Norwegian Nuclear Policy 1945-1970 


Kjetil Skogrand, Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies

We live in the era of surgical bombing. There is little acceptance for so-called
“collateral damage” in global public opinion. It is expected that a missile is able to hit an individual building in a city area, carefully avoiding any hospitals or schools that may be located in the same neighbourhood. In the classical nuclear age from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s the concepts of war were very different. Even a relatively small nuclear bomb of 20 kilotons would destroy all brick buildings within the radius of a kilometre, and a wooden building would be instantly set on fire within the range of 3 kilometres. Admittedly, the actual target could be a military base, an airport or a railroad junction, but the surrounding city would still be incinerated. If a full-fledged nuclear war had broken out around, say, 1960, it could have resulted in the loss of more than half a billion lives, the majority of which would of course have been civilian. The contrast to present military strategies is indeed striking.

Last year Professor Rolf Tamnes and I concluded a project on Norwegian nuclear policy from 1945 to 1970. The project was funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Defence. We were given full access to all official sources in Norway, military as well as civilian. We were also granted access to allied archives in Brussels and Mons. The utilisation of classified sources made it necessary to subject the manuscript to screening by Nato and Norwegian authorities upon completion, but this process did not result in any alterations or omissions.

In this paper I shall give an outline of the Norwegian nuclear policy from the end of World War II until about 1970. Let me start by introducing a principal
distinction that forms the basis for the structure of this paper. Norwegian nuclear policy can be divided into two categories. One can be termed the declaratory part – official statements about the political guidelines. The other category is operational practice, i.e. the concrete military activities. In principle of course, the last category should reflect the first. Following a presentation of the official policy and the operational activities, I shall move on to discuss whether there was in fact any correspondence between theory and practice; between what the Norwegians did, and what they said they did.

Official Norwegian Nuclear Policy

By joining the Atlantic Treaty in 1949 Norway became a member of an alliance where the dominant power, the United States, had nuclear capability. Five years later, in 1954, nuclear weapons were assigned a principal position in allied strategy, as the alliance introduced the doctrine of massive retaliation. The basic feature of this new doctrine was deterrence based on the ability to launch a massive nuclear strike so devastating that it would threaten to annihilate the enemy as civilisation.

Several years passed before this strategy had any practical implications for
Norway. Therefore the Norwegian authorities felt no need to formulate any explicit policies on nuclear issues.

However, when Norway joined the Atlantic Treaty, it had formulated a general
policy on foreign bases, stating that no foreign troops would be allowed to be
stationed on Norwegian soil in peacetime. The implications of this reservation for the possible introduction of nuclear weapons were probably not contemplated at all at the time. However, it would turn out that this reservation also put restrictions on the possibility to introduce nuclear ammunition into Norwegian units, since American legislation insisted that such warheads were to be guarded by American personnel, so-called custodian troops. This meant that the policy of prohibiting foreign troops on Norwegian soil in peacetime would have to be altered if nuclear
weapons were to be stationed in Norway.

During the years from 1949 to 1957 Norway still had no official policy concerning the possible introduction of nuclear weapons into Norwegian territory. However, when nuclear matters were discussed in the alliance during these years, certain patterns in Norwegian attitudes and statements could be discerned. These patterns would prove to be permanent. First of all, Norway accepted that the alliance strategy rested on deterrence based on nuclear weapons. However, from the outset Norway emphasised that the alliance also needed a credible conventional capability, and Norwegian representatives kept emphasising this point even throughout the years of massive retaliation. Secondly, Norway was against any proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially when it came to the control of releasing the weapons. The individual European member states should not be given the possibility to use nuclear weapons at their own will. Thirdly, the control of nuclear weapons should be political. In principle, the Norwegians held the view that any
decision to use nuclear weapons should be an issue for deliberation in appropriate Nato organs. If that proved impossible, the releasing authority should rest with the American president personally. Norway opposed any delegation of releasing authority to the military.

The following period, from 1957 to 1963, appears as the classical nuclear period in Norway. In the alliance these years were marked by an effort to adapt plans and force structure to the principles of massive retaliation. One important new step in that direction was taken when the allied summit meeting of December 1957 decided that nuclear weapons should be stored in each of the individual member states. Prior to this decision, it had been the policy of the American administration that nuclear warheads should be stockpiled centrally and only be distributed to the individual European military units in the case of grave crisis or war. As a result of the decisions in December 1957, nuclear weapons were stored in special storage sites under American control in the vicinity of the units for which they were earmarked.

Confronted with these developments, Norwegian authorities formulated a nuclear policy that was never substantially altered.

Firstly, Norway wanted to be able to utilise nuclear support from allied forces, not only in the case of a general retaliatory strike, but also tactically as part of an effort to defend Norwegian territory. We might call this the allied option.

Secondly, Norway rejected any stationing of nuclear warheads on Norwegian soil in peacetime. This was going to be the main element of Norwegian nuclear policy for the time to come. The principle of no peacetime stationing of nuclear weapons was first laid down at the party convention of the ruling Norwegian Labour Party in the summer of 1957, and at the summit meeting in Paris in December that year it was announced as official Norwegian policy by the Prime Minister, Einar Gerhardsen. As a corollary, the establishment of Norwegian forces with nuclear weapons, what we might term a Norwegian peacetime option, was ruled out. At the same time as several Continental European states eagerly welcomed the possibility of establishing their own nuclear units, the Norwegian government simply said no.

However, and this is the third point, there was widespread support among
Norwegian decision makers that a Norwegian crisis or wartime option should be kept open, meaning that nuclear warheads could be transported to Norway and utilised by Norwegian troops in crisis or war.

In the years following immediately after the announcement of the nuclear
non-stationing policy, this policy was an issue of considerable debate in Norway, both among principal decision-makers and the general public. In 1961 this debate reached a conclusion, when the Norwegian parliament debated the nuclear question and confirmed that the self-imposed restrictions enjoyed broad political support across the political spectrum. The parliamentary debate did not rule out the Norwegian crisis or wartime option, however. In principle Norwegian forces could still receive nuclear warheads if peace were threatened, and there were no formal barriers against Norwegian forces preparing for such a possibility.

However, the concept of a Norwegian nuclear capability now seemed rather
remote, and the development in the years to come would make it only
theoretical. Thus, in 1963 Defence Minister Gudmund Harlem turned down an
American offer for a so-called "stand-by agreement". The actual offer was an
arrangement whereby the Norwegian F-104 Starfighter aircraft would be certified for carrying nuclear bombs, whereas earmarked nuclear warheads would be available from overseas stockpiles and could be transported to Norway at short notice. Later the same year the Defence Minister publicly announced in Parliament that Norwegian personnel did not exercise in the use of nuclear warheads. This statement was not formulated as an official addition to the Norwegian self-imposed restrictions, but gradually, the absence of nuclear training became part of an extended interpretation of Norwegian nuclear policies. In other words, after 1963, all peacetime preparations for a possible Norwegian nuclear role were ruled out.

During the years of massive retaliation Norway came under substantial allied
pressure to alter the self-imposed nuclear restrictions. This pressure eased during the 1960s, at the same time as the doctrine of massive retaliation gave way to flexible response. Officially, flexible response did not replace massive retaliation as Nato doctrine before 1967. In practice, however, the revision of war plans and exercises had started several years before. At the political level in the United States and Great Britain the Norwegian restrictions were gradually accepted. As time went by the restrictions were even appreciated as a contribution to stability on the Northern Flank. Allied military staffs were less than satisfied, however. Thus, the question of preparing Norwegian units for the use of nuclear ammunition was raised a number of times, even into the 1980s.

Norwegian Nuclear Integration in Practice

Having discussed the official Norwegian nuclear policy, it is time to look at the
operational activities. At the same time as Norway developed a set of nuclear
restrictions, it was confronted with allied demands of practical nuclear integration. Such steps could be divided into two categories. Firstly, there was a demand for stationing rights and various facilities on Norwegian soil. Secondly, Norwegian units and personnel were needed to support allied nuclear forces.

Stationing Rights and Facilities

When it comes to stationing rights and installations, the first arrangement that
should be noticed is the base arrangement for the American Strategic Air
. SAC was the main executor of American nuclear retaliation until
inter-continental missiles were introduced, but kept an important role even later. In 1952 two Norwegian airfields, Sola outside Stavanger and Gardermoen outside Oslo were earmarked for SAC in wartime. The principal element of the arrangement was intermediate landings for escort fighters as well as bomber aircraft returning from their missions.

Another important stationing arrangement was the earmarking of a small
American tactical air force unit for Norway. The unit was named 3rd Air Force Task Force North, and in wartime it would be transferred to Norway and placed under the control of the Allied Command Northern Europe, which had its headquarters at Kolsås right outside Oslo. The first main wartime base for the unit was Sola, but this was later changed to Flesland outside Bergen. This unit was a practical example of what I have referred to as the “allied option”. One of the tasks of the unit was to perform tactical nuclear strikes against Soviet forces that were advancing against Norway, or which had already established a beachhead on Norwegian soil.

Thirdly, Norway was the host of a whole range of installations, storage facilities and headquarters that could be utilised by allied nuclear forces. A number of allied command posts in Norway would support nuclear operations in wartime. Communication systems could be utilised for coordinating the attacks. Radar stations were part of the allied networks. Navigation aids would help the nuclear forces find their way to their targets. Harbours and airfields could receive allied nuclear units. Various types of intelligence activities in Norway helped identify suitable nuclear targets for the allied strike plans, and intelligence from Norway would also play a vital role in actually executing a nuclear offensive on the Northern Flank.

Fourthly, special storage facilities for nuclear warheads were built in Norway. Most of these facilities were earmarked for Norwegian forces, but some of them were meant for allied reinforcements. Because of the nuclear policy the storage facilities could not be utilised for their original purpose in peacetime. However, the facilities at Flesland included a so-called "dummy", i.e., a bomb without a live nuclear warhead, for the purpose of exercises. There are also some indications that there might have been stockpiles of non-nuclear components for nuclear bombs at Flesland, earmarked for the allied reinforcement unit from 3rd Air Force. The actual warheads were going to be flown in from allied arsenals outside Norway when the aircraft were transferred.

Norwegian Participation

Let us now move from installations to people. What kind of assistance could
Norwegian personnel perform in order to support the nuclear defence efforts of the alliance? Norwegian contributions can be divided into two functions: indirect and direct support.

Norwegian personnel would support nuclear attacks indirectly by manning all the facilities mentioned above. They would not literally "push the button", but they would support the ones who did. Norwegian fighter aircraft also had a more direct supporting role connected to the execution of the atomic strike plan of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). Norwegian striker bombers would attack air control systems with conventional weapons, whereas the reconnaissance fighters would contribute to the evaluation of the nuclear strikes. The targets were in Northwest Russia, Finland, the Baltic region, Poland and the GDR.

The nuclear policy effectively prevented the establishment of Norwegian nuclear forces in peacetime. Still in the period from 1957 and into the early 1960s some preparations were undertaken, either for the possibility that the Norwegian government would alter its position on stationing, or in order to make it easier to transfer nuclear warheads to Norwegian troops in crisis or war. Three such preparatory measures could be mentioned. 

Firstly, Norway received several weapons systems that had dual capability, i.e. they could employ both nuclear and conventional ammunition. These weapons systems included the surface-to-surface missile Honest John, the air defence missile Nike, various models of fighter aircraft, and, towards the end of the period, the 155 mm self-propelled gun M 109G. None of these weapons systems or platforms was ever certified for nuclear use in Norway.

Secondly, a few fighter pilots were introduced to nuclear delivery techniques. 

However, the Americans refused to let Norwegian personnel be fully trained for nuclear delivery as long as Norway kept the nuclear non-stationing policy. In any case, Norwegian personnel could only have been certified if Norway had signed a formal agreement on the exchange of nuclear information. Norwegian authorities never signed such an agreement. 

Thirdly, as I have already mentioned, nuclear storage facilities earmarked for
Norwegian forces were built on Norwegian territory. Pending a possible change of Norwegian policies, or an actual crisis or war, the storage rooms were used for storing conventional ammunition.

Statements vs. Realities

Now that we have discussed official policies and practical activities separately, it is time to consider the degree of correspondence between them. Despite many accusations of covert nuclear activities in Norway, none of the preparatory steps that have been mentioned constituted a clear violation of the official restrictions. No nuclear warheads were stored on Norwegian soil. As for the storage sites, no statement had been made that prohibited the establishment of such facilities, as long as they were not activated. However, if information about the "dummy" bomb and the non-nuclear bomb components at Flesland had leaked to the general public, it would probably have been seen as a major embarrassment for the government. The limited exercises in nuclear delivery methods in the Air Force did not violate any statements. By the time the Defence Minister proclaimed that such exercises did not take place in 1963, they had already been terminated. Admittedly, some pilots came briefly in touch with similar exercise patterns in Canada for another two years, until 1965, but that was because they were following a course designed for Canadian pilots.

Despite the lack of actual violations of the self-imposed restrictions, there is still reason to ask whether there was a general accord between the image of
Norwegian nuclear policy that was presented to the general public and the actual extent of Norwegian involvement in allied nuclear activities. As opposed to the United States and some European states, there was no public effort to “educate” the public about the necessity of nuclear preparations, rather the opposite. Admittedly, Norwegian public documents sometimes contained indirect and convoluted references to a number of measures that connected Norway to nuclear defence efforts. Moreover, in a public lecture Defence Minister Nils Handal once underlined that Norwegian forces would be equipped with weapons that could utilise nuclear warheads, and stated that it would not take much time to modify the weapons for such ammunition. However, public statements of this kind were rare. The Norwegian authorities took greater care to inform the public about the Norwegian restrictions than the extent of measures that served to integrate Norwegian installations and military personnel into the allied nuclear defence machinery. Based on official statements, one could be led to believe that Norway was effectively isolated from activities associated with the allied nuclear effort. Such an impression would, however, not be in accordance with the actual degree of nuclear integration.

On the other hand there was nothing in the actual public statements that explicitly blocked operational nuclear cooperation. No official declaration prohibited Norwegian personnel from taking part in exercises where they supported simulated allied nuclear operations. A key to the understanding of the Norwegian nuclear policy is that the restrictions only covered exactly what had been stated, nothing more. To a certain degree this might have been deceptive, but it was not based on direct lies.

Motives and Perspectives

Why did Norway adopt a nuclear policy based on self-imposed restrictions? The motives behind Norwegian nuclear policy could be summed up as follows:

Firstly, Norway wished to avoid a provocative stand against its eastern neighbour, the Soviet Union. It could be argued that the nuclear policy was a successful contribution to keeping the High North as an area of relatively low tension during the Cold War. The nuclear policy could thus be seen as a confidence-building measure in the High North.

The second motive was the Nordic balance. During the Cold War there existed a de facto balance of power in Scandinavia. In the western part of the region Denmark and Norway were members of Nato, but rejected nuclear weapons and the permanent stationing of foreign troops (although Denmark admitted that American nuclear weapons were stationed on Greenland in the period from 1958 to 1965). In the middle was Sweden, a non-aligned democracy with a strong national defence but no national nuclear force. In the east Finland kept its independence and democracy, despite having a Pact of Friendship and Security with the Soviet Union. It was assumed that a substantial change in the security policies of any of the Scandinavian countries would have implications for all of them. More specifically it was thought that introducing nuclear weapons in Norway or Denmark would lead to Soviet pressure on the Finns to accept closer military links to the Soviet Union. This would in turn put Sweden under pressure to reassess its security posture, possibly by introducing nuclear weapons in Swedish arsenals.

A third motive was to protect Norwegian freedom of manoeuvre in a crisis.
Although Norwegian authorities wanted allied nuclear forces to be available for use in Norway, the Norwegians were careful to avoid plans that would imply automatic, or almost automatic, transfer of nuclear forces in an emergency.

The fourth reason was domestic concerns. Popular nuclear protest in Norway was strong and widespread. Moreover, as opposed to most European Nato-members Norway did not have a pro-nuclear political elite detached from popular concerns. Most Norwegian politicians, be they conservatives, centrists or social democrats, displayed a fundamental distaste for nuclear matters in general. Whereas most of them accepted in principle that Norwegian security had to be based on nuclear deterrence, they had no wish to contemplate the practical consequences of such a conclusion. Some of them even harboured a deep scepticism towards nuclear weapons. Prime Minister Gerhardsen himself was among the strongest sceptics. From a domestic point of view the self-imposed nuclear restrictions served as an eminent way of avoiding tension, painful debates and possible rifts: it was possible to feel detached from the ominous sides of allied defence strategies, while the attention of the general public was drawn away from the actual nuclear integration of Norwegian defence installations and forces.

It should also be noted that Norwegian attitudes to international cooperation have often been ambivalent. On the one hand Norway has wanted to enjoy the fruits of cooperation. On the other hand the will to accept burdens has been limited. In international cooperation Norway has therefore sought to maximise the benefits of collective arrangements, while at the same time minimising the costs. This also applies to Norwegian alliance policies, which have been described as a balance between integration and screening, i.e., between the wish to bolster the allied security guarantee through intimate cooperation, while on the other hand limiting the extent of allied infringement. Norwegian nuclear policies can be seen in this perspective. Norway wanted to be protected by the nuclear umbrella, but preferred to avoid the burden of having the weapons stationed on her own territory. The Norwegian authorities wanted allied nuclear support to be available if Norway were attacked, but some Norwegian decision-makers thought that the Russians would be less likely to launch a first strike against Norway if the weapons were not
actually present on Norwegian soil in peacetime. A few in the Norwegian political elite seem to have hoped that the self-imposed nuclear restrictions would allow Norway to escape the nuclear Armageddon altogether: the terrible nuclear exchange could take place over the heads of the Norwegians, and the conflict would be over before any of the parties had employed nuclear weapons against targets on Norwegian territory. The realism of such an idea could seem questionable, but it played a substantial role among actors closely linked with Prime Minister Einar Gerhardsen.

Decision-making procedures

The public debate on Norwegian nuclear policy has often focused on
decision-making procedures. It has been claimed that nuclear activities took place in Norway without the knowledge of political authorities. The research project on Norwegian nuclear policy has found no basis for supporting such accusations. In most cases it can be documented that nuclear questions were discussed extensively in the relevant decision-making bodies. Almost all of the questions were discussed in the Cabinet Security Committee, and most of them were also debated by the Cabinet at large. Moreover, the Extended Parliamentary Committee on Foreign and Constitutional Affairs was notified of almost all relevant questions.


Summing up, Norwegian nuclear policies can be viewed from different angles. One perspective would be to emphasise the Norwegian policy as a deviation from the general norm in the alliance. Norway could be seen as a free rider in an alliance where most of the members had to pay for nuclear deterrence by accepting the weapons on their own territory. The nuclear umbrella that protected Norway could not have existed if all European countries had taken the same position. Norway wanted to have its cake and eat it.

Another angle would be to underline that the fact Norway was deeply integrated into allied nuclear structures, and claim that the Norwegian public was deceived and instilled with a false feeling of distance from the nuclear arms race.

It could also be observed that the Norwegian nuclear policy was a delicate
balancing trick, perhaps on the borderline between genius and schizophrenia. In this way the Norwegian nuclear policy is hardly unique. Similar tendencies can be seen in the foreign policy of many a small state which has to take conflicting domestic and foreign interests into consideration.


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