Washington, D.C., October 30, 2019 – The current crisis with Turkey over Syria has raised questions, yet to be resolved, about the security of 50 U.S. nuclear weapons stored at Incirlik Air Base. These questions have been posed before, going back almost to the start of nuclear deployments in Turkey in 1959. How the United States responds carries implications for the region, for U.S.-Turkey relations, and for NATO. Today, the National Security Archive is posting a selection of declassified documents from various sources, including the Digital National Security Archive, in order to provide historical context to the situation.
The facts of nuclear deployments in Turkey have been an official secret for decades, but it is no secret that they are a legacy and a relic of the Cold War. It is also no secret that the deployments caused anxiety in Washington when the U.S.-Turkish nuclear relationship began in the late 1950s. For example, according to a declassified memorandum of conversation in late 1960s staffers with the congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE) told State Department officials that they saw a “real threat in Turkey” because of the possibility that leaders of an Army coup “might seize control of one or more of the inadequately protected weapons.”
The JCAE staffers also stated that they had learned that during the 1960 military coup that the Turkish “situation was so unstable that twice [Supreme Allied Commander General Lauris] Norstad almost ordered all the weapons to be evacuated.” Norstad later denied that any such thing had happened, but the JCAE remained concerned about overall stability in Turkey.
Concern about the security of U.S. nuclear weapons resurfaced in mid-1975 in the wake of the Cyprus Crisis, when Congress stopped military aid to Turkey because it had used U.S.-provided weapons systems to stage the invasion of Cyprus The Turks then began closing down U.S. military bases. During a White House meeting involving President Gerald Ford and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, JCS Chairman George Brown observed that the Turks had been behaving “responsibly,” and that some development (that remains classified) may have triggered anxiety. During the discussion of contingency planning, Schlesinger said that to avoid a “nasty incident” Washington would go to the Turkish government and say there was some “mistake” and then “get them [the weapons] out.” Brown observed that during the takeover of U.S. facilities “a couple of Turks wandered into these areas,” presumably the storage sites.
The current crisis has also raised questions about Turkey’s status as a non-nuclear weapons state. In a recent speech Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan complained about the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and asked why Turkey did not have nuclear weapons: “This I cannot accept.” Declassified information from the 1960s indicates that as far back as 1966, according to reports from U.S. diplomats in Ankara, some Turkish senior officials were interested in a nuclear weapons capability. The science officer at the embassy reported that General Refik Tulga, a participant in the 1960 military coup, and Professor Omer Inonu, a professor of physics at the Middle East Technical University, had asked officials at the General Directorate of Mineral Research and Exploration to look into possibilities for developing an “atomic bomb.” So far as can be told, the research did not move forward probably because of the complex political, scientific, and technological hurdles that stood in the way, just as they do now.
Much of the history of U.S. nuclear deployments in Turkey remains classified, for example the initial decisions to deploy gravity bombs to Turkey and the decisions to keep them there after the Cold War ended. Nevertheless, enough information is in the public record to identify the types of nuclear weapons that the U.S. deployed and when they were introduced. The public record also includes information concerning the deployments of Honest John and Jupiter missiles. Archival records shed light on such details as the plans for a gravity bomb storage facility at Eskişehir air base. In addition, the records illuminate the consideration given to deployments of atomic demolition munitions (ADMs) that never transpired.
The deployments of nuclear weapons to Turkey that began in the late 1950s were part of the NATO Atomic Stockpile plan in which the U.S. would provide nuclear weapons delivery systems to allies and concurrently train their forces in the use of the weapons. The United States retained formal custody and control of the weapons, although sometimes who actually controlled them was ambiguous, until the Kennedy administration began to tighten arrangements. In the case of Turkey, declassified documents indicate some of the difficulties encountered in training non-English speakers in the basics of nuclear technology and the use of nuclear weapons systems. According to a State Department official, the Turks were unable to “use the manuals and other training data to be communicated until they had mastered the rudiments of English.” Those problems would be resolved over time.