After World War II, as the new weapons technology threatened the very survival of American society and its people, its policymakers continued to pursue traditional objectives. They sought to enhance the nation's (and its allies') security through deterrence, to reduce military expenditures, to influence international public opinion, and to gain domestic partisan political advantage. Politics became more important when arms issues became embroiled in election campaigns.
American public opinion during the Cold War reflected an ambiguity regarding arms control and disarmament treaties, especially with the Soviet Union. Opinion polls invariably showed that a majority of Americans favored arms control agreements with the Soviets, but at the same time a majority also said that they expected the communists to cheat if given an opportunity. Many politicians sought to follow the polls: they claimed to favor arms limitations, yet they never hesitated to demonstrate to their constituents that they were "tougher on communists" than their opponents. Thus, as the Cold War lengthened, the politicians' desire to be seen as strong on national defense often resulted in misleading, even derogatory, appraisals of arms limitations.
The unstable political-military environment with increasingly accurate nuclear weapons systems capable of obliterating cities, equally worrisome to leaders and to the public, persuaded the United States to engage in talks with the Soviet Union. Each successive administration after 1945 found itself—despite certain individual misgivings—engaged in protracted arms control negotiations. Washington's desire to sustain its influence in the United Nations and to maintain relations with its allies, especially in western Europe, often spurred arms control efforts.
The Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, nourished by Hubert Humphrey and sponsored by John F. Kennedy, was established on 26 September 1961 to facilitate these negotiations. Its director was to be the principal adviser to the president on arms control and to act under the direction of the president and the secretary of state—a unique and often strained administrative arrangement. Despite limited staff and resources, the agency was instrumental in negotiating the Limited Nuclear Test Ban, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the treaties banning chemical and biological weapons. Perhaps because of its global approach, the agency was sacrificed to the new unilateralists—led by Senator Jesse Helms—in 1997; its transfer to the State Department was completed in March 1999.
The United Nations, United States, and Disarmament Government leaders, peace reformers, and the general public hoped that the new United Nations, with active U.S. participation, might provide the venue for controlling tensions and reducing the prospects of a nuclear war. The Atlantic Charter, issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill on 14 August 1941, declared that "all nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons must come to the abandonment of the use of force." It further envisaged the creation of "a permanent system of general security" as well as practicable measures to "lighten for peace-loving peoples the crushing burden of armaments." The United Nations Charter emphasized the maintenance of peace and security. The General Assembly was to consider the principles governing "disarmament and the regulation of armaments" (Article 11, paragraph 1), while the Security Council was responsible for developing plans for the establishment of a system for "the regulation of armaments" (Article 26).
Bernard Baruch presented the U.S. proposal dealing with atomic weapons at the initial meeting of the UN Atomic Energy Committee on 14 June 1946. Although he regarded his remarks as a basis for discussion, they came to be known as the Baruch Plan—the definitive statement of U.S. policy. The plan called for the creation of the International Atomic Development Authority (IADA), which would control or own all activities associated with atomic energy, from raw materials to military applications, and would control, license, and inspect all other uses. In addition, it would foster peaceful uses of atomic energy by conducting research and development. When the IADA was established, the manufacturing of atomic bombs would cease and all existing weapons were to be destroyed. Baruch declared that sanctions must be imposed on nations possessing or building an atomic device without a license. Finally, he insisted that "there must be no veto to protect those who violate their solemn agreement not to develop or use atomic energy for destructive purposes."
From the outset, American and Soviet diplomats were at odds. The United States viewed the atomic bomb as an important source of its military power and insisted on extensive safeguards before destroying its atomic weapons or releasing information on their manufacture. The Soviets and others argued that the Americans were insincere, because they would not relinquish their atomic arsenal while expecting others to forgo developing their own atomic energy programs. And they were not far off target. "America can get what she wants if she insists on it," Baruch asserted in December 1946. "After all, we've got it and they haven't, and won't for a long time to come."
While some writers blame Washington for the failure of the negotiations, the historian Barton J. Bernstein suggests a more realistic perspective: "Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union was prepared in 1945 or 1946 to take the risks that the other power required for agreement. In this sense, the stalemate on atomic energy was a symbol of the mutual distrust in Soviet-American relations." Not until the ill-fated UN discussions focusing on general and complete disarmament in the 1960s were such broad-gauged approaches again examined.
In a September 1961 address to the General Assembly, President John F. Kennedy responded to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's 1959 proposal for "general and complete disarmament" by offering one of his own. Both plans primarily sought to influence international and domestic opinion, since neither leader had any reason to expect their plan would gain approval. Extended discussions of the plans by the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) revealed that a major point of contention continued to be that of verification. The United States insisted that verification must not only ensure that agreed limitations and reductions had taken place, but also that retained forces and weapons never exceed established limits. The Soviet Union countered that continued verification of retained forces and weapons constituted espionage.
While a few arms control agreements have emerged from the General Assembly and its subordinate bodies, their debates have been more valuable for the discussion of practically every aspect of disarmament. Arthur H. Dean, who represented the United States at the ENDC, wrote: "The discussions—at Geneva, at the United Nations, and in confidential diplomatic conversations—were a necessary means whereby the nations of the world could become educated on disarmament questions and the ground could be broken for concrete agreements."
Nuclear Test Bans and Nonproliferation The nonnuclear states' search for a comprehensive test ban was closely linked to the major nuclear powers' desire to restrict the spread of nuclear weapons through a nonproliferation treaty. The inability to achieve a comprehensive test ban was a source of friction between the two groups for five decades, especially during the periodic nonproliferation treaty review conferences. Beginning with President Dwight Eisenhower, successive administrations declared that a comprehensive test ban was their goal although they varied greatly in efforts for its accomplishment.
Limited Test Ban The spread of radioactive fallout resulting from atmospheric nuclear tests aroused public protests in the 1950s—led by Albert Schweitzer, Linus Pauling, and a host of "peace" groups—and put pressure upon President Eisenhower to halt the testing. When a 1957 Gallup Poll revealed that 63 percent of the American people favored banning tests, compared with 20 percent three years earlier, the president initiated the tripartite (U.S.–British–Soviet) test ban negotiations. Eisenhower turned to technical experts to develop a verification system, a move that was to have unexpected long-term results. With the advent of the nuclear age, even greater use was made of experts—including military officers, scientists, and technical specialists. Unquestionably, these experts were vital to the proper shaping of negotiating positions; however, they often complicated issues to a point where they become technically, and therefore politically, insoluble. A case in point is that during early test ban negotiations, seismologists sought a verification system that could distinguish between earthquakes and small underground nuclear explosions. After techniques acceptable to most were developed, technical experts kept searching for more and more refinements to reduce the already low error rate. As a result, it was impossible to negotiate a comprehensive test ban because critics would argue that one could not be absolutely certain that no cheating was going on.
While Eisenhower's efforts resulted only in obtaining an informal test moratorium, John F. Kennedy came to the presidency committed to obtaining a comprehensive ban on tests. His sobering encounter with Khrushchev at Vienna in 1961 and the subsequent Berlin crisis, however, derailed his plans. The October 1962 Cuban missile crisis, paradoxically, brought Kennedy and Khrushchev closer and led to the signing on 5 August 1963 of the Limited (or Partial) Nuclear Test Ban (LNTB).
The 1963 Moscow experience again suggests that successful arms control negotiations cannot be structured as an engineering or technical exercise; they must be essentially a political undertaking. When ambassador-at-large W. Averell Harriman was sent to Moscow to finalize the test ban, he took scientific advisers with him but deliberately excluded them from the negotiating team. He later explained, "The expert is to point out all the difficulties and dangers … but it is for the political leaders to decide whether the political, psychological and other advantages offset such risks as there may be."
The Kennedy administration's inability to provide absolute guarantees of Soviet compliance resulted in the LNTB's banning all tests except those conducted underground. This provided the Department of Defense and its nuclear scientists with a "safeguard" or guarantee that the United States would continue underground testing, as they put it, to ensure the safety and reliability of nuclear weapons. From 1964 to 1998, the United States conducted 683 announced tests, compared with 494 for the Soviet Union. Washington's emphasis on the "safeguard" continued to be used to justify testing after the Cold War ended.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty The People's Republic of China's first nuclear test on 16 October 1964, focused President Lyndon B. Johnson's attention on the dangers of nuclear proliferation. In 1965 both the United States and Soviet Union responded to the UN call to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons by submitting their own draft treaties to ENDC, and, after resolving a few differences, became identical by 1967. The committee's nonaligned members argued that a nonproliferation treaty must not simply divide the world into nuclear "haves" and "have nots," but must balance mutual obligations. Thus, to stop states from engaging in "horizontal" proliferation (the acquisition of nuclear weapons), the nuclear powers should agree to end their "vertical" proliferation (increasing the quantity and quality of their weapons). The nonaligned nations specified the necessary steps, in order of priority: (1) signing a comprehensive test ban; (2) halting the production of fissionable materials designed for weapons; (3) freezing, and gradually reducing, nuclear weapons and delivery systems; (4) banning the use of nuclear weapons; and (5) assuring the security of nonnuclear states.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed on 1 July 1968, after the United States and Soviet Union reluctantly agreed "to pursue negotiations in good faith" to halt the nuclear arms race "at the earliest possible date" (the fig leaf they tried to hide behind), and to seek "a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control." The dubious adherence to this pledge has been a point of serious contention at each subsequent review conference.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty is the cornerstone of a carefully structured regime that emphasizes the banning of nuclear tests and several other elements. The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency was created in 1957—as the coordinating body for Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace project—to promote and safeguard peaceful uses of atomic energy. It has established a system of international safeguards aimed at preventing nuclear materials from being diverted to military uses. During 1974 and 1975, the Nuclear Suppliers Group was established in London to further ensure that nuclear materials, equipment, and technology would not be used in weapons production. Finally, nuclear-weapons-free zones further extended the nonproliferation effort.
Comprehensive Test Ban The comprehensive test ban issue was dormant during the early years of Richard Nixon's presidency, largely so it would not interfere with U.S.–Soviet negotiations on strategic arms limitations. At a Moscow summit meeting with Premier Leonid Brezhnev in July 1974, the two leaders resurrected the bilateral Threshold Test Ban Treaty, under which they agreed to hold underground tests to less than 150 kilotons, restrict the number of tests to a minimum, not interfere with the other's efforts at verification, and exchange detailed data on all tests and test sites. The Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty, signed by Brezhnev and President Gerald Ford in May 1976, allowed nuclear explosives under 150 kilotons to be used in a peaceful manner—such as "digging" canals. The pact provided, for the first time, on-site inspections under certain circumstances.
President Jimmy Carter shifted his focus from the unratified threshold test ban back to a comprehensive test ban. In 1977 the Soviet Union indicated that it was willing to accept a verification system based on national technical means (each nation's intelligence-gathering system), supplemented by voluntary challenge inspections and automatic, tamperproof seismic monitoring stations known as "black boxes." When signs pointed to an agreement on a comprehensive ban, major opponents—including the weapons laboratories, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Secretary of Energy James Schlesinger—killed the effort by emphasizing America's need for periodic tests to assure the reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile.
In July 1982, President Ronald Reagan ended U.S. participation in the comprehensive test ban talks, arguing that the Soviet Union might be testing over the 150-kiloton threshold. He insisted that verification aspects of both the threshold ban and peaceful explosions treaties must be renegotiated before a comprehensive accord could be considered. Critics pointed out that proving a test had taken place was much easier than verifying a specific magnitude; therefore, the administration had things backward. When Premier Mikhail Gorbachev informed Reagan in December 1985 that he would accept on-site inspections as part of a comprehensive ban, Reagan's refusal to consider the offer made it clear that the administration's concern about verification was a sham and that it had been used to avoid any agreement.
President George H. W. Bush issued a policy statement in January 1990 that his administration had "not identified any further limitations on nuclear testing … that would be in the United States' national security interest." Negotiations proceeded on verification protocols for the 1974 threshold treaty and the 1976 peaceful explosions pact; in June 1990, Bush and Gorbachev signed the new protocols clearing the way for their ratification.
The UN General Assembly, supported by the United States, overwhelmingly adopted a Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty on 10 September 1996. President William Jefferson Clinton signed the agreement and announced that its entry into force would be of the highest priority. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Republican chairman, Jesse Helms, a longtime opponent of the test ban, blocked its consideration until late in 1999, when Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott unexpectedly scheduled a ratification vote. After a bitter partisan battle, the Senate by a vote of 51–48 on 13 October 1999 refused to ratify the treaty. Apart from political partisanship, opposition to the treaty centered on two old issues: whether the treaty's "zero-yield" test ban could be adequately verified; and the potential long-term impact of a permanent halt on America's nuclear arsenal.
Critics refused to place much confidence in the Clinton administration's plans for a U.S. nuclear weapon custodianship, which was to ensure the safety and reliability of aging nuclear weapons. The directors of the three national laboratories (Sandia, Lawrence Livermore, and Los Alamos) testified—not at all surprisingly, since they are in the testing business—that there was no guarantee the custodianship program would work, and it would take five to ten years to prove its effectiveness.