ANN: Declassified Documents Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions

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Nuclear Weapons and the Law of War

Negotiation of Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, 1974-1977

Pentagon Feared Agreement Would Be Read as Prohibiting Nuclear Use

Joint Staff: Not "Feasible" to Protect Civilians in "General Nuclear War"

Washington, D.C., June 6, 2023 - U.S. officials and NATO allies feared that international talks meant to strengthen the protection of civilians during conflicts could lead to a ban on the use of nuclear weapons, according to a September 1975 memorandum by the Pentagon's Joint Staff posted today by the National Security Archive. Published as part of a new Electronic Briefing Book on the negotiations that produced Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the Defense Department memo reveals some of the concerns that underlay the initial U.S. position that Protocol I would not apply to nuclear weapons use.

Negotiated during the mid-1970s, in the shadow of the Vietnam War and anti-colonial rebellions, a major purpose of "International Humanitarian Law" was to create rules of war that shielded civilians from intentional attack. Seeking better arrangements for the protection of prisoners of war and wanting to improve the U.S. reputation after the Vietnam War, U.S. negotiators participated in the talks that produced Protocol I, but the results troubled U.S. officials and NATO allies because of their implications for nuclear weapons use. It was not "feasible" to apply the provisions for the protection of civilians "in the event of general nuclear war," according to the Pentagon.

Today's posting focuses on U.S. government and inter-allied discussions of nuclear weapons during the 1974-1977 negotiations, shedding light on some of the innovative features of Protocol I and their broader implications. A West German aide-memoire reveals Bonn's concern that, if Protocol I prohibitions went into effect, they could call into question the "first use of nuclear weapons [which] is an element contained solely in NATO's concept of deterrence." Other declassified documents included in the posting disclose U.S. efforts to placate West German officials, whose concerns about the nuclear use issue persisted.

Also included in the posting are major reviews of Protocol I by NATO's Military Committee and by a Defense Department working group, both of which assumed that the rules did not apply to nuclear weapons use. The Pentagon report expressed concern about prohibitions of "attacks against the civilian population or civilians by way of reprisals." Defense officials saw the threat of reprisals "as an essential means for deterring violations of the law of war" and wanted "to preserve the right of reprisal in some types of widespread conventional warfare." The State Department rejected the Defense proposal, but the problem of reprisals would be a continuing issue in U.S. government discussions of Protocol I.


THE NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE is an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The Archive collects and publishes declassified documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A tax-exempt public charity, the Archive receives no U.S. government funding; its budget is supported by publication royalties and donations from foundations and individuals.