Nuclear Nonproliferation and the Quest for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty The Test Ban Challenge

Published on The National Security Archive NSA, edited by William Burr, August 11, 2010.

Washington, D.C., August 11, 2010 – The next nuclear policy challenge for the Obama administration, right after Senate action on the New START Treaty, will be Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which President Obama sees as a condition for a world free of nuclear weapons. As he declared in his Hradcany Square speech, “After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned.” Most U.S. presidents since Dwight D. Eisenhower have sought, sometimes only rhetorically, a comprehensive test ban of nuclear testing in all environments (underground, atmospheric, underwater, outer space). While emphases and motives have shifted–the fallout danger and limiting Soviet nuclear advances were initially central goals–from the start U.S. government officials saw a ban on nuclear testing as highly relevant to inhibiting nuclear proliferation.

Documents published today for the first time by the National Security Archive illustrate how nonproliferation goals shaped internal U.S. discussions of the CTBT from the 1950s through the late 1970s. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) director Paul Warnke wrote to President Jimmy Carter in July 1978 that a CTBT is “a central element of our efforts to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons” not least because it would strengthen the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and prevent tests by states which were on the “threshold” of a nuclear weapons capability. The documents provide new detail on how nonproliferation objectives informed support within the U.S. government for the test ban:

  • In 1957, disarmament advisers argued that a test ban could benefit U.S. security interests because of the “hesitancy of potential fourth countries to develop weapons programs clandestinely.”
  • During the late 1950s, U.S. government officials believed that the Soviet Union supported a test ban because it “would be a relatively cheap way of stopping or at least inhibiting fourth country nuclear weapons capability.”
  • According to ACDA officials (1965), a CTBT could not provide an “iron-clad assurance”—countries could build and stockpile weapons without tests—but it would “contribute significantly to the inhibitions on proliferation world-wide.”
  • In 1978, Carter administration arms controllers argued that a comprehensive test ban would weaken incentives to acquire nuclear weapons because to “win the full prestige of possessing nuclear weapons,” a state would “need to demonstrate its capability with a test.”
  • An example of how new presidential priorities–playing the “China card”–could jeopardize nonproliferation goals emerged in January 1979, when President Jimmy Carter secretly offered Deng Xiaoping assistance for Beijing’s underground nuclear test program, an offer that State Department officials worried could undermine support for the test ban … //

… (full text, Documents 1 to 11 and Notes 1 to 16).

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