H-Diplo Article Review 942 on Sarkar. “U.S. Policy to Curb West European Nuclear Exports, 1974-1978.”

George Fujii's picture

H-Diplo Article Review 942

7 April 2020

Jayita Sarkar. “U.S. Policy to Curb West European Nuclear Exports, 1974-1978.” Journal of Cold War Studies 21:2 (Spring 2019): 110-149.

Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by N. Piers Ludlow, London School of Economics and Political Science

Jayita Sarkar has succeeded in piecing together a highly complicated tale spanning most of the 1970s and no fewer than four continents. In it Sarkar shows how the U.S. was ultimately able to limit the efforts by two of its major Western allies, France and West Germany, to export nuclear materiel and know-how to a variety of potentially sensitive destinations in the Global South—but not without a huge amount of difficulty en route. Furthermore, as so often in a Cold War world, self-limitation by one ideological bloc only served to open up opportunities for the other, with Eastern bloc suppliers able to provide the equipment to India that a West German company had been prevented from selling. In other words this is a complex tale of the politics and economics of nuclear non-proliferation, but also a valuable illustration of both some of the specificities of the 1970s, the decade in which it is set, and of some of the constant features of international interaction in a Cold War context.

The article draws upon a rich array of both primary and secondary research. The range of archives used is impressive: U.S. sources from both the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the Ford and Carter presidential libraries are the core ingredients, but they are valuably supplemented with materials from the Indian national archives and those of the French Foreign Ministry. Sarkar has thus made intelligent use of her pre-existing expertise on Franco-Indian nuclear relations, and her familiarity with the archival systems of both countries. The depth of her expertise on all matters nuclear is also strongly conveyed by the sheer weight and detail of the secondary literature referred to. The footnotes are almost Germanic in their desire to list all of the possible secondary sources that might be relevant, which can at times lend the article a slightly daunting appearance, but certainly increases its value for anyone wishing to put together a bibliography on nuclear non-proliferation, the politics of the 1970s, or the history of the Cold War. And the same impression of expertise is augmented by the string of footnotes referring to either texts or documents that have been supplied to the author by other specialists working in this field. This is thus very much an insider’s piece written with all the benefits that being a real specialist brings. Thankfully, however, Sarkar writes and explains clearly enough, and has been given sufficient space by the journal editors to set out the necessary background, in a way which means that even non-specialists can follow and gain much from the twisting tale that she tells.

This is important because there is much here that is of interest to Cold War historians who are not necessarily first and foremost nuclear experts or devotees of the tangled non-proliferation saga. Four particular points struck me about the West-West battle for control of nuclear-technology exports which she relates.

The first is the way in which this article underlines once more how much more complicated international politics had become by the 1970s than they had been in earlier, and perhaps simpler, periods of the Cold War. The context of Sarkar’s narrative is very clearly not just a bipolar world. Instead it is one where each superpower had to contend with increasingly self-assertive and independent minded allies, willing and able to defy superpower control if they saw fit to do so. Neither Paris nor Bonn were willing simply to do what Washington asked of them. Curbing their ambitions hence involved a complex process of give and take, leverage, pressure, and, in the French case at least, patterns of U.S. behaviour which Sarkar describes as ‘quid pro quos’ but might as accurately be termed nuclear bribery. The 1970s were thus a moment when the underlying complexities of West-West interaction, which had always been greater than many early Cold War histories implied, reached an unprecedented level.

The diversification of suppliers of nuclear know-how that Sarkar describes was matched by a radical expansion of possible markets. When nuclear proliferation had first become an international issue in the immediate postwar years, the likely aspirants to nuclear status tended to be European countries or China; two decades later the cast list had expanded massively, with multiple countries in the Global South wealthy and ambitious enough to seek both nuclear power stations and nuclear weapons. This made the task of controlling proliferation considerably harder, not least because of the way in which nuclear know-how could be transferred from one developing country to another. The potential political instability of some of those countries aspiring to acquire the bomb also made the stakes in the proliferation game even higher than they had been. But the implications of this change stretched beyond the question of proliferation, highlighting not simply the growing globalisation of the world economy, but also the degree to which agency and power was much more widely shared and spread than it had been in the early postwar period. Little wonder then that this was a decade where both Washington and Moscow fretted about their loosening control of global events.

A second narrower and more European-focused observation prompted by Sarkar’s research centres on the bizarre (and temporary) role reversal undergone by France and West Germany in the story that she recounts. France after all is the country usually cast as the ‘bad boy’ of transatlantic relations, the would-be rebel unwilling to follow Washington’s lead and prone to proclaim (if not always to follow) an independent course; the Federal Republic by contrast is most often portrayed as the loyal Atlanticist, ever-fearful of offending its nuclear guarantor, and much ‘better-behaved’ as a result. And yet in this particular story it was the West Germans rather than the French who proved the harder European ally for the Americans to control. To some extent this was down to personalities: Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was undoubtedly France’s most Atlanticist president of the Cold War era, whereas Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, while also an Atlanticist, had a famously stormy relationship with President Jimmy Carter. But, amusingly, it also reflected the consequences of previous Washington-Paris disputes. Thus the French, who had defied the U.S. and pressed ahead with an independent nuclear weapons programme and had consequently been ostracised by the Johnson administration, could be bought off in the 1970s by means of a judicious loosening of the restrictions that had been placed on any American help to the French force de frappe. The Germans, by contrast, had been brow-beaten during the 1960s into accepting that their nuclear know-how could only have an outlet in civilian power generation, renouncing the ambition to develop the bomb, and, unlike the French, signing up to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This meant, however, that when the U.S. wanted to stop German companies from deriving export revenue from their nuclear power expertise there much less that the Americans could offer as a reward for good behaviour. Instead, both the individual companies and the Bonn government were strongly inclined to earn maximum commercial benefit from their hard-won expertise, especially as the domestic outlets for nuclear power generation were already under threat from the country’s nascent environmental movement.

This then links to a third point of interest that is raised by Sarkar’s piece, namely the way in which the backdrop of the economic crisis that characterised most of the 1970s made it particularly difficult for any European government easily to forgo the economic opportunities that the large-scale export of its atomic savoir-faire could open up. At a time when so much was going wrong economically, neither France nor Germany could afford to have too many scruples about lucrative and high-tech contracts to furnish Brazil, India, or Iran with nuclear expertise. On the contrary, these were precisely the type of export orders that would help redress the trade balance, bring in sorely needed money, safeguard each country’s technological base, and garner some much-needed national prestige. It was hence unsurprising that it proved very difficult to dissuade either country from pressing ahead. And this aspect of Sarkar’s findings neatly foreshadows some of the most bitter transatlantic disputes of the early 1980s, when first Carter and then President Ronald Reagan tried unsuccessfully to push Western European countries into imposing economic sanctions on the Soviet bloc and into relinquishing their involvement in a Siberian gas pipeline project that would not only supply some of Western Europe’s energy needs but also provide high profile, high tech and high value contracts for hard-pressed European manufacturers.

Fourth and finally, Sarkar’s article reminds us that however much some aspects of the Cold War international system had changed by the 1970s, other basic realities of the East-West divide remained as they always had been. Nowhere was this clearer than in the denouement of Washington’s efforts to prevent a West German company from supplying India with the centrifuge technology that it required in order to produce the heavy water needed by its existing nuclear power stations. Sarkar reveals that the short-term success that the U.S. experienced in curbing West German ambitions, partly by threatening to use the residual powers that the wartime occupiers still retained over a Berlin-based company, ultimately, neither hindered Delhi’s nuclear plans nor limited the proliferation of nuclear technology. Rather, East German and Czechoslovak suppliers were able to step into the breach created by American policy, turning a U.S. West-West victory into an East-West defeat. Despite all the added complexity of international politics that characterised the Cold War’s final stages, the underlying potential for one bloc to be played off against the other, which had been there since the outset, was as prominent a feature of the 1970s as it had been from 1947 onwards.


Piers Ludlow is Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. A specialist on postwar Western Europe, his principal interests are the European integration process, Britain’s troubled relations with the EC/EU, and the Cold War. His latest book was Roy Jenkins and the European Commission Presidency, 1976-80: At the Heart of Europe? (Palgrave, 2016); his next will be an overview of Britain’s 47 years as an EC/EU member state.