DC, April 28, 2006 - Today the
National Security Archive publishes for the first time 30 recently
declassified U.S. government documents disclosing the existence
of a highly secret policy debate, during the first year of the
Nixon administration, over the Israeli nuclear weapons program.
Broadly speaking, the debate was over whether it was feasible--either
politically or technically--for the Nixon administration to try
to prevent Israel from crossing the nuclear threshold, or whether
the U.S. should find some "ground rules" which would
allow it to live with a nuclear Israel. The documents published
by the Archive are the primary sources for an article by Avner
Cohen and William Burr, "Israel crosses the threshold,"
that appears in the May-June 2006 issue of the Bulletin of
the Atomic Scientists. The article is now available on-line
at the Bulletin's
Web site. An edited version of the article will also
appear in The Washington Post's Sunday "Outlook"
section on April 30, 2006.
adviser Henry Kissinger forwarded responses from Israel's
ambassador to three specific questions about Israeli
intentions with respect to the development of nuclear
Among the key findings in the article:
- 1969 was a turning point in the U.S.-Israeli nuclear relationship.
Israel already had a nuclear device by 1967, but it was not
until 1968-1969 that U.S. officials concluded that an Israeli
bomb was about to become a physical and political reality. U.S.
government officials believed that Israel was reaching a state
"whereby all the components for a weapon are at hand, awaiting
only final assembly and testing."
- In the first months of the Nixon administration, senior officials
such as Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird believed it was important
that Washington try to check Israeli nuclear progress for the
sake of stability in the Middle East.
- In April 1969 national security adviser Henry Kissinger issued
National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM) 40 requesting the
national security bureaucracy to develop options for dealing
with the Israeli nuclear problem. A Senior Review Group (SRG),
chaired by Henry Kissinger, was formed to deliberate and propose
avenues for action to the President.
- The SRG outlined policy objectives to President Nixon and
proposed initiating a probe with Israeli Ambassador Rabin designed
to achieve those objectives. Nixon approved the SRG's proposal
for action but declined to use deliveries of advanced F-4 Phantom
jets as leverage for the probe. This decision was fateful for
the entire exercise.
- On July 29, 1969 Ambassador Rabin was summoned by Acting Secretary
of State Elliott Richardson and Deputy Secretary of Defense
David Packard as the first step in the probe. The two officials
pressed Rabin on three issues: (1) the meaning of Israel's "non-introduction"
pledge; (2) Israel's signature on the NPT; (3) Israel's intentions
on the missile issue. Rabin provided no replies and subsequently
proposed to leave the whole issue for the meeting between President
Nixon and Prime Minister Meir in late September.
- On the eve of Meir's visit the State Department prepared a
background paper for the President concluding that "Israel
might very well now have a nuclear bomb" and certainly
"had the technical ability and material resources to produce
weapons grade uranium for a number of weapons."
- No written record of the meeting between President Nixon and
Prime Minister Meir on September 26 is available, but it was
a key event in the emergence of the 1969 US-Israeli nuclear
understanding. Subsequent documents suggest that Meir pledged
to maintain nuclear restraint-no test, no declaration, no visibility-and
after the meeting the Nixon White House decided to "stand
down" on pressure on Israel.
- On October 7, 1969 Ambassador Rabin formally provided his
belated answers to the US questions: Israel will not become
a nuclear power; Israel will decide on the NPT after its election
in November; Israel will not deploy strategic missiles until
- On February 23, 1970 Ambassador Rabin informed Kissinger that,
in light of President Nixon's conversation with Meir in September
1969, Israel "has no intention to sign the NPT."
- Subsequently, the White House decided to end the secret annual
U.S. visits to the Israeli nuclear facility at Dimona. Lower-level
officials were not told of the decision and as late as May 1970
they were under the impression that the visits could be revived.
- By 1975, in keeping with the understanding with Israel, the
State Department refused to tell Congress that it was certain
that Israel had the bomb, even though U.S. intelligence was
convinced that it did.
The newly declassified documents are from State Department records
and Nixon Presidential Materials at the National Archives, College
Park. They represent, however, only a small fraction of a large
body of documents on NSSM 40 that remain classified. To elucidate
the U.S. government debate over the issue of the Israeli bomb
the National Security Archive has filed declassification requests
for those key documents.
The following documents are in PDF format.
You will need to download and install the free Adobe
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1: State Department Briefing Paper for Eshkol-Johnson talks,
"Israel: The Nuclear Issue and Sophisticated Weapons,"
December 31, 1967, Secret/Exdis (Note
Department of State Records, Record Group 59 [RG 59], Subject-Numeric
Files, 1967-1969 [SN 67-69], DEF 12
Prepared for meetings at the LBJ ranch between President Johnson
and Prime Minister Eshkol, this paper presented the assessment
of the Department of State's Near East bureau that Israel had
not started a dedicated nuclear weapons program.
2: Parker T. Hart to Secretary Dean Rusk, "Issues to
be Considered in Connection With Negotiations With Israel for
F-4 Phantom Aircraft," October 15, 1968, Top Secret/Nodis
SN 67-69, Def 12-5 Isr
A year later, the Near East Bureau in concert with the State
Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Arms
Control and Disarmament Agency held a more decided view that Israel
had started a nuclear weapons program to the extent that it had
taken a "number of steps which … would reduce substantially
the time needed to develop a deliverable nuclear weapon."
3a through 3d: Rabin-Warnke Conversations, November 1968
LBJ Library, National Security Files
3a: Memorandum of Conversation, "Negotiations with
Israel - F4 and Advanced Weapons," November 4, 1968. Top
3b: Memcon, "Negotiations with Israel - 4F and Advanced
Weapons," November 8, 1968. Top Secret
3c: Memcon, "Negotiations with Israel - F4 and Advanced
Weapons," November 12, 1968. Top Secret
3d: Paul C. Warnke to Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin, November
27, 1968. Secret
These records of the discussion between Assistant Secretary of
Defense for International Security Affairs Paul Warnke and Israeli
ambassador Rabin record one of the last U.S. efforts to check
Israel's nuclear progress by using the delivery of advanced Phantom
jets as leverage. (Note 3)
4: National Security Decision Memorandum 6, "Presidential
Decision to Ratify Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty," February
5, 1969. Secret
Declassification release by NSC
The Nixon White House informed the State Department and other
agencies of its limited commitment to the nuclear proliferation
Treaty by forbidding any "plan to bring pressure on …
countries to sign or ratify."
5: Henry Owen to the Secretary, "Impact on U.S. Policies
of an Israeli Nuclear Weapons Capability," February 7, 1969.
SN 67-69, DEF 12 Isr
A paper prepared by a Democratic holdover from the Johnson administration
suggests the growing apprehension within the State Department
over Israel's nuclear progress.
6: Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird to Secretary of State
et al., "Stopping the Introduction of Nuclear Weapons into
the Middle East," March 17, 1969. Top Secret, excised copy
Nixon Presidential Materials Project (NPMP), National Security
Council Files (NSCF), box 604, Israel Vol. I
As one of the new men in charge of a major component of the national
security bureaucracy, Laird's worries about Israel's nuclear progress
carried far more weight than Owen's and probably contributed to
the White House decisions that led to NSSM 40.
7: Joseph J. Sisco to the Secretary, "Israel's Nuclear
Policy and Implications for the United States," April 3,
SN 67-69, DEF 12 Isr
The concerns about the Israeli nuclear program expressed by an
important player in Middle East policy, Assistant Secretary of
State for the Near East and South Asia Joseph Sisco, reflect the
growing apprehension over the Israeli nuclear program within the
State Department and may likely have contributed to the decision
to promulgate NSSM 40. Sisco's document shows the extraordinary
sensitivity of the subject and the recognition by key State Department
officials that the U.S. could do very little to address the situation,
short of a showdown with Israel.
8: Harold Saunders to Kissinger, April 4, 1969
Source: NPMP, NSCF, box 604, Israel Vol. I
The text of NSSM 40 remains classified but this document suggests
Harold Saunders and Morton Halperin prepared a draft of the document.
9: Rodger Davies to Mr. Austin et al., "Review Group
Consideration of Response to NSSM-40 June 26, 1969," June
30, 1969. Top Secret/Nodis
RG 59, Top Secret Subject-Numeric Files 1970-73, box 11, Pol Isr
The Senior Review Group (SRG), chaired by national security adviser
Kissinger, oversaw the preparation of responses to NSSMs. Given
NSSM's 40 highly secret status, only a small group of officials
at the White House, State Department, CIA, and Defense Department
were cognizant of the discussions of U.S. policy toward the sensitive
Israel nuclear program. This account of the meeting shows the
strong interest that key players such as Deputy Secretary of Defense
David Packard and Under Secretary of State Elliott Richardson
had in finding ways to check the Israeli nuclear program. It also
suggests that at that stage members of the SRG, except perhaps
Kissinger, did not know President Nixon's views on these matters.
10: "The Issues for Decision," n.d. [Early July
1969]. Top Secret/Nodis/Sensitive
NPMP, NSCF, box 604, Israel Vol II
Henry Kissinger may have had a major role in the drafting of
this strategy document, but its exact status is uncertain; it
accurately depicted the major views within the SRG on the possible
uses of pressure to curb the Israeli nuclear program.
11: ELR and Packard, July 16, 1969
Source: Elliott Richardson Papers, Library of Congress,
box 104, Telcons-July-Aug 1969
A supporter of the use of diplomatic pressure against the Israeli
nuclear program, Under Secretary of State Elliott Richardson told
Deputy Secretary of Defense Packard that he was unwilling to deploy
it at the initial meeting with Rabin.
12: Telcon, Elliott Richardson with Mr. Kissinger, July 16,
1969, 5:55 PM
Source: NPMP, Henry A. Kissinger Telephone Conversation
Transcripts, box 2
A telephone conversation that Richardson had later that day with
Kissinger showed that if Richardson thought that Phantom jets
could provide useful leverage during a probing operation of Israeli
nuclear intentions, such a possibility had become out of the question.
Kissinger told him that Nixon was "leery" of using the
F-4 to exert pressure.
13: Joseph J. Sisco to the Acting Secretary, "Talking
Points for Initial Meeting with Israelis on Nuclear and SSM Issue
July 29," July 28, 1969. Top Secret/Nodis
SN 67-69, Def 12-1 Isr
A critical part of the NSSM 40 exercise was to send a message
to the Israelis about the U.S. government's concern with them
over the state of their nuclear program; with this memo Sisco
provided Richardson with the "talking point" to be used
in conveying to Rabin "how troubled" the administration
14: State Department cable 127273 to Tel Aviv, July 31, 1969.
Source: SN 67-69, Def 12-5 Isr
Part of the conversation with Rabin touched upon his request
to accelerate the delivery date of Phantom jets to Israel; this
cable to the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv showed that Richardson and
Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard had rebuffed Rabin's
request for advance delivery of the F-4s.
15: Richardson to President, "Israel's Nuclear Program,"
with memorandum of conversation attached, August 1, 1969, Top
NPMP, NSCF, box 604, Israel Vol II
Richardson sent Nixon an overview of the talks with Rabin along
with a detailed memorandum of conversation. As the latter shows,
Richardson read Rabin a tough statement, then left him three questions
to consider, but insofar as Nixon had ruled out any use of pressure
on the Israeli government the State Department had no leverage
to induce Prime Minister Meir and her cabinet to change course.
16a and b: The Last Dimona Inspection
16a: U.S. Embassy Israel cable 2941 to State Department,
"Dimona Visit," July 31, 1969. Secret, Nodis
Source: NPMP, NSCF, box 604, Israel Vol II
16b: Memorandum of conversation, "1969 Dimona Visit,"
August 13, 1969. Secret/Nodis
Source: SN 67-69, AE 11-2 Isr
The U.S. team that visited the Dimona facility in July 1961 found
that it could not make a "full examination"; the Israelis
had "restricted" the visit to such an extent that U.S.
Ambassador Walworth Barbour vainly asked Prime Minister Meir for
an additional visit. Part of the problem, the AEC participants
believed, was that the U.S. government "is not prepared to
support a real 'inspection' effort in which the team members can
feel authorized to ask directly pertinent questions."
17: Rodger P. Davies to Under Secretary Richardson, "Call
on You by Israeli Ambassador Rabin, Thursday, August 28, at 11
a.m.," August 27, 1969. Top Secret
SN 67-69, DEF 12-1 Isr
In light of Rabin's non-answer to the questions on Israeli nuclear
policy that Richardson had raised in late July, Rodger Davies,
an important player in NSSM 40 activities at the State Department,
advised Richardson to remind the ambassador that he was still
interested in the answers.
18: Richardson to the President, "Israel's Nuclear Program,"
August 28, 1969. Top Secret/Nodis
SN 67-69. DEF 12-1 Isr
The next day, Rabin explained the delays to Richardson by observing
that "it was a difficult subject for his government to deal
with a month before the election."
19: Envelope for President Nixon with writing by Richard Helms,
September 8, 1969
Source: NPMP, NSC Institutional Files, Box H-146,
Whatever information Richard Helms had delivered to President
Nixon on September 8, 1969 has since vanished from the file, but
the writing-"to be opened only by: The President"-shows
the extreme sensitivity associated with information on the Israeli
nuclear weapons program.
20: Secretary of State William Rogers to President Nixon,
"Suggested Position for You to Take with Israeli Prime Minister
Meir during Her Forthcoming Visit," September 18, 1969, with
excerpt from briefing paper attached. Top Secret/Nodis
SN 67-69, Pol 7 Isr
To help Nixon prepare for his meeting with Prime Minister Meir,
the State Department prepared a detailed briefing paper with talking
points on key issues, including the nuclear program. The State
Department authors of the talking points suggested that Nixon
use language critical of Israel's nuclear program: "Israel's
possession of nuclear weapons … would [not] provide Israel
with the security it is intended to serve." State Department
briefing materials, however, may not have been a significant input
into Nixon's thinking about the meeting, because he routinely
depended on briefing information provided by Kissinger and the
21: Theodore L. Eliot, State Department Executive Secretary,
to Henry Kissinger, "Briefing Book - Visit of Mrs. Golda
Meir," September 19, 1969, enclosing "Background - Israel's
Nuclear Weapon and Missile Programs." Top Secret/Nodis
SN 67-69, Pol 7 Isr
This paper, drafted by the Israeli desk at the State Department
with the concurrence of the CIA and other agencies, provided an
up-to-date intelligence assessment of the Israeli nuclear weapons
program: "Some have reservations about whether or not Israel
has produced and assembled a complete nuclear weapon, but do not
dispute the likelihood that she could and soon might."
22: Kissinger to the President, "Discussions with the
Israelis on Nuclear Matters," October 7, 1969. Top Secret/Sensitive/Nodis
NPMP, NSCF, box 605, Israel Vol III
In the wake of the Nixon-Meir meeting, Kissinger obtained from
Rabin answers to the three questions asked by Richardson. Kissinger
forwarded the questions and answers to Nixon.
23: Kissinger to the President, October 8, 1969, enclosing
"Rabin's Proposed Assurances on Israel Nuclear Policy,"
October 8, 1969. Top Secret/Nodis/Sensitive
NPMP, NSCF, box 605, Israel Vol III
The next day, Kissinger provided Nixon with a detailed analysis
of Rabin's answers and the extent to which they were acceptable.
A key issue was the question of "possessing" nuclear
weapons; while Richardson (following Warnke's line in November
1968) had sought assurances that Israel would not possess them,
Kissinger was content to accept a private assurance that Israel
was a "non-nuclear weapons State" because it "would
in effect ask the Israelis to accept privately the key obligation
of the NPT."
24: Alexander Haig to Harold Saunders, October 19, 1969. Top
NPMP, NSCF, box 605, Israel Vol III
In mid-October, Rabin met with Richardson to answer the questions
he had raised in late July (for the State Department account of
the meeting see the next document). Around the same time, Rabin
provided the answers directly to Kissinger.
25: Kissinger to Nixon, "Israel's Nuclear Program,"
November 6, 1969, with memorandum from Richardson and memorandum
of conversation attached. Top Secret/Nodis
NPMP, NSCF, box 605, Israel Vol III
Commenting on recent exchanges with Rabin, including Richardson's,
Kissinger argued that the "advantage of their new formulation
is that it should put us in a position for the record of being
able to say … we have Israel's assurance that it will remain
a non-nuclear state as defined in the NPT." Ultimately that
would provide the administration with a "rationale for standing
down"-relaxing pressure on the Israeli nuclear question.
26: Saunders to Kissinger, December 8, 1969, with Barbour
letter to Sisco, November 19, 1969. Secret/Nodis
NPMP, NSCF, box 605, Israel Vol III
During the months after the Meir-Nixon meeting, Ambassador Barbour
and Joseph Sisco vainly sought access to any record that Nixon
had kept of his meetings with the Prime Minister and that Nixon
had promised to make available to them. NSC staffer Harold Saunders
observed that "there is something to be said for providing
the three or four people most responsible for carrying out the
President's wishes with an accurate reading … of what that
policy is." Kissinger, however, could or would not help because,
as he scrawled on the top of Saunder's memo: "have never
seen." It is not clear where or whether those minutes still
27: Minutes, "Meeting of Special NSC Review Group on
Israeli Assistance Requests," January 26, 1970. Top Secret
NPMP, NSC Institutional Files, Box H-111, SRG Minutes Originals
1970 [5 of 5]
Rabin had said that Israel's position on the NPT would not be
forthcoming until after the elections. For major players in the
U.S. national security bureaucracy, such as Sisco and JCS Chairman
Earle Wheeler, Israel's signature on the Treaty remained a desideratum
and the U.S. "ought to push the NPT urgently."
28: Memorandum of Conversation, Kissinger and Rabin, February
23, 1970. Top Secret/Sensitive
NPMP, Henry A. Kissinger Office Files, box 134, Rabin/Kissinger
1969-1970 Vol. I
When Ambassador Rabin told Kissinger that the Israeli government
had made up its mind that it was not going to sign the NPT it
meant that earlier U.S. pleas on behalf of the treaty had proved
useless. The Nixon-Meir understanding meant that there would be
no more pressure; as long as the Israelis kept their program restrained
and invisible, Washington would "stand down" from attempts
to check their nuclear ambitions.
29: Robert Munn to Mr. Sisco, "Scheduling of Visit to
Dimona Reactor," June 12, 1970. Secret/Exdis
RG 59, Records Relating to Israel and Arab-Israeli Affairs, 1951-1976,
box 26, NSSM-40
The word that there would be no more pressure on Israel reached
the middle levels of the bureaucracy slowly, if at all, or they
were not willing to take no for an answer. Thus, in mid-1970,
Robert Munn at the Israeli desk vainly tried to raise the question
of another intelligence visit to the Dimona facility. According
to the recollections of former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird,
Kissinger, fearing being "outvoted," made it impossible
for the State Department's proposal to be brought up at the SRG
30: Memorandum from Atherton and Kratzer to Mr. Sisco, "Response
to Congressional Questions on Israel's Nuclear Capabilities,"
October 15, 1975. Secret (Note 4)
RG 59, Records of Joseph Sisco, box 40, Israeli Nuclear Capability
A request from a U.S. congressman for information on the State
Department's "knowledge" of the Israeli nuclear program
led to a debate within the Department over whether it should go
as far as the CIA in acknowledging its belief that "Israel
has already produced nuclear weapons." State Department officials
wanted to make a far more equivocal statement not least because,
if leaked, it "would have the effect of fact and thus inspire
profoundly negative political repercussions in the Middle East
and among our allies." Attached to the memorandum is what
is probably the first page of a National Intelligence Estimate
on nuclear proliferation issues.
31: List of National Security Study Memoranda, n.d., excerpt
Source: Nixon NPMP, NSC Institutional Files, box
H-297, Admin File [sub-folder "NSSM"]
This list of NSSMs was discovered just before this briefing book
went on-line. It shows that the title of NSSM 40 was "Israeli
Nuclear Weapons Program" and that the title was classified
at the time owing to its sensitivity.
1. "Exdis" or exclusive distribution.
2. "Nodis" or no distribution without permission.
3. These and related documents are also on-line in a briefing
book prepared by Avner Cohen for the National Security Archive,
to announce the publication of his 1999 book, Israel
and the Bomb.
4. For more information on the efforts of U.S. intelligence to
monitor the Israeli nuclear weapons program, see Jeffrey Richelson,
on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to
Iran and North Korea
(New York: Norton, 2006).