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Declassified Documents Show Henry Kissinger’s Major Role in  the 1974 Initiative That Created the Nuclear Suppliers Group


Kissinger Favored Efforts to Curb Nuclear Proliferation in Concert with Other Powers, but Did Not Want U.S. to “Go Charging Around the World, Like Don Quixote”

State Department Advisers Warned That New Nuclear-armed Nations or “Even Subnational Groups” Could “Threaten the United States with Nuclear Violence,” Which Would Require “Extensive and Costly Restructuring” of the U.S. Defense Posture

New Documents Disclose the Key Role of Non-NPT Signatory France in Making the NSG Possible But Also in Shaping Guidelines on Lowest Common Denominator Basis

Henry Kissinger played a slightly reluctant but nonetheless highly influential role in establishing the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in the mid-1970s, motivated equally by concern about nuclear proliferation and a desire to keep U.S. officials from “charging around the world, like Don Quixote,” according to documents posted today by the National Security Archive and the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project. The newly declassified records also describe France’s cooperative role in establishing the NSG, despite French concerns to be seen as pursuing an independent policy on nonproliferation.

During the first months of 1975, when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s State Department was working with other allies to organize the Nuclear Suppliers Group, it was difficult to make headway with France, a key nuclear exporter which was reluctant to join the effort to regulate exports of sensitive nuclear technology and materials. The French rejected the comprehensive nuclear safeguards that Washington favored because they “did not want to be accused of acting with nuclear suppliers to gang up on non-NPT [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] parties and even some NPT countries.” Reacting to the U.S. proposal to regulate sensitive nuclear exports to unstable countries, French diplomats argued that it was on “dangerous ground” and that imposing such constraints raised “political dangers.” Nevertheless, the French had their own concerns about the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities and when Kissinger made assurances, they came on board the NSG.

The Nuclear Suppliers Group has played a significant role in the history of the nonproliferation system since the 1970s, although the concerns raised by the French indicate why it was a controversial project very early on. The shock created by the Indian “peaceful nuclear explosion” in May 1974 raised questions about the safeguarding of sensitive nuclear technology. With growing competition for sales of nuclear reactors and equipment, U.S. government officials worried about an emerging nuclear proliferation risk that could destabilize international relations and damage U.S. interests. Accordingly, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger authorized a secret diplomatic process to create a high-level group that would establish criteria for preventing the diversion of sensitive nuclear technology and materials into nuclear weapons production. Declassified U.S. government documents shed light on the U.S. government role in the creation of the NSG during 1974–1975. The other founding members were governments on both sides of the Cold War line: Canada, France, Japan, West Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union.

Sometimes known as the “London Club,” after the location of its headquarters, the purpose of the NSG has been to fill a gap in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968. The Treaty stipulated that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would provide safeguards for exports of nuclear supplies but it did not create any arrangements for discouraging nuclear exporters from equipping non-nuclear weapons states with sensitive technology. Moreover, NPT Article III covered exports of equipment but did not specify technology as such. Once the NPT had been ratified by many states, large and small, a Swiss academic, Professor Claude Zangger, established a working group of nuclear exporters to develop a trigger list of supplies requiring safeguards. The Zangger Committee, however, did not include technology in its trigger list. That, and France’s non-membership—it had refused to sign the NPT—raised diplomatic problems that the administration of President Gerald R. Ford had to resolve.

Among the documents in today’s publication:

  • A “memcon” of Kissinger’s conversation with Canadian Foreign Minister Mitchell Sharp after the Indian “peaceful nuclear explosion” in May 1974. Canada had sold India the nuclear reactor that helped produce plutonium for the test, but Kissinger said that U.S. safeguards were also “lousy” (Washington had made heavy water available to India)

  • • A memorandum where Kissinger was given the choice of a “low visibility” meeting involving the “most advanced nuclear industrial states” or “a larger, well publicized conference involving numerous other states” He chose the “more restrictive” option, probably to make the meeting more “manageable.”

  • The initial U.S. proposal for nuclear suppliers’ guidelines, including “special restraints” over exports of sensitive enrichment and reprocessing technologies and “stringent” conditions where nuclear exports could exacerbate instability and conflict.

  • Records of U.S.-French bilateral meetings where French officials expressed fears of joining a “cartel” of nuclear “haves,” being “isolated” at a suppliers’ conference, being “pressured to adopt unacceptable policies,” or made to look like a “renegade” on nuclear proliferation issues.

  • A message to Kissinger expressing concern that news of a loosely safeguarded Brazilian-West German nuclear deal made it urgent to move forward with a suppliers group which included the French, so that such problems could be discussed.

  • Messages between Kissinger and French Foreign Minister Jean Sauvagnargues, including Kissinger’s commitment that suppliers group agreements would be based on consensus, enabling France to join without fear of group pressures.

  • Memoranda on the Canadian-French controversy over “full scope safeguards,” during which Washington stayed on the sidelines so as not to isolate the French, who opposed full-scope as part of the NPT, which they had refused to sign.

The Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines, approved in fall 1975, which called for “restraint” in the transfer of sensitive technologies and regular consultations between suppliers, including over “sensitive cases” to “ensure that transfer does not contribute to risks of conflict or instability, and included a “trigger list” of items that would require safeguards by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

An assessment of the 1975 nuclear suppliers’ guidelines, in which Assistant Secretary of State for Politico-Military Affairs George Vest wrote that they “served to close many of the loopholes and inadequacies of previous nuclear cooperation agreements between suppliers and recipients,” but could not prevent “indigenous” development of nuclear weapons capabilities.

Assistant Secretary of State for Politico-Military Affairs George Vest, played a key role in the founding of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Photo from Still Pictures Branch, National Archives, RG 59-SO, box 18.

Convincing France to participate in the suppliers group was a central problem; the French had refused to sign the NPT but were becoming more concerned about the spread of nuclear capabilities. Yet, as noted, they were also concerned about appearances—that governments without a nuclear infrastructure would see the suppliers group as a “cartel” designed to keep them down. Indeed, this became a significant objection to the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group over the years. Nevertheless, from the U.S. standpoint, French involvement in the project was crucial because the Japanese and West Germans were unlikely to join without the French. After the French government had assented, the suppliers group began meeting although it would operate on a “lowest common denominator” basis in order to keep France from being “isolated” on key issue such as full-scope safeguards. Pre-existing agreements on sensitive cases (e.g., Brazil-West Germany or Pakistan-France) remained subjects of bilateral discussions.

The Nuclear Suppliers Group started out, and remains, an essentially voluntary international organization. From the outset, its guidelines did not have the force of international law and depended on action by the member states to observe and implement them. Nevertheless, the NSG became an important and enduring institution in the nuclear nonproliferation system, supplementing and supporting both the NPT and the IAEA.[1]

During 1976, the NSG expanded membership to broaden support for its objectives. Nevertheless, in 1978, it stopped meeting because of internal differences over the next steps, such as the role of full-scope safeguards. The guidelines, which became public in 1978 when the IAEA published them, served as a reference tool for nuclear export policies, but Washington pressed the other NSG members to tacitly expand the trigger list by seeking prohibitions of specific dual-use exports bound for nuclear programs in such countries as Pakistan. It was not until the 1990 Gulf War, when the West discovered the extent of Iraq’s nuclear program, that a consensus developed for tougher nuclear export controls. In this context, the NSG began meeting again and expanded its membership further. It also adopted full-scope safeguards, but years later granted India an exception that haunts the nonproliferation regime.[2]

That the NSG emerged when it did and in the form it took was due in part to Henry Kissinger’s role, not least his success in securing French involvement. Yet, as an NSG founding father, Kissinger barely discusses nonproliferation, much less the Group’s creation, in his three volumes of memoirs. With his focus on U.S.-Soviet crises and diplomacy, SALT I and II, the wars in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and normalization of relations with China, perhaps he sees the NSG as rather small change. Moreover, Kissinger may have found writing about nonproliferation issues somewhat tricky. He and President Richard Nixon had been dismissive of the NPT, but Kissinger changed course during 1974-1975 and that would have to be explained. Moreover, nonproliferation policy during the 1960s and 1970s cannot be discussed without tackling sensitive questions such as the Israeli nuclear program and why Kissinger had acquiesced in it, in contrast to taking a more activist approach to check Pakistani nuclear plans during 1975-1976. Perhaps, Kissinger concluded that this was one issue that resisted his strong interest in using history to justify his record of diplomacy.

Documents 1A-B: Early Proposals

A: Report, National Security Council Under Secretaries’ Committee, “Action Plan for Implementing NSDM 235,” 25 March 1974, Secret

B: National Security Decision Memorandum 255, Henry Kissinger to Secretary of Defense et al., “Security and Other Aspects of the Growth and Dissemination of Nuclear Power Industries,” 3 June 1974, Secret

Sources: A: Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library, National Security Council Institutional Files, H-242, NSDM-235 [1 of 2], B: Digital National Security Archive

Before the Indian test, an interagency NSC sub-committee was exploring the problem of safeguards for sensitive nuclear exports. The problem was that an existing group, the Zangger Committee based on NPT membership, did not have a broad enough membership or scope to manage the problem. It had developed a trigger list of nuclear supplies that required IAEA safeguards but the list did not include reprocessing or enrichment technologies because NPT article III only covered supplies, not technology. Toward this end, the Under Secretaries Committee proposed “talks with other suppliers of technology and equipment in the reprocessing and enrichment fields on desirable new constraints or guidelines that should be followed.”

One problem that the report brought up was that France did not belong to the Zangger Committee. This raised the possibility that “suppliers may not adhere to the Committee's recommendations if there is serious concern that France will undercut them by selling Trigger List items, without safeguards, to [non-nuclear weapons states] not party to the NPT.” The Under Secretaries hoped that France could be persuaded to follow the Zangger Committee’s recommendations, but this was a diplomatic problem that would require higher level intervention.

After the Indian test, the agencies moved forward in developing an action plan on the nuclear supply problem and related issues which Henry Kissinger signed off on in NSDM 255. Among other measures, Kissinger endorsed consultations with suppliers to establish “common principles regarding the supply of sensitive enrichment technology or equipment” and encouraging multinational frameworks for “enrichment, fuel fabrication, and reprocessing facilities.” Through multinational arrangements, it would be possible to discourage the proliferation of national nuclear enrichment and reprocessing plants.

Document 2: Memorandum of conversation, “Indian Nuclear Explosion; World Food Conference; Pacific Coast Tankers; NATO Declaration; Middle East; Trade Bill,” 18 June 1974

Source: National Archives and Records Administration, Department of State Records, Record Group 59 [RG 59], records of Henry A. Kissinger, 1973-1977 [hereinafter Kissinger records], box 8, June 1974 Nodis Memcons, also on Digital National Security Archive

Canada’s safeguards had failed to prevent India from converting spent fuel from the CANDU reactor into plutonium. Kissinger acknowledged to Canadian Foreign Minister Mitchell Sharp that U.S. safeguards had also proven to be “lousy,” failing to prevent India from using U.S.-supplied heavy water for its nuclear activities. Sharp asked Kissinger how the proliferation of nuclear technology could be prevented and what should be said to the Argentines and the Egyptians, who were also seeking to use nuclear energy. But Kissinger evidently had no answer.

Document 3: Transcript, Under Secretary Sisco's Principals' and Regionals’ Staff Meeting, Friday, June 21, 1974, 3 p.m., 26 June 1974, Secret, excerpts

Source: RG 59, Transcripts of Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger Staff Meetings, 1973-1977, box 4

Also encouraging interest in a close look at nuclear export policy were negotiations, pre-dating the Indian test, over nuclear reactor sales to Israel, Egypt, and Iran. Chairing the meeting in Kissinger’s absence, Under Secretary of State Joseph Sisco expressed dismay that nuclear nonproliferation had lost high-level support during the Nixon administration.

Document 4: Memorandum of Conversation, “Energy; North Sea Oil; Foreign Assistance; Nuclear Non-Proliferation; CSCE; Trade Bill,” 7 July 1974, Secret

Source: RG 59, Office of the Counselor, 1955-77 (Helmut Sonnenfeldt), box 4, Britain 1974

Near the end of a discussion of non-proliferation policy with British Foreign Secretary James Callaghan [pages 16-18], Kissinger realized he needed to tackle the problem of nuclear exports and asked his aide, Helmut Sonnenfeldt, to arrange a staff meeting.

Document 5: Executive Secretary George S. Springsteen to Secretary of State Kissinger, “Analytical Staff Meeting,” 11 July 1974, enclosing “Discussion Paper on U.S. Nuclear Nonproliferation Policy,” Secret

Source: RG 59, Executive Secretariat Records, Memorandums of the Executive Secretariat, 1964-1975, box 12, S/S Staff Meeting            

Prepared by Jerome Kahan and Charles Van Doren, respectively with the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, this report provided a comprehensive take on the problem of nuclear proliferation and the state of U.S. nonproliferation policy. Among the specific issues reviewed were the status of the NPT, export control issues, the problem of “peaceful nuclear explosions,” the implications of the Indian test, and long-term steps for controlling the proliferation of nuclear capabilities. . The authors saw a compelling security requirement: “The basis for our non-proliferation interest is the assessment that the danger of nuclear war as well as world instability would significantly increase with an unrestrained spread of nuclear weapons.” Moreover, the proliferation of nuclear capabilities would give nations a “'sense of greater independence, thus complicating international diplomacy and diminishing American influence.” Finally,  new nuclear-armed nations or “even subnational groups” could “threaten the United States with nuclear violence,” which would require “extensive and costly restructuring” of  the U.S. defense posture.

Creating a forum for nuclear exporters to develop common policies was a major recommendation, but the paper on controls over nuclear exports pointed to a significant problem: “The greatest potential obstacle to effective export controls in the nuclear field has been the lack of cooperation by France.” On 12 July Kissinger met with his staff to discuss these issues. No record of the meeting has surfaced, but a few weeks later Policy Planning Staff Director Winston Lord reminded Kissinger: “Last time we agreed in principle that there was something you could do about this problem, it wasn't hopeless” [See document 7].

Document 6: Memorandum to the Secretary of State from ACDA Director Fred Ikle and Policy Planning Staff Director Winston Lord, “Analytical Staff Meeting on Non-Proliferation Strategy,” 31 July 1974, Secret

Source:RG 59, Records of the Policy Planning Staff, Director's Files (Winston Lord), 1969-1977 [hereinafter PPS], box 344, July 1974

To help Kissinger prepare for a follow-up  discussion, ACDA and State Department officials prepared a "Non-Proliferation: Strategy and Action Program” to help guide policy. An important proposal was for “high level political approaches to key exporting countries to enlist their support for safeguarding transfers of nuclear materials.” While Washington had to approach a number of nuclear exporters, consultations with France “constitute the most crucial and urgent step to be taken.” In light of France’s status as a significant nuclear supplier but an NPT hold-out, the problem was convincing the French that cooperation was in their interest. They would not want the proliferation of nuclear capabilities to erode their status as a nuclear power, nor would they favor the proliferation of enrichment capabilities that would undermine their own investments in enrichment facilities. Moreover, Washington had leverage as a supplier of HEU to France. This was an “urgent matter.”

Document 7: Transcript, “The Secretary's Analytical Staff Meeting on Non-Proliferation, Friday, August 2, 1974 3:00 p.m,” 2 August 1974, Secret

Source: RG 59, Transcripts of Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger Staff Meetings, 1973-1977, box 4                 

Kissinger presided over an important staff meeting in early August where he made a decision to go ahead with the suppliers’ project, beginning with approaches to Moscow and Paris. While noting that the U.S., as a sponsor of the NPT, had a “special responsibility” to curb nuclear proliferation,  Kissinger did not believe that it had a unique responsibility: “The fact of the matter is that there is no nuclear country whose nuclear capability will threaten us before it threatens fifty other countries.” Kissinger observed that he had a “reluctance to have the United States go charging around the world, like Don Quixote, for every conceivable problem . . . when there are other countries whose interest in it ought to be even greater.” Washington had to work with other countries and have them “share some of the responsibility.” Nevertheless, “we will still wind up in a leading position.” He wanted an approach made to Moscow; further, because of France’s importance, “I might want to talk quietly to the French and tell them what is coming. And if they have an overwhelming desire for preliminary bilateral talks with us, maybe we will do it.” He wanted to “think through how to do this.”

Document 8:Memorandum to the Secretary of State from Fred Ikle and Winston Lord, “U.S. Policy on Nuclear Proliferation,” 26 August 1974, with 29 November 1974 cover memorandum, Secret

Source: PPS, box 348, Nov. 1974

While U.S. nonproliferation strategy focused on several problems, such as ratification of the NPT by key countries, interest in a conference of major nuclear suppliers solidified. According to Kissinger’s advisers, “A conference of nuclear industrial states offers an opportunity for realizing a coordinated approach in placing effective controls, including safeguards and security measures, over transfers of commercial nuclear equipment and materials.” When given the choice of a “low visibility” meeting involving the “most advanced nuclear industrial states,” and a larger, well publicized conference involving numerous other states, Kissinger chose the “more restrictive” option, probably to “enhance both the manageability of the conference and the prospects for reaching consensus among the current major suppliers.”

Documents 9A-C: Bringing the Soviets In

A: Memorandum to the Secretary of State from Lord and Ikle, “Consultations with the Soviets on Non-Proliferation Strategy,”18 September 1974, Secret

B: Memorandum to the Secretary of State from “Talks on Reactor Safeguards and Related Matters with the Soviets on October 15,” 5 October 1974

C: State Department telegram 228213 to U.S. Embassy Moscow, “Nuclear Safeguards Consultations,” 17 October 1974

Sources: A: State Department release from P-reels; B: PPS, box 369, WL Sensitive Non-China; C: National Archives Access to Archival Databases On-line collections, State Department telegrams for 1974 and other years (hereafter AAD)

The Soviet Union was not yet a major nuclear exporter, but they had potential and as a major co-sponsor of the NPT had followed nonproliferation norms in their nuclear dealings. Kissinger and his advisers took it for granted that Moscow should be involved in a suppliers’ project at the outset although they were not sure how the Soviets would react to being the only Communist state in a group of U.S. allies. Washington could lessen this problem by assuring Moscow that the initial group would be the “nucleus” of a larger grouping that could include Soviet allies.

Once Kissinger approved an approach, State Department officials prepared the substance of communications with Moscow, which included a basic five-point paper (See document 8B, Tab B) constituting proposed “undertakings” for a suppliers’ group. The proposed guidelines for nuclear exporters included no “peaceful nuclear explosives” for non-nuclear states, IAEA safeguards for nuclear supplies, and “special restraints” over exports of sensitive enrichment and reprocessing technologies, including comprehensive safeguards and multinational plants. Moreover, for regions where nuclear exports could exacerbate instability and conflict, suppliers would agree to “stringent” conditions. On 17 October 1974, the State Department took the first step to bringing the Soviets in by sending a telegram about the project to the embassy in Moscow.

Document 10: Memorandum from Winston Lord, Fred Iklé, and Helmut Sonnenfeldt to the Secretary, “Follow-up with French on Nuclear Export Controls,"17 October 1974, Secret

Source: PPS, box 369, WL Sensitive Non-China 

With an approach to the Soviets already in the works, Kissinger’s top advisers emphasized the importance of a parallel approach to the French, given their centrality to the prospects for a suppliers’ group. While no one could be sure whether the French would abandon their “case-by-case” approach to nuclear exports, the advisers believed that the French disliked nuclear proliferation and wished to remain the only nuclear weapons state in Western Europe. Moreover, their dependency on U.S. HEU for their civilian nuclear program might reinforce their interest in strengthening U.S.-French relations. By mid-October 1974, the French were giving signals that they were open to dialogue on export controls but the advisers believed that an approach to Paris was becoming more urgent in light of recent intelligence that Paris was signing contracts on nuclear export deals, probably a reference to Pakistan and South Korea.

Document 11: Memorandum from Williams H. Luers, Executive Secretariat, to Winston Lord and Fred Iklé, 22 October 1974, with two memoranda to Kissinger attached, Secret

Source: PPS, box 369, WL Sensitive Non-China 

Kissinger agreed that in his absence Acting Secretary of State Robert Ingersoll and ACDA Director Fred Iklé should meet with French Ambassador Kosciusko-Morizet and that the British, Germans, and Canadians should receive copies of the five-point paper, and also be informed of the approaches to the French and the Soviets.

Document 12: George H. Springsteen, Jr., Executive Secretary, to Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft, “Briefing Paper on Non-Proliferation,” 21 December 1974, Secret

Source: State Department release from P-reels

In the course of a background paper on the nuclear proliferation problem and policy options, the State Department updated the White House on the state of play of the nuclear suppliers’ initiative: the British, the Canadians, and the Soviets had agreed to attend a meeting; the Germans would agree “if all key suppliers” (France) accepted; and the Japanese, who had also been asked, had not responded. The French had not given an answer and bilateral discussions would take place to go over the issues.

Documents 13A-E: Bringing the French In

A. Memorandum to the Deputy Secretary from Winston Lord, “Next Steps for the Nuclear Suppliers’ Conference,” 16 January 1975, with memoranda attached, secret

B. Memorandum of conversation, “French Participation in the Nuclear Suppliers Conference,” [Distribution List Attached], 24 February 1975

C. State Department telegram 65502 to U.S. Consulate, Jerusalem, “Action Memorandum: Nuclear Suppliers' Conference,” 23 March 1975

D. State Department memorandum, “Nuclear Suppliers Conference/French Participation,”26 March 1975, Secret, with background papers attached, Secret

E. Memorandum from George S. Vest, Bureau of European Affairs, to Secretary of State, “French Foreign Minister's Response on Nuclear Suppliers Meeting,” 9 April 1975, with background papers attached, Secret

F. State Department telegram 90533 to U.S. Embassy Paris, “Exploratory Meeting of Nuclear Suppliers,”19 April 1975, Secret

Source: A: RG 59, Records of the Policy Planning Staff, Director's Files (Winston Lord), 1969-1977, box 369, WL Sensitive Non-China, B-D: : State Department releases from P-reels; E: AAD

Some months of secret talks were required for Kissinger and his advisers to persuade the French government to attend the preliminary suppliers’ meeting in London in April 1975. Not knowing that French President Valerie Giscard d’Estaing had become more worried about nuclear proliferation and more interested in trying to curb it, U,S. officials were pleased to learn that the French had moved “closer . . . to responsible behavior” on nuclear exports. President Ford began the process by asking d’Estaing, during the Martinique summit in December 1974, to approve French participation in a suppliers’ group. While the French were generally receptive because they did not want to be “isolated,” they nevertheless wanted to chart their own course in developing nonproliferation policy.

It took some wrangling over a variety of issues, including the five U.S. points, which the French did not fully accept, to get them involved in a suppliers’ project. After French officials observed that what would emerge would “be the least common denominator,” State Department Politico-Military Affairs Director George Vest acknowledged that was “the nature of such activities.” Compromises or not, Vest and his colleagues wanted to move forward. Adding urgency to getting the French involved was growing U.S. concern that West German safeguards for the sale of nuclear technology to Brazil were too loose. If the French did not participate, neither would the West Germans. To ensure French involvement, Kissinger wrote Foreign Minister Jean Sauvagnargues that he saw enough “common understanding” on important issues to provide a basis for French participation. He assured Sauvagnargues that he did not want any of the “major suppliers to be isolated” and that there was a need for consensus and” harmonization” on policy.

In reply the French foreign minister asked for assurances and recognition that French concessions were the “limits of our possibilities.” For example, agreement should be by consensus, no decisions would be retroactive (that is, not apply to contracts that the French had already signed), and meetings should be confidential. On 18 April, Kissinger met with the French ambassador and provided the necessary assurances, which he wrote up in a letter to Sauvagnargues not long before the suppliers met in London on 25 April. Kissinger shaped the future of the NSG by writing that agreements would be based on consensus, decisions would not be retroactive, and the suppliers meetings would be “informal and confidential.” This arrangement assured that the suppliers’ group would operate on a lowest-common-denominator basis, but there was no choice because French participation was vital.

Documents 14 A-D: The April Meeting and Its Consequences

A: Briefing Paper, “The Nuclear Suppliers Conference,” circa June 1975

B: Memorandum from Thomas O. Enders to the Secretary, “Draft Letter to Sauvagnargues,” 14 June 1975, Secret

C: U.S. Embassy London telegram 9376 to State Department, “Nuclear Export Policy: Bilaterals with FRG,” 19 June 1975, Secret

D: Briefing Paper prepared for the General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament, “Status Summary of Nuclear Suppliers Conference and Relevant Bilateral Discussion", July 1975, Secret

Sources: A: RG 59, Executive Secretariat Briefing Books, Reports, and Minutes, box 217A, State Visit of President Scheel June 1975; b: PPS, box 356, June 1-15, 1975, C: AAD. D: FOIA release

State Department records of the April meeting in London have yet to surface in the archives, but the gist of what happened can be parsed out from other documents. So can the results of a follow-up meeting in mid-June 1975. The U.S. delegation agreed to develop a policy paper that would take into account French and other views so as to reach agreement on the most “stringent” safeguards possible. A central but divisive issue was whether safeguards should apply to the entire nuclear fuel cycle (later known as “full-scope” safeguards). Another issue was whether multinational auspices for reprocessing and enrichment plants should be mandatory or a matter of discretion by a supplier country. On these matters and others, the French position was  central.

Documents 15A-E: The Struggle over Full Scope Safeguards

A. Memorandum from George S. Vest to Secretary of State, “September 16-17 Nuclear Suppliers' Meeting. “ 23 September 1975, Secret, excised copy, under appeal

B. U.S. Embassy London telegram 14177 to State Department, “French-U.S. Consultations on Nuclear Suppliers Meeting,” 15 September 1975

C. George Vest to Mr. Sonnenfeldt, “British Comprehensive Safeguards Initiative re Suppliers Conference,” 10 October 1975, Confidential

D. Briefing Paper, “Nuclear Suppliers Conference,” circa 15 October 1975

Secretary's Trip to Ottawa, 14-15 October 1975

E. Memorandum of conversation, “Visit of Secretary of State and Mrs. Kissinger to Canada; Luncheon at 24 Sussex Drive,” 15 October 1975, Secret

Sources: A and E: State Department release from P-reels; B: Declassification release from AAD; C: RG 59, Office of the Counselor, 1955-1977, box 7, FSE 3 Nuclear Suppliers Conference; D: RG 59,Executive Secretariat Briefing Books, Reports, and Minutes, box 223, Secretary's Trip to Ottawa, 14-15 October 1975

[Note: Drawing on the declassified record, the editor has filled in many of the country names deleted by State Department reviewers from document A.]

The September 1975 meeting of the suppliers’ group brought out a conflict over a decisive issue, whether supplying countries should require recipient countries to place all nuclear facilities under safeguards or require them only for the technology and supplies at issue in the contract (“project safeguards”). The Canadians strongly supported the former, “full scope safeguards” (their terminology, which caught on), which the French saw as “tantamount to imposing NPT obligations”—a reference to the Treaty’s Article III--which they would not accept. Washington had included the substance of full-scope safeguards in the original five-point paper but Kissinger would not go against the French and risk the hard-won understanding that had brought them into the group. A recently declassified telegram (document 15B) illuminates the U.S.-French dialogue over safeguards and other provisions in the nuclear suppliers’ guidance. Arguing that full-scope safeguards was “alien to [their] philosophy,” the French suggested that  a “traditional interpretation of the contamination principle (i.e., requiring safeguards on any materials produced in exported facilities),” would make it possible to achieve “the  practical equivalent” of the Canadian proposal.

Ottawa relented but an interesting and sometimes confused conversation between Kissinger and Prime Minister Pierre-Elliot Trudeau suggested the latter was still interested in full-scope safeguards. Kissinger might not have been sure what Trudeau meant: “an effort must be made,” he said, even though Washington was not supporting Ottawa on this point. Trudeau highlighted an important problem: the “role of crass business interests” which see the proliferation problem as “insoluble” and therefore press to “go ahead on a business basis.”

Document 16A-B: Final Agreement on Guidelines

A.   Memorandum from George S. Springsteen, Executive Secretary, to National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, “Nuclear Suppliers Guidelines,” 31 December 1975, Secret

B.    George Vest to the Secretary, “Nuclear Suppliers Status Report,” 27 January 1976, Secret

Sources: A: State Department release from P-reels, B: RG 59, Office of the Counselor, 1955-77, box 7, Nuclear Suppliers Conference  

The first part of document 16A comprises the instructions which the White House approved for the September 1975 suppliers’ meeting. That event led to another meeting in early November where the parties hammered out a set of guidelines—marching orders for the suppliers’ future decisions. The British tried to work out a compromise on full-scope safeguards, but that proved acceptable to none; the best that could be achieved was French agreement to future consideration of full-scope. Another contested issue was a U.S. proposal for mandatory supplier involvement in enrichment and reprocessing facilities, but that met strong opposition and was made nonbinding.

At the November meeting, the suppliers completed negotiations on guidelines. The final agreement, George Vest wrote Kissinger, “served to close many of the loopholes and inadequacies of previous nuclear cooperation agreements between suppliers and recipients.” It also put the French and West Germans on record to restrict access to sensitive nuclear technologies. Nevertheless, as Vest noted, the guidelines would not prevent “indigenous” development of nuclear capabilities and “unsafeguarded developments” or the acquisition of sensitive technology.

The guidelines did not constitute an international agreement but a set of “common policies” that each government would implement accordingly. Basic provisions included agreement to seek assurances by recipients of supplies not to produce nuclear explosive devices, physical security for installations and materials, transfer of trigger list items only under IAEA safeguards, restraint in the transfer of sensitive technologies, facilities and materials, and the encouragement of supplier involvement in, and multinational controls over, sensitive installations. Moreover, suppliers would conduct regular consultations over “sensitive cases” to “ensure that transfer does not contribute to risks of conflict or instability.”

Appended to the guidelines was a two-page “trigger list” based on the Zangger Committee’s list, with detailed explanations of items requiring safeguards, from fissile materials to nuclear reactors to “non-nuclear materials for reactors,” such as heavy water, deuterium, and enrichment and reprocessing technology/equipment. The latter included, for example, gas centrifuge technology and “know-how” needed to operate a gas centrifuge plant.

Not included in the trigger list was dual-use equipment and technology. This problem was understood at the time and it surfaced with a vengeance during 1978–79 when British officials discovered the A. Q. Khan network’s attempts to purchase inverters needed to operate gas centrifuge enrichment machines. .

Documents 17A-D: Developments during 1976-1977

A. George Vest to the Secretary, “London Nuclear Suppliers Meeting,” 11 June 1976, Confidential

B. London Embassy telegram 18324 to State Department, “London Nuclear Suppliers’ Meeting, November 11 – 12,” 12 November 1976, Confidential

C. State Department telegram to U.S. Embassy London et al., “Nuclear Suppliers Meeting, April 28-29, 1977,” 3 May 1977, Confidential

D. State Department telegram 222114 to U.S. Embassy Paris, “Nuclear Suppliers Meeting,” 15 September 1977, Confidential

E. State Department telegram 229507 to U.S. Embassy London et al., “Nuclear Suppliers Meeting – Assessment,” 23 September 1977, Confidential

Sources: A: RG 59, Office of the Counselor, 1955-77, box 7, Nuclear Suppliers Conference, B and C: State State Department and Defense Department FOIA releases respectively; D and F: AAD

To develop broader support for the NSG’s mission, the original members expanded their numbers in 1976 to include more Western and Soviet bloc countries as well as one Cold War neutral. The new members were Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Most old and new members were receptive when Washington lobbied them to support a “long term and stable regime of restraint” on the export of sensitive enrichment and reprocessing technology. While the French were supportive of the moratorium proposal, the West Germans were uncomfortable with it, not least because of the implications for their deal with Brazil.

With the Carter administration in power in 1977, nuclear nonproliferation policy had greater precedence than under Ford and, reversing the approach that Kissinger had taken, U.S. diplomats lobbied for NSG endorsement of full-scope safeguards. While full-scope had wide support in the group, both the French and the West Germans remained opposed. The Carter administration tried to persuade the French but they were worried about being “isolated’ in the group and talked about withdrawing or opposing further meetings because the NSG had “fully achieved” its objectives. Washington persuaded Paris not to withdraw, but the group’s future was plainly uncertain.

At the September 1977 meeting, the NSG agreed to make the guidelines available to the IAEA so that it could publish them. The State Department had been reluctant to publish them, not least because they did not include full-scope safeguards, but overriding that was an interest in dispelling Third World concerns about a “secret cartel.” In February 1978, soon after the IAEA had received the guidelines, it made them a public record matter.

[1] For useful studies,  see Ian Anthony, Christer Ahlstrӧm, and Vitaly Fedchenko, Reforming Nuclear Export Controls: The Future of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), as well as Peter van Ham, Managing Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regimes in the 1990s: Power, Politics, and Policies (New York: Royal Institute of International Affairs/Council on Foreign Relations, 1994).

[2] For recent problems facing the NSG, see Mark Hibbs, The Future of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (Washington, D.C., Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2011).

About the Author

William Burr

William Burr

Former Senior Scholar;
Senior Analyst, National Security Archive
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