Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey

Newly Declassified Documents Reveal Kennedy Administration’s Concerns Over Israel’s Nuclear Program

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John Kennedy and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion

Previously classified meeting notes charting the discussion at a 1961 meeting between President John F. Kennedy and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion were among the documents included in an April 21 release co-sponsored by the National Security Archive, the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, and the Middlebury Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

April 22, 2016

Newly declassified documents reveal that President John F. Kennedy and his senior aides were deeply concerned in 1961-62 about the nuclear proliferation risks represented by Israel’s nascent nuclear program. A large April 21 document release was co-sponsored by the National Security Archive, the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, and the Middlebury Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, and edited by Institute professor Avner Cohen and William Burr of the National Security Archive.

The released documents include records and notes from a May 1961 meeting between Kennedy and Ben-Gurion in Manhattan. During the meeting, Ben-Gurion “emphasized the peaceful, economic development-oriented nature of the Israeli nuclear project” while also slipping in mention of a “pilot” plant to process plutonium for “atomic power.” He was also quoted as saying that “there is no intention to develop weapons capacity now.”

Whatever Ben-Gurion actually said, neither President Kennedy nor U.S. intelligence officials were fully convinced by Israel’s insistence that Dimona was strictly a peaceful project. A recently declassified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Israel prepared several months after that meeting, and published now for the first time, concluded that “Israel may have decided to undertake a nuclear weapons program. At a minimum, we believe it has decided to develop its nuclear facilities in such a way as to put it into a position to develop nuclear weapons promptly should it decide to do so.”

“The significance of this NIE is that the Americans knew or at least recognized that Ben-Gurion was misleading them,” Cohen says. “They couldn’t or wouldn’t directly accuse him of lying. Maybe they didn’t want to disclose what they knew. But it’s clear that the intelligence community understood that what Ben-Gurion said and what the inspectors saw at Dimona were far from being the entire truth.”

Cohen and Burr’s overview of the released documents “reveal that more than any other American president, John F. Kennedy was personally engaged with the problem of Israel’s nuclear program; he may also have been more concerned about it than any of his successors. Of all U.S. leaders in the nuclear age, Kennedy was the nonproliferation president… Kennedy came to office with the conviction that the spread of nuclear weapons would make the world a much more dangerous place.”

Israel’s oldest daily newspaper Haaretz gave the document release prominent coverage (subscription required).

Professor Avner Cohen is also a senior fellow with the Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, the largest nongovernmental organization in the United States devoted exclusively to research and training on nonproliferation issues.

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