Norman Cousins and the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963

By Wittner, Lawrence S. | Arms Control Today, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Norman Cousins and the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963


Wittner, Lawrence S., Arms Control Today


The year 2013 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the first treaty to limit nuclear weapons testing. Observances of this anniversary undoubtedly and deservedly will focus on the roles of President John Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who pressed for and signed the accord. Yet, Norman Cousins, a private citizen, also played a critical role in bringing the treaty to fruition.

In late 1962, the world was reeling from the near-catastrophic Cuban missile crisis. The crisis, in October of that year, gave new impetus to efforts to ban nuclear testing, which had been a topic of international discussions since the early 1950s. On August 5, 1963, Kennedy and Khrushchev signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits nuclear tests in the atmosphere, under water, and in outer space. The treaty, which was the world's first formal nuclear arms control agreement, entered into force on October 10, 1963.

Cousins and Disarmament

Cousins is perhaps most famous as the editor of The Saturday Review of Literature, later renamed Saturday Review, a major magazine of the arts and public affairs. He also became a leading advocate for world peace and nuclear disarmament.

Cousins was disturbed by the catastrophic destruction wrought by World War II, but it was the atomic bombing of Japan, in August 1945, that transformed his life. Immediately after learning of the annihilation of Hiroshima, he sat down and wrote a lengthy editorial, soon published as a book, entitled "Modern Man Is Obsolete." In it, he argued that given the advent of nuclear weapons, human survival could be secured only through the creation of world government.

Much of his early anti-nuclear work focused on aiding the victims of the bombing of Hiroshima. One example was his initiation of the Hiroshima Maidens project, which brought 25 young Japanese women disfigured by the atomic bombing to New York City's Mount Sinai Hospital in 1955 for plastic and reconstructive surgery. Cousins and his wife legally adopted one of them.

In the mid-1950s, as the development of the hydrogen bomb led to growing controversy over nuclear weapons testing, Cousins began his efforts to end nuclear weapons explosions. During the 1956 U.S. presidential campaign, he helped convince former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate, to make the halting of nuclear testing a key issue in his campaign. Cousins also worked on the issue with medical missionary Albert Schweitzer and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, a leader in the Non- Aligned Movement's campaign to bring the nuclear arms race under control.

Cousins' best-known disarmament venture, however, emerged when he helped establish a major nuclear disarmament organization: the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. In 1957, the new organization, which became known as SANE, made its debut with an advertisement, written by Cousins, in The New York Times and other newspapers. The ad, calling for the immediate suspension of nuclear testing by all countries and signed by 48 prominent Americans, declared that stopping nuclear tests would halt radioactive contamination and provide "a place to begin on the larger question of armaments control."2 Comparable "ban the bomb" organizations sprang up around the world, assailing nuclear testing and demanding nuclear disarmament.

The Road to the Treaty

The growing public concern about nuclear testing that SANE and its brethren helped to generate was a key factor behind the U.S.-British-Soviet agreement on a nuclear testing moratorium that began in October 1958. The moratorium collapsed at the end of August 1961, when the Soviet Union, followed quickly by the United States and the United Kingdom, resumed testing, and the three nuclear powers continued their efforts to negotiate a test ban treaty without much success. As a result, testing continued to inspire intense public controversy, with SANE and its co-chair Cousins playing a leading role. …

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