The Test Ban Comedy

Robert Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev
Robert Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev; drawing by David Levine

Our last installment ended by calling disarmament negotiations a theater of delusion. The outstanding example is the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. In appearance it was one of the few successes in the history of armament negotiations and the great achievement of the Kennedy Administration. It seemed to promise that we were at last to bring the nuclear monster under control. Logically, the SALT talks could—and should—have begun seven years ago in 1963 after that treaty was signed, with so much mutual congratulation, in Moscow. It was the first time the two superpowers had reached a major formal agreement. It signaled a thaw in the cold war. In the manic-depressive cycle of the sick relationship between Washington and Moscow, it was the “up” phase after the terrifying “down” of the Cuban missile crisis the year before. It seemed a most propitious moment for the kind of strategic arms limitation talks now belatedly beginning in Vienna.

In a television address the night after the treaty was signed, the youthful President addressed the country and the world with jubilation and hope. He put the moment in a perspective of grandeur. “Since the beginning of history,” Kennedy said, “war has been mankind’s constant companion.” Now, when war “would not be like any in history,” when it could kill 300 million people in America, Europe, and Russia in “less than 60 minutes,” there was a chance “to turn the world away from war.”

Let us, the President said, “make the most of this opportunity…to slow down the perilous nuclear arms race, and to check the world’s slide toward final annihilation.” Yet this was, as a Hindu philosopher would say, all delusion, a dream which bore little resemblance, as we shall see, to the Kennedy Administration’s waking and working plans for the aftermath of the treaty.

When one goes back into the records to try to understand how and why the opportunity was lost one comes upon a deeper mystery and falls into a worse despair. Though the treaty contained no concrete measure of disarmament, and though it banned nuclear testing in the atmosphere, underwater, and in outer space but not underground, it did seem a first limit at least on testing and on the nuclear arms race. The real question is how and why it proved to be a curtain-raiser instead on a new and more intense period of competition and expenditure in atomic weaponry.

The arms race merely moved underground. What seemed a minor loophole opened, metaphorically and literally, into an enormous cavern. The total volume of testing increased instead of decreasing. The magnitude reached the point where two years ago we began to test underground in the megaton range. By miracles of ingenuity, we learned to do almost everything underground which scientists once thought could only be done in the atmosphere: the development and testing, for example, of…

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