333. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in the United Kingdom1

203272. SUBJ: Nuclear consultation with the British. The following letter from President Nixon should be transmitted urgently to Prime Minister Heath prior to his departure for the U.S.:

[Page 995]

Dear Mr. Prime Minister:

Your letter of November 9, 19702 proposes that six amendments be made to the memorandum setting forth the understandings between our governments with regard to consultation on the use of nuclear weapons in order to make these understandings applicable also to United States anti-submarine warfare nuclear weapons stored at [1 line not declassified] and also to consolidate in this memorandum the understanding concerning the storage of U.S. nuclear weapons at [1 line not declassified]

I am agreeable to the amendments as proposed and shall consider the understandings existing between our governments with regard to consultation on the use of nuclear weapons, as so amended, to remain fully in effect. I am enclosing the amended version of the memorandum.


Richard Nixon

The Right Honorable

Edward Heath, M.B.E., M.P.

Prime Minister


Enclosure: Memorandum

Understandings With the British on the Use of British Bases and Nuclear Weapons

1. Our understanding on the use of British bases is that the President and Prime Minister will reach a joint decision by speaking personally with each other before certain forces equipped with U.S. nuclear weapons and operating from bases in the United Kingdom [less than 1 line not declassified] will use nuclear weapons, namely SAC, British Strike Command (excluding aircraft of such command equipped with British nuclear weapons), forces in the United Kingdom which are assigned or earmarked for assignment to a NATO commander, U.S. Polaris submarines in British territorial waters and U.S. forces [less than 1 line not declassified] The basic understanding is contained in the communiqué of January 9, 1952,3 covering the Truman-Churchill talks:

“Under arrangements made for the common defence, the United States has the use of certain bases in the United Kingdom. We reaffirm the understanding that the use of these bases in an emergency would be a matter for joint decision by His Majesty’s Government and the [Page 996] United States Government in the light of circumstances prevailing at the time.”

Procedures for carrying out this basic understanding were agreed upon in the Murphy-Dean agreement of June 7, 1958, which was approved by the President and the Prime Minister. The covering document, the report to the President and the Prime Minister,4 repeats almost literally the language of the Truman-Churchill communiqué:

“2. The basic understanding between the United Kingdom and United States Governments, regarding the use of bases in the United Kingdom by United States forces, provides that such use in an emergency shall be a matter for joint decision by the two governments in the light of the circumstances at the time.”

2. There is a second, more general understanding with the British that we will consult with them before using nuclear weapons anywhere, if possible. The basic understanding on this point is contained in a memorandum of conversation of a meeting between the President and Eden on March 9, 1953.5 Eden had asked for an assurance of consultation by the President with the Prime Minister prior to U.S. use of any nuclear weapon.

“He (the President) said that the United States would, of course, in the event of increased tension or the threat of war, take every possible step to consult with Britain and our other allies.”

The President reaffirmed this understanding when he wrote to the Prime Minister on October 27, 1960,6 in connection with the Holy Loch berthing:

“With reference to the launching of missiles from U.S. Polaris submarines, I give you the following assurance, which of course is not intended to be used publicly. In the event of an emergency, such as increased tension or the threat of war, the U.S. will take every possible step to consult with Britain and other allies. This reaffirms the assurance I gave Foreign Secretary Eden on March 9, 1953.”

3. It should be noted that the agreement for joint decision by the President and the Prime Minister does not extend to all U.S. forces under SACEUR and SACLANT but only covers those forces based in the United Kingdom which are assigned or earmarked for assignment to a NATO commander. The other U.S. nuclear forces under SACEUR [Page 997] and SACLANT would only be covered by the more general understanding to consult if time permits. The agreement for joint decision does, however, extend to all U.S. forces operating [less than 1 line not declassified] whether or not they are under SACEUR or SACLANT.

4. There is also an understanding in respect of U.S. nuclear weapons, destined for release in emergency to maritime aircraft of [less than 1 line not declassified] which was set out in an exchange of letters between Prime Minister Wilson and President Johnson in 1965. In reply to Mr. Wilson’s letter of August 5, 1965, President Johnson confirmed in a letter dated 11 November 19657 that “the nuclear weapons intended for use by [less than 1 line not declassified] ASW forces would not be released for use in advance of the joint decision on release for use to United States and British forces of United States ASW nuclear weapons also stored in the United Kingdom under the same NATO plan.”

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 63, Country Files—Europe, British-US Nuclear Matter. Top Secret; Immediate; Exdis; Formerly Restricted Data. Drafted in the White House; cleared in PM (in substance) and EUR (in substance), and approved in S/S–O.
  2. Not printed. (Ibid.)
  3. For full text, see Department of State Bulletin, January 21, 1952, pp. 83–84.
  4. A copy is in the Eisenhower Library, Eisenhower Papers as President, Administrative Series, Atomic Energy Commission, 1958, Folder 2.
  5. No memorandum of conversation was found. A June 10, 1953, memorandum prepared for the use of the NSC Staff summarizes the discussions. (Ibid., NSC Staff Papers, Executive Secretary Subject Series, 3–4 Consultations with the United Kingdom)
  6. A copy of the letter is ibid., Anne Whitman File, International Series, Macmillan, Harold, Folder 4.
  7. A copy of the August 5, 1965, letter is in the Johnson Library, National Security File, Head of State Correspondence, United Kingdom, Vol. 1, Prime Minister Wilson. A copy of the November 11, 1965, letter is ibid., Vol. 2, Prime Minister Wilson. See also Document 316.