Don’t Like That Israel Has the Bomb? Blame Nixon.
Newly declassified documents reveal how the Nixon White House looked the other way while Israel built the Middle East’s first nukes.
In the summer of 1969, Richard Nixon's administration was absorbed in a highly secret debate: how to address the diplomatic, strategic, and political problems posed by Israel's emergent nuclear weapons program. Leading those discussions were senior Defense Department officials who believed that a nuclear-armed Israel was not in U.S. interests -- it would dangerously complicate the situation in an already dangerous region, they argued.
According to recently declassified government documents -- published on Sept. 12 by the National Security Archive, in collaboration with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies -- Deputy Defense Secretary David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, warned his boss, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, that if Washington did not use its leverage to check Israel's nuclear advances, it would "involve us in a conspiracy with Israel which would leave matters dangerous to our security in their hands."
The overall apprehension was palpable for National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, who consequently signed off in 1969 on National Security Memorandum (NSSM) 40, a request for a set of interagency studies -- including policy recommendations -- of the problems posed by the Israeli nuclear program. NSSM 40 and the studies it produced are now public for the first time, making it possible to better understand the environment in which President Nixon made his own secret decisions, which turned out to be at great variance with Packard's arguments.
In the summer of 1969, Richard Nixon’s administration was absorbed in a highly secret debate: how to address the diplomatic, strategic, and political problems posed by Israel’s emergent nuclear weapons program. Leading those discussions were senior Defense Department officials who believed that a nuclear-armed Israel was not in U.S. interests — it would dangerously complicate the situation in an already dangerous region, they argued.
According to recently declassified government documents — published on Sept. 12 by the National Security Archive, in collaboration with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies — Deputy Defense Secretary David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, warned his boss, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, that if Washington did not use its leverage to check Israel’s nuclear advances, it would "involve us in a conspiracy with Israel which would leave matters dangerous to our security in their hands."
The overall apprehension was palpable for National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, who consequently signed off in 1969 on National Security Memorandum (NSSM) 40, a request for a set of interagency studies — including policy recommendations — of the problems posed by the Israeli nuclear program. NSSM 40 and the studies it produced are now public for the first time, making it possible to better understand the environment in which President Nixon made his own secret decisions, which turned out to be at great variance with Packard’s arguments.
Packard’s memo, among others, exposes the contours of a policy debate that has been hidden for years. By now, Israel’s nuclear weapons are the world’s worst-kept secret, universally accepted as well-established fact, and yet Washington still respects Israel’s nuclear opacity stance, keeping up the charade that the U.S. government does not comment on Israel’s nuclear status. Recent unofficial estimates published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (but which are based on U.S. intelligence leaks) suggest that Israel may possess 80 warheads and also an unspecified amount of weapons-grade fissile material in reserve. (Although the National Security Archive first submitted its declassification request to the Defense Department in 2006, the Interagency Security Classification Appeals panel only released the documents in March 2014.)
In 1960, when U.S. government officials discovered that Israel, with French aid, was building a secret nuclear reactor at Dimona, in the Negev Desert, Washington became concerned about the proliferation and security risks of an Israeli nuclear weapons program. With the Soviets arming Arab clients in the region, a nuclear Israel threatened to aggravate Cold War dangers. U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson had tried to weigh these concerns against the domestic political complications posed by getting tough on Israel — and they tried, without much success, to check Israel’s nuclear ambitions.
But the new documents disclose that in mid-February 1969, Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Warnke, a holdover from the Johnson administration, was probably the first to alert Laird to the danger of a nuclear Israel, urging him that the Pentagon should take a strong position on the matter. Warnke had recently concluded a round of difficult negotiations with Israeli Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin about the sale of Phantom jets to Israel, in which he tried unsuccessfully to link the deal with Israel’s signature on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — that is, no NPT, no jets. Moreover, he asked Rabin that Israel explicate and define its old vague pledge "not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East" — a pledge that Warnke specifically insisted should be mutually defined as a commitment to nonpossession of nuclear weapons. Rabin refused to accept Warnke’s proposed interpretation of "non-introduction." Convinced that Israel was about to become a de facto nuclear state, Warnke thought that only decisive American action, including possibly canceling the jets, could halt this looming possibility.
In a long memorandum to Laird, written less than a month after Nixon took office, Warnke warned that the United States must respond firmly to the Israeli nuclear challenge and pressed Laird to "consider another serious, concerted, and sustained effort to persuade Israel to halt its work on strategic missiles and nuclear weapons." Secretary Laird adopted Warnke’s position and, later in February, asked for a high-level White House meeting on the matter.
Earle Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also highlighted the danger of a nuclear Israel and proposed presidential involvement and the application of pressure, such as "cease and desist" of a specific, but still secret, nuclear-related activity. One of the remaining mysteries of the story, however, is what U.S. intelligence was apparently showing about the exact, technical status of the Israeli program. The U.S. government is still keeping that secret.
Laird’s proposed White House meeting did not materialize. Instead, under Nixon’s direction, Kissinger asked Laird, Secretary of State William Rogers, and CIA Director Richard Helms to participate in a policy study on the Israeli nuclear weapons program. And so NSSM 40 was born.
As was often the case at the Nixon White House, Kissinger used the NSSM system as a way to assert White House control over national security policy. In this way, he directed the various agencies involved in U.S. national security decision-making to prepare background studies for the senior review group that he chaired, which allowed him to oversee closely the production of these policy studies. Sometimes the National Security Council’s responses to the group’s requests led to a formal presidential national security decision memorandum, but often they produced a quiet presidential decision without a full bureaucratic paper trail. That is to say, Nixon and Kissinger decided on such matters without finally consulting, or even informing, the relevant agencies. Indeed, in the case of the NSSM 40 studies, the agencies never learned exactly what Nixon decided.
When Kissinger sent NSSM 40 to the bureaucracy, he conveniently omitted the government’s chief arms controller, Gerard C. Smith, the head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Nuclear proliferation issues were part of his portfolio. Even though Smith was a Nixon appointee, Kissinger excluded the agency, perhaps because he worried that the agency head might align with Laird — which could make it more difficult for the White House to choose a soft approach to Israel.
By the end of May 1969, Kissinger had requested a joint report by the State Department, the Defense Department, and the CIA. The State and Defense departments agreed on key recommendations: that Israel should sign the NPT and to keep its nuclear program in check. They also agreed that Israel should make private assurances to the United States not to produce nuclear weapons. But they disagreed on how to get there and how they could verify those assurances.
The State Department, with some dissent by the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, favored a "graduated approach," by which the United States would begin with "essentially persuasive tactics but maintain the flexibility to move to tougher policies depending on Israel’s response." Thus, if the Israelis were "unresponsive," the report said, Washington could "make it clear" that Israel’s pursuit of nuclear weapons will impose a "major strain" on the relationship, risking U.S. weapons supply. By contrast, the Pentagon wanted to "move more swiftly, place more demands on Israel, and adopt from the outset a more determined attitude than the Department of State proposes." The CIA did not enter this debate on paper, though, according to Packard’s memorandum, Helms agreed with the Defense Department’s position.
In June 1969, senior officials tried to work out their disagreements. Bridging the gap between the Defense and State departments, both Packard and Undersecretary of State Elliot Richardson favored a tough approach. Packard sent Laird a top-secret "Scenario for Discussions with Israel of Their Nuclear Program," which he said represented a consensus of the Pentagon’s leadership, Kissinger, Helms, and Richardson. Kissinger may well have agreed with Packard at the time, but he soon shifted his thinking, probably in deference to Nixon’s inclinations.
Packard noted that the scenario paper did not fully reflect some aspects of the objectives and conclusions, apparently because they were too sensitive or conceptually subtle to write down. Nevertheless, getting Israeli assurances and Israel’s signature on the NPT remained major goals.
The scenario that Packard presented was this: He and Richardson would hold at least two meetings with Ambassador Rabin, in which they would stress that the United States wanted to discuss the NPT and Israel’s nuclear weapons intentions — though they would not use open pressure, such as explicitly declaring that the Phantom jet deliveries were at stake. If Rabin was not responsive, Packard and Richardson would ask for another meeting. If then Rabin "stonewalls," they "would make it clear to [him] that a lack of response on Israel’s part raises questions regarding our ability to continue meeting Israel’s arms requests."
In mid-July, when Packard was warning Laird of the dangers of being trapped in a "conspiracy" with Israel if Washington failed to use pressure, Kissinger and his National Security Council assistants assessed the senior review group’s discussions and appear to have reached somewhat parallel conclusions. In a fascinating long memorandum to Nixon, possibly never sent, Kissinger developed a substantive and significant line of thinking about the complex dilemma raised by the Israeli nuclear program. When it was written, Kissinger still seems to have believed that delaying the Phantom jets’ delivery could provide some leverage for reaching an understanding with Israel on signing the NPT. This would be difficult, Kissinger acknowledged, but he thought it might be possible to persuade Israel that with all of the treaty’s loopholes, signing it would not prevent the country from weapons research and development.
Kissinger also recognized the real possibility that nothing could be done to stop the momentum and that as long as Israel kept its weapons program secret, it would not disturb the regional and international environment. As he put it in the document, "Saying that we want to keep Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons from becoming an established international fact may come very close to describing what we really want in this case." This came close to what Nixon appears to have preferred.
What Kissinger actually advised Nixon — and what the president’s line of thinking was — remains obscure, though someday Nixon’s and Kissinger’s diaries, as well as Kissinger’s meeting notes, may shed light on this matter. That the president appears to have believed that nuclear proliferation by America’s close allies was tolerable may have reduced his concern about Israel, and indeed he may have given personal assurances to some Israelis even before he took office.
Another mystery in this story concerns the intelligence findings that spurred Defense Department apprehension and the NSSM 40 process: Perhaps the Israelis made some important technical advances, or maybe the United States had collected stronger evidence that the Israelis had acquired highly enriched uranium from a U.S. source. Whatever the findings were, they still remain classified apparently because of strong CIA insistence.
In any event, as previously declassified documents indicate, at the end of July 1969 both Packard and Richardson met with Rabin. Richardson made a tough statement arguing that a nuclear Israel would threaten U.S. national security by complicating the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union. Richardson demanded that Israel sign the NPT, that it not "possess" nuclear weapons, and that it not develop the Jericho missile because of its nuclear capability. But Richardson’s statement was as far as the pressure went.
Despite the arguments for strong pressure on Israel, Nixon took the opposite path. Apparently he was "leery" about using the jets as pressure. Moreover, Nixon endorsed Rabin’s suggestion to leave the issue for his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir a few weeks later.
With Nixon reluctant to take the "lean-on" approach that Packard and others had favored, the Israelis did not need to worry about a confrontation, as Meir would learn personally when she met with Nixon in September. At that meeting, which left so far almost no public paper trail, the two leaders made a secret deal that tacitly recognized the undeclared reality of nuclear Israel: The United States would accept Israel’s nuclear status as long as Israel did not acknowledge it publicly.
Today, 45 years later, that secret understanding is still the foundation for nuclear relations between the United States and Israel. This policy has never been confirmed by either side — and both countries abide by its fundamentals, regardless of whether the tacit agreement is outmoded and inconsistent with international nonproliferation interests.
Avner Cohen is a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and a global fellow with the Wilson Center. He is the author of Israel and the Bomb and The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain With the Bomb. Twitter: @avnercohen123
William Burr is the director of the Nuclear Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
More from Foreign Policy
Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?
The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.
China’s Crisis of Confidence
What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?
Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different
This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.
China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War
Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.