Document of the Week: How JFK Tried to Stop Nuclear Proliferation

When a U.S. president threatened to cut support for Israel over nukes.

For U.S. President Donald Trump, nuclear weapons are the future.

The president is seeking to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal, pressing for the development of tactical nuclear weapons that can be used in a conventional war. The White House has announced plans to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, citing Russia’s violation of the Cold War pact. In anticipation, Trump has requested almost $100 million in fiscal 2020 to produce three new missile systems that would have been prohibited. The United States has also reversed decades of nuclear nonproliferation policy in the Middle East by developing plans to support a nuclear energy program in Saudi Arabia.

Given Trump’s quest for a more efficient nuclear weapons program, it’s almost hard to imagine how serious previous administrations were about stemming the tide of the nuclear arms race. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy, a champion of nuclear nonproliferation efforts who came perilously close to a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile Crisis, faced off with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, over Israel’s secret development—with the help of France, which supplied technological know-how, and Norway, which supplied heavy water—of a nuclear reactor capable of producing plutonium at Dimona. In a letter that was initially directed at Ben-Gurion, Kennedy demanded Israel allow U.S. nuclear inspectors two visits a year to the reactor or face the prospect of “jeopardizing U.S. support if Israel not forthcoming re nuclear buildup,” according to one of a series of declassified documents on the subject published this month by the National Security Archive and the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. Ben-Gurion, who resisted Kennedy’s appeal on the grounds that “the U.S. does not comprehend threat to Israel,” resigned from office before the letter was delivered, according to the declassified chronology of the Kennedy-Ben-Gurion exchange. An identical missive was sent to his successor, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, who sat on the letter for seven weeks before acquiescing to U.S. demands. The inspections continued until after the inauguration of U.S. President Richard Nixon, who ended them, according to scholars overseeing the declassification process for the National Security Archive.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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