23. Circular Airgram From the Department of State to All Posts1



  • US Policy of Neither Confirming or Denying Presence of Nuclear Weapons on Board US Naval Ships or Aircraft Visiting Foreign Territory
  • Joint State-Defense Message.


It is firm US policy neither to confirm nor deny presence nuclear weapons on board any US warship or aircraft seeking entry foreign ports or airports. This policy, based on overriding operational and security considerations, has since 1958 been reaffirmed on several occasions, and remains basic US policy today.

Recent Ceylonese Requirement for Assurances on Nuclear Weapons

Recent action of Ceylonese Govt in issuing Circular Note of January 24, 1964, to diplomatic missions in Colombo,2 denying entry to its ports or airports to any foreign ship or aircraft without prior assurance that it is not carrying nuclear weapons and is not “equipped for nuclear warfare”, has again highlighted need for reaffirmation this policy and complete understanding of it. Stated reason for Ceylonese action is “to oppose further spread of nuclear weapons and to support creation of atom free zones.”

Dangers Inherent in Ceylonese Requirement

Danger is that such requirement may offer superficial appeal to certain governments who may adopt it without examining its implications. [Page 66] We are concerned over possibility that other governments, either as deliberate harassment effort, effort display “neutrality” or perhaps as misguided effort support establishment nuclear free areas, may be considering similar or related actions.

Such action, which the Communists are quick to encourage and take advantage of, would seek to have us divulge the deployment of our nuclear deterrent, divide air and naval forces into black and white (nuclear and non-nuclear) components and seek to embarrass some of our Allies who do not wish to draw attention of their publics to presence of nuclear weapons in their territories.

Possibility It May Become Adopted By Other Countries

Ceylonese requirement of assurances on nuclear weapons has already been strongly endorsed by TASS News Agency, and ChiCom PriMin Chou En Lai joined with Ceylonese Prime Minister in final communiquŽ February 293 at end of visit to Ceylon in exhorting other states take similar action.

There is distinct possibility that Ceylonese requirement may be placed on agenda for Second Non-Aligned Conference in Cairo next September by planning group for conference meeting in Colombo March 23. If expected support for requirement grows, Ceylonese may also later introduce resolution in UNGA calling for adoption by member states in interest halting “spread of nuclear weapons.” However, the Dept has no evidence yet that the Ceylonese have this in mind.

Last summer Mexican President Lopez Mateos, in announcing Joint Declaration of five LA states on proposed formation of nuclear free zone, stated that it was Mexican policy to deny national territory for transportation of nuclear weapons (although declaration itself silent on transport of nuclear weapons). GOM, however, is not known to have formalized this policy.

Basis for US Policy

Our policy is based on overriding operational and security considerations. We consider armament of naval ship or aircraft to be an integral part of it and not being “transported” into national territory in sense which Mexico has in mind, or increasing “spread of nuclear weapons” in Ceylonese sense. We cannot accept any requirement that we identify or deny nuclear armament of naval ship or aircraft, for to do so would breach important information regarding extent of our deterrent, and seriously hamper the mobility of the US Forces by dividing them into nuclear and non-nuclear elements. We consider that any conventional [Page 67] ship or aircraft can be fitted with nuclear weapons and given nuclear delivery capability; and, furthermore, that any ship or aircraft can be “equipped for nuclear warfare” if only to defend itself. We are not prepared give blanket assurance to any government, in order gain approval for port entry of naval ships or landings of military aircraft, that no nuclear weapons are carried or would be carried in the future. We consider that such self-imposed limitation on types of aircraft or ships for which we might wish request port entry or landing right neither realistic or in best interests of US.

If any such assurance or requirement is made a precondition of port entry, we would plan to hold the visit in abeyance, leaving original request outstanding until host government in prepared approve visit without reference to any such requirement.

In connection with any denuclearized zone which may be established, we would consider it important to reserve our right of transit for all naval ships or aircraft without having to identify those armed with nuclear weapons or having nuclear delivery capability.

Consultation with Allies on Problem

We have initiated preliminary informal exchange of views in Dept at staff level with Embassy representatives of UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand on Ceylonese requirement. We are exploring whether it may be possible find some common approach to problem.

We have advised UK informally that we do not believe that their initial approach to problem is either realistic or helpful. British tactic thus far has been to have informal assurances given by Mountbatten to PriMin Bandaranaike that no British ship (he inadvertently omitted aircraft) carrying nuclear weapons would ever visit Ceylon. Although GOC has permitted one British military transport land without giving such assurances, GOC has categorically informed UK none will be permitted land in future in absence such assurance in each case. The British HiCom has informed GOC that Mountbatten’s overall assurances were intended to apply to aircraft as well, and are awaiting clarification from GOC whether UK military aircraft will be able land in future based on Mountbatten’s assurances to PriMin Bandaranaike.

Canadians have destroyer visiting Ceylon at end of March during planning meetings in Ceylon for Second Non-Aligned Conference. Since approval for Canadian ship visit given prior issuance Ceylonese requirement on nuclear weapons, Canadians have not had to give assurances and do not intend to do so. Neither Australia or New Zealand have any immediate requirement for visits to Ceylon by naval ships or military aircraft. While both governments fear that refusal furnish Ceylonese with information on nuclear weapons they request will [Page 68] damage their position with non-aligned states, they have indicated interest informally in finding some agreed formula which would be helpful to us.

Dept believes it would be unwise at present to initiate any discussions on this subject which would tend to give Ceylonese requirement undue importance. We do not intend to acknowledge circular note informing us of requirement or to seek “clarification” of it as France apparently has done with respect to the meaning of the phrase “equipped for nuclear warfare”. We believe, however, it would be profitable for us to acquaint friendly governments selectively with our position in order to give them basis on which they can decide not adopt Ceylonese requirement. Dept will issue specific instructions in this regard to certain posts once we have received action called for below.

Action Required

Without initiating any discussions on this subject, addressees are requested report soonest (1) any indications that any other governments or local port officials may be considering possible adoption of Ceylonese requirement of assurances of nuclear weapons and (2) any official or press comment on Ceylonese action, particularly degree of support for it.

For USUN—Dept would appreciate report of any indication of intention Ceylonese or other delegation raise this in UN context.

For USRO—Your recommendation is requested on utility of US raising this question for discussion in POLAD meeting with view to obtaining common NATO front.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964–66, DEF 1 US. Secret. Drafted by Duncan A. D. Mackay (G/PM) on March 25, cleared by Captain Calvert (Navy), Reynolds (USAF/GC), William Lang (DOD/ISA), Captain Bennett (OSD/AE), O’Donnell (AEC), David H. Popper (EUR/RPM), M. Gordon Knox (EUR/BNA), Ellwood M. Rabenold (ARA), Robert B. Wood (FE), Eric E. Oulashin (AF), James P. Grant (NEA), Jeffrey C. Kitchen (G/PM), Jerry C. Trippe (L), Richard N. Gardner (IO), Jeanne Davis (S/S), and Charles Johnson (White House); and approved by U. Alexis Johnson. Also sent to the political advisers at major military commands: CINCEUR, CINCLANT, CINCPAC, CINCSAC, CINCSO, CINCSOUTH, CINCSTRIKE, COMATS, HICOM RYUKYUS, and SHAPE. In a March 25 memorandum to U. Alexis Johnson, Jeffrey Kitchen explained that once the airgram was sent, the Navy would send it “to the four CINC’s involved, drawing their attention to it, and requesting their assessment of the countries in which this problem could become sufficiently serious to have our Ambassadors take it up with the Governments concerned.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Subject File, Nuclear Weapons, General, Vol. I, Box 32)
  2. Not found.
  3. Not found.