Limited Test Ban Treaty Turns 40

By Kimball, Daryl; Boese, Wade | Arms Control Today, October 2003 | Go to article overview
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Limited Test Ban Treaty Turns 40

Kimball, Daryl, Boese, Wade, Arms Control Today

LIKE ALL FIRST steps, it was long awaited, tentative, and not without risk. Yet, it also held out promise. The Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), the first agreement negotiated to regulate the U.S.-Soviet nuclear competition, went into effect Oct. 10, 1963. Negotiated only months after the United States and the Soviet Union had walked back from the brink of nuclear war over missiles in Cuba, the treaty offered the hope that Washington and Moscow might be able to rein in the global nuclear arms race, thereby saving the world from an all-consuming nuclear conflagration.

The LTBT, which banned nuclear test explosions above ground, underwater, and in space, led to the end of the most visible and strongly opposed aspects of the arms race: hundreds of open-air explosions that spewed dangerous levels of radioactive contamination far beyond the test sites of the nuclear powers. Today, the treaty has 124 states-parties and has established a global norm against atmospheric testing. It outlasted one of its original states-parties, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War that it was conceived to help control.

The limits of the treaty are also still apparent. Nuclear testing continued underground for three more decades, and a comprehensive test ban treaty, which still has not entered into force, was not completed until 1996. Nuclear weapons still abound, and the number of countries possessing them has doubled. Moreover, the United States is exploring new nuclear-weapon designs that if built would require the resumption of underground nuclear testing suspended more than a decade ago. The specter of nuclear war still haunts the world, although it has receded in the minds of many.

Former senior U.S. officials who lived through the anxious days of the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis and the heady days of the LTBT's creation the following summer still see the agreement as then-President John F. Kennedy described it to the American people. Kennedy first told Americans what the treaty would not be-an end to conflict, war, communism, or arms-but declared July 26,1963, "It is an important first step-a step toward peace-a step toward reason-a step away from war."

Years of Frustration

During the first half of the 1950s, the United States and the Soviet Union had traded arms control proposals. But these initiatives were primarily designed to score propaganda points rather than serve as any true basis for negotiations. It was in this vein that the Soviet Union first proposed a ban on nuclear weapons testing as part of a May 1955 comprehensive disarmament plan, which included the closure of all foreign military bases-a clear nonstarter from the U.S. perspective given Washington's European commitments, particularly in divided Germany.

President Dwight Eisenhower endorsed the idea of a nuclear test ban in 1957, moved by his own qualms about the burgeoning and costly arms race with the Soviet Union and mounting public concerns, both globally and in the United States, about the adverse health effects of nuclear weapons testing. His condition that the ban be facilitated by a halt to the production of nuclear weapons-usable material and international inspections guaranteed the proposal's rejection by the Kremlin, which was deeply suspicious of inspections being used for U.S. or Western espionage.

Eisenhower, as well as his successor Kennedy, faced not only Soviet objections but also domestic opposition from nuclear weapons scientists and military leaders, who feared that the Soviet Union would cheat on any agreement to gain superiority over the United States. Robert McNamara, who served as Kennedy's secretary of defense, recalled in a Sept. 25 interview, that one of the more outlandish arguments advanced by the military was that the Soviets would be able to cheat by testing nuclear weapons behind the moon.

Seeking to calm the military's concerns, Eisenhower convened an international conference of experts in 1958 to assess how and whether cheaters could be caught.

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