The 1988 National Election
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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"
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
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
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
If anyone had doubts about the objective to interfere with a
democratic election in a sovereign nation, the Ambassador's message appeared to
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
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
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.
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."
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
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
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
Hans M. Kristensen |