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The 1988 National Election
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In 1988, the political dispute over nuclear weapons on nuclear-capable warships visiting Danish ports triggered a national election. The crisis erupted following the publication of increasingly detailed information and statements by various retired U.S. Navy officials that U.S. nuclear warships routinely carried nuclear weapons including during visits to foreign ports.

Danish governments had always insisted that the United States government was well aware of Denmark's non-nuclear policy. Therefore, the governments claimed, there was no reason to suspect that the policy was not respected. New information that suggested otherwise was rejected by the Danish governments without explanation and this attitude helped create the basis for a political initiative in the Danish parliament to force the authorities to remind the nuclear powers of Denmark's non-nuclear policy.

In April 1988, the issue came to a head when the Social Democratic Party proposed that the clearance letter given to foreign powers asking for permission to visit a Danish port with a naval warship should include a statement that Denmark did not permit nuclear weapons on its territory. Moreover, this clearance should be communicated to the captain of the warship. The Danish government resisted such a move arguing the ban was already well known to the nuclear allies and that reminding the captains of this would violate the nuclear powers' policy of "neither confirming nor denying" (NCND) whether a ship carried nuclear weapons. In truth the resolution did not require the captain to disclose whether his ship carried nuclear weapons but only restated the existing nuclear policy, so the conflict with the NCND policy was dubious at best.

Even so, the government warned, the consequences could be severe and undermine Danish membership of NATO. The warnings failed to discourage the opposition and on April 14, 1988, a majority of the parliament (Folketing) adopted the following resolution over the strong objection of the government:

"As the Folketing notes that throughout 30 years it has been Danish policy not to accept nuclear weapons on Danish territory, including Danish ports, the government is enjoined to notify visiting warships of this."

During a recess following the adoption of the resolution, the government held an emergency cabinet meeting after which Prime Minister Paul Schlüter informed the parliament that he feared for the impact of the resolution on the military reinforcement agreements and NATO's ability to provide Denmark security.

Ground Zero: Danish Parliament,
a frequent battleground for Cold War nuclear policy issues

Schlüter said the government would study the impact of the resolution and report back to the parliament within ten days.

Building Up The Pressure

The stage was set: Denmark's allies were upset but how would the government be able to demonstrate to the voters the serious implication it said the resolution would have for Denmark? Over the next several days, the Danish government worked in close collusion with the nuclear powers in NATO to impress upon the Danish public the serious consequences the resolution would have. For the nuclear powers the situation was tricky: how to impress upon Denmark the seriousness of the situation without being seen as interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign and allied country? The Danish government appears to have eased this problem by inviting at least some of the foreign statements.

Early in the morning (European time) of April 15, 1988, U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz issued a statement "at the request of the Danish government" which expressed deep concern over the resolution passed by the Danish parliament:

"The United States government is deeply distressed over the implications for NATO unity and cooperation of the resolution.... Implementation of the Folketing resolution approved April 14 in a way which is inconsistent with the U.S. [neither confirm nor deny] policy would undercut the nuclear deterrence policy on which NATO's security is based. It would have extremely serious consequences for U.S./Danish defense cooperation." (full copy here)

The statement received widespread coverage in Danish media as supporting the government's claim of serious consequences. In following up, Danish Foreign Minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen called George Schultz in the evening of April 15 to provide the U.S. Secretary with "his evaluation of where things stand and where they are headed." Washington was actively pushing both the British and other NATO government's "to go public with their concerns to underscore that this is a NATO, not only and US/Danish issue." British Foreign Minister Howe told the U.S. government that he intended to talk to Ellemann-Jensen first about how the Danish government intended to proceed before considering a public statement. (full copy here)

The U.S. government also approached NATO General Secretary Peter Carrington, who subsequently issued a more cautiously phrased statement than that of George Schultz. A specific request to Carrington was that he should convene a North Atlantic Committee (NAC) meeting on the Danish resolution and its implications for NATO security. (full copy here)

Elsewhere the efforts to get other NATO countries to express their concern to the Danes included countries such as Portugal and Germany. In a meeting with Portugal's Foreign Minister Deus Pinheiro on April 15, the U.S. Ambassador encouraged Pinheiro to make the Government of Portugal's views known to the Danes. (full copy here)  German Foreign Minister Genscher sent a letter of concern to Danish Foreign Minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen in which Genscher spoke of the importance of maintaining security in Europe through a sharing of risks, burdens, responsibilities and benefits in NATO. In the letter, which the U.S. Embassy in Bonn said the Germans planned to circulate in NATO and give to the press in Bonn, Genscher warned:

"These common alliance positions have made it possible, up to now, to respect the policy of the Danish government on nuclear questions in time of peace. However, the change in this policy which is now under discussion could have the most serious consequences for common alliance positions. In this connection the Federal Government ... whishes to make clear its concern over a development which could impinge on the credibility of our deterrence strategy and, in the final analysis, also on our efforts in the field of arms control and disarmament." (full copy here)

Another attempt to visualize the foreign concern over the parliament's resolution was the NATO Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) meeting scheduled to be held in Kolding in April 1988. The U.S. Ambassador to Denmark, Terrence Todman, suggested that if the Danish government unexpectedly found a way to avoid an election the NPG meeting should be used "to confirm the legitimacy of nuclear deterrence." Yet holding the nuclear banner too high could backfire, Todman warned, because the Danish minority government already before the ship visit crisis erupted had been under attack in Parliament for its support of NATO nuclear planning. Instead the emphasis should be on NATO solidarity and burden sharing, Todman recommended, "to reinforce the idea that failure to meet the obligations commonly agreed to runs the risk of losing the benefits." (full copy here)

Crisis, What Crisis

One problem for the Danish government and the foreign government officials who claimed the resolution challenged the NCND policy was that the resolution did not require the captains of visiting warships to disclose whether their ships carried nuclear weapons or not. In fact, the resolution didn't require the captains to declare anything.

Secretary Schultz's statement of April 15 indicates that the U.S. government was aware of this. "Implementation of the Folketing resolution approved April 14 in a way which is inconsistent with the U.S. [neither confirm nor deny] policy would undercut the nuclear deterrence policy on which NATO's security is based." Schultz's statement did not say that the resolution in its present form violated the NCND policy, only that it could if it was implemented in a certain way. This "credibility problem" for the pressure campaign was compounded by reports in the Danish paper Berlingske Tidende quoting anonymous NATO sources saying that NATO could live with the resolution as adopted by the parliament:

"We are talking about a new situation situation if the matter only concerns the resolution passed by parliament and does not entail requiring ship commanders to respond....NATO can therefore live with the resolution if it is implemented in a manner that does not impact on the allies' nuclear weapons policy." (full copy here)

The Danish government could have ended the crisis right there and simply replied to the U.S. government: "Thank you for your concern. We have no intention of implementing the resolution in a way that will require the captains to declare the armament of their ship. Our nuclear policy remains unchained and we look forward to working with you in the future." But the Danish government had cornered itself -- as had the NATO allies by their strong statements -- by stern warnings prior to adoption of the resolution and never explained very well how the NCND policy coexisted with Denmark's non-nuclear policy.

The U.S. State Department anticipated questions about this dilemma from reporters and its press guidance for April 15 included a prefabricated answer to questions about what type of implementation of the Danish resolution that would be inconsistent with the NCND policy:

"Implementation of the resolution may require procedures that would create the assumption that a visiting ship does not carry nuclear weapons. This assumption would compromise the "Neither-Confirm-Nor-Deny" policy."

Non-Nuclear Policy In Crisis

This answer was bad news for the integrity of Danish non-nuclear policy because it suggested that even the non-nuclear policy itself was inconsistent with the NCND policy. Danish government officials insisted that Denmark's non-nuclear policy was well know to the nuclear allies and that there was no reason to believe they didn't abide by it.

"There is no doubt whatsoever," stated former Danish Defense Minister Hans Engell in 1984, "that this policy also means a ban against an ever so brief presence of nuclear weapons on Danish territory, including naturally also territorial waters." The nuclear powers, added Engell's successor, Bernt Johan Collet, in 1987, "respect our nuclear policy."

Yet the dilemma was obvious: if the nuclear powers did respect Denmark's ban against nuclear weapons on its territory, including territorial waters, then each port visit to a Danish harbor would indirectly confirm that the ship could not possibly carry nuclear weapons -- unless, of cause, it violated the non-nuclear policy. For this reason, the U.S. never acknowledged Denmark's non-nuclear policy. Doing so would "create the assumption that a visiting ship does not carry nuclear weapons," to paraphrase the U.S. State Department's press guidance of April 15. "This assumption would compromise the "Neither-Confirm-Nor-Deny" policy," according to the U.S. government.

In contrast, Danish government officials were -- as was indeed the whole basis for Denmark's non-nuclear weapons policy -- under the illusion that the non-nuclear policy influenced the armament of visiting warships. But that wasn't the case. Indeed, the NCND policy had intentionally been designed to create uncertainty about this issue to provide unrestricted access for warships to foreign ports regardless of the nuclear policy of the host country. Denmark's non-nuclear policy and the NCND policy coexisted in parallel without affecting the other directly. In a telegram to all diplomatic posts on April 27, 1988, the U.S. government explained in the context of the Danish ship visit debate:

"In applying the NCND policy, the U.S. does not provide assurances, explicitly or implicitly, that it complies with anti-nuclear policies or prohibitions of host countries." (full copy here)

The fact that the resolution didn't challenge the NCND policy anymore than the non-nuclear policy did was largely overlook in the heat of the debate. Likewise, the caveat in George Schultz's statement -- that the Danish resolution would require implementation in a certain way to actually be inconsistent with the NCND -- was soon ignored by both Danish and U.S. government officials. Instead they portrayed the resolution's requirement to inform captains on visiting warships of the existing non-nuclear policy as conflicting with the NCND. "He said this conflicts with U.S. policy of neither confirming nor denying the presence of nuclear weapons aboard its ships," a State Department spokesperson incorrectly stated with reference to Secretary Schultz's statement during the noon briefing on April 15. (full copy here)

An Election Is Called

The well orchestrated foreign reaction made its intended mark. On April 19, after only half of the ten-day time-limit he set on April 14 to examine the consequences of the resolution, Prime Minister Schlüter called a national election for May 10, 1988. In summing up the first week of the election campaign, Ambassador Todman described in a telegram to Secretary of State Schultz the successful impact of the foreign pressure on the Danish voters:

"The subsequent transfer of the NATO's Nuclear Planning Group's meeting (April 26-27) from Kolding, Denmark, to Brussels, the strong message of concern about the ship visit resolution issued after the NAC (North Atlantic Council) meeting in Brussels on April 20, and the announcement that NATO SECGEN (Secretary General) Lord Carrington had postponed his farewell visit to Denmark all assured that the NATO angle stayed on the front pages and on the voter's minds during the first week of the campaign. If the message of allied concern were not clear enough, the announcement by the end of the week that both the British and the French government's had postponed their scheduled ship visits to Denmark left no doubt in anyone's mind that NATO interests had indeed been affected by the April 14 ship visit resolution." (full copy here)

If anyone had doubts about the objective to interfere with a democratic election in a sovereign nation, the Ambassador's message appeared to make the intention blatantly clear. With the upcoming election, however, the U.S. diplomatic strategy shifted somewhat from pressure to what's next: what would be the situation after the election and would it be something the U.S. could live with?

Ambassador Todman described these considerations in a telegram to Secretary Schultz on April 20. Both the U.S. and Danes were anxious to find a solution to the problem, but rumors were that if the election strengthened the government and the central Radical Liberals party, a new government might still want to remind the nuclear powers of the non-nuclear policy. "Therefore it is very important," Todman emphasized, "that we continue working on this problem," and asked for State Department guidance for the period after the election. (full copy here)

Ambassador Todman's prediction soon became reality when the election failed to provide a clear mandate to either political side in Parliament but enabled a right-wing minority government to continue in power. For the opposition, which had forced the anti-nuclear issue, the election ended the so-called Security Political Majority of center/left-wing parties that had forced the minority government to accept anti-nuclear policies for years.

The "Solution"

For the government the election created the peculiar situation of the Foreign Minister having to notify, as one of his first acts, foreign powers of the very non-nuclear policy it had insisted throughout the port visit crisis and election campaign was well-known to Denmark's allies. On June 7, Foreign Minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen forwarded all diplomatic missions in Copenhagen a circular note that reminded them that it "is Danish policy not under the present circumstances, i.e. in peacetime, to accept nuclear weapons on Danish territory, including Danish ports." In the end, even the port clearance procedure was changed so that every clearance sent to the diplomatic mission of the country requesting a port visit in the future would include the following sentence:

"The Danish Government assumes that the visit of the vessel will be in compliance with rules laid down by the Danish government." (full copy here)

The word "nuclear" was not mentioned in the ship clearance, but the well-known policy was once again reiterated in the circular note. A "solution" had been found, the government said, and the foreign powers did not object to being reminded -- once again -- that their warships could not bring nuclear weapons into Danish ports (full copy here).

The U.S. Embassy was immediately asked by the State Department to respond to the Danish government's circular note. The objective was much more than diplomatic courtesy. Apart from stating that Washington considered the case closed and could live with the Danish "solution," the State Department explicitly noted Danish Foreign Minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen's statement in the circular note that:

"The Danish government considers that this procedure respects the policy of our allies neither to confirm nor to deny the presence of nuclear weapons on their naval vessels." (full copy here)

To the United States, the Danish government's explicit mentioning of and stated respect for the NCND policy reaffirmed that U.S. warships were not restricted by the non-nuclear policy. In response to this tacit "go ahead" from the Danish government, the U.S. response notably did not mention the Danish non-nuclear policy. Doing so would have been an acknowledgement and implied that U.S. warships abided by the ban. (for an in-depth review of the NCND policy and its application throughout the world, see the report "The Neither Confirm Nor Deny Policy: Nuclear Diplomacy at Work")

One month later the United States tested Denmark's submission to the NCND policy by sending the nuclear-capable (and nuclear certified) destroyer USS Conyngham (DDG-17) to the port of Aalborg (see ship profile). Only two months later, in September 1988, the nuclear-capable (and nuclear certified) warships USS Spruance (DD-693) and USS Dahlgren (DDG-43) arrived in Aarhus (see ships profile). Detailed information about both ship's nuclear capability was provided to the Danish government which once again insisted that Denmark's non-nuclear policy was well-known and respected by the nuclear powers.

The routine violation of Denmark's non-nuclear policy during port visits had been reaffirmed with the tacit approval of the Danish government, twenty years after it was formalized following the 1968 crash of a nuclear bomber in Greenland (for Greenland, click here). Much like in 1968, the Danish government in 1988 seemed to have learned little from the crisis and instead set the stage for more years of political fights and future diplomatic crises.

In Washington, however, some senior members of the new Bush administration were beginning to think the political cost of nuclear port visits was getting too high. With New Zealand deciding in 1985 to deny access to warships it considered to be carrying nuclear weapons, with Denmark's nuclear election in 1988, and with the issue creating major political crises in Japan, the Philippines, Sweden and numerous countries around the world, the deployment of nuclear weapons at sea was gradually loosing its luster. When the Bush administration in 1991 considered which unilateral nuclear reductions it could make to reduce the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the removal of naval nuclear weapons from warships was included in the package.

Overnight, Denmark's nuclear headache disappeared, not because of the efforts of Danish governments but because of the bold initiative of the Bush administration.

© Hans M. Kristensen | www.nukestrat.com | 2004

download documents:

Telegram, SecState to AmEmbassy Copenhagen, "Statement on Danish Parliamentary Resolution," 150418Z APR 88.
Released under FOIA

» Telegram, SecState to AmEmbassy to NATO Capitals, "Public Staements on Danish Resolution," 151812Z APR 88.
Partially released under FOIA

» Briefing Memorandum, Rozanne L. Ridgway to SecState, "Your Telephone Conversation with Danish Foreign Minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, April 15, 2:45 p.m.," April 15, 1988.
Partially released under FOIA.

» EUR Press Guidance, "Danish Parliament's Ship Visit Resolution," April 15, 1988.
Released under FOIA.

» Telegram, AmEmbassy London to SecState, "Ship Visits to Denmark - UK Views and Actions," 151707Z APR 88.
Partially released under FOIA.

» Memorandum, William Jacobsen, Jr., to Phil Arnold, "Noon Briefing and VOA Edits," April 15, 1988.
Released under FOIA.

» Telegram, AmEmbassy Copenhagen to SecState, "Danish Ship Visit Policy: April 20 NAC and Kolding NPG," 180910Z APR 88.
Partially released under FOIA.

» Telegram, AmEmbassy Copenhagen to SecState, "[subject deleted]," 191638Z APR 88.
Partially released under FOIA.

» Telegram, AmEmbassy Lisbon to SecState, "Ship Visits to Denmark," 201029Z APR 88.
Partially released under FOIA.

» Telegram, AmEmbassy Bonn to SecState, "Genscher Letter to Danish Foreign Minister On Ship Visits," 201131Z APR 88.
Partially released under FOIA.

» Telegram, AmEmbassy Copanhagen to SecState, "Danish Ship Visit Crisis: Looking Beyond the Election," 201331Z APR 88.
Partially released under FOIA.

» Telegram, AmEmBassy Copenhagen to SecState, "Danish Elections: NATO Dominates First Week of Campaign," 261526Z APR 88.
Released under FOIA.

» Telegram, SecState to all diplomatic posts, "NCND: Danish Ship Visit Policy," 270845Z APR 88.
Released under FOIA.

» Telegram, AmEmbassy Copenhagen to SecState, "Confusion Over NCND Distorts Election Campaign," 021439Z MAY 88.
Released under FOIA.

» Telegram, AmEmbassy Copenhagen to SecState, "Ship Visit Issue: Danish Government Announces Solution," 071343Z JUN 88.
Released under FOIA.

» Briefing, "Danish Ship Visit Issue (from RPM's fully cleared message to Secretary 6/7/88)," n.d. [June 7, 1988].
Released under FOIA.

» Telegram, SecState to all NATO capitals, "Department's Announcement/Guidance on Danish Ship Visit Issue," 080145Z JUN 88.
Released under FOIA.

» Telegram, AmEmbassy to SecState, "Ship Visit Issue: Embassy Received Circular Note," 080905Z JUN 88.
Released under FOIA.

» Telegram, SecState to AmEmbassy Copenhagen, "Ship Visit ISsue: Response to Circular Note," 090206Z JUN 88.
Released under FOIA.

background papers:

» Hans M. Kristensen, "Neither Confront Nor Deny," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 1992.

Hans M. Kristensen, "The Neither Confirm Nor Deny Policy: Nuclear Diplomacy at Work," August 2004. Unpublished working paper.

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  © Hans M. Kristensen