The US Considered Hiding Nuclear Weapons In Iceland (And Not Telling Iceland)

New documents obtained by the US National Security Archive reveal that the US government considered establishing a nuclear weapons storage site in Iceland during the 1950s. The really interesting part? The United States wasn’t going to tell Iceland.

Terminal Hotel at Keflavik Airport, Iceland, 1955 (National Archives, Still Pictures Branch, RG 342-B, box 1458, Foreign Locations — Iceland)

To be clear, there’s no evidence that the US has ever housed nuclear weapons in Iceland, with or without that country’s knowledge. But top secret telegrams and State Department staff summaries, published for the first time by the National Security Archive, reveal that Iceland was very concerned about US nuclear deployments during the Cold War. And it seems like they had very good reason to be concerned. The Americans were making plans for the land of fire and ice without telling them the whole story.

According to the telegrams, it appears that Icelandic officials were reassured by US State Department officials that nuclear weapons would never be deployed to their country. But the US State Department was still very concerned that saying so would give the Soviets comfort.

US Department of State top secret memo dated Dec 21, 1951 sent under name Sec of State Dean Acheson

US Department of State top secret memo dated 21 December 1951 sent under name Sec of State Dean Acheson

All the while, the Americans were apparently still making plans to store nuclear weapons in Iceland should the need arise. When Icelandic officials got wind that something like this was on the table, they said that they’d leave NATO should they ever find nukes secretly stored in their nation.

A newly declassified daily staff summary from the US State Department, dated June 1960, notes that Iceland wouldn’t appreciate having atomic weapons stored on their soil without consent. The Americans somewhat reluctantly acknowledged that there was more to lose than gain in a secret nuke storage facility.

The briefing notes that Tyler Thompson, the US Ambassador to Iceland, thinks it would probably be a mistake to do so without getting permission from the Icelandic government.

Portion of a declassified daily staff summary from the State Department dated June 1960 (highlighting mine)

Portion of a declassified daily staff summary from the State Department dated June 1960 (highlighting mine)

According to the National Security Archive, this isn’t the first time that we’ve had hints about the US wanting to covertly store nuclear weapons in Iceland.

From the National Security Archive:

Previous research by Valur Ingimundarson and William Arkin demonstrates that during the Cold War Iceland was considered a potential storage site. As Ingimundarson discovered, at the end of the 1950s the U.S. Navy ordered the construction of a facility for storing nuclear depth bombs, an Advanced Underseas Weapons (AUW) Shop at the outskirts of Keflavik airport. The AUW facility was built by local Icelandic workers who thought its purpose was to store torpedoes. Whether Ambassador Thompson knew about it remains to be learned. During the 1980s Arkin reported that a presidential directive from the Nixon period treated Iceland as one of several “Conditional Deployment” locations, where nuclear weapons could be stored in the event of war. An AUW storage facility would make sense in that context.

You can read the full story about America’s quest to store nukes in Iceland and look at the newly released documents over at the National Security Archive.