Miller Center

Nixon and the Amchitka Nuclear Test, November 1971

by Patrick J. Garrity

On November 6, 1971, the United States conducted a controversial high-yield nuclear weapons test beneath Amchitka Island, Alaska. Earlier that day the U.S. Supreme Court, by a 4–3 vote, had declined to issue an injunction to halt the test. In White House conversations later that month, President Richard Nixonclaimed that he had been prepared to defy the Court and order the test to proceed if the injunction had been granted.

Nixon’s assertion, made privately to California Governor Ronald Reagan and others, should be viewed with some skepticism. According to Nixon’s later recollection, he had told National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger of his decision just before the Court’s decision was issued. That conversation was not recorded. There is no evidence that Nixon ordered any staff work to implement such an action. No legal briefs were prepared. The President often gave impulsive orders to the White House staff and government officials that were never acted upon. That said, it is not inconceivable that Nixon might have decided, for political and perceived national security reasons, to take the plunge and issue such an executive order. What would have happened at that point – how the order would have been received by the Pentagon, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the Justice Department, much less by the Congress, the press, and the public – is a fascinating trip down a road not taken.

The White House recordings about the Amchitka nuclear test reveal much about Nixon’s view of the relationship between national security and his domestic political situation heading into the 1972 election. His insistence that the test proceed despite considerable public opposition – and resistance within his own administration – offers an intriguing case study of Nixon’s attitudes during the fall of 1971, before Watergate and the foreign policy accomplishments of the following year fundamentally defined his presidency.

During the summer and autumn of 1971, President Nixon and his closet advisers devoted numerous Oval Office conversations to issues surrounding an underground nuclear weapons test scheduled to take place beneath the Aleutian island of Amchitka, Alaska. The test, designated “Cannikin,” was a high-yield event associated with the development of the Spartan warhead for the U.S. Safeguard Antiballistic Missile (ABM) system. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) considered the expected yield too large to be contained by the Nevada Test Site, so it was moved to a location in the Aleutians where several nuclear tests had previously occurred. Opponents filed a lawsuit in federal court (Committee for Nuclear Responsibility v. Schlesinger), charging that the test was being conducted without adequate review as mandated by the newly enacted National Environmental Policy Act. Some experts warned that the explosion might trigger earthquakes or tsunamis, but the environmentalists’ complaints centered on the long-term aftereffects of radiation leakage. Arms control groups argued that the test would spur the offense-defense arms race and violate the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which prohibits nuclear testing in the atmosphere, under water, and in outer space. Other foreign policy experts warned about the adverse political effects of conducting a nuclear weapon test adjacent to Soviet territory, especially at a sensitive juncture in the strategic arms limitation talks (SALT).

Despite these objections, Nixon was eager for the Amchitka test to proceed. In a discussion with Kissinger on August 3, 1971 (Conversation 269-025), Nixon sought confirmation that the Pentagon and the AEC were aware that he had directly approved the test. The President also disparaged the environmentalist concerns. (In subsequent conversations, Nixon noted that some on the White House staff and elsewhere in the administration opposed the test, which in his mind was another reason to push ahead.) Nixon had been told that the test was necessary to complete development of the Safeguard ABM system and that any delay would set that program back substantially. He believed that the U.S. ABM program was one of the few negotiating levers the United States held in SALT. Nixon and Kissinger were prepared to delay the test and its public announcement for tactical reasons. They discussed putting off the test for a few days if it conflicted with the announcement of a summit meeting with the Soviet Union. Neither man seemed to think that this was a major diplomatic problem, however, certainly not one that justified a delay of weeks (Conversation 277-18).

Nixon’s most frequently cited private reason for pushing ahead with the Cannikin test was his determination to reestablish his political credibility with conservatives outside the administration. Throughout 1971 he had prodded Kissinger and other key officials to brief key conservative figures such as William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan about the administration’s defense and arms control policies. These briefings had two purposes. First, Nixon wanted to encourage conservatives to support the administration on contentious defense issues; he and Kissinger complained repeatedly that conservatives had deserted their post instead of making a public case for controversial programs such as ABM. Second, in anticipation of diplomatic breakthroughs with Russia and China, Nixon sought to inoculate himself against conservative accusations that he had become soft on national security. The Amchitka test fell into the second category, as Nixon explained to Press Secretary Ronald Ziegler and White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman on October 27, the day that the AEC announced a date for the Cannikin test.

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President Nixon: Yeah, I have made the decision. It’ll be announced at two o’clock today. Now incidentally, you know the significance of that? You don’t, you don’t realize it, or maybe you do, that helps us.

Henry Kissinger: Of course I do.

President Nixon: —on the right.

Kissinger: Oh yeah.

President Nixon: See? Because they’ve all thought we weren’t going to do it.

Bob Haldeman: Tell [Governor Ronald W.] Reagan [R-California] we’re taking unmitigated heat in order to keep that thing going. We need all the support of the right or we’re going to lose [unclear], too.

President Nixon: That’s right. That’s right.

In the meantime, the matter had reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and Attorney General John Mitchell warned Nixon that the decision was likely to be close (Conversation 620-012). The nominations of two Nixon appointees, William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell Jr., were still pending in the Senate. Had those two men been on the Court, Mitchell told Nixon, the issue would not have been a problem, implying his expectation that Rehnquist and Powell would have ruled in favor of the government. To Nixon’s relief, on November 6, 1971, the day that the Cannikin nuclear device was scheduled to be detonated, the Court declined in a 4–3 decision to issue an injunction to stop the test while the matter was reviewed by the lower courts.

Ten days later, Nixon reminded Kissinger of a conversation on November 6, prior to the Court’s decision, in which the President had said he would order the test to proceed even if the Court issued an injunction, unless the decision against the government was unanimous.

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Kissinger: You said to me that if—unless—that if the Supreme Court voted against it, you’d go ahead anyway, unless it were unanimous.
President Nixon: That’s right. I decided that morning.
Kissinger: You said that to me that morning.
President Nixon: Of course, because the Supreme Court had no goddamn right to determine this. And I was perfectly prepared to go through, and all hell would’ve broken loose, and I would have done it.

Editor’s Note: There is no record of any such conversation on November 6, 1971, in the White House recordings. This was a Saturday. 

 Several days after the test, on November 10, Nixon spoke by telephone with Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater to stress that his continued toughness on national defense and determination to proceed with programs such as ABM . Nixon used the Cannikin test as an example of his strong position, although he did not then reference his intent to order the test in the event of an adverse Supreme Court ruling.

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President Nixon: Good. Let me say one other thing on the Amchitka thing. You know, going forward and that was essential, because if we hadn’t our ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] and everything was down the tube you know for a year.

Goldwater: I know it.

President Nixon: So we did it. And it didn’t blow up the Arctic and the seals are still swimming.

Goldwater: Well, you told me last August you were going to go through with that and I’m damn proud of you for—

President Nixon: I wish you’d tell some of our good…because you have stroke with them, you know . . . the conservative friends like [columnist William F. or Senator James] Buckley and others that goddamn it, I’m no disarmer. You know, I’m fighting. As you know, it’s the Congress that’s trying to disarm, Barry. I’m not.

Goldwater: Plus what you inherited: 10 years of no development.

President Nixon: Well, 10 years of [Defense Secretary Robert S.] McNamara for Christ’s sakes.

Goldwater: Right.

President Nixon: The Russians have caught us now. Now we’re just—and listen, if we don’t get arms control—[National Security Adviser Henry A.] Kissinger just walked in—let me tell you, we’re going to turn. We’re going to start going. I can prove you. I can tell you that.

Goldwater: We’re going to have to.


During this telephone conversation, Goldwater praised a speech that Nixon had delivered the previous day, November 9. Nixon had made two speeches that day, one in New York and the other in Chicago, in which he stressed the relationship between U.S. military strength and the long-term prospects for peace:

We must recognize that if we are to have peace, and if we are to keep it, we must keep America strong. We are, it is true, engaged in talks which we believe may lead to an agreement on limitation of arms. But until we have such a mutual agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union, it is essential that the United States maintain an adequate national defense.” Nixon’s Chicago speech made the following reference to the Amchitka test.

Let me put it in the context of a very difficult decision that I had to make over this past weekend. I had to make a decision with regard to testing a defensive weapon. It was a controversial weapon to begin with. It was, in my view, a necessary one due to the fact that another nation in the world [the Soviet Union] had already tested a similar type of weapon. Under the circumstances, I considered that the national defense required that we go forward with our own test, pending the time that we could reach a limitation with that other nation limiting that kind of weapon, as well as offensive weapons.

When it was learned that the test was to go forward, there were objections raised. I understood those objections. They were raised by people who were concerned about our environment, concerned about the possibility that this test might injure our environment. All of you in this audience know of my great concern about our environment. You know of the initiatives that this Administration has supported to protect the American environment, to preserve it, and to renew it. We are proud of those initiatives. But, my friends, unless we have an adequate program for defending the United States, we won’t have any environment to protect. That is what we have to realize.

And so, in this great decision, to maintain our national defense, the purpose is not because we want war, but because this is the way that we can maintain the strength which will lead to the lasting peace that we all want. That is one challenge we face.

On November 17, Kissinger had breakfast with California Governor Ronald Reagan in Washington. Reagan had just returned from a trip to East Asia he had taken at the White House’s request. Kissinger reported to Nixon the substance of their discussion. Reagan warned Kissinger about Nixon’s problems with the conservatives and urged Nixon to meet with them in small groups. Kissinger responded by pointing out the failure of conservatives to support the administration’s foreign policy. “I really let him have it on the international situation,” Kissinger told Nixon.

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Kissinger: I went through the Jordan crisis, Cienfuegos, Cambodia, Laos. I said, “How can you say a liberal doesn’t make a difference? We wouldn’t have MIRV [Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle], we wouldn’t have ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile], we wouldn’t have had Cambodia—

President Nixon: We wouldn’t have had Amchitka.

Kissinger: We wouldn’t have had Amchitka. We wouldn’t have had Laos.

President Nixon: What’s he saying?

Kissinger: We wouldn’t have had Cienfuegos. We wouldn’t have . . . . He said, “God, if somebody would only tell this to these groups.”

President Nixon: You’ve told them that.


During this conversation Nixon and Kissinger compared their impressions of Reagan.

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President Nixon: What’s your evaluation or Reagan after meeting him several times now.

Kissinger: Well, I think he’s a—actually I think he’s a pretty decent guy.

President Nixon: Oh, decent, no question, but his brains—

Kissinger: Well, his brains, are negligible.

President Nixon: He’s really pretty shallow, Henry.

Kissinger: He’s shallow. He’s got no . . . he’s an actor. When he gets a line he does it very well. He said, “Hell, people are remembered not for what they do, but for what they say. Can’t you find a few good lines?” [Chuckles.] That’s really an actor’s approach to foreign policy—to substantive—

President Nixon: I’ve said a lot of good things, too, you know damn well.

Kissinger: Well, that too.


Later in the day Reagan met with Nixon and John Mitchell to offer his East Asian trip report. At one point, Mitchell referred to problems that the administration was having with the Supreme Court nominees in the Senate and the need to spur Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield to expedite the process. This prompted Nixon to bring up the Amchitka test and his willingness to ignore the Supreme Court.

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President Nixon: Well, I put it right to him [apparently referring to Senator Mansfield]. I told him—that is to digress a minute—I said that, “Look, we had that 4–3 decision on Amchitka [unclear], you know. For chrissakes, most of the Court had turned around and said we couldn’t fire a blast.” As you know, we had enormous mail on that, about 11–1 against us. But I don’t pay attention to it. Anyway, we got 25,000 letters against it and 35 for it, 35--not thousand—35, period.

Ronald Reagan: But that was an organized thing [unclear].

President Nixon: Oh, well, anyway—

Reagan: The Sierra Club.

President Nixon: The environmentalists—anyway, what has happened here is just nuts. The Supreme Court of the United States comes down 4–3 on that issue. Now, I would have had to exceeded the Constit[ution]—there would have a hell of a difficult problem if they’d have ruled the other way. That day, I would, in the public mind, have had to follow it. Although on national security grounds I would overrule them. But could you imagine the storm that would have arisen all over this country? The President overruled the Supreme Court of the United States, which I was prepared to do. I ordered the test, you know, John—

Mitchell: Yes, sir.

President Nixon: —that morning, I told [National Security Adviser Henry A.] Kissinger, I said that you told me it was going to be a close decision. I said, “I don’t give a damn.” I said, “The test goes forward.” We were prepared. But I—you heard what I said at dinner about that. I said, oh, Amchitka, [unclear] well, we had to do it.

Reagan: Yes.

President Nixon: But here’s—the problem we’ve got here is that—again, I digress—with the Court, with [Justices William H.] Rehnquist and [Lewis F.] Powell on there, instead of being 4–3, that decision would have been 6–3.


On November 22, Nixon, Kissinger and Goldwater met in the Oval Office, at which point Nixon made another assertion about his intention to ignore the Supreme Court:

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President Nixon: (to Senator Goldwater) And so I said to him [a White House staffer], and then so I [unclear] and they said the Supreme Court’s going to rule. And they said, it looks like it might go against. What are you going to do? And I said, I told Henry that morning, I said, “I don’t give a goddamn what the Court does. We’re going to go forward with that test because I found that if we didn’t, we’d drop a year behind in the ABM [Antiballistic Missile]. Also it could ruin our negotiations with the Soviets.” Not one conservative spoke up, saying, “Thank God that the President went ahead with that test.” I don’t mean [Senator] Barry Goldwater—what I mean—not [National Review Editor and Columnist] Bill Buckley, all these guys, what the hell’s the matter with them? Why don’t they attack the liberals?

A final note: To support their case, environmental groups sought evidence that six federal agencies, including the Departments of State and Interior, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), had lodged serious objections to the Cannikin test, ranging from environmental and health concerns to legal and diplomatic problems. Nixon issued an executive order to keep the comments from being released. These documents, known as the Cannikin Papers, were later used by environmental and antinuclear advocates as evidence for what they called the continuing pattern of secrecy and cover-up that typified the nation’s nuclear testing program. Legal actions concerning the health of local citizens and workers, and accusations about long-term environmental damage, continue to this day.

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