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." 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 and outer space).
While emphases and motives have shifted (fallout danger and limiting Soviet nuclear advances were initially central goals) documents published today for the first time by the National Security Archive show that, from the start, U.S. government officials saw a ban on nuclear testing as highly relevant to inhibiting nuclear proliferation. In July 1978, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) director Paul Warnke wrote to President Jimmy Carter 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 on the "threshold" of a nuclear weapons capability.
The documents published today provide new details on how nonproliferation objectives informed support within the U.S. government for a test ban:
* Disarmament advisers argued in 1957 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 in 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 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 changing 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.
The nonproliferation arguments supporting the comprehensive test ban that developed from the 1950s to the 1970s have remained central to the thinking of recent Democratic administrations and still resonate today. Thus, concerns about nuclear proliferation influenced presidential candidate Bill Clinton's advocacy of a test ban; during the campaign, he asserted that "the biggest threat to the future" was "the proliferation of nuclear technology" and "to contain that we ought to ... join the parade working toward a comprehensive test ban."
Likewise, checking proliferation and curbing the weapons programs of new nuclear states have been central to the Obama administration's support for the test ban. According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the treaty is an "integral part of our non-proliferation and arms control agenda." She further declared that "A test ban treaty that has entered into force will permit the United States and others to challenge states engaged in suspicious testing activities--including the option of calling on-site inspections to be sure that no testing occurs on land, underground, underwater, or in space."
No matter how strong the merits of a test ban treaty, many of the same political and institutional obstacles that stopped presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton from achieving a comprehensive test ban remain today. Arguments and allegations over verification capabilities, cheating by other nuclear states, the nonproliferation benefits, and the reliability of the nuclear stockpile have persisted for decades. And new problems have emerged, such as entry-into-force; the 44 countries with a nuclear weapons potential must ratify the treaty before it goes into effect. Thus, even if the New START Treaty is ratified, the test ban treaty will face significant political challenges.
Check out the Archive's Web site for more information: www.nsarchive.org