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Nuclear Post Visits to Denmark During the Cold War

The issue of nuclear weapons onboard U.S. warships visiting Danish ports pestered U.S.-Danish relations for more than 40 years. Ever since the first nuclear-capable warships began arriving in the late 1950s, the issue of whether the ships carried nuclear weapons became a recurrent issue for the news media, peace activists, political parties, and sometimes even national elections.

Denmark's policy against nuclear weapons on its territory was first stated in 1957, and in the following years the policy was gradually clarified to explicitly include even brief visits to Danish ports by warships. Danish governments always insisted that the ban was well-known to the nuclear powers and that they therefore also respected it, but because of numerous indications over the years that visiting warships brought nuclear weapons in anyway the governments' position became increasingly tenuous.

After the crash of a U.S. nuclear-armed B-52 bomber in Greenland in January 1968, the Danish government received assurances from the United States that nuclear weapons would not be stored on land in Greenland or flown over the island without the Danish government's consent (see Greenland section for description of these events). The agreement only concerned Greenland, however, and excluded port visits. This gave the United States a diplomatic go-ahead to continue nuclear port visits to Denmark.

Paul Warnke, the former U.S. assistant secretary of defense and SALT II negotiator, bluntly acknowledged in an interview in April 1988 with Danish reporter Jorgen Dragsdahl:

Warnke: Your government knows very well that we have brought the [nuclear] weapons in.
Dragsdahl: How do you know there are nuclear weapons onboard when the warships visit Denmark?
Warnke: The armament of a warship is not changed just because of a port visit. What should they do. Put them on a barge in the meantime? Or first leave them in the United States and then pick them up again? Of cause they don't want to do that.
Dragsdahl: So the U.S. has violated the Danish policy which has been effect for 30 years?
Warnke: That is correct and you have accepted it.

Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll, who was chief of U.S. military operations in Europe and the Middle East under President Carter, added during a visit to Denmark in May 1988:

Carroll: We do not move nuclear weapons at sea simply because we're going to a harbor that can't accept nuclear weapons. That procedure is much too complicated.

In spite of such statements, and increasingly compromising research by independent researchers, Danish governments insisted that the nuclear powers respected Denmark's ban against nuclear weapons. This turning a blind eye to the violations became a diplomatic recipe for disaster and essentially guaranteed that each port visit became a major political event. Not until the United States in June 1992 announced that it had removed all tactical nuclear weapons from its warships was this unnecessary irritant removed from U.S.-Danish relations. For more information, check the following items:

» The 1988 national election.
» Chronology of nuclear-capable warship visits to Denmark.

» Profiles of individual port visits by nuclear-capable warships.

© Hans M. Kristensen | www.nukestrat.com | 2004-2005

background reports:

» Hans M. Kristensen, et al., "U.S. Naval Nuclear Weapons in Sweden," Greenpeace, Neptune Papers No. 6, September 1990.
(3.4 MB)

» Hans M. Kristensen, "The Neither Confirm Nor Deny Policy," unpublished working paper, August 2004.
(0.4 MB)

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  © Hans M. Kristensen