35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Preoccupations with West Germany’s Nuclear Weapons Potential Shaped Kennedy-Era Diplomacy

President Kennedy meeting with West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer on 21 November 1961. During the meeting, Kennedy asked Adenauer if he was committed to the non-nuclear weapons pledge that he made in September 1954. (Photograph from John F. Kennedy Presidential Library)

Published: Feb 2, 2018
Briefing Book #617

Edited by William Burr

For more information contact William Burr: 202/994-7000 and nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Kennedy Told British That if West Germany Reneged on 1954 Non-Nuclear Commitment U.S. Would Consider “Hauling Out” of Europe

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the German Nuclear Question: Part 1, 1954-1964

Washington, D.C., February 2, 2018 – President John F. Kennedy once privately threatened that he would consider “hauling out” U.S. forces from  Western Europe if West Germany reneged on its 1954 pledge not to produce nuclear weapons, according to documents posted today on the web site of the George Washington University-based National Security Archive, with co-publication by the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project.

Political leaders from both sides of the Iron Curtain shared Kennedy’s worries about this lesser-known facet of the German Question, which became one of the drivers of U.S. policy on nuclear nonproliferation.

Today’s posting is one of a series of document collections the Archive will publish to mark the 50th anniversary of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Highlighting Germany’s part in the origins of the Treaty, the records published here for the first time were obtained through archival research and the Freedom of Information Act. They offer fresh context for the current public debate over Germany’s potential for becoming a nuclear weapons state.


The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the German Nuclear Question

Part 1, 1954-1964

By William Burr

The 50th anniversary of the signing of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty makes it worthwhile to look back at what gave the Treaty its impetus as well as the problems encountered during its negotiation. That a key issue of concern for both political figures and diplomats in both East and West was foreclosing a West German nuclear capability is no secret. How political leaders and diplomats during the 1950s and 1960s looked at the problem then is worth revisiting, not least because of the recently revived discussion of Germany’s nuclear potential. Declassified documents published for the first time by the National Security Archive illuminate the central role of the German nuclear question in U.S. policymaking about nonproliferation, or “non-dissemination” (or “non-diffusion”), as it was then called, during the early 1960s. According to President Kennedy, in a statement to Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko: “Our particular concern regarding dissemination was Germany and one of the reasons for an MLF [Multilateral Force] was to make it less possible for the Germans to press for nuclear weapons of their own.”

Concern about German nuclear weapons potential stretched back to World War II, when Nazi Germany conducted an atomic bomb project, and forward to 1954, when Western allies ended the military occupation of Germany and brought West Germany into NATO in tandem with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s commitment not to produce nuclear weapons. Memories of World War II had a powerful impact and the possibility, even if remote, of an independent German nuclear force alarmed policymakers in Washington and European capitals, not to mention Moscow. Today’s posting documents continuing U.S. government unease about West German nuclear capabilities from the late 1950s into the early 1960s, when the Kennedy administration supported proposals for a non-dissemination agreement and the MLF as ways to preclude West Germany from initiating a national weapons program.

Among the documents published today are: 

  • The record of a 1954 meeting between Western officials and West German Nobel laureate Werner Heisenberg, a key figure in Nazi Germany’s atomic weapons project, who declared that West Germany “would not develop an atomic weapons program.”
  • A top-secret message from Kennedy to British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan opposing aid to France’s nuclear weapons program because it “would signify a major reversal in our opposition to Nth country programs”[1] and increase “the likelihood that the Germans would eventually wish to acquire a nuclear weapons capability.”, Such an outcome would “shake NATO to its foundations – not to mention the other serious dangers attendant on proliferation of nuclear weapons capabilities.”
  • A July 1962 report by the U.S. Embassy in Bonn, which found that “at present there does not exist deliberate intention in Germany to embark on nuclear weapons program either alone or with French.” Nevertheless, “some German leaders have the possibility at back of their minds as possible answer to future contingencies for which no concrete anticipation now exists.”
  • British Defence Minister Peter Thorneycroft’s record of his September 1962 discussions with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and President Kennedy, who said that if Germany began a nuclear weapons program, “the United States would have to reconsider her guarantees to station forces in Europe” and “might even have to ‘haul out.’”
  • The memcon of a Kennedy-Macmillan meeting in December 1962 that has been mainly available only in the expurgated version published in the Foreign Relations of the United States, which omits some of the frank discussion, including Macmillan’s comment that Germany was “dangerous, but not as much as before the war, because the whole balance had changed and there were now two superpowers.”
  • West German Defense Minister Kai-Uwe von Hassel’s assurances to Kennedy in February 1963 that West Germany would not go on any nuclear “adventures” on its own or in collaboration with the French.
  • National Security Action Memorandum 241, signed by national security adviser McGeorge Bundy in May 1963, instructing the CIA and the Atomic Energy Commission to look for signs of French-German nuclear cooperation
  • A Kennedy message to Macmillan encouraging British support for the MLF because “if it fails, the Germans are bound to move in much more dangerous directions; in the long run even toward some partly clandestine arrangement with the French or, if this should not work, toward an independent nuclear effort in Germany -- not now but in time.”
  • A memorandum of conversation in which Soviet diplomat Georgi Kornienko argued that the MLF would expose West Germany to “the nuclear disease”: “German participation in the MLF and the physical contact with nuclear weapons which would result was a further step on the road to disaster.” A nonproliferation agreement was a better way than the MLF to solve the problem.
  • A State Department Intelligence and Research report finding no evidence that West Germany and France were involved in a secret nuclear weapons program. Moreover, the French denied any cooperation with Germany concerning Pierrelatte and the West Germans had declared that they “had no intention of assisting the French in their nuclear weapons program.”

Besides World War II memories, shaping U.S. official thinking about the German nuclear question were Cold War tensions, general concern about nuclear proliferation, and the fact that other European powers, the British and the French, were developing their own weapons capabilities. European proliferation, U.S. officials worried, could encourage West German emulation. While Konrad Adenauer had made a declaration that West Germany would not produce nuclear weapons, whether his successors would abide by it remained a source of concern into the 1960s, which undoubtedly increased interest in a binding commitment, such as a nonproliferation treaty.[2] The underlying concern was whether West Germany, much less a united Germany, would remain the responsible participant in world affairs that it was becoming after 1945.

It is worth keeping in mind that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had no objections to West German acquisition of nuclear weapons on the grounds of “one main enemy at a time.”.[3] Nevertheless, he would have found it an uphill struggle convincing the U.S.’s European allies to agree. Moreover, most U.S. officials and Eisenhower’s immediate successor, John F. Kennedy, were far from sanguine about the prospect of a nuclear Germany. Toward the end of 1962, Kennedy approved a diplomatic initiative on behalf of a nonproliferation agreement that would involve commitments by nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states. Moscow and London were both interested, but what complicated progress was a parallel effort, the Multilateral Force proposal, designed to discourage future West German interest in a weapons capability, as well as to wean London and Paris from national nuclear programs. [4]

While Kennedy administration policymakers found the MLF useful on nonproliferation grounds, U.S. allies disliked the idea of German participation and the Soviets were alarmed by the possibility of West German exposure to the “nuclear disease.” It was these continuing disagreements that stalled progress on both the MLF and a nonproliferation agreement. [5] Even after the MLF had died on the vine, State Department officials were reluctant to push hard for a nonproliferation agreement that excluded such an option if there was a risk that it would alienate Bonn. Thus, the path to an NPT that West Germany could support was a somewhat tortuous one, as a follow-up National Security Archive posting will confirm.

U.S. intelligence had no evidence that West Germany had nuclear weapons ambitions, much less that it had nuclear weapons R&D, but the country’s growing economy gave it a weapons potential. According to a National Intelligence Estimate, produced in June 1963, there were “no indications … that West Germany has plans for developing an independent nuclear weapons capability.” Nevertheless, intelligence analysts believed that by developing a “broadly based” civil nuclear program, Bonn was trying to “become a world leader in the nuclear sciences.” If West Germany built large power reactors and facilities to process spent fuel into plutonium, it would reach the “threshold” of a weapons capability. Thus, the possibility that West Germany could eventually be on the verge of an ability to produce weapons made it a prime target for nonproliferation diplomacy during the years ahead.

Recent debates over West Germany’s nuclear role are in stark contrast to the Cold War-era discussion. [6] In the early 1960s, the remote possibility that someday West Germany could move in a “dangerous direction” toward an independent nuclear capability troubled Kennedy and others. The possibility that the Germans and other European countries might someday worry that the United States would leave them in the lurch in the face of aggression was a prospect that Kennedy may have seen as unlikely (although some wondered whether Washington would sacrifice New York for Paris or Hamburg in a nuclear exchange). By contrast, the tensions that have roiled trans-Atlantic relations since the 2016 election and subsequent inauguration of Donald Trump have raised questions about the durability of U.S. security guarantees to Western Europe, which in turn has generated discussions of Germany’s status as a non-nuclear weapons state. Yet, anti-nuclear sentiment abounds, with the Greens and the Social Democrats favoring withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons to confirm Germany’s non-nuclear status. Domestic politics and developments in the external security environment may keep nuclear weapons a contentious issue in Germany and in trans-Atlantic politics generally.


I. Background


Document 1: Memorandum of Conversation (Memcon), “German Atomic Energy Program,” 27 October 1954, Confidential

Source: Department of State Records, Record Group 59, U.S National Archives (RG 59), Central Decimal Files, 1950-1954, 862A.8458/10-2754

On 23 October, as a step toward ending the allied occupation and West German membership in NATO, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer signed an updated version of the 1948 Brussels Treaty, bringing his country into the Western European Union.[7] The agreement included Adenauer’s statement “that the Federal Republic undertakes not to manufacture in its territory any atomic weapons, chemical weapons, or biological weapons.” A few days later, Nobel Prize winner Werner Heisenberg, a key figure in Nazi Germany’s atomic bomb project[8], reaffirmed the commitment about atomic weapons to a group of U.S., British, and French officials in Washington. His reputation largely intact, Heisenberg was playing a key role in in “renewing [the] international ties” of the new Federal Republic, which included seeking international support for its nuclear power plans, which he saw as important to enhance West Germany’s economic competitiveness.[9]

Leading the meeting was another Nobel laureate, Sir John Cockcroft, director of the United Kingdom’s Atomic Energy Research Establishment. Heisenberg discussed plans for building a large research reactor, which would require access to uranium fuel sources and heavy water. In response to Cockcroft’s questions about isotope separation, Heisenberg noted that the Germans had been experimenting with gas centrifuge technology (he did not mention plans to export centrifuges to Brazil) and he was also interested in the possibility of a gaseous diffusion plant, although its heavy expense made it “out of the question” for the near term. As such a plant would mean a capability to produce fissile material, Cockcroft expected West Germany to consult with the allies before taking any such step.


Document 2: Letter from Max Isenbergh, Special Assistant for Atomic Energy, U.S. Embassy Paris, to Robert Schaetzel, Office of Special Assistant to Secretary of State for Atomic Energy, 12 August 1957, enclosing memoranda on “Franco-German Coordination of Advanced Weapons Research, Development, and Production,” Secret

Source: RG 59, Records of the Special Assistant to the Secretary of State for Atomic Energy and Outer Space, Records Relating to Atomic Energy Matters, 1948-1962, box 491, Z1.33 Country File France P. Weapons, 1957

Heisenberg’s anti-nuclear weapons commitments were sturdy, but Adenauer’s confidence in U.S. security guarantees was wavering and he became interested in finding ways to circumvent the 1954 declaration, mainly by working with the French.[10] During the summer of 1957, diplomats in London and Washington were becoming uneasy as they learned that France and West Germany were setting up formal arrangements to cooperate in the development of advanced weapons systems. According to the British, the “real danger for NATO would arise in another ten years when the Germans would have weapons resulting from Franco-German research and development thus getting around the WEU prohibition to Germany of developing its own ABC weapons.” U.S. diplomats in Paris, however, saw “little likelihood” of such a development: “they had no indications that the French had or would contemplate assisting the Germans to produce atomic weapons.” That, however, did not touch on the point of whether the French would work with the Germans bilaterally in a project that did not take place on West German soil.


Documents 3A-B: The French-Italian-German Scheme

Document 3A: John Foster Dulles, Memorandum of Conversation with Chancellor Adenauer, 14 December 1957, Top Secret

Document 3B: U.S. Embassy Paris Telegram 3600 to Department of State, 1 February 1958, Top Secret

Sources: A: RG 59, Conference Files, 1949-1972, box 140, CF 947 NATO Hds. of Govt Meeting Paris Dec. 1957 Memcons; excised copy published in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955–1957, Central and Southeastern Europe, Volume XXVI (Washington, D.C: Government Printing Office, 1992), document 137; B: RG 59, Central Decimal Files, 1955-1959, 740.56/2-158

The French-West German project quickly came to include Italy (FIG: France-Italy-Germany), which Secretary of State John Foster Dulles learned directly from Adenauer at a NATO meeting in December 1957. Whether deliberately or not, Adenauer inaccurately escribed FIG as only a “proposal,” but acknowledged that the research would be on nuclear weapons. Dulles suggested that he had reservations by suggesting 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.” 

U.S. government officials were troubled by the possibility of shared nuclear weapons research in Western Europe and a report from the U.S. Embassy in Paris would have raised misgivings. Jean Laloy, the French Foreign Ministry’s director of European affairs, confidentially shared his apprehensions with an Embassy official. Explaining that the Foreign Ministry would be “receptive” to a U.S. statement of “reservations and concern” about the FIG project because the Ministry itself was “greatly concerned over prospect that West Germans will acquire their own atomic capability through participation in French program.” According to Laloy, West German Defense Minister Franz-Joseph Strauss and other German military officers were “pushing hard for this.” The Embassy did not believe that Laloy was in “any sense questioning France’s own determination to proceed with at least limited atomic weapons program” because he saw it “essential if only to give French feeling of equality with United States and United Kingdom.” Any protest Washington may have lodged has yet to surface, but FIG suffered several blows in 1958, such as a policy reversal by newly-elected President Charles de Gaulle, who suspended the nuclear weapons work.[11] U.S. suspicions about French-German nuclear collaboration, however, would linger.


Document 4: Hugh S. Cuming, Director, Office of Intelligence and Research, to Secretary of State, “Growing Revelation of West German Interest in Nuclear Striking Force in Europe,” 18 February 1960, Secret

Source: RG 59, Central Decimal Files, 1960-1963, 740.5/2-18/60

This State Department intelligence report touched upon a key issue for West German policy: a desire to upgrade West Germany’s nuclear role without putting it in control of nuclear weapons. According to the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), the West Germans faced a “dilemma” because of the development of Soviet strategic missile capabilities (developing but still greatly overestimated). On the one hand, the emerging Soviet strategic threat to the U.S. raised doubts about the “credibility” of U.S. security guarantees to NATO Europe. On the other hand, the Germans wanted to avoid anything that would weaken U.S. -European ties or U.S.-German relations or that would “cast doubt on the primacy of the United States role in the defense of Western Europe.”

To resolve the dilemma Bonn was unlikely to propose a “deterrent which is not subject to U.S. veto.” While Bonn could “lend political support, and possibly technical assistance, to French development of nuclear armaments,” it would not initiate a national nuclear program because that “would be an almost intolerable provocation of the Soviet Union and might cause a political crisis in the Federal Republic itself.” From the West German perspective, “the most practical solution” to the dilemma would be the “stationing of U.S. strategic weapons on the Continent.” What Bonn had in mind was putting intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBM) under the “custody of Western European forces and under joint control.” Meeting the West German concerns described in this report had great weight in the development of various U.S. proposals for a U.S.-European multilateral nuclear force.[12]


II. West German Intentions and Nonproliferation Politics


Document 5: State Department telegram 5245 to U.S. Embassy United Kingdom, Top Secret, sending message from President Kennedy to Prime Minister Macmillan, 6 May 1961, Top Secret

Source: State Department FOIA release

When John F. Kennedy became president the problem of nuclear proliferation weighed heavily on his mind, not least the recent discovery of Israel’s secret nuclear reactor project in the Negev desert. He also worried about West Germany and the possibility of a revanchist Germany acquiring nuclear capabilities. Early in his administration U.S. and British officials discussed the pros and cons of aiding the French nuclear program.[13] Kennedy, however, would have none of that; according to his message to British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan: “If we were now to provide aid to France and thus signify a major reversal in our opposition to Nth country programs the likelihood that the Germany would eventually wish to acquire a nuclear weapons capability would be significantly increased.” Such an outcome would have a “damaging effect” because it “would, of course shake NATO to its foundations­not to mention the other serious dangers attendant on proliferation of nuclear weapons capabilities.”


Document 6: Central Intelligence Agency, Information Report Telegram, “Foreign Policy Aims of Strauss, Schroeder and some FDP Leaders,” 20 November 1961, Secret, Excised copy

Source: Record Group 59, Department of State Records, National Archives (RG 59), Bureau of European Affairs. Office of German Affairs, Records Relating to Berlin, 1957-1963 box 4, POL 7 Adenauer, Chancellor Nov 20-22

This intelligence report may have raised eyebrows in the White House and elsewhere about West German nuclear interests. In the weeks following the November 1961 West German federal elections when a new cabinet formed, CIA sources in Bonn provided information on the thinking of the group of “Young Turks” in Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s cabinet that included Defense Minister Franz-Joseph Strauss (CSU/Christian Social Union) and Foreign Minister Gerhard Schroeder (Christian Democratic Union/CDU). The group, which could hold “decisive power,” wanted close relations with the United States, but wanted Bonn to have a greater voice in nuclear weapons policy. With the Berlin Crisis in the immediate background, fear of war was higher than usual, so control of nuclear weapons was not a theoretical issue.

According to the CIA’s source, Strauss and Schroeder thought differently about how to increase Bonn’s influence in nuclear matters. Strauss wanted the U.S. to share nuclear weapons and the “right to use them” with European NATO members. These comments probably meant he supported ongoing U.S. efforts to assign nuclear weapons to West European armed forces and for greater U.S. willingness to consult with NATO members on nuclear decisions. If that failed to occur, Strauss favored French-West German cooperation to produce nuclear weapons. By contrast, Schroeder was more interested in a national nuclear capability and consequently favored revoking the 1954 pledge not to produce atomic/biological/chemical weapons. Because neither the Europeans nor the Soviets believed that that United States would use the bomb, Schroeder estimated that a West German nuclear “deterrent” would scare the Soviets into making diplomatic concessions. A West German nuclear capability would necessarily be small, so the “Western powers would have nothing to fear.” Schroeder’s somewhat disingenuous thinking stood in sharp contrast to a 1960 U.S. intelligence estimate that a West German nuclear capability could raise “apprehension … to dangerous levels,” especially in the Soviet Union, although not necessarily to the point of war.


Document 7: Memorandum of Conversation, Private Conversations Between the President and Chancellor Adenauer, “Germany,” Unedited Version, 21 November 1961, Secret

Source: RG 59, Conference Files, 1949-1972, box 268, CF 1993 Adenauer Visit Washington, 11/20-22/1961 Briefing Book and Misc (Folder 1 of 2); edited version published in excised form in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume XIV, Berlin Crisis, 1961–1962 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1993), document 219.

Whether President Kennedy saw the CIA report is unclear, but suspicions about West Germany’s nuclear ambitions informed his discussions with West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in November 1961. Underlined by a significant age difference, with Adenauer born in 1876 and Kennedy in 1917, their relationship was complex, uneasy, and conflicted. Yet, with Adenauer relying on U.S. support and Kennedy seeking to maintain relations with an important ally, each recognized the importance of the U.S.-German security connection. The ongoing crisis over West Berlin brought Adenauer to Washington for talks on strategy, diplomacy, and contingency planning. During this wide-ranging private discussion, which touched upon the test ban treaty, Nikita Khrushchev, whether Israel had the bomb, the KGB murder of the Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, and a Walter Lippmann column on the risk of West German neutrality (which Adenauer denied), Kennedy wanted to determine where the Chancellor stood on the nuclear questions, specifically whether his government would continue to observe the 1954 declaration renouncing the production of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. When Kennedy stated his fear that if West Germany “began nuclear experimentation the danger of war would sharply increase without providing additional security compared to what we have at present.” Adenauer replied that his government “was not considering any nuclear experimentation.”[14]

Kennedy did not drop the subject and asked if there was any domestic pressure “to change the Chancellor's stand” on nuclear weapons. After stating that “there was none,” Adenauer soon made an observation about the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile in West Germany: “The Germans have been told repeatedly by the US that there are nuclear warheads in Germany, but they have been shown none.” Adenauer wanted Defense Minister Franz-Joseph Strauss to know what was “actually available in Western Germany” because it “would greatly strengthen his [and Adenauer’s] hand to know.” Kennedy assured Adenauer that Secretary of Defense McNamara would brief him and Strauss on the stockpile and U.S. plans for its use.


Document 8: Ministry of Defence,Notes on Talks During the Minister of Defence’s Visit to the United States, September 1962, Nuclear Problems in Europe,” 19 September 1962, Top Secret

Source: The National Archives (United Kingdom), Ministry of Defence Records, DEFE 13/323 (copy courtesy of Matthew Jones, London School of Economics)

In September 1962, British Defence Minister Peter Thorneycroft traveled to Washington for discussion on defense cooperation; the visit included a flight to Cape Canaveral with President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense McNamara. During the flight, they discussed the French nuclear program and the possibility of French-German nuclear cooperation. While Thorneycroft downplayed reports of German nuclear “ambitions” or French-German “collaboration,” he wrote that Kennedy and McNamara were “resentful and distrustful of both French and German intentions.” Kennedy further stated that “ if' the Germans embarked on work in the nuclear sphere which constituted a breach of the 1954 Agreement the United States would have to reconsider her own guarantees to station forces in Europe.” Washington would even consider “haul[ing] out.”


Documents 9A-B: No “Deliberate Intentions” in the Nuclear Area

Document 9A. U.S. Embassy West Germany telegram 43 to State Department, 25 July 1962, Secret

Document 9B. U.S. Embassy West Germany telegram 1538 to State Department, 10 December 1962, Secret

Source: RG59, Central Decimal Files 1960-1963, 751.5611/7-2562 and 751.5611/12-1062 respectively

Concern about the possibility of French-West German nuclear cooperation remained acute enough to inspire U.S. and British diplomats to look closely at the situation and conclude that neither country was actively considering the option. Differences in emphasis notwithstanding, the embassy experts believed that it would be possible to “constructively channel” German nuclear interests as long as the Federal Republic believed that its “ its legitimate security requirements, including Berlin, [were] adequately safeguarded by existing treaty commitments, particularly NATO, backed by effective nuclear deterrent.” In terms of “channeling” German interests, an important outlet could be multilateral nuclear arrangements in which West Germany would “participate on [a] basis [of] equality with other European countries.”

The Embassy analysts found that “at present there does not exist deliberate intention in Germany to embark on nuclear weapons program either alone or with French.” Nevertheless, they took it for granted that “some German leaders have the possibility at back of their minds as possible answer to future contingencies for which no concrete anticipation now exists.” One contingency that could produce a change of mind was a significant failure of the NATO alliance or of other multilateral arrangements.

Looking closely at the prospects for French-German nuclear cooperation, a subsequent message noted French denials of any such discussion, but the Bonn Embassy agreed with the U.S. Embassy in France that the subject was “reserved for possible consideration in future.” As for the West Germans, “most ranking … officials clearly continue to appreciate adverse consequences which any Franco-German program might have.”


Document 10: Secretary of State to the President, “Agreement on Non-Diffusion of Nuclear Weapons,” 27 November 1962, with enclosures and cover memorandum from McGeorge Bundy, 28 November 1962, Confidential

Source: RG 59, Decimal Files, 700.5611/11-2862

Believing that Moscow was amenable to supporting a general agreement on nuclear nonproliferation, no longer insisting that it be limited to the two Germanies only, Secretary of State Rusk asked the White House for authorization to approach the Soviets. Rusk had two central goals in mind: to determine if the Soviets would state whether its allies, such as China, would agree to a nonproliferation agreement and to give Moscow a “somewhat more precise indication of what we have in mind concerning the obligation not to transfer nuclear weapons.”

A key issue in the proposed agreement, which would take the form of a “declaration” by the nuclear and non-nuclear signatories, was the standing of U.S. nuclear deployments on the soil of non-nuclear weapons states such as West Germany. The non-transfer obligation would prevent neither Moscow nor Washington from deploying nuclear weapons to support the armed forces of NATO or Warsaw Pact members, even if they were non-nuclear states. “The arrangements would be such that the U.S. and USSR, respectively, retain control over the weapons so that they could not be deployed or used solely on the basis of the national decision of any government not now possessing them.” Moreover, and this would become a sticking point in the negotiations with the Soviets, the agreement would permit both Moscow and Washington to place “nuclear weapons in the custody of units of a multinational defense force within the framework of NATO, or Warsaw Pact defense forces, respectively,” as long as the weapons “could not be deployed or used on the basis of the national decision of any government not now possessing them.” In other words, the U.S. proposal for a multilateral force would be consistent with the agreement.

The first two articles would cover the obligations of the nuclear weapons states not to “transfer” directly or indirectly nuclear weapons to non-nuclear weapons states, and the obligations of the latter not to “manufacture” nuclear weapons, not to acquire them directly or indirectly, or to receive assistance in their manufacture. The two articles were topically close (if far less comprehensive) to the NPTs first two articles, although their purposes were similar--in part because they would legitimize U.S. nuclear stockpile arrangements in NATO.


Documents 11A-B: French-West German Nuclear Cooperation

Document 11A: U.S. Embassy West Germany Airgram A-1389, “Franco-German Cooperation in Atomic Energy Matters,” 28 December 1962, Confidential

Document 11B: US. Embassy West Germany Airgram A-1566, “Franco-German Cooperation in Nuclear

Field,” 23 January 1963, Confidential

Source: RG 59, Central Decimal Files, box 3041, 951.80262a/12-2862 and 951.80262a/1-2363 respectively

With Heisenberg’s vision of atomic reactors in West Germany beginning to be realized during the 1960s, as part of their developing close relationship with France, the West German industrialists, scientists, government officials met with their French counterparts to initiate cooperative research programs in the nuclear energy field. Among the topics discussed were plutonium chemistry and the reprocessing of spent fuels. According to the Embassy, “it is our surmise that the present visits represent further efforts on the part of the [two] governments to implement the DeGaulle-Adenauer mandate although, interestingly enough, the Foreign Office professed to know nothing about these arrangements.” A follow-up message had a confusing opening sentence, but the gist was that the French and the Germans were considering building a reprocessing plant at the Karlsruhe nuclear complex.


III. The MLF, NSAM 241, and Controversies over Nonproliferation


Document 12: Memorandum of Conversation, “Skybolt,” 19 December 1962, Secret

Source: John F. Kennedy Library, National Security Files box 228, NATO, Weapons, Nassau Basic Documents,12/19/62-2/7/63 folder 1 of 2. Expurgated version published in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, Volume XIII, Western Europe and Canada (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1994), document 402.

In December 1962, Kennedy and Macmillan had a scheduled meeting in Nassau, just in time to discuss a looming crisis in Anglo-American relations. Triggering the crisis was a U.S. decision to bring to an end work on on the Skybolt air-to-surface missile because of its unreliability. The cancellation shocked the British:Eisenhower had made assurances to Macmillan on Skybolt and the British saw the missile as key to the viability of their nuclear bomber force. To prevent the crisis from deepening , Kennedy hoped to placate Macmillan by agreeing to sell Polaris nuclear submarines and missiles on the condition that the British assign them to NATO or possibly to a larger multilateral force with crews of different nationalities “mixed manning”).

Kennedy would make a parallel offer to De Gaulle (who refused it) because he saw an MLF as potentially useful for diverting France and the United Kingdom from their national nuclear efforts (which he saw as wasteful and potentially destabilizing). Moreover, Kennedy and his advisers viewed the MLF as a way for to give West Germany a nuclear role without giving it independent control of the weapons.[15]

As the discussion covered by this memcon indicates, Macmillan was frustrated by the Skybolt cancellation but was determined that Britain “stay in the nuclear club or he would resign and we would have a permanent series of [Gaitskells] (reference to the nuclear disarmament politics of British Labor Party leader Hugh Gaitskell). The two sides, however, were moving toward a loose understanding about Polaris submarines and possible British participation in an MLF under NATO auspices. To stay in the “club,” Macmillan was willing to assign British Polaris submarines to a NATO force as long as the “Queen had the ultimate power and right to draw back in the case of a dire emergency similar to that in 1940.” Macmillan and his advisers made it evident that they were not sold on the U.S. arguments about the MLF. When Foreign Minister Home argued that the “Europeans did not want any German finger on the trigger” and “None of them wanted Germany to be in,” Ball observed that “it would be worse if Germany became an independent nuclear power.” Macmillan agreed that Germany was “dangerous, but not as much as before the war, because the whole balance had changed and there were now two superpowers.”
The copy published here has faint portion markings indicating the sections that were expurgated from the copy filed in the State Department’s official record. The only known complete copy stayed at the White House (and later the Kennedy Library), while the expurgated version went to the State Department’s Conference Files. Apparently White House officials believed that the State Department did not need to see the more candid exchanges, such as Kennedy’s chauvinistic banter about women, various statements about Germany, and Macmillan’s digs at U.S. ideas about “mixed manning” on ships assigned to the MLF (“putting a British sailor on board ship to have tea with the Portuguese”).


Document 13:President Kennedy to Honorable William Tyler [Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs] and Honorable Paul Nitze [Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs], 27 February 1963, Top Secret

Several weeks after French President Charles de Gaulle and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer signed a Franco-German Friendship Treaty as a step to further postwar reconciliation, President Kennedy remained unsure about the direction of West German policy­--especially whether Bonn would abide by the non-nuclear weapons commitment that Adenauer had made in 1954. Apparently not persuaded by the State Department telegram traffic (if he had seen it) on the lack of evidence of German nuclear weapons activity, Kennedy directly expressed his concern when meeting with West German defense minister Kai-Uwe von Hassell. The latter assured him that West Germany would not go on any nuclear “adventures” on its own or in collaboration with the French: “[A]fter the history of the last thirty [sic] years … it would be a great mistake for the Germans to engage in a nuclear development of this kind,” which would greatly “increase …tension.” 

Kennedy sent this report to senior officials at Defense and State, Paul Nitze and William Tyler, both of whom had sat in on the meeting (see accompanying photograph).


Document 14: National Security Action Memorandum 241, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy to Secretary of State, Director of Central Intelligence and Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, “Report on French Gaseous Diffusion Plant,” 7 May 1963, report on “France” attached

Source: JFKL, National Security Study Memoranda, box 391, NSAM 241

Von Hassell’s disclaimers notwithstanding, Kennedy and his advisers remained wary of the prospects of a Franco-German entente. A report (cited in the Thomas memorandum) about an alleged French request to West Germany for financial support for their Pierrelatte gaseous diffusion plant raised White House hackles, despite German and French disavowals. McGeorge Bundy asked the CIA and the Atomic Energy Commission [AEC] to investigate the report and the State Department to develop policy recommendations in light of the findings.


Document 15: Director of Central Intelligence John McCone and AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg to President Kennedy, 13 May 1963, with attached “Report on French Gaseous Diffusion Project,” Secret

Source: JFKL, National Security Study Memoranda, box 391, NSAM 241

The CIA and the AEC quickly produced a report which found that because the French underestimated the cost of the Pierrelatte plant, they had a reason to consider West German financial aid. Moreover, the West Germans had relevant technical skills. The report concluded that for such reasons, and “from the reports available … we believe that French officials have in fact broached the subject of aid for Pierre1atte with the West Germans and possibly the Italians.” More needed to be learned about the French requests, including if the Germans were offered a “quid pro quo,” or whether Bonn expects “some control or partnership” with the French. Moreover, the French may have regarded cooperation as a tactic to dodge Adenauer’s 1954 commitment and also as a “way for German industry to improve its position in the nuclear technological race.”


Document 16: Atomic Energy Commission, “German Participation in Pierrelatte Gaseous Diffusion Plant,” n.d. with cover memo from Myron B. Kratzer, Division of International Affairs, to Mr. Thomas and Mr. Kaufman, Department of State, 21 May 1963, Secret

Source: RG 59, Bureau of European Affairs, Office of Atlantic Political and Economic Affairs, Records Relating to Atomic Energy Matters, 1960-1963, box 2, N.8a France

This AEC report looked at the Pierrelatte plant’s prospective capabilities, possible West German motives for seeking an independent supply of enriched uranium( possibly in cooperation with the French), the “adverse” implications of a French-German project, and policy alternatives available to Washington. If the West Germans were, in fact, determined to contribute to the French enrichment project, the AEC saw serious risks including the “the prospects of a Franco-German military alliance that could constitute a European third force capable of dominating Western Europe and wielding substantial military power.” One of the AEC’s assumptions was that the West Germans had a strong desire for an independent source of enriched uranium, but some State Department officials questioned that premise judging by their question marks on the margins of the report. In any event, the AEC wanted to find ways to diminish whatever interest Germany had in working with France by liberalizing the U.S. supply of enriched uranium, e.g., lowering prices, or by encouraging broader European cooperation in enrichment technology.


Document 17: Under Secretary of State George Ball to President Kennedy, “Po1icy Recommendations: NSAM 241 - French Gaseous Diffusion P1ant,” 25 May 1963, Secret

Source: JFKL, National Security Study Memoranda, box 391, NSAM 241

Under Secretary Ball recommended making a greater effort to find more information about German or Italian interest in financial and other kinds of support for the Pierrelatte plant. If the earlier reports about possible German financial report were confirmed, Ball suggested issuing/expressing statements of concern to German officials, even by President Kennedy during his forthcoming trip to Europe. Ball also suggested that Washington minimize German interest in acquiring nuclear fuel from non-U.S. sources by making “assurances of a long-term supply of cheap nuclear fuel for peaceful uses.”


Document 18: Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs William Tyler to Secretary of State Rusk, “Rumored Secret Military Annex to Franco-German Treaty,” 29 May 1963, enclosing 27 May 1963 memorandum on same subject, Secret

Source: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files 1963, box 3721, POL 4 Fr-W Germany

The rumor that the French-German Friendship Treaty included a secret annex on military, including nuclear, cooperation, led the State Department to request the U.S. Embassy to ask the West German government whether there was such an arrangement. A few day later, senior West German diplomat Georg Lilienfeld met with Assistant Secretary Tyler and gave him a “flat denial” that any such annex existed. Lilienfeld made the denial “with a certain note of irritation” that Washington had asked this question “in the light of the assurances which had already been given to us,” no doubt referring to statements by von Hassell among others. Tyler simply observed that it was better to get the record straight than for Washington to have “any lingering doubts.”


Document 19: State Department telegram 6389 to U.S. Embassy United Kingdom, 29 May 1963, Secret

Source: RG 59, Presidential and Secretary of State respondence with Foreign Heads of State, 1953-1964, box 16, President Kennedy's Correspondence with Prime Minister Macmillan 1963 Vol. III; heavily excised version published in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Volume XIII Western Europe and Canada  (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1994), document 200.

President Kennedy had doubts about the feasibility of MLF, but saw it as a useful alternative to a Franco-German nuclear compact or worse, a West German national nuclear program.[16] The British, however, had little interest, partly for financial reasons but also because of their doubts about the German role. Encouraging Macmillan to take a positive interest in the project, Kennedy wrote that “The Germans are the heart of the problem, and I simply cannot escape the conclusion that of the courses available to us in dealing with them, the MLF is the only safe one. If it fails, the Germans are bound to move in much more dangerous directions; in the long run even toward some partly clandestine arrangement with the French or, if this should not work, toward an independent nuclear effort in Germany -- not now but in time.” Pessimistically, Kennedy wrote that “I see no other course for the Germans if the MLF fails. All of our experience with them, after both wars, makes it clear that they will not accept a permanently and passively subordinate status in arms.”


Document 20: Memcon, “MLF, Disarmament,” 30 May 1963, Secret

Source: Record Group 383, Records of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Entry UD WS-1343, box 1, Vol. VIII: Selected Memoranda, Telegrams, and Background Papers

U.S. officials understood that the Soviet Union had serious objections to the MLF because they worried that U.S. influence would erode with West Germany getting more control of the weapons. The day after Kennedy sent his message to Macmillan, Soviet diplomat Georgi Kornienko and State Department official Ronald Spiers discussed the Soviet objections. Rejecting Spiers’ argument that the MLF was a “way of forestalling new national nuclear programs,” Kornienko argued that it would expose West Germany to “the nuclear disease”: “It was inevitable that German participation in the MLF and the physical contact with nuclear weapons which would result was a further step on the road to disaster.” Spiers, however, claimed that an MLF was better than a “German national nuclear program or a combined Franco-German program” and that Kornienko was “badly mistaken if he believed that the Germans would be content with the status quo indefinitely.” He also argued that the Soviets “could not on the one hand, object to the MLF as a step in an undesirable direction, and at the same time, reject an agreement which would forestall evolution in the direction they feared.” Kornienko acknowledged the point, but they did not reach a meeting of minds.


Document 21: President Kennedy to Holders of NSAM 241, 30 May 1963, Secret, excised copy

Source: JFKL, National Security Study Memoranda, box 391, NSAM 241

Concerning the State Department’s response to NSAM 241, Kennedy agreed with most of Ball’s recommendations, but questioned whether Washington should make “representations” to the Germans or Italians because that could have an adverse impact on U.S. relations with those countries. Instead he suggested broader consideration of “allied attitudes toward Pierrelatte.” Excisions prevent full understanding of Kennedy’s position, but he opposed a “flat stand” against European nuclear cooperation because “the time may well come when a European nuclear weapons industry will be both inevitable and acceptable to us.”


Document 22: Thomas L. Hughes, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, to the Secretary of State, Research Memorandum, “Franco-German Military Nuclear Cooperation,” REU-43, 6 June 1963, Secret

Source: RG 59, Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Reports Coordination and Review Staff. Research Memoranda 1961-1963, box 138, REU-43-RM

INR found no evidence that West Germany and France were involved in a secret nuclear weapons program. The French denied any cooperation with Germany concerning Pierrelatte and the West Germans also declared that they “had no intention of assisting the French in their nuclear weapons program.” INR officials suggested that a non-military avenue for French-German nuclear cooperation remained: “the Germans might participate in Pierrelatte or other gaseous diffusion plants to increase supplies of enriched uranium for civilian applications.”

In this report, INR noted that the French had walked back statements by Charles de Gaulle in January 1963 that he would not object to the development of a West German nuclear capability. De Gaulle had no such interest, much less Franco-German nuclear collaboration, but he wanted to raise U.S. and British fears to encourage them to offer nuclear assistance to France.[17] According to the report, in conversations with British Foreign Minister Home, French Foreign Minister Couve de Murville explained why Paris opposed an MLF: Washington might “be whetting the German appetite” for a national nuclear capability, an argument very close to Kornienko’s.


Document 23: A.A. Wells, Director of Office of International Affairs, Atomic Energy Commission, to Dr. Ragnar Rollefson, Director, Office of International Scientific Affairs, Department of State

“Reported Franco-German Cooperation in Development of the French Gaseous Diffusion Efforts,” 11 June 1963, Confidential

Source: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files 1963, box 4158, AE 11-1

INR did not receive in time a report on additional assurances that West German Minister for Scientific Research Hans Lenz made spontaneously during a meeting at the Atomic Energy Commission. Noting that West Germany had been holding talks with the French and EURATOM about building a reprocessing plant at Karlsruhe, Lenz “implied that this proposal quite likely had resulted in reports that Germany might be undertaking a cooperative program with France in the development of their gaseous diffusion plant at Pierrelatte.” To lessen U.S. concern, Lenz reaffirmed West Germany’s 1955 Brussels Treaty pledge and declared that Bonn would not initiate “any action to develop the military applications of atomic energy.” Moreover, Germany would avoid “any action which would strengthen the French efforts in the development of a weapons capability.” Lenz insisted that “Germany had nothing to do with the Pierrelatte plant.”

The West Germans eventually built the WAK pilot reprocessing plant at Karlsruhe, but it is not clear whether France played a role in that project (although the Germans would later cooperate with them and the British in the United Reprocessors cartel.).[18]


Document 24: Secretary of State Rusk to the President, “Interim Reply to Your Memorandum of May 30, 1963, for Holders of NSAM 241,” 5 July 1963, Secret

Source: JFKL, National Security Study Memoranda, box 391, NSAM 241

As Kennedy requested, the agencies were looking further into the matter of French-German nuclear cooperation, but had not made any representations. Rusk noted Minister Lenz’s denials of any German connection with Pierrelatte or any interest in supporting the French weapons program. In the meantime, the agencies were “reviewing allied attitudes toward the Pierrelatte project and possible measures for inhibiting bilateral cooperation.” Whether Kennedy became less concerned about a French-German nuclear agreement in light of Bonn’s denials is not certain, but the German nuclear problem in general remained on his mind. 


Document 25: Memcon, “Non-Dissemination and the MLF,” 10 October 1963, Secret

Source: JFKL, NSF, box 187, USSR, Gromyko Talks, President

The Soviet argument that the MLF was a barrier to a nonproliferation agreement went to the top during a wide-ranging conversation between President Kennedy and Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko. The latter argued, as other Soviet diplomats would, that parties to an agreement should “not have access to nuclear weapons indirectly or through an alliance.” Observing that West Germany was a “particular concern regarding dissemination,” Kennedy made the standard argument that “one of the reasons for an MLF was to make it less possible for the Germans to press for nuclear weapons of their own.” But his support of the MLF was less than enthusiastic: “We did not believe that an MLF would create a situation worse than the one existing now.” He also noted that “some countries,” probably referring to France and the United Kingdom, had “reservations” about the MLF. Gromyko continued to argue for a “broad agreement,” noting that it was in the U.S.’s interest and not only because it would put China, another U.S. concern, in a “difficult and delicate” position. Kennedy did not dissent and “stressed the need for continuing efforts with regard to non-dissemination, noting an MLF would take a long time.”


Document 26: Memcon, “Tripartite Discussion of Non-Dissemination,” 12 May 1964, Secret

Source: RG 59, Conference Files, box 349. CF 2397 NATO Mtg The Hague May 12-14, 1964 Memcons Vol. II

The discussion memorialized in this memcon demonstrates the continued difficulties plaguing the nonproliferation discussions in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination.. In this discussion between Rusk and the British and French Foreign Ministers, the three discuss a proposed British nonproliferation declaration. Rusk had no objection but Couve de Murville found the declaration “patronizing” because it said “in effect that we [nuclear weapons states] are sinners and don’t want others to join us in sin.” Believing that China and Germany, compared to Israel and Egypt were “real problems,” Couve was not sure that the Chinese nuclear program could be stopped, even if it could not go “very fast.” 

The sticking point was Moscow’s objection to the MLF. Rusk acknowledged that if he “were Russian, he would take the same view of the MLF in the absence of knowing what the real arrangements would be.” Nevertheless, he thought that the MLF would provide secure controls and that the Russians had not “slammed the door” on a nonproliferation agreement. When asked if he would try to talk to the Soviets about the problem, Couve refused because he said he had the same objections to the MLF-- which he did not like “from the standpoint of non-dissemination” because it will “give people a 'taste' of nuclear weapons.”


Document 27: State Department Executive Secretary Benjamin H. Read to National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, “NSAM 241 on Report on French Gaseous Diffusion Plant,” 22 May 1964, Secret

Source: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1964-1966, box 1996, AE 11-3
Noting that the situation that gave rise to NSAM 41 had improved, Read informed Bundy that intelligence reporting would continue but he wanted permission to stop work responsive to the NSAM. There had been “no indication of any attempts by the French to enlist German or Italian cooperation in the Pierrrelatte project.” Senior U.S. officials would, however, remain hostile to any possibility of French-West German nuclear weapons cooperation.


[1]. “Nth country”: a situation by where an indefinite number of nations could become proliferants.

[2] . For the impact of nuclear weapons issues, especially the German question, in post-World War II war U.S.-European relations, see Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

[3] . Ibid, 209-210.

[4] . For useful background on the MLF, see Lawrence S. Kaplan, Ron D. Landa, and Edward J. Drea, History of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Volume V The McNamara Ascendancy, 1961-1965 (Washington, D.C.: Historical Office, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2006), 385-420.

[5] . See, for example, Shane Maddock, Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the Present (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 206-207

[6]. See for example, Ulrich Kühn, “The Sudden German Nuke Flirtation,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 6 December 2016; Tristan Volpe and Ulrich Kühn, “Germany's Nuclear Education: Why a Few Elites Are Testing a Taboo,” Washington Quarterly 40 (2017): 7-27.

[7]. Richard H. Immerman, John Foster Dulles: Piety, Pragmatism and Power in U.S. Foreign Policy (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1999), 106.

[8] . See David C. Cassidy, Beyond Uncertainty: Heisenberg, Quantum Physics, and the Bomb (New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2009) for a thorough account of Heisenberg’s wartime and postwar activities.

[9] . Cassidy, Beyond Uncertainty, 401; Cathryn Carson, Heisenberg in the Atomic Age: Science in the Public Sphere (Washington, D.C.: German Historical Institute/Cambridge University Press, 2010), 25, 220-237. As it turned out, the Adenauer government excluded Heisenberg from final decisions on reactor development.

[10] . Ibid., 320. For Adenauer’s worries about U.S. security guarantees, see Hans-Jurgen Grabbe, “Konrad Adenauer, John Foster Dulles, and West German-American Relations,” in Richard Immerman, ed., John Foster Dulles and the Diplomacy of the Cold War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 129, and Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace, 231-232.

[11] . Leopoldo Nuti, “The F-I-G Story Revisited,” Storia Delle Relazioni Internazionali XIII (1998): 69-101: Massimiliano Moretti,A Never-Ending Story: The Italian Contribution to FIG,” Elisabetta Bini and Igor Londero, eds., Nuclear Italy: An International History of Italian Nuclear Policies during the Cold War (Trieste: Edizioni Universita de Trieste, 2017), 105-118

[12]. See Andreas Lutsch, “The Persistent Legacy Germany’s Place in the Nuclear Order,” Nuclear Proliferation International History Project Working Paper #5, May 2015.

[13] . Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace, 306.

[14] During this part of the conversation with Kennedy, Adenauer said that when he made the 1954 declaration, John Foster Dulles had told him that it would be valid “as long as circumstances remain unchanged,” a reference to the rebus sic stantibus legal concept. Except for Adenauer’s recollections, no evidence has surfaced confirming that Dulles said that. See Grabbe, “Konrad Adenauer, John Foster Dulles, and West German-American Relations,”119.

[15] . For the Skybolt crisis and the Nassau agreement, see Matthew Jones, The Official History of the UK Strategic Nuclear Deterrent Volume I: From the V-Bomber Era to the Arrival of Polaris, 1945-1964 (United Kingdom: Abingdon, 2017).

[16] . For Kennedy’s doubts, see Kaplan, Landa, and Drea, The McNamara Ascendency, 411-412.

[17]. Erin Mahan, Kennedy, de Gaulle, and Western Europe (New York: Macmillan Palgrave, 2002), 71-72.

[18] Report of the International Panel on Fissile Material, Plutonium Separation in Nuclear Power Programs, 17 July 2015, 45-46.