Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on Jun 20, 2008 in Stuff We Like

Author POV – Legerdemain: Atom Bombs, Allies, and Deception in the Cold War

By James J. Heaphey

James J. Heaphey is the author of Legerdemain: The President’s Secret Plan, The Bomb and What The French Never Knew, a book that uses recently declassified documents to rewrite a piece of Cold War history. In this Point of View article for, he raises questions about alliances, trust and necessity.

In addition to teaching and writing, he directed political development programs in Brazil, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Egypt, Lebanon and South Korea from 1961 to 1992 and gave seminars on the politics of developing countries for American military officers stationed in Europe and the Far East 1968 – 2003. He has a B.A., summa cum laude, from Western Reserve University, and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California at Berkeley. He served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force from 1951 to 1954. He is professor emeritus, Graduate School of Public Affairs, State University of New York.

Americans told the French that only the bombs’ bodies, called non-nuclear assemblies, were stored at Nouasseur.

In 1999 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported that their editors had pursued the Department of Defense for years, under the Freedom of Information Act, to reveal the locations where nuclear weapons were stored overseas during the Cold War. When the information was finally disclosed it fundamentally revised post-war nuclear history.


“There isn’t a nuclear scientist alive,” wrote William Arkin, one of the co-authors of the article, “who didn’t believe that the first U.S. nuclear weapons deployed overseas were sent to Britain. Now we know they actually went to French Morocco first [in 1953].”

That is only part of the legerdemain involved. The first location where nuclear weapons were secretly stored was Nouasseur Air Base near Casablanca, because it had the best runway and infrastructure already in place. It was a French air base. The French government, as an ally and fellow member of NATO, allowed the U.S. to use a section of Nouasseur as a staging site for B-36 nuclear attacks on the Soviet Union.

However, Americans told the French that only the bombs’ bodies, called non-nuclear assemblies, were stored at Nouasseur. According to the information provided to all but an elite few Americans, the pits, i.e., the plutonium and/or uranium cores, would be sent from the U.S. as needed. Actually, both the bodies and the pits were stored in Morocco.

The strategic need for this staging site was to deter the Soviets from invading Europe: The USSR conventional war machine far outmatched that of America and the Europeans: It could count on huge reserves of its still young, combat-seasoned men under arms; its pre-positioned war materiel was still in good condition for combat; and it enjoyed relatively short lines of transport and communications.

But the West had the bomb and a delivery system that far outmatched that of the USSR. In the late 1940s, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons that “Nothing stands between Europe today and complete subjugation to Communist tyranny but the atomic bomb in American possession.”

Under the terms of NATO a Soviet attack on any NATO country was an attack on the United States. The only way to keep Russian troops out of West German coffee houses and the streets of Paris was with the nuclear threat.

To protect continued access to the Nouasseur base, the U.S. also gave support to the Arab-Moroccan rebellion against the French. America’s military planners anticipated that the French would lose their control of North Africa and did not want the new Arab-Moroccan leadership to demand American forces leave with the French. To maintain Moroccan bases the U.S. sought to win the Arabs’ favor by surreptitious activities that helped them in their cause. A French-Moroccan agreement in 1956 relinquished French control of the colony and restored Morocco’s independence.

My questions are:
Should there be limits to what a nation can do to an ally or does the end justify any means? If there should be limits, what are they?

Post a comment below to offer your answers to these questions (free site registration required). After two weeks, we’ll post the author’s own POV on the answers.

Learn more about Legerdemain and author James J. Heaphey.


  1. In September 1955, as a military 2nd lieutenant, I was sent to Nouasseur Air Base as the Project Engineer for Project Caravan. Project Caravan involved establishment of military housing via the use of house trailers. We built roads, installed water and sewer mains and a sewage pumping station, electrical system and assembled a number of pre-fabricated buildings. I believe the trailers were manufactured in Belgium and/or Italy as a payment on U.S. war loans. All of this aside, Counting myself, we had 14 enlisted men and upwards of 60 to 80 local (mostly Arab and Spanish) craftsmen and laborers.

    One of the interesting facts is that a considerable number of our construction equipment items (Dozers, Scrapers, Digging Machines, Graders, etc) were taken from the large Nouasseur storage compound that was dubbed ‘Project Seaweed’ We were told that ‘Project Seaweed’ was the holding area for heavy equipment that was returned from or not used in WWII and the Korean Conflict.
    There were similar projects at Sidi Slimane and Ben Guerir Air Bases.

    The enlisted members of my team established their living quarters near the ‘Sea Weed’ storage facilities. For some reason, a number these enlisted members frequently contended that nuclear weapons were stored in that area. I don’t know why they would have such ideas unless they came from others who managed the storage site. When the B-36s and other SAC tdy support came to the base, my heavy equipment operators were asked to be available to reset the chains at the end of the runway should a B36 snag and pull it out.

    A number of my engineering friends and I attended the ceremony of Mohammed’s return to Rabat and listened to Ben Youssef’s speech. We were in the crowd and, of course, did not understand much of what was said. John Dixon

    I don’t expect a response, just thought this to be an interesting twist to comments about Nouasseur AB. John Dixon.n

  2. @ ““There isn’t a nuclear scientist alive,” wrote William Arkin, one of the co-authors of the article, “who didn’t believe that the first U.S. nuclear weapons deployed overseas were sent to Britain. ”

    The esteemed Arkin is wrong.

    > It is obvious that the first atomic explosives “deployed overseas” went to Asia, Japan in particular.

    Other than the silly error that my friend Mr Dixon has mooted, he has given us the gift of a good story. And so has Mr. Heaphey