Israeli Nuclear Program: Memo to President Nixon from Henry Kissinger, 7/16/69

Pres. Nixon, Golda Meir and Henry Kissinger
President Richard Nixon (center), Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (left), and Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger (right), in the Oval Office.

Memo Review by Alex Dubin


            Israel is thought to have developed its nuclear program over time in the 1950s and 1960s, likely with the capability to build weapons by the late 1960s.[1] The Israeli government had maintained a policy of secrecy over its nuclear program, pursuing a policy of nuclear ambiguity. It was widely believed to have between 90-200 weapons,[2] although Israel had never officially tested a nuclear weapon.

            The Nixon administration spent the summer of 1969 trying to figure out what to do with the program. National Security Study Memorandum 40 directed interagency studies and recommendations on the topic.[3] This memo is a result of those conversations and studies.

The Memo

            National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger wrote a memorandum to President Richard Nixon in July 1969 about the issues that the Israeli nuclear program raises. The memo lays out the state of the Israeli nuclear arsenal, Israel’s commitments when buying American Phantom planes, dilemmas for the U.S., what objectives the U.S. should seek from Israel regarding its program, and options and a recommendation on how Nixon should pursue them.

            Kissinger begins with the rationale behind the memo, reminding Nixon that he created a small group of advisors to examine the issue, and they’ve come back with answers. Kissinger includes a few brief facts on Israel’s missiles and with a stark warning that Israeli nukes are not in the U.S. national security interest. He writes that the Israelis agreed to “not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Near East” when they purchased Phantom planes—and that while the Israelis believe it just meant no public nukes, the U.S. told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that “possession constitutes introduction.” The planes will begin to be delivered in September, two months away.

            Kissinger then defines what the U.S. wants overall, agreed broadly in the group: Israel’s secret nuclear arsenal is dangerous, but public knowledge is also dangerous, given that it could lead to a Soviet-Arab nuclear guarantee. Thus, at a minimum, the U.S. should keep it secret.

            He includes a section on the various opinions by the Joint Chiefs, Defense Department, and State Department, which took slightly different views. The agencies agreed, however, on three priorities: that it is a U.S. imperative that Israel sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ASAP, reaffirm that it won’t introduce nukes first (including possession = introduction), and reaffirm that it is halting Jericho or nuclear-armed missile production.

            Kissinger then outlines recommended actions in two steps: call Rabin in to discuss if they could “tie up loose ends” on the possession/introduction issue, where they would press him on the three priorities (without tying Israeli acquiescence to the Phantoms). Then, if Rabin “stonewalls,” tie it explicitly to the Phantoms.

            Kissinger alerts Nixon to the American dilemma, however—the source of leverage, Phantom delivery, is essentially a bluff. Israel won’t act on American nuclear demands without the threat of withholding “something they very much need,” including the Phantoms or “their whole military supply relationship with us.” But the U.S. can’t halt Phantom delivery without explanation, otherwise it risks public knowledge of Israeli nukes.

            He then lists four options, ranging from not raising the issue to raising the issue over various periods of time. He recommends raising the issue immediately and pursuing the two-step action plan with Rabin. He justifies this recommendation by explaining how by dealing with this early, before Phantom delivery, they have time to achieve their objectives before halting deliveries becomes a public issue.

Memo Review

            This document is a masterpiece of policy options memo writing, and how to present an issue, background, options, a recommendation, and an implementation plan, despite its length.

            The reader gets a sense of the policy problem immediately—how do we deal with the Israeli nuclear weapons program, when nuclear weapons in the Middle East threatens our interests?

            He introduces the key factor in the memo early—the source of leverage, the Phantoms, and the disagreement on interpretation of possession vs. introduction. Why is this urgent? Our source of leverage, the Phantoms, are scheduled to be delivered in two months!

            He then writes explicitly to Nixon that public knowledge of Israeli nukes is actually the worst-case scenario (rather than “almost as dangerous” as secret possession) since it will involve a potential nuclear arms race in the Middle East and Soviet nuclear guarantees to Arab states, ultimately involving the U.S.  In fact, getting Israel to sign the NPT, which means Israel publicly affirms it doesn’t have a program, is more important for the signal it sends to the world and plausible topic of public discussion in U.S.-Israel relations than actually getting Israel to shut down its program. If Nixon thought he could shut down the Israeli nuclear program completely, Kissinger right-sizes his expectations, and explains why it’s okay!

            The dilemma as presented is fantastic. It provides a perfect set-up for how and why Kissinger structures the policy options as he does. It’s part of Kissinger’s compelling writing and structure.

            Even though the memo itself is a bit lengthy (which Kissinger acknowledges: “this is long, but I believe you will want to read through it because it is a complex problem,” always important to show self-awareness!), he uses short, concise bullet points when describing the options, recommendation, and implementation. Kissinger also builds credibility by detailing to Nixon the opinions of different stakeholders of a group that he himself asked Kissinger to create, including where they differed.

Instead of rigid section headers like Background, Analysis, Conclusion, Kissinger writes like a human speaks—The Situation, What We Want, The Dilemma We Face, The Options, etc. And it’s not just the headers, but the writing itself—“what this means is that,” “our problem is that,” “in the end, we have these broad options.” It’s a more authentic style of writing that I believe is usually more effective in conveying what you want to say (though it is likely not everyone would agree).

There is however one issue with concision: Kissinger lists the recommended implementation plan twice—first after discussing the various agency opinions, and again when he recommends a policy option. The first implementation plan, even though it contains critical details, can be fully explained just once with the recommendation at the end.


           Nixon ultimately declined to press Israel heavily in this case, “leery” over using the Phantoms as leverage.[4] He met with Prime Minister Golda Meir in Washington in September, where they reached a “nuclear understanding” in their meeting[5], and that was that on U.S.-Israel tensions over nuclear weapons. It is likely that the arguments put forth in this memo contributed significantly to American support of Israeli nuclear ambiguity to this day.