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A Change in German-American Relations: The German Nuclear Deal with Brazil, 1977

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Ham, Oliver Benjamin. “A Change in German-American Relations: The German Nuclear Deal with Brazil, 1977.” (Under the direction of Dr. Nancy Mitchell.)

The German-Brazilian nuclear deal was the first of its kind. The Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) planned to export a full-nuclear cycle to Brazil, a non-nuclear nation. As a result, Brazil, which had not ratified the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), would obtain reprocessing facilities that gave it the potential to produce weapons-grade plutonium. For that reason, President Jimmy Carter, who had campaigned against nuclear proliferation, was opposed to the deal.

Carter believed that Washington had the power to impose its will on Bonn and Brasilia. The resistance of both nations to the President’s entreaties proved this to be incorrect. German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, despite being pressured by Washington, did not cancel the deal with Brazil. Moreover, Washington’s heavy-handed approach raised questions about viability and effectiveness of the NPT itself.

As a result of the conflict over the German-Brazilian nuclear deal, Carter launched the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation (INFCE) and passed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NNPT). The Carter administration’s push to discourage the developed world from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel led to resistance not just from West Germany, but also from Britain, France and Japan. Despite the tensions, the spread of reprocessing technology was curbed.

This is the first thorough analysis of the diplomatic wrangle that ensued as Carter attempted to break the nuclear contract between the FRG and Brazil. It is based on research in the Federal Archive in Koblenz, the Political Archive of the Foreign Office in Berlin and the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta. The documents uncover the so-far untold roles played by France, Great Britain and the Netherlands in the power-play between Washington and Bonn over the nuclear deal.

The documents also show the repercussions of the clash for nations such as Japan, which relied on reprocessing. The documents furthermore highlight a change in the relationship between West Germany and the United States. The shadows of World War II as well as the Cold War had turned Bonn’s foreign policy up until the 1970s into a delicate balancing act that consisted mainly of bowing to the leadership of the United States. Emboldened by its economic achievements and its successful integration into the Western Alliance, Bonn in the late 1970’s sought greater independence from the United States by directly defying the will of Washington and refusing to cancel its nuclear deal with Brazil.

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