LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND — Switzerland may be turning its ancient image as a neutral nation counterclockwise.
Not even a member of the United Nations, this Alpine state is considering ties to NATO, among other things. "It's a question of existence, really," says retired Brig. Gen. Gustav Daeneker, former chief of Swiss military operations. "The security of Europe is still unclear."
Yet the path out of isolation has required Switzerland to update its past. It has revealed it once had a cold-war quest for an atomic bomb. The shock has helped trigger a public debate on how the Swiss should protect themselves in the future.
"We're finding we have to start explaining ourselves to the world," says military historian Jurg Stussi-Lauterburg, author of the government's atomic bomb report, which was released in May. He added that the information had been released to show how far Switzerland has come from its days of armed isolation.
"When we heard the news [of Japan's surrender] we started to look very closely at this idea of using the atomic bomb or not," says the former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Jorg Zumstein. "It seemed logical to have this weapon. It would mean more power for our Army."
That is power Switzerland could ill afford to lose when Stalin's armies replaced Hitler's, he adds.
The country wanted the bomb so badly that in 1969 the defense department ordered a federal commission to accelerate research efforts on the atomic bomb. Even after ratifying the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1977, Switzerland kept up its development program. It wasn't until 1988 that the government killed the project, Mr. Stussi-Lauterburg says.
Yet for some Swiss, the recent atomic-bomb report merely underscores the value of armed neutrality and self-reliance.
Until the late 1980s, Switzerland feared that the former Soviet Union would invade. Switzerland also knew that France would have fired nuclear missiles across its territory to thwart an attack from the Warsaw Pact nations, disregarding its neutrality. So it pursued its own atomic bomb.
"It was looked at as a way to give us a better chance for defense, or as the other side of retaliation," Mr. Zumstein says. "Whenever we got new aircraft, we made sure they would be able to fly to Moscow to drop bombs. Because if you're small and alone, you always need some good cards to play."
One sometimes has to play hard as well, the Swiss have found. For example, in 1956 when US military aircraft tried crossing Swiss airspace on their return home from the Suez, Swiss fighters forced the planes to divert, Zumstein says. In the 1980s, after the Soviets shot down a Korean passenger jet, Switzerland closed its airspace to Eastern bloc countries for two weeks. They challenged the Swiss 12 times, but each time the Swiss forced them away.
But now with the cold war relegated to spy novels and history books, many Swiss officials are looking outward. One of the most striking changes comes from those who advocate membership in NATO's Partnership for Peace, if not NATO itself.
Adolf Ogi, Switzerland's minister of defense, has met with Secretary of State Warren Christopher and the US Defense Department several times about joining the alliance.
On June 3, Flavio Cotti, Switzerland's minister of foreign affairs and president of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, addressed NATO at its meeting in Berlin, marking the first time that Switzerland addressed NATO as a whole. At the meeting Switzerland announced, as a first step, that it would appoint a military attach to NATO in an observer role.
"There are so many security organizations in Europe now, but their roles are all blurred. That makes it harder to see where to go, so I think we should wait for NATO," says General Daeneker, who lives in Bern.