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Denmark's Thulegate:
U.S. Nuclear Operations in Greenland
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Until recently, Danish governments insisted that the United States adhered to Denmark's non-nuclear policy. The policy prohibits nuclear weapons on Danish territory including Greenland and the Faeroe Islands. Yet during the 1990s, documents declassified and released in the United States under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that U.S. Strategic Air Command bombers armed with nuclear weapons overflew Greenland on a daily basis for most of a decade between 1958 and 1961. The political scandal that followed these disclosures lasted five years and was called Thulegate.

One of the bombers crashed on the ice off Thule Air Base in January 1968, triggering suspicion and accusations that Denmark's nuclear ban was routinely violated. Both U.S. and Danish government officials insisted at the time, however, that the aircraft had approached the area because of an emergency and that it had not been in Greenland airspace prior to the accident. The declassified documents, however, revealed that not only had the ill-fated bomber overflown Greenland prior to the accident, it had been loitering right above Thule Air Base as part of a top-secret mission to monitor the important BMEWS-radar, a vital element in U.S. nuclear war planning.

The disclosure prompted the Danish government to conduct an internal review of its records (see figure 1). The review uncovered documents that not only confirmed a violation of the non-nuclear policy but also could serve to explain why. The result of the review was a four-page report presented to the Danish parliament in June 1995. The report not only confirmed the overflights, but concluded that the United States had acted in good faith. The report put the blame on the late Danish Prime Minister H. C. Hansen, who during a 1957 meeting with the U.S. Ambassador had refrained from stating Danish non-policy when asked if Denmark wanted to be informed in case the United States decided to deploy nuclear weapons in Greenland. In doing so, the report concluded, Hansen gave the United States a tacit go-ahead.

Figure 1: "Pressure resulted in nuclear disclosure," Jyllands-Posten, July 1, 1993, p. 1.

Shortly after the report was released, U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry visited Denmark. After meeting with Perry, Danish Foreign Minister Niels Helveg Petersen assured the press that while nuclear weapons had overflow Greenland, it was certain that no nuclear weapons had ever been deployed on the ground. Yet only a few days later, Petersen received a letter from the U.S. government which informed that an internal investigation showed that nuclear weapons had in fact been deployed on the ground. Deeply embarrassed and faced with a major scandal, the Danish government decided to make the information public. A semi-independent investigation was commissioned that was given access to previously declassified documents from the Danish archives.

Although the U.S. government declined to grant any special declassification favors to the Danish investigation, the available information provides sufficient information to outline the extent of the U.S. deployment of nuclear weapons in Greenland. This is based on the following five bodies of documents:

As a result of the information released in the many cases described above, it is possible to detail the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Greenland:

U.S. Nuclear Weapons In Greenland

 Weapon Type Years Deployed
 At Thule Air Base  
  4 Mk 36 Mod 1 Feb-Dec 1958
  15 Mk 6 (no capsule installed)* Feb-Dec 1958
  48 W31/Nike Hercules SAM Dec 1959-Jul 1965
  W54/Falcon (GAR-11)* ~1961-mid 1965
  B28/B53 bombs on daily Chrome
  Dome and Hard Head missions
Jul 1961-Jan 1968
* The Mk6 bombs are not mentioned in the 1978 History of U.S. nuclear deployments, but are identified in the U.S. government's July 1995 letter to the Danish government. The W54 weapons for the F-102A aircraft of the 332nd Fighter-Interceptor Squadron are also not mentioned in the History, but Air Force documents indicate they were present at Thule, something also concluded by the Danish government's investigation.
 ** Weapons on Chrome Dome airborne alert aircraft and Hard Head Thule Monitor missions are approximate but considered to have been almost continuously present over Greenland given the daily frequency of the flights.

Despite such disclosures, this chapter in U.S.-Danish nuclear relations is still officially shrouded in secrecy. Although Denmark has released much information, other remains secure in the vault. And the United States continues to classified some information about nuclear operations in Greenland as if nothing had been released in Denmark. After 30-40 years, every reasonable national security interest served by withholding references to nuclear operations in Greenland has lost its meaning.

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



  © Hans M. Kristensen