The Cold War seemed on the verge of becoming red hot in 1963. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were at the breaking point after more than a decade of sharply rising hostile rhetoric on all sides and repeated clashes over flashpoint points like Berlin. Less than a year earlier both sides had “come eyeball to eyeball” during the Cuban Missile Crisis and had narrowly avoided nuclear war. Both sides were engaged in a very public race to produce more and bigger thermonuclear weapons and them missiles to deliver those bombs on the other’s cities. Huge nuclear weapons were routinely being detonated in tests meant to terrify enemies.
In the U.S. and presumably the USSR were being regularly drilled at hiding under their desks in case of a nuclear attack. A generation of children doubted that they would live to adulthood. And anxiety was not confined to kids. Popular culture first sublimated nuclear fears in 1950’s science fiction and monster movies but more recently had begun to face them directly in Peter George’s 1958 Red Alert which would soon become the inspiration for Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb; Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and the 1959 film made from it; and Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s novel Fail Safe which happened to be serialized in the Saturday Evening Post the week of the Cuban Crisis.
|The Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was a grim reminder of the terror the world lived in with the ups and downs of the Cold War in the nuclear era.
Meanwhile the pesky editors of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists had been maintaining a Doomsday Clock since 1947 meant to highlight the danger of eminent nuclear war. The clock was set at 7 minutes to Midnight at the beginning of 1963. While actually an improvement over the early days of the arms race the frightening notice was getting wider public notice than ever before.
In addition to fear of an end-of-the-world war, the constant nuclear tests themselves were fraying public nerves. Radioactive fallout from American tests in the South Pacific and Nevada and Soviet explosions in remote central Asia had been tracked around the Northern Hemisphere. The radioactive isotope strontium 90 released by the blasts had shown up in American milk. In magazine article after article physicians fretted over the public health effects of exposure to fallout, especially possible genetic damage.
As a result the public was beginning to stir. In Britain, which had joined the so-called nuclear club and conducted its own tests in addition to hosting American strategic bomber bases, a Ban the Bomb movement was quickly growing in numbers and militancy. Now that was threatening to spread to the US where most forms of public dissent had been firmly squelched since the post World War II Red Scare and McCarthy Era. But now rumblings were spreading from beatnik coffee houses to college campuses. Where a corporal’s guard of lonely protestors held anti-nuke and pro-peace placards just a few years early scores and then hundreds were suddenly turning out, including many middle class women. Even in the Soviet Union where a tight lid was kept on everything, intellectuals were secretly circulating laboriously typed samizdat hand to hand. Authorities East and West had reason to act before that sort of thing got out of hand.
Calls for some sort of control on atmospheric testing went back to the wake of the U.S. Castle Bravo test in the Pacific when a 15 megaton explosion unleashed the worst fallout episode in history with several inhabited islands and a Japanese fishing vessel under a “rain of death” of radioactive ash. The same year Japan, particularly sensitive to nuclear fear as the only nation ever targeted by Atomic weapons, was contaminated by fallout from a Soviet Test. In response Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India made the first call for a “standstill agreement” on nuclear testing in the hopes it be a bridge to eventual nuclear disarmament. The British Labor Party officially endorsed a similar moratorium monitored and guaranteed by the United Nations.
The United States, which felt that overwhelming nuclear superiority, was necessary to offset the Soviet Union’s huge conventional arms edge and massive Army. The Soviets seemed more receptive. In 1955 Nikita Khrushchev first proposed talks on a test ban treaty. The U.S. rejected the overtures.
|A frame from a film of a U.S. atmospheric nuculear test in the South Pacific.
The Eisenhower administration remained internally divided over Test Ban talks through most of the rest of the decade with hawkish Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Edward Teller, anointed Father of the Atomic Bomb after dovish J. Robert Oppenheimer was publicly disgraced and stripped of his security clearance, carrying the day in demanding that a Test Ban could only be negotiated as part of a wider disarmament agreement including conventional forces that the Soviet Union would never agree to.
Britain’s entrenched Conservative government was also adamantly opposed to Test Ban talks despite a majority of the public backing it. The Tories wanted to hold out until the U.K. could finish testing on nuclear devises and allowing it join the two superpowers. The first British test was in the Australian outback as early as 1952 but more were required to develop effective and credible weapons. They view possession of nuclear weapons as the only way the country, whose Empire was disintegrating, could maintain a position as a world power.
The obstreperous French who were known to be racing to develop and deploy their own nuclear weapons as an independent force which would make them the dominant power of Western Europe. None of those who already had the weapons wanted the French—or any other possible power like China—to succeed. But Charles de Gaulle, who had become Prime Minister in June ’58 and would become President with vastly expanded powers in January 1959, would not engage in any discussions that would limit French opportunities.
Soviet leader Khrushchev had just narrowly avoided ouster by a Stalinist Old Guard and had consolidated his power by ousting powerful figures including Defense Minister Marshal Gregory Zhukov who opposed any arms cooperation with the West. Khrushchev was known to believe that any nuclear war was unwinnable and a mutual disaster. He wanted to change attitudes in Politburo that such a war was inevitable. He once again signaled willingness to engage in discussions on cutting or eliminating testing.
|Nikita Khruschev's survival of an old Stalinist plot to oust him as Soviet Party Leader made possible his overtures to the west on nuclear disarmament and testing.
On March 31, 1958, the Supreme Soviet approved Khrushchev’s decision to halt nuclear testing, conditional on other nuclear powers doing the same. Eisenhower and Macmillan rejected the offer as a propaganda gimmick. Both had new testing they wanted to complete. The U.S. launched the first Operation Hardtack I round of tests in the South Pacific on April 28. 35 more blasts went off with dizzying speed through August 18 of the same year—more than all other atmospheric tests in previous years combined. The British also concluded a critical test of their weapon in Australia.
Only as the bombs were going off to growing international public consternation did Eisenhower and Macmillan agree to international meeting of experts to determine proper control and verification measures. This was in direct response to fears that the Soviet moratorium proposal would be ineffective because underground testing might not be verifiable.
Eisenhower was responding to recommendations by the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) which had concluded that a successful system for detecting underground tests could be created and by Secretary of State Dulles who had just been won over to that view. Somewhat reluctantly Eisenhower proposed technical negotiations with the Soviet Union on a test ban, a reversal of the long standing U.S. demand that such talks take place only in conjunction with negotiations over a general halt to nuclear weapons production. It was clear that rising public pressure was key to this change. Ike privately told associates that continued resistance to a test ban would leave the U.S. in a state of “moral isolation.”
On July 1, 1958 as the U.S. continued to set off its tests, the three recognized nuclear states convened the Conference of Experts in Geneva, Switzerland to study means of detecting nuclear tests. In addition to representatives of the powers, scientists and experts from Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Poland, and Romania participated. The official position of the United States was that these discussions were purely technical and preliminary, but both the British and Soviet delegations were instructed to try and achieve a political agreement if the technical problems were surmounted.
Despite background political intrigue the technical talks actually went quite well. The main issue was the ability of sensors to tell the difference between an underground test and an earthquake. Four methods were considered—measurement of acoustic waves, seismic signals, radio waves, and inspection of radioactive debris. The Soviet felt each method could be effective. The Americans believed that none or even any combination of monitoring would be sufficient without on site observation to which the Soviets vigorously objected. None the less by the end of August “extremely professional” consultation by the experts produced the Geneva System, an extensive control program, involving 160–170 land-based monitoring posts, 10 sea-based monitors, and occasional over-flights following a suspicious event.
The Soviet delegation drafted the language to the plan which the British and American experts endorsed. But no final political agreement had been reached. Still to be determined was exactly who would be in charge of the monitoring and if and to what extent American demanded on-site inspection would be allowed. Back in Washington hard liners led by Teller and Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chairman Lewis Strauss conducted a rear-guard action within the administration against the Geneva Plan. Dulles and his brother CIA Director Allan Dulles prevailed with the President.
Eisenhower announced that the U.S. would initiate a voluntary one year ban on testing if Britain and the USSR agreed coupled with the initiation of negotiations on a stand-alone test ban treaty. The British agreed followed by the Soviets on August 30. The moratorium was to go into effect on October 31 when all parties had concluded already scheduled tests. Shortly after the Conference on the Discontinuance of Nuclear Tests convened in Geneva on August 31 all parties agreed to extend the moratorium to three years during talks.
The Soviets kicked off negotiations by immediately offering a draft treaty in which the nuclear powers—“the original signers”—would agree to a comprehensive ban—including underground tests—based on monitoring employing the Geneva Plan and would also cooperate to try and prevent more nations—read France—from testing and obtaining weapons. The Americans and Brits rejected the draft because it lacked on-site inspection and expressed doubts that the Geneva Plan was vigorous enough.
After raising expectations the rapid slide of the Geneva talks into stalemate stirred public disappointment. Britain’s already well established Ban the Bomb movement was able to turn out ever larger crowds for marches and demonstrations. In the U.S. Linus Pauling and other were trying to mobilize a similar movement with early signs of success. Recognizing that Soviet objections to on-site inspections were the main stumbling block influential Democratic Senator Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee circulated a letter which was widely reprinted in the press suggesting that the U.S. seek a partial test ban on air detonations only.
In 1959 both sides inched toward compromise. The Soviets had already agreed to allow some specific control measures to be included in a new try at a draft treaty. By march several draft articles had been agreed on, but the two sides remained divided on the make-up of monitoring teams. Eisenhower and Macmillan dropped all demands that a test ban agreement be considered only bridge to a comprehensive disarmament treaty. That was a symbolic, but important concession and a reversal of long held policy.
In April they went further, essentially echoing Gore’s suggestion, and proposed graduated agreement where atmospheric tests would be banned first, with negotiations on underground and outer-space tests continuing. In May the Soviets agreed to consider a proposal by Macmillan in which each of the original parties would be subject to a set number of on-site inspections each year. They hoped that talks would peg that at a low number.
Through 1959 and into 1960 talks centered on new research that cast some doubt on the effectiveness of the Geneva Plan, reinforcing American concert for detection of underground tests, but also making excluding subterranean test from an agreement. Macmillan proposed setting the number of on-site inspections at just three, a low number to which the Soviets readily agreed, but caused the Americans to balk.
Soviet-American relations seemed to be at their best since the onset of the Cold War. Khrushchev had visited the U.S. in September 1959 and while the on-going test ban talks had not been a main point of discussion, the so-called Spirit of Camp David boded well for the mutual trust needed to make an agreement. Hopes ran high that and treaty might even be wound up and ready for approval at a planned Big Four summit in Paris with Eisenhower, Macmillan, Khrushchev, and De Gaulle. France had finally tested its bomb in March and was now hinting for the first time that it might join an agreement.
So close, yet so far. A rapid series of events sent prospects for an early treaty into a tail-spin. Eisenhower agreed to Macmillan’s set number of inspections, but suddenly demanded 20 with an option for more if research showed that certain low yield underground tests could not be detected under the Geneva System. That monkey wrench was quickly followed by the Soviets shooting down of an American U-2 spy plane which scuttled the summit talks. USSR also withdrew from the seismic research group in Geneva which subsequently dissolved. Ironically the high altitude reconnaissance capacity of the U-2 would have rendered the high number of on-site tests demanded by the U.S. unnecessary.
Through the rest of the year repeated crises roiled U.S.-Soviet relations including the Congo Crisis in July and angry confrontations at the United Nations in September at which Khrushchev famously pounded his shoe on the table. The Cold War was once again in danger of going very hot. The Geneva talks dissolved fruitlessly in December at the American election in put a Democrat and thus an entirely new administration into the White House.
When Harold Macmillan first met John F. Kennedy he ruefully confided that despite all of the external distractions, the real reason the Test Ban talks had collapsed was “the American ‘big hole’ obsession and the consequent insistence on a wantonly large number of on-site inspections.”
For his part Kennedy was eager to resume negotiations and ready to review the yo-yo policy reversals that had characterized the talks under Eisenhower. But he was also interested in tying a test-ban treaty to nuclear proliferation—also a major concern of the Soviets. “For once China, or France, or Sweden, or half a dozen other nations successfully test an atomic bomb, the security of both Russians and Americans is dangerously weakened.”
With a new team of American negotiators in place the Geneva talks resumed in march 1961. But the new American proposal, while offering concessions in some areas still stuck by Eisenhower’s demand of 20 on-site inspections while both the Soviets and British favored just three. The Soviets also objected to the proposed make-up of inspection teams and proposed a troika of equal representation between East and West and observers drawn from declared unaligned nations with a unanimous finding required. That would have given the Soviets effective veto which was manifestly unsatisfactory to the U.S.
Complicating negotiations and U.S.-Soviet relations in general was Kennedy’s big hikes in defense spending, particularly for long and intermediate range missiles capable of striking the USSR and an expansion of the nuclear warhead arsenal. This fulfilled campaign promises to close a non-existent Missile Gap. The Soviets, of course, reciprocated and a renewed arms race was on.
In May the president used his brother and confidant, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to make back channel contacts through a Soviet intelligence officer to reduce the US demanded inspection to 15 a year. Khrushchev rejected the overture out of hand.
The Kennedy-Khrushchev summit in Vienna floundered over these same issued in June with the Soviet leader very angry with the young American, “hold out a finger to them—they chop off your whole hand,” he told his son. It was now Khrushchev, in a polar reversal of positions, who demanded that a test ban be considered only in the context of “general and complete disarmament,” The Summit broke up acrimoniously and hard on the heels of that came the Berlin Crisis of 1961.
The Soviets announced that they would resume atmospheric testing that August. In retaliation the US resumed underground and laboratory testing on September 15. Kennedy announced funding for renewed atmospheric testing program in November.
Four years after a promising start a test ban seemed utterly impossible.
Macmillan met Kennedy in Bermuda in December to almost desperately plead for a permanent stop of the tests. It was a testament to Brita’s reduced status as mere subordinate ally rather than full major power partner that the Prime Minister was instead forced to agree to allow the U.S. to use its Christmas Island as a new test site since the Americans had blown up or contaminated all of their available South Pacific atolls.
Despite these shows of belligerence, the Kennedy Administration was as rife with division on testing as was Eisenhower’s. Against Teller and the usual hawkish Defense establishment United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, a highly respected elder statesman;, the State Department; the United States Information Agency; and PSAC Chairman Jerome Wiesner opposed resuming atmospheric tests. Kennedy himself expressed serious moral qualms about the out of control arms race. He worried along with Senator Hubert Humphrey that “might very well turn the political tides in the world in behalf of the Soviets.” Indeed there was ample evidence that was already happening especially in the emerging Third World.
In the end, however, Kennedy could not resist the claims that resuming tests, whether they were actually needed or not, was necessary to “show resolve” to the Soviets. On April 25, 1962 the American suspension of atmospheric tests was officially lifted.
With Geneva talks deader than a door nail new discussions began in March of 1962 with an 18-party UN Disarmament Conference and promptly slipped into a quagmire. On August 27 the U.S. and Brittan finally offered two new draft proposals. The first included a comprehensive ban verified by control posts under national command, but international supervision, and on-site inspections. As fully expected the Soviets immediately rejected it. The second proposal called for a partial test ban with underground tests would be excluded and. verified by national detection mechanisms, without supervision by a supra national body. This was a substantial Western accommodation of Soviet concerns and worries within the Kennedy administration about being able to verify underground tests.
Just as it looked like the new proposal could jump start negotiations, the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 blew up—the most dangerous nuclear confrontation in history. It both complicated negotiations and scared the hell out of both sides enough to push them forward. In November the Soviets signaled agreement to a draft by technicians allowing for automated test detection stations a/k/a black boxes and a limited number of on-site inspections. Of course both sides disagreed on the numbers of each. Over the next week Kennedy three times reduced the American demand from an original 20 to seven. The Soviets returned to their old offer of just three then April of 1963 yanked even that offer due to Khrushchev perceiving some slight.
Back home the Administration got mixed signals from Congress. One group of Congressmen demanded a total rejection of current Soviet proposals and a return to the long abandoned Geneva System. On the other hand 34 mostly Democratic Senators led by Humphrey and Thomas Dodd of Connecticut introduced a resolution calling for Kennedy to propose another partial ban to the Soviet Union with national monitoring and no on-site inspections. In case of no Soviet agreement, the resolution called for Kennedy to continue to “pursue it with vigor, seeking the widest possible international support” while suspending all atmospheric and underwater tests. The resolution bolstered the administrations attempts, but Kennedy was worried it would undercut the possibility of an ultimately more comprehensive ban.
Kennedy publicly committed to renewed efforts in a March press conference as a means of preventing rapid nuclear proliferation, which he called “the greatest possible danger and hazard.” He also explicitly rejected the known advise of his most hawkish advisors like Walt Rostow who wanted to tie a test ban pact to the withdrawal of Soviet troops in Cuba and keeping commitments to a neutral Laos. The President committed to negotiations without preconditions.
|President John F. Kennedy's commencement address at American University laid out his argument for the Test Ban to both the public and the Soviets.
In June in a commencement address at American University in Washington, Kennedy made an eloquent case for negotiations as a first step toward disarmament
where a fresh start is badly needed—is in a treaty to outlaw nuclear tests. The conclusion of such a treaty—so near and yet so far—would check the spiraling arms race in one of its most dangerous areas. It would place the nuclear powers in a position to deal more effectively with one of the greatest hazards which man faces in 1963, the further spread of nuclear arms. It would increase our security—it would decrease the prospects of war. Surely this goal is sufficiently important to require our steady pursuit, yielding neither to the temptation to give up the whole effort nor the temptation to give up our insistence on vital and responsible safeguards.
To back up his rhetoric, Kennedy announced an agreement with Khrushchev and Macmillan to promptly resume comprehensive test ban negotiations in Moscow and a US unilateral halt to atmospheric tests. Former Ambassador to the Soviet Union and Democratic Party powerhouse W. Averell Harriman was tapped to lead the American delegation, a signal that it was a top administration objective and not just a sham show. Quintin Hogg, who the Americans held in low regard, was tapped by Macmillan as his representative. The Soviets were represented at the top echelon by Foreign Minister Andre Gromyko.
Negotiations got underway on July 15 with opening remarks by Khrushchev himself who reiterated a Soviet offer dismissing the American inspection plan and offering instead a partial ban on atmospheric testing with no underground testing moratorium coupled with a non-aggression pact between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. That position killed the possibility of pursuing the comprehensive ban Kennedy hoped for. But Harriman in response said that the West would entertain a non-aggression pact, but that the way forward on that was long and difficult. But he said a partial test ban was could be quickly concluded. He asked for additional non-proliferation language but the Soviets argued that it, too, would require additional discussion. They also held that the test ban was itself a non-proliferation step as other nations joined the original signers.
This set the framework for a surprisingly quick conclusion of the talks. A number of thorny issues were dealt with and sometimes danced around with fancy, but evasive language. That included the right of signatories to withdraw from the treaty and under what conditions; how to include states like China and East Germany that were not universally recognized, and the Soviets demand that recalcitrant be required to sign before the treaty could go into effect.
With final wordsmithing initialed by negotiators on July 25, just 10 days after talks began. The next day Kennedy addressed the nation in a 26 minute live broadcast. He said, “all mankind has been struggling to escape from the darkening prospect of mass destruction on earth ... Yesterday a shaft of light cut into the darkness,” and concluded with a favorite Chinese proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step. And if that journey is a thousand miles, or even more, let history record that we, in this land, at this time, took the first step.”
All was not perfect. Both the French and Chinese announced that they would not sign the treaty and continue to pursue their nuclear arms development. Not unexpected, but a dash of cold water on worldwide hopes.
After final consultations by each government the on August 5, 1963, significantly the eve of the anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb British Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home, Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko, and US Secretary of State Dean Rusk signed the final agreement.
After a short, bitter fight by treaty opponent the Senate ratified the agreement on September 24 by a comfortable margin of 80 to 14. There was predictable unanimity on the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet the next day.
While far from perfect the Partial Test Ban Treaty let the world breathe a little easier for a while.
As a 14 year old kid in Cheyenne, Wyoming I so ardently supported the treaty that I wrote ultra-conservative Senator Millward Simpson who as Governor had my father W.M. Murfin in his Cabinet as Travel Commission Secretary to ask him to vote for the treaty. Not only did he discount our personal connection—I had met him several times—he wrote back informing me that he had turned my letter over to the FBI as possible proof of Communist sympathies.
|Participation in the Partial Test Ban Treaty--light green signed and ratified, dark green Acceded or succeeded, yellow only signed, red non signatory.
Ultimately 126 nations signed the treaty but 10 never ratified it and significant hold outs include France and China, each of which became nuclear powers, plus North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia. Signatories India and Pakistan openly developed nuclear weapons. Israel is widely acknowledged to have the bomb but has never admitted it. Several other nations are believed to possess the technology to quickly build a weapon including Japan, South Africa, and Brazil. There are probably others as well as the possibility that terrorist organizations might be able to build so-call suitcase bombs.