nuclear sites.”

When Dulles mentioned a “Soviet proposal,” probably a reference to the Rapacki Plan for a nuclear free Central Europe, he indirectly referred to the U.S. IRBM offer by suggesting that “it might not be desirable or important” to deploy missiles to sites east of the Rhine. Nevertheless, a “special status” for West Germany should not be formalized because it “might be a move toward neutralization,” which was Adenauer’s concern as well.

Adenauer also told Dulles about the ongoing FIG project (France-Italy-Germany), which, whether deliberately or not, he inaccurately described as only a “proposal,” but acknowledged that research would be on nuclear weapons. Dulles suggested that he had some reservations because he suggested a broader arrangement that included the United States and the United Kingdom to “keep the situation under control as regards the undue spreading of nuclear weapons”).

IV. 1958-1960: Developing the Stockpile System

Document 14

EUR/RA [Office of European Regional Affairs] Mr. Timmons to EUR [Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs]- Mr. Merchant, “Atomic Armament of Germany,” 25 November 1958, Secret


Source: DNSA

With the Soviet and Polish governments condemning plans for West German participation in NATO stockpile arrangements, Timmons provided Merchant with an update. After Adenauer declared that the Bundeswehr would be equipped with “atomic capable weapons,” the West Germans started to order nuclear delivery systems from the United States, including Hercules air-defense, Honest John, and Matador missiles. They had also acquired F-84 fighter bombers with “conversion kits” that could make them nuclear capable. Bonn was also engaged in negotiations for acquiring F-104s, which had a nuclear capability. All of these acquisitions were in keeping with MC 70, which stipulated minimum requirements for each country for the 1958-1963 period.[10] So far, no U.S. atomic weapons had been deployed to West Germany for the use of those delivery systems.

Document 15

EUR- Mr. Merchant to S/P [Policy Planning Staff] Mr. Smith, “NATO Atomic Stockpile in Germany,” 26 January 1959, Top Secret


Source: DNSA

Smith had been worried about the timing of negotiations with West Germany over an agreement over nuclear deployments under the stockpile system. With a diplomatic crisis over the status of West Berlin unfolding, he worried that “free world support for our position … might be somewhat weakened by distracting and conflicting concerns over imminent West German nuclear rearmament.” Assistant Secretary Livingston Merchant, however, was less worried; as he reminded Smith, Adenauer realized that publicity would be widespread but was “prepared for the consequences.” He wanted no delay in the negotiations.

According to Merchant, SHAPE had plans for thirteen weapons stockpile sites in Germany for five different types of atomic weapons. One of them, named WAGON TRAIN, would provide weapons assigned to a fighter bomber squadron. So far there had been no “adverse reactions” to these plans within NATO and the State Department would continue the negotiations for the stockpile agreement.

Document 16

Acting Secretary of State Christian Herter to President Eisenhower, “Bilateral Agreements Under the Atomic Energy Act in Implementation of the NATO Atomic Stockpile Concept,” 8 April 1959, Top Secret


Source: DNSA

Acting Secretary Christian Herter (Dulles was then mortally ill) informed Eisenhower that the nuclear stockpile program involved two types of bilateral agreements, one covering the introduction of U.S. custodial and training personnel, financial costs, and arrangements for control and weapons use. The other, required by the Atomic Energy Act, provided for the “transmission of restricted data and equipment necessary for the training of the host country forces.” That was essential because the atomic capability of the host country depended on having such an agreement in force.

Herter reported that the U.S. had signed classified stockpile agreements with both Turkey and West Germany, but the negotiation of atomic cooperation agreements still had to be completed. Both Greece and the Netherlands had agreed in principle to negotiate stockpile agreements and atomic cooperation agreements were already being negotiated.

Herter hoped that the agreements could be negotiated quickly because they had to be sent to Congress’s Joint Committee on Atomic Energy “so they could lie before Congress for the required 60 days” before they would go into effect officially. Early submission was desirable so that “public attention attracted to them may have subsided before the opening of the Foreign Ministers’ meeting on May 11.” Implicitly, Herter wanted to weaken a Soviet propaganda point before negotiations on Berlin and Germany had begun.

Document 17

State Department memorandum of conversation, “Agreement with U.K. re GENIE Missile,” 29 October 1959, with cover memorandum from Executive Secretary John A. Calhoun, 4 November 1959, Top Secret


Source: DNSA

At this meeting, government lawyers, including future Iran-Contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, discussed plans to provide the British with the Genie air-to-air missile, which raised controversial custody issues because the nuclear warhead was embedded in the missile to be carried by Royal Air Force interceptors. The Defense Department’s general counsel explained that under the plan the U.S. would retain ownership and custody of the missile “while on the ground,” and CINCEUR would have to declare a state of air alert “before the plane could take off with the missile.” Moreover, CINCEUR or his presentative would have to agree that the target was hostile prior to firing the missile.”

Burke further explained that the missile would have no “defense value” unless the interceptor was air-borne which meant that “actual United States custody” would exist “only up to the point of takeoff” while “control without physical custody” would obtain when it was in the air. Burke and State Department lawyer Eric Hager agreed the arrangement was consistent with the Atomic Energy Act and within the powers of the president. Moreover, both Secretary Herter and Deputy Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates had approved it. The proposal was at the White House where President Eisenhower would eventually approve it. Nevertheless, when the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy learned of the proposal its members would strongly object because of the unusual custody arrangement.

Document 18

Charles C. Finucane, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower, Personnel and Reserve, to Brig. General Andrew J. Goodpaster, Staff Secretary, White House, 8 December 1959, Top Secret


Source: DDEL, Office of the Staff Secretary Records, Subject Series, Department of Defense Subseries, Box 2, Dept. of Defense Vol. III (9)

Finucane sent Goodpaster the latest version of the “War Emergency Check List and Master Readiness File” which had been relabeled the “Joint Chiefs of Staff Emergency Actions File.” The file would be included in the “President’s

emergency actions pouch” (later known as the Football). A new item in the file was an Emergency Message, EM-5, which would make “available atomic weapons to NATO and to such other allies as may be programmed to use U.S. atomic weapons.” With that directive in the pouch, an essential part of the NATO stockpile system was in place: a presidential order to make the weapons available in a military emergency.

Document 19

International Security Affairs, Department of Defense, for NATO Defense Ministers Conference, “Provision of Advanced Weapons to NATO Countries (Other than IRBMs),” 23 March 1960, Secret


Source: DNSA

The “advanced weapons” discussed in this paper were mostly nuclear weapons delivery systems; a few were conventional weapons only. All of them were slated for NATO forces under MC-70 and toward that end the U.S. had already allocated some one billion dollars to finance the delivery of missiles and aircraft over and above what was being sold directly. All of the countries involved would be participating in nuclear stockpile arrangements, although some of the negotiations were not yet completed.

The nuclear delivery systems that had been under offer included Nike air defense (Germany, with Belgium and Denmark not yet having accepted offers); Honest John missiles (Germany, United Kingdom); Corporal missiles (United Kingdom); Matador missiles (Germany); IRBMs (UK; Italy, Turkey); 1000 F-84 conversion kits (unidentified countries); F-100 aircraft (France, Turkey, Denmark); Lacrosse missile (Italy); Sergeant missiles (Belgium and Netherlands); Mace missiles (unidentified countries); Davy Crockett (Italy, Greece, Turkey, Belgium, and the Netherlands); and F-104 fighter-bombers (Turkey, Greece, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy). In a number of instances, offers of delivery systems had been made but arrangements were still being discussed. In some instances, negotiations were never completed and the weapons were not deployed, for example, Davy Crockett’s and Lacrosse’s for Italy.

Document 20 NEW

Letter from Edwin M. Adams, U.S. Embassy, Rome, to James W. Millar, Office of European Regional Affairs, 21 June 1960, Top Secret


Source: RG 59, CDF, 611.657/6-2160

The stockpile negotiations with Italy were protracted, not concluded until late 1961.[11] One of the issues that was difficult to resolve was a financial one: how would the costs of maintaining the weapons deployment be borne. So far, the Italians wanted the U.S. to cover the costs, which led Adams to wonder why bother having the agreement. The United States already had nuclear weapons in Italy and they were “being happily taken care of without a stockpile agreement.” And the United States could introduce weapons into Italy without any problem. Therefore, he asked, “does the stockpile agreement have any merit?”

Millar’s response is not available, but the answer was “yes,” because U.S. negotiators soldiered on and reached agreement with the Italians on costs and other thorny issues, such as nuclear use consultations [See Part II of this posting series, forthcoming]

Document 21

Assistant Secretary of State for Congressional Affairs William Macomber to Thomas E. Morgan, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, 24 August 1960, Secret


Source: DNSA

Macomber informed Morgan of recent progress in negotiations on atomic stockpile agreements with NATO countries. Earlier in the year agreements with Belgium and the Netherlands had been concluded. Negotiations with Italy were continuing. An agreement with the French for stockpile arrangement for French forces in West Germany was near completion. An additional understanding with Belgium concerning stockpile arrangements for Belgian forces in Germany had been concluded in Belgium. A comparable agreement with the Netherlands was nearly finished while an arrangement for British forces in Germany was in the works. General Norstad had made an approach to the Portuguese, while the Canadians were discussing internally a possible deal with the U.S. on the storage of U.S. atomic weapons to support Canada’s forces assigned to SACEUR, SACLANT, and NORAD.

The agreements required by the Atomic Energy Act to provide weapons training and other technical assistance to NATO countries had already been concluded with Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, Germany, and Turkey. A similar deal would be reached with the French once the stockpile arrangements for French forces in West Germany had been concluded. An agreement with Belgium was anticipated.

Document 22 NEW

U.S. Embassy London Airgram G-150 to Department of State, “NATO Stockpile Agreement,” 12 August 1960


Source: RG 59, CDF, 611.417/8-1260

U.S. Embassy officials met at the Foreign Office to discuss an atomic stockpile agreement with British diplomats and defense officials. The British initially objected to the U.S. proposal for an “umbrella” stockpile agreement in part because it was “superfluous” in light of the agreement on Corporal missile deployments and prospective agreements between the War Office and USAREUR (which would cover weapons assigned to the British Army on the Rhine). Moreover, an umbrella agreement could “tie our hands” in the future; for example, the Royal Navy was still working out its nuclear arrangements and it was possible they would be compatible with the umbrella agreement.

In their reply, U.S. embassy officials argued that they preferred an umbrella agreement “precisely for reasons of flexibility. An agreement could be drafted in “sufficiently broad terms to cover all likely eventualities.” It would provide a framework for future service-to-service agreements but also avoid the further tying of hands as would be the case with the War Office-USAREUR agreement “which was very detailed and hence more likely require future revisions.” The British accepted the U.S. arguments “surprisingly readily,” but they hoped that an umbrella agreement “should cover only essential point and be as general as possible.”

Document 23 NEW

Secretary of State Herter to President Eisenhower, “Atomic Support for French NATO Forces in Germany,” 14 September 1960, Top Secret


Source: RG 59, CDF, 740.5611/9-1460

The agreement with the French, signed in Paris on 2 September 1960, was unusual because the French had refused to participate in the stockpile plan since it would leave the United States in control of nuclear weapons stored in France. As long as the agreement did not apply to their forces in France, the French did not object to U.S. custody of weapons that would be assigned to their forces in West Germany. Herter suggested that one reason the French had accepted U.S. custody for their forces in Germany was that they did “not wish to forego” nuclear capable forces that had “been programmed for France for some time.” Moreover, the West Germans had been participating in the atomic stockpile system and “the French want to have the same capability.” An atomic cooperation agreement with France concerning the forces in Germany was also being negotiated and would be concluded by year’s end.

Document 24 NEW

Under Secretary for Political Affairs Livingston Merchant to Deputy Secretary of Defense James Douglas, 22 September 1960, Secret


Source: RG 59, CDF, 741.5611/9-2260

Recognizing that previous U.S. nuclear deployments to British forces had been on an ad hoc basis, Merchant, like others in the Department, supported a comprehensive stockpile agreement so that the British were on the same footing as other NATO members. The State Department had begun the talks, but the British wanted to be sure that the agreement “would be broad enough to cover all foreseeable requirements.” The agreement should cover the proposed SACLANT arrangements for nuclear support for the British navy but the State Department needed to learn more about the proposed custody arrangements; moreover, to ensure that the agreement was consistent with previous custodial arrangements such as for British Canberras the Defense Department should provide copies of the inter-service agreements and information on the custodial arrangements that were in effect.

Document 25 NEW

U.S. Embassy France Airgram G-G-430, “Negotiations with U.K. for Umbrella Stockpile Agreement,” 26 September 1960, Secret


Source: RG 59, CDF, 611.417/9-2560

The Embassy reported that the USAREUR had queried CINCEUR General Norstad whether British Honest John units should, in event of an emergency, be made ready for use even though the umbrella agreement had not been finalized. The European Command supported “operational status” for the units but no action should be taken that would weaken the U.S. negotiating position for the stockpile agreement. Moreover, it was “urgent” that the British conclude the agreement so there would be “no delay in providing atomic support for UK Honest John delivery units.”

V. Nuclear Use Decisions and Alternatives to the Stockpile

Document 26 NEW

Briefing Paper Prepared by European Region Office, Office of International Security Affairs, Department of Defense, for NATO Defense Ministers Conference, Paris, 15-18 April 1958, “Political Authority for Use of Atomic Weapons by NATO Forces,” 7 April 1958, Secret


Source: DNSA

This paper addresses the power relations within NATO stemming from U.S. control over nuclear weapons deployed in Western Europe. In particular, it tackles the nuclear use issue raised by the stockpile agreements that were being negotiated bilaterally. Given that the decision to use the weapons was a “purely U.S. decision,” the NATO countries would need to be confident that the U.S. and General Norstad would use atomic weapons “when they should be used [and accordingly] released by the U.S. to other NATO countries and will not be used when they should not be used.”

The matter of consultation was pivotal. The premise was that the use of nuclear weapons was “an inseparable part of the general question of the use of force to repel aggression.” If time was available, the U.S. would consult with NATO before it used force but “if an attack develops so quickly as to render prior consultation in NATO impoasible, the U.S. will of course respond at once, and with all appropriate force.”

The briefing paper did not mention pre-delegation of nuclear use authority, but that was the subject of an on-going and highly secret discussion in the Eisenhower administration. It led in 1959 to the promulgation of advanced authorization directives to the commanders-in-chief of various top commands, including CINCEUR.

Document 27

Robert R. Bowie, Consultant to the State Department, “The North Atlantic Nations Tasks for the 1960s,” August 1960, with cover memorandum from Bowie to the Secretary of State, 21 August 1960, Secret


Source: State Department FOIA release

The Soviet ICBM-nuclear challenge, the Berlin Crisis, the ongoing demise of European colonialism, and divisions within Western Europe epitomized by Charles de Gaulle’s independent course raised divisive issues in the Western alliance. A specially commissioned report prepared by former State Department official Robert Bowie addressed those and other issues. At the heart of the report was the crisis of confidence raised by Western European dependence on U.S. nuclear weapons when the Soviet nuclear threat appeared particularly acute. With the threat of massive retaliation less and less credible and limited nuclear war in Europe wholly unacceptable, Bowie, like others, supported improved conventional defenses so that NATO could fight a non-nuclear war.

Bowie was concerned about nuclear proliferation, which influenced his thinking about proposals to aid the French nuclear program in order to “preserve inter-allied harmony.” While Bowie conceded that could be true in the short-term, it would only encourage France to persist with their nuclear program, the British would be unconstrained from developing their program, and “West Germany [was] certain to claim the same privilege before long and Italy may be induced to demand equal status as a ‘middle power.’” Bowie thought it better to try to slow down the pursuit of independent national deterrents.

As a way to discourage proliferation further and to give the European NATO governments a role in nuclear decision-making, Bowie proposed a “collective deterrent for NATO.” What he had in mind was that a “multi-national strategic capability be established in Europe under the command of SACEUR.” The purpose would be to give “European members of NATO a missile threat against the USSR which would be a serious strategic deterrent.” He suggested that the North Atlantic Council give SACEUR advance authorization “to use the force against key Soviet strategic targets in the event that the Soviets initiate major nuclear attack on the Treaty Area.” The U.S would have no veto on the use of the force.

Bowie further proposed what was a first draft of the Multilateral Force proposal that Herter brought to NATO later in the year. Before the creation of a multinational capability for NATO Europe, an “interim force” would be established “of US-manned POLARIS submarines under the control of SACEUR.” SACEUR would order any firing of the missiles in the “event of a large scale nuclear attack,” but the NAC could also order missile firing “in other circumstances.” The United States could also make a decision “in the absence of an affirmative SACEUR or NAC decision.”

Document 28 NEW

Memorandum of Conversation, “Nuclear Sharing,’ 24 August 1960, Secret


Source: RG 59, Records of the Policy Planning Staff, box 116, Atomic Energy Armaments 1960

For several years, the Defense Department had been seeking changes in the Atomic Energy Act so that the U.S. could transfer complete atomic weapons and nuclear information to key allies, including France. With his assumption that nuclear proliferation in Europe was inevitable, President Eisenhower had expressed interest in nuclear aid to France, but the proposal attracted little support outside the Defense Department. In 1960, various proposals to provide nuclear aid to France were under consideration, in part to slow down the French weapons program, but they never reached fruition. The AEC and the State Department rejected the latest proposal from Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates.

Arguing along the same lines as Robert Bowie, AEC Chairman John McCone observed that helping France in that way would have “profound implications” because it could raise “pressures from the Germans” for similar treatment. Then the “Chinese would press the Russians as would the East Germans.” Under Secretary of State Douglas Dillon further noted that “he had been “struck by General Norstad’s argument that it would be bad policy to reward General DeGaulle by nuclear sharing with him after his continuous non-cooperation with NATO.”

Dillon, Gates, and McCone also discussed a request from the government of the Netherlands for nuclear submarine technology which had been under discussion since 1959.[12] The request was in doubt because of opposition from the JCAE, but McCone was not on board either: providing the Dutch with the technology was not a “sensible use of their resources” when they were not spending enough on the forces needed for their NATO missions. Their “military expenditures for NATO are very much below MC-70 requirements,” although he did not mention that MC-70 required the Netherlands to build four submarines. Policy Planning Staff chief Gerard C. Smith noted that the “President had made a commitment in NATO and that we had little choice but to cooperate or welsh.”

McCone also cited the “unique reactor technology in the Nautilus submarine,” which was one of the reasons for the JCAE opposition: fear that it would leak to the Soviet Union.

Document 29 NEW

U.S. Mission to Regional Organizations Paris Airgram G-542 to State Department, “Ten-Year Planning Discussion of Atomic Matters,” 18 October 1960, Top Secret


Source: RG 59, Central Decimal Files, 740.5/10-1860

This wide-ranging discussion by the North Atlantic Council touched upon the most sensitive matter of how decisions to use nuclear weapons would be made and who would make them as well as the role of independent nuclear capabilities in the NATO context. This report deserves a careful read because no summary can capture all of the nuances. It would be interesting to compare the U.S. record with the British and other accounts of the meeting.

What sparked the discussion was news coverage of the Bowie report, which proposed providing NATO Europe with its own nuclear strike force (See Document 24). NATO Secretary General Paul-Henri Spaak observed that the news reports suggested that the U.S. was moving from its “classical position on nuclear arms,” which had assumed “sole reliance on U.S. in atomic matters.” The French representative, Pierre de Leusse, spoke of the problem of inequality within NATO where the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, the U.K. made the decisions for the atomic defense of Europe. “The Europeans have nothing today.”

When the Greek representatives spoke of fears that the U.S. would use the bomb without consulting others, de Leusse argued that his fear was a different one: whether the U.S. “would decide to use the A-bomb or not,” if conventional forces could not stop “conventional Communist aggression in Europe or in the Formosa Straits,”

U.S. Ambassador Randolph Burgess provided assurances that the U.S. would consult the Council during crises, as it had during the Taiwan Strait and the Lebanon/Jordan situations. The “U.S. plans to follow practice of discussing here every situation that might conceivably lead to the use of atomic weapons.” If, however, there was a surprise attack, the “situation is as clear as crystal,” although he acknowledged there were “marginal cases” suggesting that some situations would require nonnuclear responses.

Characterizing that response as “excellent,” Spaak observed that “readiness to consult on developments of policy is the most that can reasonably be asked.” He cautioned the French that if “they wanted a veto over U.S., the U.S. would want a veto over them.” Later, as a riposte, French representative Jurgensen argued that the “French would not fear the U.S. using atomic weapons, but fear that the U.S. might not react.” Justifying the force de frappe, he argued that a “French capability to launch atomic weapons would be pressure on the U.S. to do so.” Conceding that such a “situation was not probable, the Europeans in such event would be able to use atomic weapons if the U.S. were reluctant to.”

Spaak later cautioned that “French logic can lead to a chain reaction” with every NATO member saying they needed their own force de frappe in case France did not use its own: “the question was whether anyone could fire atomic weapons without the approval of the other.”

One of the nuclear-capable Corporal missiles assigned to British forces in West Germany. An early tactical ballistic missile, the Corporal had a range of 30 to 80 miles. Although initially deployed in 1954, it took some time before the Corporal could hit targets with accuracy. For nuclear missions, it would use a W7 nuclear warhead with an explosive yield of 20 kilotons. {Source: British Army official photograph, photograph R 20468 from the collections of the Imperial War Museum)

The F-84 turbojet was the first U.S. fighter-bomber that could carry nuclear weapons. In 1956, the U.S. Defense Department assigned the more advanced F-84F to the West German air force, which by 1957 had an operational wing with five more established by 1961. Owing to a special kit supplied to the West German air force, the F-84 could carry the M 9 atomic bomb, which had an explosive yield of up to 60 kilotons. The F-84 stayed in service in West Germany until 1966. (Photo courtesy of

Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Charles Burke Elbrick played a major role in advising Secretary of State Dulles on reasons for creating a U.S. atomic stockpile for the NATO countries. He later served as ambassador to Brazil where he was kidnapped by urban guerillas for several days.


[1]. For a major study, see Hans M. Kristensen, U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Europe A Review of Post-Cold War Policy, Force Levels, and War Planning (Washington, D.C., Natural Resources Defense Council, 2005). For a recent update see Kristensen, U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Europe, Federation of American Scientists, 1 November 2019.

[2]. Jon B. Wolfsthal, “America Should Welcome a Discussion about NATO’s Nuclear Strategy,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 29 June 2020.9 June 2020.

[3]. For an invaluable survey of NATO history, see Timothy Andrews Sayle, Enduring Alliance; A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019).

[4]. For Eisenhower’s thinking, see Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).146-156 and elsewhere in the volume.

[5]. Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace, 223.

[6]. The situation has not changed since the 1999 declassification of a 1978 Pentagon study, History of the Custody and Deployment of Nuclear Weapons: July 1945 through September 1977, which was first discussed in an article by Robert S. Norris, William Arkin, and William Burr, “Where They Were,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November-December 1999, 28-35.

[8] For some of the literature on MC-48 and NATO strategy, see Trachtenberg. A Constructed Peace, 158-160; Robert A. Wampler, “Ambiguous Legacy: The United States, Great Britain and the Foundations of NATO Strategy, 1948-1957,” (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1991), 616-665, and Andreas Wenger, “The Politics of Military Planning: Evolution of NATO’s Strategy,” in Vojtech Mastny, Sven C. Holtsmark, and Andreas Wenger, eds.,War Plans and Alliances in the Cold War: Threat Perceptions in the East and West (London: Routledge, 2006), 168-170.

[9]. Robert J. Watson, History of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Into the Missile Age, 1956-1960 (Washington, D.C.: Historical Office, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1997), 516.

[10]. See Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, SHAPE History 1958, August 1967, 15-31.

[11]. For U.S. nuclear relations with Italy, including a full account of the stockpile negotiations, see Leopoldo Nuti, La sfida nucleare. La politica estera italiana e le armi atomiche, 1945-1991. (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2008).

[12]. Robert J. Watson, Into the Missile Age, 470, 579, and 584

The U.S. Nuclear Presence in Western Europe, 1954-1962, Part II

President John F. Kennedy and national security adviser McGeorge Bundy in the Oval Office, n.d., with Kennedy’s personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, standing to the left. Worried about the security of U.S. dispersals of nuclear weapons to allies in NATO Europe, Kennedy and Bundy brought them to a halt until plans to install PALs on the weapons were in the works. (Screenshot from Sandia Laboratories documentary “A Nuclearized NATO – Extended Version”)

Published: Sep 16, 2020

Briefing Book #722

Edited by William Burr

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv

JFK Wondered Whether Control of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Assigned to NATO Allies “Actually Conformed to Law”

Italian Government Wanted “Control in the Use” of Any Nuclear Weapon on its Territory

U.S. Sought Permissive Action Links [PALs] to Prevent “an Ally Seizing a Weapon” or “a Psychotic Attempt to Fire One”

Washington, D.C., September 16, 2020 – The NATO nuclear stockpile arrangements that have persisted since the Cold War were initially negotiated during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, facilitating the controversial nuclear sharing arrangements with the allies. The deployments, begun in part as a deterrent against East-West conflict, involved the assignment of hundreds and then thousands of nuclear weapons, and currently some 150 weapons, to NATO allies. To prevent unauthorized use of the weapons, since the 1960s they have been safeguarded with Permissive Action Links (PALs).[1]

The Kennedy administration decided that PALs should become standard operating procedure in part because key members of Congress raised troubling questions about the initial deployments, including the danger of accidental detonation and vulnerability to seizure by coup plotters. A report by the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy was so troubling to the newly inaugurated president, that, according to a meeting record prepared for top Navy officials, published today for the first time, John F. Kennedy wondered “whether our weapons control actually conformed to law.”

To minimize risks, in April 1961 Kennedy brought a halt to the dispersals to allies but resumed them in 1962 once security prospects had improved and plans to require PALs were underway. Partly motivating the dispersals were White House concerns about nuclear proliferation, which had become more prominent under Kennedy. As National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy observed, the stockpile system was necessary to “hold NATO in a single nuclear position or risk seeing it disintegrate into a series of national nuclear capabilities.”

The European allies also wanted safeguards. As part of their stockpile negotiating strategy, the Italians successfully insisted that the United States agree to language requiring it consult with the Italian government over the use of nuclear weapons deployed in Italy. Moreover, Washington and the NATO allies agreed to Guidelines at the May 1962 NATO meeting in Athens establishing parameters for consultations in a crisis.

Nuclear Dispersals at the Crossroads

In the waning months of the Eisenhower administration State Department officials and members of the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy wondered whether the U.S. really had “exclusive custody” of all weapons deployed to NATO allies. John Y. Millar, then with the State Department’s Office of European Regional Affairs, made an abortive attempt to visit stockpile sites to find out whether the arrangements were compatible with U.S. law and policy, but Supreme Allied Commander Europe [SACEUR] General Lauris Norstad prevented the visit. Members of the JCAE, however, had no problem getting access to the sites to ascertain the custody situation for themselves when they made a survey trip to NATO Europe during the late fall of 1960.

The JCAE subcommittee wrote up a secret report on the deployments, which they presented to President Kennedy in February 1961. The report raised difficult questions about the security and safety of the weapons, with the subcommittee arguing that U.S. custody had become tenuous and that control of the weapons, especially on high alert aircraft, had virtually passed to allies, such as West Germany. The committee also worried that some weapons systems such as the Jupiter missile were in potentially unstable countries. To allay concerns about unauthorized use by “psychotics” and coup plotters, the report recommended the development and application of electronic locks to secure the nuclear weapons.[2]

The issues raised by the JCAE report deeply troubled the new president and his administration, which eventually brought to a halt the deployments to NATO allies until such time as policymakers could be sure that the risk of unauthorized use had been minimized. By early 1961, the U.S. had deployed 500 nuclear weapons that had been assigned to the armed forces of allies, mainly West Germany, and including warheads for Jupiter missies that the U.S. had stationed in Italy and Turkey. For its own purposes, not for sharing with allies, the U.S. had by then deployed about 4,000 nuclear weapons to NATO Europe. The unilateral deployments would continue during the 1960s.[3]

President Kennedy and his advisers saw the development of Permissive Action Links (PALs) as a promising technological solution to the problem of unauthorized use and they followed the R&D on PALs closely. General Maxwell Taylor sent a report to President Kennedy about the work being done at AEC laboratories but noted that the scientists needed “more precise guidance” so they could work with “maximum effectiveness.” Accordingly, in June 1962 Kennedy signed a National Security Action Memorandum requiring their application to U.S. nuclear forces in NATO Europe, including those under exclusive U.S. control. With some expectation that problems of security and control were being solved, Kennedy ordered the resumption of nuclear weapons dispersals to the allies.

According to the plan, during the summer of 1962, 1,580 more weapons would be assigned to allies in the air strike, battlefield, and air defense categories, bringing the total to over 2,000. The actual deployments would occur slowly, however, with 2,000 not reached until after 1965. In the meantime, the United States’ own nuclear stockpile in Western Europe stayed at around 4,000 until about 1964 when steps to add another 1,000 weapons began to be taken.

According to a JCS report, the Defense Department had a plan to equip dispersed nuclear weapons with PALs through 1964. In the meantime, controls were hardly tight as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his aides found when they visited German nuclear sites around September 1962. Commenting on the nuclear-armed, quick reaction alert aircraft operated by West German pilots, Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze observed, in words to this effect: “The assumption that the German pilots do not know how to arm these warheads turns out to be fictional; on request, one of the pilots showed the US visitors how this was done.”

Even with its concerns about security of the weapons, the Kennedy administration continued bilateral negotiations with allies over the nuclear stockpile arrangements. Thus, agreements with Italy and the United Kingdom were finalized and talks with the Canadians began. One of the reasons that the Kennedy White House supported the stockpile system was its concern about nuclear proliferation. As McGeorge Bundy put it in 1962, the stockpile system was necessary to “hold NATO in a single nuclear position or risk seeing it disintegrate into a series of national nuclear capabilities.” There was, however, some disagreement about what constituted proliferation, with Senator Henry Jackson (D-WA) arguing that dispersal of U.S. nuclear weapons to allies was itself a form of nuclear proliferation.

Much information about the stockpile negotiations remains classified, but details of the talks with Italy can be found in U.S. archival files, with some key documents published for the first time in today’s posting. Seeking safeguards from unilateral U.S. use of the weapons, the Italian government sought an agreement on the use of U.S. nuclear weapons that were stored in Italy. Rome attached great political importance to an agreement that included language about prior consent to nuclear use and it achieved it. Italian diplomats also won acceptance of language that would keep their government informed on the numbers and locations of U.S. nuclear weapons in Italy.[4]

The problem that Italy was trying to solve—a role in decision-making over the fateful use of nuclear weapons—remained a continuing concern in NATO, with key European allies supporting an agreement with the United States on consultative procedures. As in the 1960 discussions of the North Atlantic Council (NAC), some alliance members wondered if Washington would react quickly enough. Thus, the West German ambassador to the NAC worried that Washington might react “too late” to a Soviet ground incursion, and “Munich and Hamburg, situated close to the Iron Curtain would already be gone.” The U.S. ambassador, Thomas Finletter, acknowledged that it was a “very difficult problem,” making the highly elliptical statement that the U.S. “intended not to take action when it was too late.”

I. State Department Concerns About Custody Arrangements

Document 1

John Y. Millar, Office of European Regional Affairs, to Richard B. Finn, Office of the Political Adviser, Headquarters, U.S. European Command, 24 June 1960, Secret


Source: DNSA

In the midst of the ongoing deployments of nuclear weapons to NATO Europe, John Y. Millar wrote to Richard Finn about his plan to visit stockpile sites. What piqued his interest in the visit, which had the full support of the State Department, was a question raised by the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy: whether the United States actually had “exclusive custody” of the nuclear weapons that had been assigned to NATO allies. Thus, Millar wanted to find out “what the actual arrangements are for maintaining custody and control at various stockpile sites.” For example, what were the arrangements once a “weapon had been hung on a foreign aircraft”? He asked Finn to discuss the plan with his military contacts so he could line things up” by the time Millar arrived in early July. Millar enclosed a list of the countries (UK, Germany, Italy, and Turkey) and the weapons systems that would be relevant to his trip.

Document 2

EUR – Ivan B. White to EUR – Mr. Merchant, “John Millar’s Trip to Visit NATO Atomic Stockpile Sites.” 28 July 1960, with enclosed letters between Merchant and Raymond Thurston, Secret

Source: DNSA

By the time John Millar arrived in Paris, SACEUR General Lauris Norstad had found out about his itinerary and strongly objected to it. Believing that the proposed review of custody arrangements raised questions about his judgement and challenged his authority, Norstad refused to let Millar visit the sites. Merchant sent Norstad’s political adviser, Raymond Thurston, a letter explaining the Department’s interest in the stockpile custody arrangements: “we must be able to make our own decisions as to the appropriateness and legality of the projects within the framework of United States law and policy.”

Thurston’s long response argued that the Millar trip had been hastily arranged and that the State Department could get the desired information from the Pentagon. According to Thurston, when it was only “the military who can really know from day to day what is really going on in this particular endeavor, I find it difficult to see why the Department should feel impelled to accept this inappropriate burden.” He further suggested that U.S. allies would be puzzled by a visit to U.S. support sites for their NATO forces.

In his memorandum to Assistant Secretary for European Affairs Livingston Merchant, Ivan White refuted Thurston’s arguments and implied that it was better not to reply to the letter to avoid further controversy.

Document 3

S/AE [Assistant to the Secretary of State for Atomic Energy Affairs Phillip] Farley to M- Mr Merchant, “Your Discussion of Nuclear Weapons Custodial Arrangements with General Norstad,” 12 September 1960, Secret


Source: DNSA

After the denial of John Millar’s proposed inspection of stockpile sites, a visit to Washington by General Norstad provided an opportunity to raise State Department interest in custody matters. Phillip Farley advised Under Secretary for Political Affairs Merchant to use a meeting with Norstad to persuade him that the Department needed to be knowledgeable about nuclear weapons and custody arrangement so that its officials could best defend them against congressional critics. Consistent with this, Farley wanted Norstad’s consent for State Department officials to visit stockpile sites with DOD officers on the staff of AEC Military Liaison General Herbert Loper.

According to Farley, the State Department’s statutory responsibility for nuclear negotiations and its policy interest in preventing nuclear proliferation and ensuring security for U.S. military assets led it to pay close “attention to the effective implementation of the provisions for the retention of U..S. custody and control” of weapons deployed overseas for the NATO stockpile program. So far, State had been confident that the Defense Department could prevent unauthorized access or use mainly because the weapons were stored in igloos “under exclusive U.S. custody” and there they would remain unless hostilities broke out. That, however, had changed with the development of new tactical nuclear weapons that might not be separately stored because it would be inconsistent with their “operational efficiency.”

Such changes were especially evident “in cases such as Genie air-to-air weapon, the Lulu anti-submarine weapons, the Davy Crockett, some of the shorter-range surface-to-air missiles and air-to-surface Missiles, and probably mobile IRBM’s.” Thus, to achieve wide dispersal, quick reaction times, and optimum maintenance procedures, it was “necessary … to affix weapons on foreign aircraft kept on alert status or to incorporate (i.e., to “mate”) the weapons into missile delivery systems at the launch sites.” With foreign personnel near the weapons this makes custody more difficult, especially in the case of the Genie and Lulu weapons that must leave the ground (and U.S. custody) when hostilities are near.

Farley reviewed the State-Defense discussions of the Genie missile and the problems raised by the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy’s objections to the custody arrangements. With such disputes likely to reoccur, “it is essential that we have a better understanding of this complicated field.” Therefore, “we hope you will be able to reassure General Norstad that the Department’s interest in this field in no way reflects our doubt about his competence and sincerity in affording proper protection for U.S. nuclear weapons.”

Farley asked Merchant to convey to Norstad that the State Department agreed that security arrangements for nuclear weapons was a matter for the responsible commanders in the field. Nevertheless, if the Department was “to defend our position that we still maintain adequate custody and control despite the newer deployment techniques we must be able to speak with knowledge.” The extent to which Merchant succeeded in persuading Norstad remains to be learned.

Document 4

J.H. Pender- L/SFP [Assistant Legal Adviser for Special Functional Problems], “State Department Role in Atomic Weapons Stockpile Custodial Arrangements,” 28 February 1961, Secret


Source: DNSA

State Department interests in the deployments continued into the new Kennedy administration. One of the Department’s lawyers, J.H. Pender. reviewed the recent attempts to secure information on custody arrangements for the deployments in Europe. The Defense Department had begun to provide some details, but key Pentagon officials believed that the State Department had no responsibility for “actual procedures” at nuclear sites. Nevertheless, Pender believed that the Department needed to know more because members of the JCAE, who had “first-hand knowledge of actual practices at the deployment sites,” were likely to question State Department representatives on “what they think of the domestic legality and general effectiveness of custodial control arrangements; whether the Department had endorsed them from either standpoint; and whether, in effect, the Department regards itself as having any ‘civilian control’ responsibility in this area.”

Believing that the Department had a civilian control responsibility, Pender suggested that it “exercise general supervision of the program to the point of periodically visiting SHAPE installations to satisfy ourselves that the custody and control procedure are legitimate and effective.“

Pender also recommended that the matter be raised with the President. State Department legal adviser Abram Chayes sent the memorandum to the secretary of state but Rusk did not make a decision on it [see document 21]. It is not clear what exactly was decided, but by April 1962 Pender was one of the State Department observers to an AEC-Defense stockpile program survey (see document 29), for which he wrote a full report.

II. 1961-62: The Holifield Report and Its Impact

Document 5

Representative Chet Holifield, Chairman, Ad Hoc Subcommittee to President Kennedy, 15 February 1961, enclosing Report on Inspection Trip to NATO Countries, Top Secret, Excised copy


Source: DNSA

Congress had the most traction with problems of nuclear custody and control and the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy had a major policy impact. During late 1960, Rep Chet Holifield [D-CA] and other members of the JCAE, accompanied by staffers from Atomic Energy Commission laboratories, inspected 15 nuclear weapons installations in eight NATO countries. The trip report, often referred to as the “Holifield Report,” has been available for years in excised form and efforts to prompt the release of more information through appeals have been unsuccessful. Indeed, some of the excisions are in the silly secrets category such as the deletions of references to Italy and Turkey in the context of discussion of Jupiter missile deployments in those countries. In any event, a State Department summary is in the declassified record [See document 7] and it can be used to decode some of the excisions.

The report had a significant impact on the incoming Kennedy administration because it raised so many troubling questions. One of the Committee’s foremost concerns was the political stability of countries such as Italy and Turkey where Jupiter IRBMs were deployed. Other and related concerns included the vulnerability of weapons systems to seizure by a “psychotic” from the host country’s military or by a colonel’s coup, the danger of accidental detonation or unauthorized use, security of weapons design information, arrangements for destruction of weapon if necessary, and sufficiency of trained personnel in the event of an accident. Also of concern was what the Committee saw as virtually “fictional” U.S. custody arrangements, whereby the nuclear weapons were in the virtual control of the host country, such as West German fighter-bombers on “Quick Reaction Alert.”

Concerning those fighter bombers, one of the scientists, Harold Agnew, who accompanied the JCAE members to Europe, vividly recalled the situation at an unnamed West German base where German bomber pilots had virtual control of the nuclear weapons. Concerned about the possibility of misguided or accidental nuclear use, Agnew spoke to a young U.S. soldier who had responsibility for guarding the weapons and asked him what he would do if the German pilots came “running out and they’re gonna take off and no one has told you that it’s all right.“ The sentry was uncertain, so Agnew advised him to disable the weapons with his gun: “shoot at those things and don’t worry about it."

The Committee did not have an overarching proposal to fix the problems that it had identified. Instead it suggested a range of options, including: 1) a complete U.S. system of U.S. possession and custody; 2) separating nuclear components from delivery systems and placing them under U.S. possession; 3) continuing “current fictional custody arrangements, involving elements of joint possession and control;” 4) explicit joint possession arrangements for alert weapons; 5) “transfer of control of U.S. nuclear weapons to independent NATO task force arrangement;” or 6) transfer of nuclear weapons to individual NATO countries, with different arrangements with different countries depending on geography and political stability, among other considerations.

Among the specific recommendations the JCAE made was to strengthen custody and control was the development of electronic means to arm or disarm weapons that were on quick-reaction alert delivery systems. That would mean solving such problems as finding ways to control weapons that were already deployed and creating new devices for ‘improved weapons systems.” This recommendation was one of the roots for what became known as “permissive action links.”

Document 6

Representative Chet Holifield, Chairman, Ad Hoc Subcommittee to President Kennedy, 15 February 1961, no classification markings


Source: DNSA

This is the full version of Holifield’s letter to Kennedy, with references to Jupiter missile deployments in Italy and Turkey.

Document 7

Office of Special Assistant to the Secretary for Atomic Energy Matters, Untitled appraisal of Joint Committee on Atomic Energy report on nuclear weapons deployments in NATO Europe, n.d. [circa February 1961, with incorrect 11 September 1961 date], Top Secret


Source: DNSA

The State Department’s review of the JCAE report gives a sense of some of the issues obscured by the excisions, such as IRBMs in Italy and Turkey. The staffer who prepared the appraisal characterized the JCAE’s report as a “high-level forceful and continuing foraging expedition on the most sensitive and critical arrangements of foreign policy.” While he found that the JCAE did not have consistent political, strategic, or ideological views, he did find the “apparent assumption that only with the U.K. can we have reliable land-based weapons and nuclear weapons cooperation.” Thus, Holifield and his colleagues were especially critical of deployments of land-based missiles on the European continent because of their concern about political instability in Italy and elsewhere


Document 8

R.D. Fowler, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Memorandum for the Record, “Debrief of President’s Meeting with JCS on 23 Feb 1961,” 24 February 1961, Top Secret


Source: U.S. Navy Heritage and History Command, Archives, Double-Zero Files 1966, box 48, CNO Turn-over File Vol. VI

According to CNO Arleigh Burke’s account of this meeting, Kennedy told the Chiefs that he was reading the Holifeld report and “wanted to make sure we all read it.” Kennedy said he was concerned about the control of nuclear weapons and “wanted to know what our ideas were on nuclear weapons control and whether our weapons control actually conformed to law.” Suggesting that he was still learning about presidential power, Kennedy also asked: “What is the President’s authority? What should he do? Should he change our procedures in any way? He wanted to discuss this thoroughly at the next meeting.”

After an extended discussion of guerilla war issues, Kennedy raised more questions about nuclear weapons, including whether the Chiefs were “satisfied with the nuclear weapons system.” He asked the Chiefs for a briefing on “local control of nuclear weapons and dispersal of nuclear weapons.” In particular, he wanted to know if a Communist attack across the East-West German border with conventional weapons could be halted if it was with “such force that the Europeans were being forced back.” He continued: “would they [presumably NATO forces and/or France] not shoot their nuclear weapons? How could we control it? Do we have positive control?”

It is not clear if or when the discussion of nuclear weapons that Kennedy asked for happened. With his diminished confidence in the Chiefs after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961, Kennedy turned elsewhere for military advice.

Document 9

Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric to President Kennedy, 16 September 1961, Top Secret, excised copy


Source: JFKL, President’s Office Files, Defense 1961, September-December

In light of the controversial issues raised by the Holifield report, U.S. dispersals to NATO allies came to an end. According to a Gilpatric memorandum from September 1961, on 11 April 1961 he recommended to the President that the U.S. halt dispersals of nuclear weapons to “non-U.S. forces” although the rest of the nuclear weapons dispersal plan that had been approved at the end of the Eisenhower administration could proceed. Gilpatric further noted that those dispersals would halt until a decision could be made based on a pending policy review. Kennedy sent Defense a letter approving Gilpatric’s recommendation on 20 May 1961. That would leave the deployments to NATO allies at 500 weapons [See Documents 23 and 24 for more details]

III. Agreements with the United Kingdom, Italy, and Canada


Document 10

United States Embassy United Kingdom Despatch 1092 to State Department, “NATO Atomic Stockpile Agreement,” 4 December 1960, Secret, Excised copy, under appeal


Source: RG 59, CDF, 611.417/12-460

At this time, Washington and London were still negotiating a stockpile agreement that would cover U.S. nuclear weapons assigned to British NATO forces in other areas or for the support of NATO units in the United Kingdom. The British provided a new draft for consideration by U.S. negotiators with language that they considered “more general” so that future developments would not require renegotiation of the agreement. One problem that the British brought up was that the agreement could not be called an “agreement” because under their law treaties and international agreements had to be registered with the United Nations in New York. To get around the problem, they suggested that the agreement be characterized as a memorandum of understanding that would be the subject of an exchange of letters. As U.S. negotiators did not want to see the agreement published either, they agreed to characterize it as an “understanding” [See Document 14]. The language of the British draft remains classified but presumably it was along the lines of the all-purpose “umbrella” agreement discussed earlier in 1960.


Document 11

EUR – Foy D. Kohler to the Secretary, “Executive Branch Position on Further Negotiation of Pending Atomic Cooperation and Atomic Stockpile Agreements,” 28 February 1961, Secret


Source: RG 59, CDF, 611.657

Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Foy D. Kohler provided Secretary of State Dean Rusk with background on the ongoing negotiations on atomic cooperation and atomic stockpile agreements. On the former, negotiations with Belgium and France (probably on the atomic stockpile for French forces in West Germany) were ongoing. Also, underway was the negotiation to update an earlier atomic information agreement with NATO.

The stockpile agreement with Italy had been delayed because the Italian Government wanted the United States to bear the financial costs that other host countries have been willing to accept. The U.S. was formulating a response to the Italian position. The other pending stockpile agreement was with the United Kingdom, which would cover U.S. nuclear support for British NATO forces, including the “NATO forces of third countries stationed in the UK.” For example, in 1960 the U.S. had provided the British Army of the Rhine with Honest John missiles but nuclear weapons could not be provided for those units without the stockpile agreement.

Owing to the military importance of these agreements, Rusk gave his approval to expediting their negotiation.

Document 12

U.S. Embassy Rome Airgram G-922 to Department of State, 29 June 1961, Secret


Source: RG 59, CDF, 611.6544/6-2761

The ongoing U.S.-Italy atomic stockpile negotiations faced a new complication when Italian officials proposed that the agreement include language formalizing a role for Italy in nuclear use decisions. During a conversation with Embassy official Ernest Siracusa, Paola Pansa, the Chief of the NATO Section at the Foreign Office, cited the “two-key” arrangement controlling the use of Jupiter missiles but observed that “no such concurrence covers the presence here of other weapons for which the United States controls both the warheads and the delivery systems.” Noting that all Italian dual-use delivery systems have a “two-key” control procedure, Pansa believed that the “situation should be formalized for all weapons so that Italy would control over the use of any such weapon on Italian territory.”

Pansa said that it was not yet a formal proposal but was “receiving serious consideration,” adding that “he would not be surprised if it became" a “formal proposal.” To that, Siracusa said he saw “no need for such an arrangement” because the “real basis of the two-key system is to comply with U.S. law regarding warhead custody and use.” That system was “practiced with respect to all nuclear-capable Italian-held delivery systems, without being spelled out in an agreement.” Also protecting Italian interests was that nuclear delivery systems would be used only in accordance with the SACEUR’s instructions.

Siracusa tried to close the case by arguing that because none of the other stockpile agreement had consent language the “lack of need for such a provision is strongly suggested.” That argument, however, would find no traction in Rome.[5]


Document 13

State Department telegram 257 to U.S. Embassy Italy, 27 July 1961, Secret


Source: RG 59, CDF, 611.657/7-2461

The matter of an Italian role in nuclear use decisions raised in the 29 June 1961 airgram and other messages from the Rome embassy created “serious concerns” in Washington “over possible implications of adding any language to stockpile agreement itself which injects bilateral US-GOI understanding on employment of weapons.” The State and Defense departments saw such language as a troubling precedent that “could lead to requests for similar most favored nation treatment if it became known to other NATO countries.” Moreover, it could “easily lead to requests for physical operational control procedures to make such understandings effective, which could have adverse effects on ability of NATO forces to respond in emergency.”

The State Department suggested that the Embassy could reassure the Italians that they have a “real voice in use of weapons through NATO procedures.” Accordingly, the agreement could include such language as the weapons will be “employed in accordance with procedures established by SACEUR which will be in accord with approved NATO plans and policies.” That, however, did not settle the matter.


Document 14

United States Embassy United Kingdom Despatch 229 to State Department, “NATO Atomic Stockpile Agreement,” 3 August 1961, Secret, Excised copy, under appeal


Source: RG 59, CDF, 611.417/8-361

Washington and London finalized their stockpile agreement in the midst of the Berlin Crisis. The language remains classified, but it probably provided the flexibility, that both sides sought, for the deployments of naval nuclear weapons and weapons assigned to British-controlled delivery systems in West Germany.


Document 15

U.S. Embassy Italy telegram 1058 to State Department, 27 September 1961, Secret


Source: RG 59, CDF, 611.657/9-2761

U.S. Ambassador to Italy George Frederick Reinhardt asked the Department to supply instructions authorizing him to complete the stockpile negotiations by including a “separate ‘consent for use’ agreement” and providing for consultations on numbers of weapons deployed. With respect to the latter, the Italian Government had “strongly argued that it must know extent to which Italy being used for storage weapons this type and believes this is a matter which no sovereign government could or should ignore.” That the U.S. had taken a strong position against this had aroused “suspicions that we may plan store in Italy weapons beyond needs for Italian defense.”

Reinhardt further noted that Rome “has been very cooperative” on atomic weapons issues by permitting “entry weapons thus far on basis informal arrangements” and had “acquiesced in our having nuclear weapons at Aviano without even informal approval.” On consent for use, Reinhardt agreed with General Norstad that “such a request cannot legitimately be denied.”


Document 16

EUR – William R. Tyler through Executive Secretariat to the Secretary, “Atomic Stockpile Negotiations with Italy,” 3 October 1961, Secret


Source: RG 59, CDF, 611.65/10-361

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs William R. Tyler informed Rusk that the stockpile negotiations with Italy had reached a “critical stage.” Completing the talks was necessary for the sake of U.S. relations with Italy but also to improve the “readiness of NATO forces in Italy during this period of crisis over Berlin.”

The State Department had to coordinate with the Defense Department a position on two major issues. The “most important is the Italian request for an arrangement which would provide for obtaining Italian Government consent prior to the use of any nuclear weapons in Italy.” The second matter was meeting the “Italian desire for greater assurance that the Italian Government is fully consulted in regard to decisions on numbers of nuclear weapons” deployed in Italy. A lesser problem was cost issues.

On use decisions and consultations on numbers of weapons, Tyler advised Rusk that “we should promptly and gracefully indicate to the Italians that we are prepared to meet their desires on these two points.”

Tyler also recommended that Rusk sign a letter to Secretary of Defense McNamara that presented the Department’s views on these issues. According to the letter, assurances on consent for use of nuclear weapons “cannot be refused to a host country which requests it and which attaches political importance to it.” The U.S. already had similar provisions in agreements with the British and the French and also with respect to the Jupiter missiles deployed in Italy. Further, it would be “most unfortunate if we were to persist in positions [against the Italian requests} which might undermine the mutual basis of trust which has existed in the atomic weapons field with Italy up to now.”


Document 17

RA [Office of European Regional Affairs] == Allen G. James to EUR – Mr. Selby, “Atomic Stockpile Negotiation with Italy,” with State-Defense telegram attached, 6 November 1961, Secret


Source: RG 59, CDF, 611.65/11-661

In this update on the Italian negotiations Allen James informed an official at the Bureau of European Affairs that in McNamara’s response to Rusk, he wrote that the Department preferred to avoid an agreement with the Italian government on nuclear use decisions until NATO had had more discussions on the issue. Nevertheless, in their instructions Defense and State Department officials gave Ambassador Reinhardt considerable latitude in reaching an agreement. Thus, if the U.S. could not persuade the Foreign Minister to delay consideration of the issue until NATO had discussed nuclear use issues, if he “still wishes separate understanding on use [of] nuclear weapons in Italy, Ambassador may state US prepared to meet GOI wishes.” Furthermore, the message authorized Reinhardt to approve, which he would do, language concerning “agreement of the two governments [to] be given” in light of “circumstances at the time.”


Document 18

U.S. Embassy Italy Despatch 525 to State Department, “Transmitting Documents Constituting Military Atomic Stockpile and ‘Consent’ Agreements,” 17 January 1962, Secret


Source: RG 59, CDF, 611.57/1-1762

With the completion of the U.S.-Italy atomic stockpile negotiations, including agreement on the consent language, the final agreements were signed in Rome by the U.S. chargé, Outerbridge Horsey, and Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Segni. The agreements covered such issues as storage site funding, procedures for use, and responsibilities for maintenance and security.

A separate note covered decisions to use the weapons, which had been one of the most challenging negotiating issues. The two governments agreed that use decisions required that “agreement of the two Governments would be given in the light of circumstances at the time and having regard to the undertakings they have assumed in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.” In addition, the U.S. would arrange with Italian military authorities procedures for keeping them informed of the “numbers of weapons scheduled for location in Italy in furtherance of NATO plans.”

Whether other stockpile agreements were modified along the lines of the U.S.-Italy agreement remains to be learned. Later in the decade, the West Germans successfully negotiated an agreement with Washington concerning limited or “selective” use of weapons stored in West Germany, but it was a head of state understanding, not specifically related to the stockpile system.

Document 19

Willis C. Armstrong, Bureau of Northern European Affairs, to Assistant Secretary of State Livingston Merchant, 2 November 1962, Secret


Source: DNSA

For several years, the U.S. and Canada had been discussing bilateral arrangements to cover the various nuclear deployments that involved the two, not only weapons assigned to Canadian forces in NATO Europe, but also naval nuclear weapons and weapons for air defense purposes. From Washington’s perspective in the early 1960s, improving difficult relations with Canada depended in part on a resolution of the stockpile negotiations, but the anti-nuclear sensitivities of Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and Canadian public opinion had to be taken into account. While the U.S. had accepted the prime minister’s demand that nuclear weapons not be stored in Canada for the BOMARC air defense missile, Armstrong argued that in exchange for that concession Ottawa should accept storage of U.S. strategic weapons at U.S. air bases in Canada.

On the point of strategic weapons, Armstrong was slightly confused because since 1950 Canada had allowed temporary/transient storage of strategic bombs at Goose Bay Air Base, which became home to the Strategic Air Command’s 95th Wing. In 1951 Canada authorized the construction of special bunkers for the weapons, but storage remained temporary only.[6]

Document 20

U.S. Embassy Canada Airgram A-484 to State Department, “Preliminary Negotiations with the Canadian Government on Possible Nuclear Support for Canadian Forces,” 26 November 1962, Secret, Excised copy, under appeal


Source: RG 59, CDF, 611.427/11-2662

The released record of the top secret talks in Ottawa with Air Chief Marshall Frank Miller and Assistant Secretary for External Affairs Ross Campbell about the stockpile agreement is a prime example of U.S. government over-classification. The fascinating published Canadian record on U.S.-Canadian nuclear relations includes documents on major issues that have been excised or exempted in this group of documents.

To participate in the talks with Miller and Campbell, the Defense Department sent William B. Lang to work with two senior embassy officials, Ivan B. White and Rufus Z. Smith. The opening of the discussions focused on access by Canadian forces to U.S. nuclear weapons stored in Europe, such as in West Germany. Like the other stockpile agreement with NATO allies, the U.S. proposal was a basic “umbrella agreement” that would cover a variety of delivery systems. After the U.S. presented the Canadians with a draft agreement, they “appeared to be agreeably surprised at [its] relative simplicity.” When Miller observed that “there must be a mass” of additional agreements to be worked out Lang responded that all that would be needed were “technical level arrangements, fleshing out certain details on matters covered in principle by the government-level agreement.”

For all practical purposes, the State Department exempted the discussion of NORAD and Canadian forces in its entirety and the follow-up conversation on nuclear weapons for Canadian air defense is heavily excised. The declassified Canadian record includes a detailed account of what the Canadians proposed: keeping the nuclear delivery systems in Canada but the nuclear warheads in the U.S. where they could be retrieved by Canadian air forces in an emergency. The proposal came from the Cabinet Committee as a way for Canada to retain its “formal non-nuclear” status while trying to cooperate with the U.S. on air defenses.

White said that Washington would consider the proposal and discussions continued on various options, from ferrying the warheads to keeping a vital nuclear component in the United States, until such time as it needed to be deployed to Canada. In any event, the U.S. rejected the Canadian proposals in early January 1963 on a variety of grounds: “Aside from tactical disadvantages and serious practicable difficulties, such as the RCAF going at the wrong time in the wrong direction, legal advisers within the United States Government have confirmed the previous view of the impossibility of the United States Government releasing control of the weapons for free flight, including return to Canadian bases, until the military emergency was far advanced. At such a stage of emergency, the usefulness of RCAF aircraft would be greatly degraded at a critical time for effective defense purposes since they would not be in a normally prescribed defense location.”[7]

The U.S. response symbolized the stalemate in the stockpile negotiations but matters worsened when Prime Minister Diefenbaker disclosed the top secret talks publicly in a speech to the Canadian Parliament and misleadingly suggested that Washington considered Canada’s proposals on storage for air defense nuclear weapons to be feasible. The U.S. then took the unprecedented step of critiquing a prime minister’s speech in a press release. Those, among other issues, precipitated a near-crisis in relations with Washington, with the U.S. tacitly supporting Diefenbaker’s Liberal opponent Lester Pearson, who had become willing to accept storage of nuclear weapons on Canadian soil. The controversy ended with elections that elevated Pearson to prime minister and the conclusion of a nuclear agreement during 1963.[8]

IV. Towards PALs and Resumption of Nuclear Dispersals

Document 21

L/SFP – John H. Pender to L – Mr. Abram Chayes, “Atomic Stockpile,” 16 July 1961, Top Secret


Source: DNSA

With the State Department role still unresolved, Pender briefed Chayes on two Defense Department papers, one by Assistant Director of Defense Research and Engineering Marvin Stern on electronic devices to control weapons, and one by the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the custody problem. To prevent the problem of accidental detonation, which Stern saw as a “finite probability,” he proposed mechanical and electronic “interlock” to keep weapons in an “untriggered” mode. An electronic interlock could prevent premature or unauthorized detonation, but it was years away from development. A mechanical interlock could prevent unauthorized use and contribute to greater safety, but it would not prevent premature nuclear use by commanders in the field.

While Stern believed that the interlocks would safeguard custody and control, Pender was not wholly persuaded because the devices could “not preclude seizure of, or unauthorized access to, the weapon and consequently may not resolve our custody dispute with the Joint Committee even though the device would probably remove the primary motive for seizure.”

The gist of the JCS paper was that everything concerning custody, control, and security of nuclear weapons was satisfactory: it “reflect[ed] suspicion of anything which could make it possible to circumvent the established chain of command.” Consistent with that, Pender wrote that he was not surprised to “find the JCS memorandum concluding that all is well with the atomic stockpile program and there is no need for any changes, even such as that posed for consideration by Dr. Stern.” Pender was most disconcerted by the “feeling one gets from its general tenor that units in the field equipped with the weapons are going to use them [in a conflict situation] when and how they see fit … without awaiting a decision by the President.”

Pender saw “nothing in either paper … which would warrant a change in our previous position that we should insist on having a voice in at least certain of these matters before action is taken.”

Document 22

Secretary of State Rusk to President Kennedy, “NATO Nuclear Safeguards,” 31 October 1961, Secret


Source: DNSA

President Kennedy remained concerned about the control of nuclear weapons, especially as the Berlin Crisis intensified. On 31 August 1961, he sent Secretary of Defense McNamara a memorandum asking that General Earle Partridge’s National Command and Control Task Force “give urgent attention to measures to strengthen control over nuclear weapons in NATO Europe during the Berlin crisis.”

The Partridge report found that arrangements to safeguard weapons under U.S. control were adequate but recommended steps to prevent seizure of weapons assigned to non-U.S. forces. While Partridge found that nuclear weapons deployments authorized by General Norstad were “appropriate to the situation,” Rusk advised Kennedy that the Partridge Task Force had not focused on the problem of weapons security, and that the Defense Department should be encouraged to look into this issue further.

As a security measure, commanders of units armed with nuclear weapons “have been directed not to fire (or to make final preparations for firing) nuclear weapons without specific authority emanating from CINCEUR. The report also noted that “permissive links” would strengthen effectiveness of controls against unauthorized use, and that the AEC and the Department of Defense needed to give priority to developing and producing such devices.

Rusk provided the text of a letter that President Kennedy could send to Secretary McNamara. It included language supporting vigorous efforts to encourage the strengthening of “US custodial safeguards against unauthorized use of nuclear weapons by non-US NATO units,” and the hastening of the “development and production of the ‘permissive link’ by according it priority in both the DOD and AEC.”

Document 23

Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric to President Kennedy, 16 March 1962, Top Secret. Excised copy


Source: John F. Kennedy Library, National Security Files, box 335, National Security Action Memorandum 143 Nuclear Weapons for NATO Forces

This massively excised report to President Kennedy was released in 2004; it is possible that a new review would produce somewhat more information, but the numbers of weapons and the names of the countries to which they would be assigned would probably remain classified.

Gilpatric reported to Kennedy on the ongoing policy review of security and safety for dispersed nuclear weapons as well as on the policy importance of continuing the dispersal program to NATO countries. To improve the security of the weapons, “corrective action” and the program for PALs was proceeding on an “urgent basis.” In addition, a review of nuclear sharing policy had concluded that it “would be extremely disruptive to alliance cohesion if we were not to withhold the nuclear weapons” that are needed to make “fully effective” the delivery systems that the U.S. has committed to provide to the allies. Only a full discussion among the allies could lead to a change in the policy, but the United States did not want to prejudice the outcome of such talks by providing more weapons than were needed to make good on U.S. commitments or by unilaterally bringing the dispersals to an end. Consistent with those considerations, Gilpatric asked for authority to begin a program of dispersals that would meet “immediate operational requirements.”

Whether Kennedy approved all of the details of Gilpatric’s request is unclear, but he soon authorized the dispersal of 1,580 weapons, as of 1 July 1962, in the air strike, battlefield, and air defense categories. Perhaps on Gilpatric’s recommendation, Kennedy further decided that two-stage weapons (H-bombs) would not be placed on Quick Reaction Alert aircraft

Document 24

Allen James, Bureau of European Affairs, Office of European Reginal Affairs, Memorandum for the Record, “White House Briefing for Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, May l, 1962, Executive Office Building,” 4 May 1962, Top Secret


Source: DNSA

With President Kennedy’s decision to resume the dispersal of nuclear weapons in NATO Europe, Defense Department and White House officials gave a briefing to JCAE members on the dispersal plan. As noted earlier, as early 1961 the U.S. had 500 air strike and battlefield weapons assigned to non-U.S. NATO forces and Kenned approved the assignment of 1580 more weapons as of 1 July. Further deployments would depend on “future decisions on NATO strategy.”

Kennedy had given top priority to installing permissive action links on Jupiter missiles based in Italy and Turkey. According to AEC Chairman Glen Seaborg installation on the Jupiters would be completed by the end of the year, with air strike weapons, Sergeant, and Pershing missiles next in line for PALs.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Gilpatric explained that the reasons for the dispersal were both political (“to avoid damage to the alliance”) and military (to prevent “degradation of military capabilities).” The members of the Joint Committee were skeptical of the plan, with Senator Henry Jackson (D-WA) arguing “that the Europeans would use [it] as an excuse for not building up their conventional forces.” He further argued that it “was not dispersal but rather proliferation.” McGeorge Bundy thought otherwise, later saying that “we must try to hold NATO in a single nuclear position or risk seeing it disintegrate into a series of national nuclear capabilities.”


Document 25

Military Representative to the President, General Maxwell Taylor, to the President, “Work Being Done on the Permissive Link,” 7 May 1962, Secret, enclosed with memorandum from Taylor to Gilpatric


Source: National Archives, Record Group 218. Joint Chiefs of Staff Records [RG 218]. Chairman’s Files. Records of Maxwell Taylor, box 35, 1962 Memorandums from the President

Presidential aide General Maxwell Taylor had visited two AEC laboratories working on PALs: Livermore in California and Sandia in New Mexico. Scientists at Sandia had developed a combination lock that could be used for Jupiter missile warheads and other weapons. For intruders seeking to disassemble the weapon, it could delay their access by several hours, but would not prevent tampering or sabotage.

According to Taylor, scientists at Livermore were developing a far more “sophisticated long-range solution” that could safeguard against misuse and tampering. “It takes into account many contingencies, an ally seizing a weapon, the action of a psychotic attempt to fire one, a saboteur bent on firing the weapon or rendering it inert, the theft of a complete weapon.” Using a special communications network to ensure that the code becomes available in time, the Livermore PAL would take several years to develop but could only be used on new weapons.

So that the scientists at the labs can work with “maximum effectiveness,” they need “more precise guidance.” Thus, they need to know what performance is expected of the PALs, “the time available to produce them, the weapons systems to be protected, and the point in the chain of command where the permissive code is to be held in custody.” Kennedy would soon provide guidance that met some of those concerns.

Document 26

Rep. Chet Holifield, Senator John Pastore, and Senator Henry M. Jackson, members, Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, to President Kennedy, 14 May 1962, Secret, Excised copy


Source: John F. Kennedy Library. President’s Office Files, box 69A, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), 1962

In this follow-up to the White House meeting a few weeks earlier, senior members of the JCAE raised questions about commitments made by the Eisenhower administration, nuclear weapons on quick-reaction alert aircraft, front-line dispersals and the impact of the deployments on the Soviet Union. They welcomed Kennedy’s interests in permissive links but cautioned that the Eisenhower administration had not committed the U.S. to the “planned proliferation of hundreds more weapons,” which may be unnecessary in light of the anticipated Polaris deployments and “may in fact cause additional reflex actions on the part of the Soviets of an extremely dangerous portent.”

The Committee members raised doubts about decisions to “beef up” the force of QRA aircraft but endorsed Kennedy’s decision to excuse two-stage weapons from the non-U.S. fighter bomber force. Believing that nuclear weapons on the front-line were vulnerable in the event of a “sudden onslaught or probing action,” they recommend pulling them back further to ensure that front-line commanders did not make unilateral decisions to fire the weapons “if they were overrun by a superior conventional force.

The JCAE also raised questions about the possibility of nuclear proliferation in the Soviet bloc, the “questionable” principle of uniform treatment of NATO members, the need for public disclosure of some of the NATO arrangements, such as QRA aircraft, and their concern whether the United States had legally “lost possession” of nuclear weapons deployed on non-U.S. NATO fighter-bombers.

Document 27

National Security Action Memorandum 160 to the Secretary of State et al., “Permissive Links for Nuclear Weapons in NATO,” 6 June 1962, with Memorandum from Jerome Wiesner attached, 29 May 1962, Secret, excised copy


Source: John F. Kennedy Library, National Security Files, box 336, NSAM 160 – Permissive Links for Nuclear Weapons in NATO 5/62-10/63

In this National Security Action Memorandum, President Kennedy directed the agency chiefs to make a “commitment to procure appropriate devices for all nuclear weapons, now dispersed and to be dispersed to NATO commands, for both non-U. S. and U.S. forces.” This was Option V in the attached paper by science adviser Jerome Wiesner, which also included weapons “based in the U.K. and assigned to the naval attack aircraft on carriers based in European waters.” Thus, the PALs would prevent unauthorized use by non-U.S. forces and U.S. forces, including actions by an “individual psychotic,” but also against premature use in periods of “high tension or actual military combat.”

In his paper, Wiesner called for the undertaking of a “vigorous program … to develop an improved electronic lock which would be incorporated directly in the electronic package associated with all future weapons so that the option of a permissive link would always exist.” He believed that AEC equipment that was then under development could be “used as the basis £or a crash program’ with “initial production and installation” beginning in the immediate future. The proposed equipment would involve an “electro-mechanical lock which would have to receive a preset numerical code in order to make the weapon operable.”

He listed five alternative programs for the application of permissive links, including option I limited to the warheads on Jupiter missiles deployed in Italy and Turkey and the weapons assigned to non-U.S. quick-reaction alert aircraft in NATO Europe. That option was ruled out perhaps because it was considered to be inequitable.

Document 28

G [Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs] – U. Alexis Johnson to the Secretary, “Davy Crockett Deployment,” 16 June 1962, Secret


Source: DNSA

One of the battlefield nuclear weapons that the U.S. had deployed in West Germany was the Davy Crockett: a short-range recoilless gun, for use by infantry, that carried a weapon with an explosive yield of ten to twenty tons TNT equivalent. While Defense Department officials had thought that PALs could be applied to the Davy Crocketts, it turned out that the locks were too heavy to be used on these relatively small weapons.

Because of the “dangers” associated with Davy Crockett deployments, Alexis Johnson provided Rusk with a letter that could be sent to Secretary of Defense McNamara. In the letter, Rusk cited the “risk of an unauthorized firing” should a soldier “armed with a Davy Crockett … fire off his weapon, without orders to do so, in self-defense as the fog of combat swirled around him.” With more of the weapons deployed, the risk would increase.

Rusk also pointed to the possible negative impact of Davy Crockett deployments on NATO. In McNamara’s recent speech at the NATO meeting in Athens, he spoke depreciatingly of the “possibility of limited and useful employment

of tactical nuclear weapons and emphasiz[ed] the possibility of more than transient non-nuclear combat in Europe.” The Davy Crockett deployments could “degrade the credibility” of McNamara’s emphasis on conventional defense of NATO Europe, especially when Germans were asking about the weapon.

Whether Rusk’s argument had an impact on the Defense Department planning, e.g., by moving the Davy Crocketts further from the frontlines, the weapons remained part of U.S. army forces in Germany until 1967.

Document 29

L: L/SFP [Assistant Legal Adviser for Special Functional Problems] -J.H. Pender, “Operation of NATO Stockpile Program: Survey of Security Arrangements for United States Atomic Weapons with NATO Units (April 1962),” 1 August 1962, Secret, excised copy


Source: DNSA

State Department lawyer John Pender remained involved in policy on nuclear weapons custody and eventually had an opportunity to see at first hand the procedures at U.S. nuclear sites in NATO Europe. He was one of two State Department observers with an AEC-Defense survey at the sites during April 1962.

Pender found that the situation—virtually fictitious U.S. custody and control—was close to the one described in the 1961 JCAE report. At Air Force sites, he wrote that U.S. “custodial personnel are … not guardians of the weapons; they do not control access to the fenced areas within which such weapons are positioned.” The custodial personnel “have only accountability responsibilities and are expected to rely upon local allied personnel to deal with any and all intruders.” Moreover, allied military personnel “could easily help themselves to the mated weapons whenever they felt it necessary to use them, without United States consent; there is no over-all considered or effective United States plan in being at the moment to prevent this eventuality.”

Referring to a statement made by General Herbert Loper to the JCAE in 1958 that “we hold in our possession and custody” the nuclear component, Pender observed that he found it “difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile” current arrangements with the “original impressions as to how United States forces would retain custody and control of stockpile weapons.”

On the weapons assigned to the Jupiter missiles deployed in Italy and Turkey, Pender argued that U.S. custody of the warheads was “essentially symbolic” because it was “impossible to evacuate or destroy the warheads” without the cooperation of the Italian or Turkish military. It was essentially a “joint custody” arrangement, not the “exclusive” control that was characterized in a U.S. aide memoire to the Soviet Union.

Before permissive action links became a reality, Pender believed that the Defense Department needed to make some interim arrangements to provide for certain control of the weapons. The U.S. would want “the Air Force custodians to be genuine guards not just symbols; that the aircraft should have some device under United States exclusive control preventing takeoff; that plans and temporary devices for quick destruction of Jupiter [launch control] consoles and the aircraft be worked out urgently.” Whether any of these proposals received further consideration remains to be learned.


Document 30

Executive Session, Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Meeting No. 87-2-40, 18 September 1962, Secret, excised copy, with Lemnitzer’s handwritten corrections, with attached memo on “Points of Interest to Discuss with General Lemnitzer,” 18 September 1962.


Source: NARA, Record Group 128, Records of the Joint Committees of Congress. Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, 1946-1977, JCAE Executive Session Transcripts, box 53, Item 7369

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Lyman Lemnitzer testified during a JCAE executive session, although the committee members did most of the talking. Permissive action links were one of the topics as was the role of conventional and tactical nuclear forces in NATO. Holifield provided some background on the Committee’s role in advancing the PAL concept but noted that “our Committee has become concerned lest there should be a premature decision to install devices in all weapons systems prior to obtaining operational experience.” Lemnitzer had a similar concern about moving “too rapidly to install the permissive links … with respect to weapons strictly in U.S. custody.” He observed that “we can be disarmed, in effect, by having a device that is hurried through and does not permit the commander to employ the weapons effectively.” This was a tacit criticism of NSAM 160, but Leminitzer did not take it any further.

As they had in their report, the Committee members remained concerned about

custody and control issues, but they were more optimistic about the situation than Pender. Commenting on the AEC-DOD survey of stockpile sites, in which a JCAE staffer was involved, Holifield saw “great improvement in the security of nuclear weapons assigned to the NATO forces.” One of the improvements was the “greater attention …to the selection and training of American custodial and maintenance personnel including consideration of emotional stability and security background checks.”


Document 31

JCS Chairman L L. Lemnitzer, Memorandum for McGeorge Bundy, Special Assistant to the President, “Joint Chiefs of Staff Briefing NATO Nuclear Capabilities and Problem Areas,” 20 September 1962, Top Secret, excised copy, under appeal


Source: RG 218, Chairman’s Files, Records of Lyman L. Lemnitzer, box 2. CM-1962, 940-62-995-62

On 8 September 1962, members of the Joint Staff gave Bundy a briefing on NATO nuclear capabilities. Bundy asked to read the script, which Lemnitzer provided. The briefing included SACEUR and CINCEUR organization, roles, and missions, with details on U.S. and non-U.S. combat forces, delivery systems and nuclear weapons, but much of the detail on numbers of weapons and which countries would have access to them and at which bases in an emergency are excised. The only country names that are declassified are England and West Germany. Also excised are details of “threat lists” (principle targets) and the relationship between the SIOP and SACEUR.

The briefing concluded with a review of “problem areas,” including permissive action links. The Defense Department had submitted for President Kennedy’s approval a schedule for installing the devices, with work to be completed by the summer of 1964, at an estimated cost of 70 million dollars. Other topics were “defense data” presentations to top officials in NATO countries and “limitations on two-stage weapons.”

Document 32

S/p [Policy Planning Council] Mr. Owen to G [Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs]: Mr. Johnson,” Paul Nitze’s Report on Europe,” 11 October 1962, Secret


Source: DNSA

When Secretary of Defense McNamara and top aides visited NATO nuclear sites, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Paul H. Nitze reported their disquieting findings. His account did not mention PALs but what McNamara’s party saw probably confirmed in their minds the importance of tightening up control of nuclear weapons that had been dispersed to allied forces.

A West German Honest John missile unit had a nuclear warhead and the two U.S. custodians who, according to Nitze’s deputy Henry Rowen, looked “rather lonely.” They “kept the secrets of their trade in what seemed to be a wooden safe.” Another problem was the Davy Crockett, about which “McNamara was told that it would take so long to get the order to fire that the screening force would be over-run before the Davy Crockett could be used.” On Mace missiles, which targeted airfields in Eastern Europe, Rowen concluded that they “were the most dangerous delivery systems now in Europe, both because they could be fired so readily and because their vulnerability would create great pressure to fire them in a period of tension or limited hostilities.”

A striking example of the lack of direct U.S. control that had troubled the JCAE were the nuclear-armed quick reaction alert aircraft operated by West German pilots. “The assumption that the German pilots do not know how to arm these warheads turns out to be fictional; on request, one of the pilots showed the US visitors how this was done.”

V. 1962: NATO Guidelines


Document 33

U.S. Mission to NATO telegram POLTO 1180 to State Department, “NAC Meeting March 8: Defense Planning,” 9 March 1962, Top Secret


Source: RG 59, CDF, 740.5/3-962

In this meeting of the North Atlantic Council, the participants returned to the question of nuclear weapons use consultations. In response to concerns expressed by allies, the U.S. had made a statement to the NAC in April 1961 designed to assure them that nuclear weapons “would be used under circumstances and rules endorsed by Council and that there is absolute certainty that if there is nuclear attack in Europe, US will respond with all weapons at its command.” NATO Secretary-General Dirk Stikker did not see that as the final word, however, and at a meeting on 9 March 1962 he presented the gist of a paper that would be officially presented at the May 1962 NATO meeting in Athens. It covered U.S. statements and assurances about the provision of nuclear weapons to the alliance, the delivery of nuclear information to NATO at all levels (individual members, regional committees, and as a whole), and guidelines for consultations on nuclear weapons use. Those topics would be the subject of continued discussion at the NAC before the Athens meeting.

During the discussion, Ambassador Thomas Finletter observed that the “use of nuclear weapons was [a] dreadful matter and we would want to use them only if need were very clear.” Nevertheless, he recognized that the European countries were “exposed to more immediate losses of their territory than other members of alliance,” although all alliance members were under the nuclear threat.

Noting Rusk’s statement that the U.S. should try to “preserve vital interests, including integrity of our forces and territorial interests without resort to nuclear weapons,” the German representative, probably Ambassador Wilhelm Grewe, argued that by the time that NATO realized that it could not withstand a conventional attack, it “would already be too late.” Territorial integrity would already have been jeopardized. For example, “Munich and Hamburg, situated close to the Iron Curtain would already be gone.” He proposed that nuclear weapons could be used in instances of “threats” to “territorial integrity or integrity of forces.”

Observing that the U.S. “intended not to take action when it was too late,” Finletter conceded that it was a “very difficult problem.” Grewe agreed that it was a “vital point and must be explored,” given the “exposed situation of countries such as Turkey and West Germany.” The Athens Guidelines would include the language suggested by the West Germans on integrity of territory and forces.

Document 34

Memorandum of Conversation, “Briefing of Joint Committee on Atomic Energy Staff on Defense Issues at NATO Athens Meeting,” 10 May 1962, Secret


Source: DNSA

A briefing by State Department officials to members of the JCAE staff covered the substance of the NATO meeting in Athens. One of the topics was a “general guarantee” that the United States would provide NATO with ”adequate nuclear capability.” No numbers were discussed but there was another part of the assurance: that “Soviet targets threatening Europe would be adequately covered.” This was an implicit reference to U.S. plans for SIOP targeting of Soviet intermediate and medium-range ballistic missiles that were deployed in the Western U.S.S.R.

Another assurance was that Washington would provide NATO with more nuclear information so that allies “know more about our nuclear arsenal and planning,” as a contribution to their “education.” While the State Department briefs suggested that better knowledge of nuclear weapons could help persuade the allies to undertake a buildup of conventional forces, James Ramsy of the Committee staff was doubtful that adding to the NATO stockpile would “encourage the conventional buildup.” In reply, Russell Fessenden observed that by providing the allies with “general information on numbers of weapons” that would be available, they would realize how “complete” NATO’s nuclear defense was, which would “reinforce our case for the conventional buildup.”

The guidelines on nuclear weapons use was the final element of the “package” agreed to at Athens. According to Fessenden, they spelled out “the circumstances under which nuclear weapons might be used and the rules for consultation.” Further, they served a “dual purpose of assuring those countries which fear there might be an unwarranted delay on use,” speaking to the concerns raised by the West Germans, “and those which fear that they would not be consulted.”

Whether Fessenden quoted from the guidelines or not, they included these central points: 1) an “unmistakable” nuclear attack by the Soviets would be answered with a proportionate nuclear response, although opportunities for consultation would be “extremely limited,” 2) a Soviet “full-scale conventional attack” signaling the “opening of general hostilities,” would be met with a nuclear response “if necessary,” but time for consultations would be available, and 3) in a smaller-scale Soviet attack that “threatened the integrity of the forces and the territory attacked,” but which could not be repelled with “existing conventional forces,” the NATO Council could decide whether to use nuclear weapons. The last set of circumstances related to a contingency raised by the West Germans, although a quick decision would need to be reached in the event of the dire scenario (seizure of Hamburg or Munich) that had been described during the March 1962 NAC meeting.

In addition, as Fessenden noted, the guidelines included a U.S. undertaking to consult with the NAC “on the use of nuclear weapons anywhere in the world if time permitted.” In general comments on the guidelines, Fessenden observed that they struck a “good balance between our readiness to consult and our retaining freedom of action to respond quickly in an emergency.” Because NATO enabled members to respond collectively or individually to defense themselves, the United States “must always be a party to the decision to use nuclear weapons.”


Document 35

Chief Military Assistance Advisory Group Germany message MGCH 8-551 to Office of Secretary of Defense, 11 September 1962, Top Secret


Source: RG 59. Bureau of European Affairs, Office of NATO and Atlantic Politico-Military Affairs. Records Relating to NATO Affairs 1959-1966, box 6

After the Athens meeting, U.S. defense officials pondered how much nuclear weapons information they would share with NATO allies. With Deputy Secretary Gilpatric slated to meet West German Defense Minister Franz-Joseph Strauss, the chief of the Military Assistance Advisory Group in Bonn anticipated that Strauss would ask about the “availability of nuclear weapons held by US for FRG.” Sending the first cut of a briefing paper for Gilpatric’s use, the chief’s approach was to tell Strauss how he could figure out an approximate number for himself, not exactly in the spirit of the Athens Guidelines. He began with the point that at the Athens NATO meeting Secretary of Defense McNamara had told the allies that the U.S. had deployed 5,000 tactical nuclear weapons to Western Europe.[9] The MAAG chief observed that in most circumstances, the “division of existing nuclear devices would be in proportion to the delivery weapons available,” but it was not so cut and dried that there would be a nuclear weapon for each delivery system: “effective utilization will call for employment in relation to the threat.” Therefore, FRG forces would have “warhead requirements in relation to their percentage of the total of delivery weapons available in Europe” and “would receive at least a like proportion of the related nuclear devices available.”

Recognizing that other U.S. officials might have provided the West Germans with information on the stockpile, the MAAG chief asked for any particulars to determine whether it would be possible to be “more forthcoming” in the talks with Strauss. What Gilpatric actually said to Strauss about the stockpile, if anything, probably remains classified.

Note: Thanks to William Leister, Johns Hopkins University, for research assistance.

Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Lauris Norstad, shown here, halted the visit of a State Department official to nuclear weapons storage sites in Western Europe in June 1960 because he believed that the proposed review of custody arrangements questioned his authority and judgment. (Screenshot from Sandia Laboratories documentary “A Nuclearized NATO – Extended Version”)

The U.S. Defense Department assigned Honest John rockets to the West German army from the mid-1950s through the late 1980s. The one depicted here, the MGR-1A (M31), which was the first version, had a range of 3.4–15.4 miles (5.5–24.8 km), while the second version, the MGR-1B, had a range of up to 30 miles (48 km). Its first nuclear warhead, the W7, had a yield of up to 20 kilotons, while a follow-up, the W31, had yields of 2, 10, or 20 kilotons. Nuclear-capable Honest Johns were also deployed to Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey, as well as to British forces in West Germany.

The M388 Davy Crockett, a jeep-mounted recoilless gun in service with the U.S. Army from 1961 to 1971, carried a W54 nuclear warhead that had a variable explosive yield of up to 0.25 kilotons. Operated by a crew of three, it had a range of 2.4 miles, but lacked a guidance system. Introduced into U.S. Army units in Europe in 1962, it would have been available to West German military forces if war broke out. The weapon was too small to be equipped with a Permissive Action Link and U.S. policymakers worried about the risk of “unauthorized firing” during a crisis. The deployment in West Germany ended in 1967. (Photo from Reddit Web site)

Development of PALs for U.S. Nuclear Weapons: Excerpt from Video A discussion of policy and plans to deploy Permissive Action Links (PALs) to NATO nuclear bases during 1962, excerpted from a section of the Sandia Laboratories documentary “Always/Never” on “A Nuclearized NATO – Extended Version


[1]. For the PALs in U.S. nuclear weapons in NATO, see Hans Kristensen, U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Europe A Review of Post-Cold War Policy, Force Levels, and War Planning (Washington, D.C.: Natural Resources Defense Council, 2005), 20 and 26. A helpful early study on the development of PALs can be found in Peter D. Feaver, Guarding the Guardians: Civilian Control of Nuclear Weapons (Ithaca: Cornell University press, 1992).

[2]. A 1958 RAND Corporation study by Fred Charles Iklé, Gerald J. Aronson, and Albert Madansky, On the Risk of an Accidental or Unauthorized Nuclear Detonation, was one of the first to raise these problems.

[3]. 4,000 can be gleaned from table XVIb (page 193 of the PDF) included in a 1978 Department of Defense report, History of the Custody and Deployment of Nuclear Weapons: July 1945 through September 1977. The left side of the table indicating the number of weapons deployed is excised but it can be determined that the line markings represent one thousand each when one considers that as of early 1961 the numbers of weapons assigned to NATO countries was 500 [See Document 24]. See also Robert S. Norris, United States Nuclear Weapons Deployments Abroad, 1950-1977, Natural Resources Defense Council, 30 November 1999.

[4]. For U.S. nuclear relations with Italy, including a full account of the stockpile negotiations, see Leopoldo Nuti, La sfida nucleare. La politica estera italiana e le armi atomiche, 1945-1991. (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2008).

[5]. A 1989 oral history interview with Ernest Siracusa includes his observations about the negotiations with Italy.

[6]. See chapters 5 and 6 of John Murray Clearwater, U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Canada (Toronto, Dundurn Press, 1999).

[7]. See document 237 in the published Canadian record.

[8]. Jocelyn Maynard Ghent, “Did He Fall or Was He Pushed? The Kennedy Administration and the Collapse of the Diefenbaker Government,” International History Review 1 (1979): 246-270; Michael Carroll et. al., “H-Diplo Roundtable XVIII, 25 on Camelot and Canada: Canadian-American Relations in the Kennedy Era,” H-Diplo, 5 May 2017

[9]. That number is excised from page 9 of the otherwise full version of the McNamara speech that is available in the NATO archives.

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