LOOKING BACK: The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Then and Now

By Bunn, George; Rhinelander, John B. | Arms Control Today, July/August 2008 | Go to article overview

LOOKING BACK: The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Then and Now


Bunn, George, Rhinelander, John B., Arms Control Today


Less than a year after dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the United States adopted a statute prohibiting the transfer of its nuclear weapons to any other country. It was not until 23 years later, however, that countries began signing an international treaty that prohibited the transfer of nuclear weapons by a country that had them to any other country, indeed "to any recipient whatsoever."1 On July 1, 1968, the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and many other countries signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) at ceremonies in Washington, Moscow, and London. Subsequently, nearly 190 countries have signed and ratified the treaty aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons from the few countries that then had them to the many that did not and at reducing and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons from the world.

The 40th anniversary of the NPT provides an opportunity to reexamine the history of the treaty's negotiation and ask what lessons it offers for today.

The NPT's Negotiating History

The NPT's history really began in 1946. That year, the Department of State and some of the scientists who had made the bomb drew up the Acheson-Lilienthal Report, which, with major revisions, became a formal U.S. proposal to the United Nations known as the Baruch Plan. It proposed that the United States turn over control of all its enriched uranium, including that in any nuclear weapons it had, to a new UN body (over which the United States and the other permanent members of the security Council would have a veto) and that all countries in the world should be prohibited from possessing their own nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union opposed this plan, and the UN committee created to consider it got nowhere.2

The next stab at controlling nuclear weapons proliferation came in 1953 when President Dwight Elsenhower proposed to the UN General Assembly the negotiation of a treaty that would seek to control nuclear activities around the world and prevent, if possible, the spread of nuclear weapons to additional countries. This led to negotiations that finally produced a useful treaty, though one that fell short of what Elsenhower had proposed. This treaty, the Statute of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of 1956, authorized creation of the IAEA and gave it the responsibility for providing information and assistance to countries seeking to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and for performing inspections of their nuclear facilities to ensure that the operators did not divert from peaceful purposes to weapons production the uranium fuel used to run nuclear reactors and the plutonium that was produced in such reactors.3

The NPT negotiations themselves really got started after the unanimous approval of a 1961 UN General Assembly resolution on negotiation of a treaty that would ban countries without nuclear weapons from acquiring them and that would require the inspections that the IAEA treaty only authorized. In particular, the resolution asked the countries "possessing nuclear weapons" to "undertake to refrain from relinquishing control of nuclear weapons and from transmitting information necessary for their manufacture" to nations not possessing nuclear weapons. second, it recommended that states not possessing nuclear weapons "undertake not to manufacture or otherwise acquire control of such weapons." It urged nuclear-weapon and non-nuclearweapon states to "cooperate to those ends."4

The same year marked another step that had an important but indirect effect on the creation of the NPT. At President John Kennedy's request, Congress approved legislation establishing the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) to replace the State Department in the research, planning, and negotiation of arms control and disarmament treaties. Soon after the ACDA's creation, its leaders sought authority from secretary of State Dean Rusk and Kennedy to negotiate with the Soviets an agreement intended to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to additional countries. …

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LOOKING BACK: The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Then and Now
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