54 Cablegram from Department of External Affairs to Embassy in Washington

Canberra, 28 April 1962

744. Top Secret Immediate

S.E.A.T.O. and the Use of Nuclear Weapons

Please arrange to have the following message delivered to the Secretary of State1 from the Minister2 before the Secretary's3 departure from Washington.4


Dear Mr Secretary,

At the heart of the free world's deterrent in the present world situation is the United States' possession of nuclear weapons and its willingness in the last resort to use them to resist communist aggression. In the formulation of co-operative plans for mutual defence, the possibility that nuclear weapons may have to be used has been recognized and in this way the treaty partners of the United States would become involved as parties principal if ever nuclear weapons were used in joint resistance to aggression.

The far-reaching implications of this situation were the subject of discussion in our Cabinet here when it reviewed at an earlier stage, the possibilities of an Allied intervention to prevent Laos being over-run. The Cabinet indicated that they would like some important aspects of this matter to be explored further with the United States.5

In S.E.A.T.O. two counter-insurgency plans (Plans 5 and 7) and two plans for limited war (Plans 4 and 6) have been drawn up.6 The use of nuclear weapons is not planned in the counterinsurgency operations. But it is accepted as a possibility in the limited war plans, the relevant assumption being worded as follows:

'S.E.A.T.O. forces will be prepared to use nuclear weapons on suitable enemy targets if the situation demands. This does not imply the automatic use of nuclear weapons and would be dependent on political agreement'.

It is, I think, the common view of all S.E.A.T.O. Governments that a decision to use nuclear weapons would be a political decision of supreme and lasting importance and one not to be taken by reference solely to military considerations viewed in isolation. But grave though the decision would be, it is one which might, in certain circumstances, have to be taken quickly or which might be forced upon the United States and her partners by the nature of communist response to S.E.A.T.O. action.

A counter-insurgency operation, for example, could escalate rapidly into limited war which, in the worst case, could confront S.E.A.T.O. powers with the alternatives of using nuclear weapons or of accepting defeat. Since the time for securing the 'political agreement' referred to in the preceding paragraph might be short, the Australian Government believes that an effort should be made to see what measure of advance understanding can be reached on the circumstances in which the use of nuclear weapons would be necessary.

I know that this problem is not new to the United States Government and that many aspects of it must have been faced, and are still being faced, in discussion with your N.A.T.O. partners. But the situation in South East Asia-particularly in the Protocol States7-is different in important respects from that in Europe, so that European solutions may not be susceptible of precise application in this theatre. If, in a situation of limited war in South East Asia, Western powers were the first to have recourse to nuclear weapons against an Asian country, neutral Asian and African powers could be expected to react strongly. This could lead to attitudes of non-cooperation or hostility towards the West on a wide range of matters. I am not suggesting that this consideration should necessarily be an overriding one, but mention it as one of the more important of several factors which we should like to see discussed with our Allies.

During your forthcoming visit to Australia,8 I should like to have an opportunity of exchanging views on the following points—

  1. the implications of the possibility that a counter-insurgency operation in the S.E.A.T.O. area may expand into a situation of limited war calling for the use of nuclear weapons;
  2. the extent to which criteria can be determined in advance by which the necessity for the use of nuclear weapons can be judged;
  3. the extent to which criteria can be determined in advance to judge what should be the purpose and scale of the initial use of nuclear weapons;
  4. the extent to which these criteria can take account of the dangers of escalation;
  5. by what means it is to be assured that the decision to use nuclear weapons remains a political and not a military one;
  6. what procedures of consultation should be adopted in order to ensure that countries which share the consequences of the decision to use nuclear weapons participate in the making of it.

That these are matters seemingly touching the independence of actions of countries possessing nuclear weapons I am fully aware. For this and other reasons I have taken the liberty of writing to you in advance of our meeting to tell you of our Cabinet's interest in the matter and of my hope that we may discuss the subject in Canberra.

[NAA: A11786, 11]