35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

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

280 mm cannon

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@gwu.edu

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 documents

V. Nuclear Use Decisions and Alternatives to the Stockpile

document thumbnail
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 thumbnail
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 thumbnail
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 thumbnail
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.”


[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