In the summer of 1969, Richard Nixon's administration was absorbed in a highly secret debate: how to address the diplomatic, strategic, and political problems posed by Israel's emergent nuclear weapons program
. Leading those discussions were senior Defense Department officials who believed that a nuclear-armed Israel was not in U.S. interests -- it would dangerously complicate the situation in an already dangerous region
, they argued.
According to recently declassified government documents -- published
on Sept. 12 by the National Security Archive, in collaboration with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies -- Deputy Defense Secretary David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, warned his boss, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, that if Washington did not use its leverage to check Israel's nuclear advances, it would "involve us in a conspiracy with Israel which would leave matters dangerous to our security in their hands."
The overall apprehension was palpable for National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, who consequently signed off in 1969 on National Security Memorandum (NSSM) 40, a request for a set of interagency studies -- including policy recommendations -- of the problems posed by the Israeli nuclear program. NSSM 40 and the studies it produced are now public for the first time, making it possible to better understand the environment in which President Nixon made his own secret decisions, which turned out to be at great variance with Packard's arguments
Packard's memo, among others, exposes the contours of a policy debate that has been hidden for years. By now, Israel's nuclear weapons are the world's worst-kept secret, universally accepted as well-established fact, and yet Washington still respects Israel's nuclear opacity stance
, keeping up the charade that the U.S. government does not comment on Israel's nuclear status. Recent unofficial estimates published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
(but which are based on U.S. intelligence leaks) suggest that Israel may possess 80 warheads and also an unspecified amount of weapons-grade fissile material in reserve
. (Although the National Security Archive first submitted its declassification request to the Defense Department in 2006, the Interagency Security Classification Appeals panel only released the documents in March 2014.)