In Copenhagen, 18 August 1959, a cocktail party is in full swing.
The Danish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Jens Otto Krag, is deep in conversation with the American Ambassador Val Peterson, but the conversation has just taken a turn. The ambassador has informed Krag that the question of establishing a US scientific military base, powered by a nuclear reactor under the Greenland ice sheet, had moved beyond the embassy’s control.
Eight years earlier, Denmark and the US had signed a formal agreement granting America the right to maintain military bases in Greenland—but only in strictly defined areas, such as Thule Air Base in Northwest Greenland. They still needed approval from the Danish authorities for all activities outside these defence areas.
In this case, they had gone ahead with construction of the camp outside of the designated areas, without Denmark’s approval as required by the 1951 Defence Agreement. It was, as Peterson described it, “a dreadful blunder” from the American’s side.
The application had been sent earlier that year, but contrary to custom, Denmark had yet to respond.
Impatient, the US Army had decided to go ahead and construction was already under way. Peterson now asked Krag whether they could “hurry the case along.”
A nuclear reactor under the Greenland ice sheet
A nuclear reactor installed in an American military camp under the ice? And the work had begun without Danish approval! This was dangerous news for the government and civil service in Copenhagen. And nobody knew the full extent of the story.
Krag had of course sought to question Peterson closely on the size and purpose of the nuclear reactor, but Peterson had not offered many answers. So Krag wrote to the then Minister for Greenland, Kai Lindberg, instructing him to inform the US ambassador that “in this context, I cannot review the case, but I will ensure that it will be investigated as soon as possible and that I will naturally do what I can to ensure a calm solution.”
Two days after the alarming conversation at the cocktail party, a crisis meeting was called in the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss the case. The problem was not the nuclear reactor per se. As the Director of the Foreign Ministry, Nils Svenningsen, put it, there were no major “technical issues with a reactor at that location.”
No nuclear weapons in Denmark!
The problem was one of domestic politics. Svenningsen suggested that if the military camp became public knowledge it “could give rise to an unpleasant public debate that could have particularly adverse effects over the preceding defence negotiations.”
A focal point of the defence negotiations was the question of nuclear weapons on Danish soil. Two years earlier in 1957, Denmark had allowed the Americans to install air defence and artillery missiles, but nuclear warheads were not permitted.
The Danish Prime Minister at the time, H. C. Hansen, had stated that Denmark did not wish to receive nuclear weapons “under the present conditions.”
Supporting the popular “no to nuclear weapons in Denmark” movement was crucial for the Social Democrats to form a coalition government with other political parties (The Social Liberal Party and The Justice Party), which were sceptical of NATO and pro-disarmament.