In the 1950s, the United States considered deploying nuclear weapons in Iceland unbeknownst to Icelanders, according to declassified documents published by the National Security Archive.
“At the end of the 1950s, the US Navy ordered the construction of a facility for storing nuclear depth bombs, an Advanced Underseas Weapons (AUW) Shop at the outskirts of Keflavik Airport”, the National Security Archive wrote. “The AUW facility was built by local Icelandic workers who thought its purpose was to store torpedoes”.
At that point, Iceland, which is located in the northwest Atlantic halfway between the US and Europe, was seen as a perfect choke point to block Soviet submarines. In the late 1950s and the 1960s, atomic weapons such as the US Navy's ASROC rocket-launched nuclear depth charge were widely deployed. The nuclear arms stored in Iceland could have potentially been used by US ships and aircraft conducting anti-submarine missions.
However, despite having joined NATO in 1949, Iceland was firmly against US nukes on its soil and had a strong domestic opposition to the US military presence, led by the Icelandic Anti-War Movement. A 1955 survey showed that more Icelanders opposed US bases than supported them.
These proposals were ultimately rejected by Tyler Thompson, US ambassador to Iceland, in August 1960, who suggested that the possibility of Iceland’s withdrawal from NATO in protest “should not be overlooked”. Furthermore, he added, a “dramatic row” could be expected from US “friends and allies”, as well as an adverse effect on neutrals, a “propaganda field day” for the country's enemies.
All references to Iceland were deleted from the archival release of Thompson’s letter but his signature and other evidence confirms that the subject matter was Iceland. Further research indicated that nuclear weapons had been an issue in US relations with Iceland since the Korean War when Icelandic officials first inquired whether the US had deployment plans.
While the US nukes never made it to Iceland, it remained at least a theoretical possibility in the following decades. A presidential directive from the Nixon period treated Iceland as one of several “Conditional Deployment” locations, where nuclear weapons could be stored in the event of war.
In May 1951, Iceland and the US secretly signed a defence agreement under which the US took over the defence of Iceland, a decision which local elites believed was necessary in light of the Korean War and Iceland’s historically disarmed status. The arrangement was accompanied by mass discontent and even riots. To placate the public, the Icelandic government limited the US task force to 3,900 men and specifically insisted on the exclusion of African-American soldiers.
The full list of nations that have participated in the NATO nuclear weapons stockpile programme during the Cold War is yet to be made public.