1. Editorial Note

On January 21, 1968, a fire broke out aboard a nuclear-armed U.S. Strategic Air Command B-52 bomber, based at Plattsburgh Air Force Base in New York, while it was over Greenland on a routine mission. The pilot sought to make an emergency landing at Thule Air Force Base in Greenland but then ordered an immediate evacuation when smoke filled the cabin and electrical power went out. The pilotless aircraft crashed 7-1/2 miles from Thule Base on the ice of North Star Bay. The conventional high explosives in the B-52’s four thermonuclear bombs went off, scattering radioactive debris over the ice, but there was no nuclear detonation. Six of the seven crew members survived. For more information on the accident, see Scott D. Sagan, The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pages 156-203. In its January 22 press release announcing the crash, the Department of Defense stated that the aircraft carried nuclear weapons but that they were unarmed and thus there was no danger of a nuclear explosion at the crash site. (Telegram 102343, January 22; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files, 1967-69, DEF 17 US)

On January 22 U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Katherine White warned the Department of State the “repercussions in Denmark may be severe in light of special nuclear sensitivities.” (Telegram 2814 from Copenhagen; Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Denmark, Vol. 1) Within hours Danish Foreign Minister Tabor issued a press release stating, in part: “The Danish policy regarding nuclear weapons also applies to Greenland and also the air space over Greenland. There are no nuclear weapons in Greenland. The American authorities are aware of Denmark’s nuclear policy and the Danish Govt assumes that there are no American over-flights of Greenland by aircraft carrying nuclear weapons.” (Telegram 2835 from Copenhagen, January 22; ibid.) Two hours later Danish Prime Minister Krag made a similar statement, specifying that “there can be no overflights over Greenland by aircraft carrying nuclear weapons.” (Telegram 2838 from Copenhagen, January 22; ibid.) Both statements noted, however, that in times of emergency it could become necessary for an American aircraft to land in Greenland.

The statements by Tabor and Krag expressed a view of Danish nuclear policy that differed markedly from the way it was understood by U.S. officials, a difference that precipitated 4 months of negotiations resulting in a new agreement between the two countries. This critical period [Page 2] in relations between Denmark and the United States—and the Cold War developments that led up to it-later became the focus of a study commissioned by the Government of Denmark. In 1995 the Danish Government asked the newly established Danish Institute of International Affairs (DUPI) to produce a historical review of U.S. overflights of Greenland with nuclear weapons and the role of Thule Air Force Base in that connection for the period from 1945 to 1968. The government also asked that the report deal with the decision-making process and the general situation so far as security policy and international relations were concerned.

In 1997 DUPI submitted to the Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs and then published a two-volume study entitled Gronland under den kolde krig: Dansk og amerikansk sikkerhedspolitik, 1945-68 (Greenland During the Cold War: Danish and American Security Policy, 1945-68). DUPI indicated that its access to Danish Government archives had, in general, been satisfactory but that its extensive research in U.S. Government archives did not include privileged access. Volume 1, in Danish, contains 614 pages of analysis. Volume 2 contains facsimiles of 102 documents from Danish and U.S. archives. DUPI also published a 51-page Summary consisting of an English translation of the concluding chapter of volume 1.