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The Test Ban Comedy

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 those “penetration aids” designed to let loose a fusillade of deception in combat between whole fleets of missile and anti-missile. In this intensified testing the two new monsters, MIRV and ABM, were perfected and are still being improved. What looked like the peace movement’s greatest triumph in 1963 proved to be a bonanza for the military and its industrial allies.

The signing of the limited test ban, the fourth major lost opportunity since World War II to curb the nuclear arms race, differed in one vital respect from the others. The treaty was the culmination of a worldwide campaign against atmospheric testing. It mobilized overwhelming majority support in the United States, Japan, and every other country aware of the danger from the radioactivity those atmospheric tests released.

For the first time the opponents of the nuclear arms race had an issue more effective than a generalized, albeit cataclysmic, danger. Suddenly, in the shape of strontium 90, the menace turned up in the baby’s milk bottle and in cancer statistics. Hypochondria was mobilized in the service of idealism and the combination worked. Adlai Stevenson put the issue on the political map in the 1956 campaign by calling for an end to H-bomb tests, while Nixon in a Republican chorus of derision called any restriction on testing “a fearful risk.” In Kennedy’s 1960 campaign the issue was muted, but it was there.1

The hypochondria which made the campaign against atmospheric testing so effective proved a weakness in victory. Support evaporated rapidly when the treaty was signed and atmospheric testing stopped. It proved impossible to keep a full head of steam in the boiler of the disarmament campaign when all one had left was the more familiar issue of the danger in continuing the nuclear arms race, even if it no longer threatened baby’s milk. Somehow talk of universal holocaust proved not half so effective as being able to tell the individual he or his child might get cancer because of testing. Death, even, perhaps especially, on a mass scale, is really beyond the imagination of mankind. Constant predictions of cosmic disaster produce a yawn. No one really believes in the possibility of his own death.

Fear of death has rarely stopped a common brawl, much less a war. But everybody is nervous about having to go to the doctor. Peace propaganda rested—and this is a lesson we have yet to learn—on a vastly oversimplified psychology. Just as the vivid portrayal of hell-fire in old-fashioned gospel evangelism only gave sin an extra dimension of zest, so subconsciously the doomsday theme had an appeal to man’s love of excitement and horror. It was like turning on another TV thriller, and it was as unreal.

Despite worldwide fear of fallout, the limited nuclear test ban might never have been signed were it not for some extraordinary circumstances. It is doubtful whether the force of public opinion alone would have brought it about. One was the shock of the Cuban missile crisis, which had brought the two superpowers and the world only a few months earlier for the first time to the brink of nuclear war. The second I believe was the political desperation of Khrushchev, soon to be deposed, and striving desperately for a way out of the arms race and its heavy cost for Russia; his destalinization campaign could only survive if international tension could be lightened and the standard of living in the Soviet Union dramatically raised. Roger Hilsman summed it up neatly in his memoir of the Kennedy Administration2 when he wrote:

The Soviets put missiles into Cuba in an attempt to solve a set of problems—a strategic imbalance, the exigencies of the Sino-Soviet dispute, and the impossible combination of demands on their limited resources made by defense, their space program, their peoples’ appetite for consumers’ goods, and the drain of foreign aid needed to support their foreign policy. When the crisis was over, the missiles withdrawn, the same set of problems remained. The irony is that these same problems, which brought the world so close to nuclear war, later brought about the so-called détente—a relaxation of Cold War tensions. For it was the same pressure that led the Soviets to put missiles in Cuba that later led them to take up Kennedy’s proposal for a treaty banning nuclear testing.

For five years, ever since the formal nuclear test ban negotiations began in 1958, the Soviets had insisted that they would never accept an accord which did not ban all nuclear testing, in all environments, underground included. Khrushchev backed down on this as he backed down on the Cuban missiles and as he had backed down in 1955 on the Austrian treaty, which was the admission price to a summit on Germany and disarmament. For these backdowns he got nothing, nothing but a temporary change of international atmosphere.

Potentially, this was worthwhile, for in the changed atmosphere agreement on substantive issues became possible. But they were never forthcoming. The West took what Khrushchev had to offer but gave nothing in return. This I believe is the key to his downfall, and perhaps part of the explanation for the more rigid, cautious, and unimaginative policies of his successors. Khrushchev all too soon after the signing ceremonies in Moscow must have begun to look like an easy mark and a dupe. For when the treaty had to be sold to the US military bureaucracy and the US Senate, it was sold not as a victory against the arms race but as a victory in it, an acknowledgement by Moscow of American superiority and a new way to maintain it. This is why no substantive disarmament agreement followed, though many the world over hoped for it in the détente the treaty created.

There was another reason Khrushchev accepted the treaty on Western terms. That lay in the growing tension between Moscow and Peking. Moscow was at a crossroads of policy in 1963. This was dramatized by two negotiations in Moscow which overlapped in time but faced in totally different directions. Talks with the Chinese began there July 5. Talks with the US and Britain on a test ban agreement opened July 15, while the negotiations with Peking’s representatives were still under way. In an open letter to Peking released the day before the talks with the West began, the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist party declared it,3

…a necessary duty to tell the party and the people with all frankness that in questions of war and peace the Chinese Communist party leadership is based on principle differences with us…. The essence of these differences lies in the diametrically opposite approach to such vital problems as the possibility of averting a world thermonuclear war, peaceful co-existence of states with different social systems, and interconnection between the struggle for peace and the development of the world revolutionary movement.

In the overlapping negotiations “the Soviets clearly gave more attention to the test ban group, and no doubt intended this as a deliberate slap at the Chinese and a deliberate effort to emphasize that they were opting for a policy of détente with the West, even if it would be at the expense of a further disintegration in Sino-Soviet relations.’4 A study at the coldwarrish Hoover Institution found that the test ban treaty was “perhaps the final straw that brought the schism into the open.” For Peking “symbolically” it represented “Moscow’s joining what Peking deemed an imperialist conspiracy, not only to try to block China’s nuclear program, but to oppose her political advance in the third world.”5 For Washington the treaty was a political coup, solidifying the split in the world communist movement. Even so Khrushchev had to pay a high price for it.

The American University speech, in which Kennedy announced the three-power agreement to hold the Moscow test ban talks, was one of Kennedy’s best. It was published in full next day in Izvestia. Khrushchev later told Harriman it was “the best speech by any President since Roosevelt.”6 But the Administration’s psychological warriors could hardly have been unaware that its new tone of friendliness to Moscow would whet the suspicions of Peking and nourish the growing split. According to Sorensen, who drafted the speech,7 Kennedy was skeptical about the possibility that the talks would succeed. Moscow was still insisting on an agreement banning tests in all environments. Kennedy seemed to regard the speech in part at least as an exercise in political propaganda. In preparing for it, he “valued in particular,” Sorensen relates,8 “a letter from Norman Cousins” suggesting that “the exposition of a peaceful posture prior to the May meeting of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee, even if it could not deter a new rash of attacks on US policy, might at least make those attacks sound hollow and hypocritical outside the communist world.”

  1. 1

    It was not a gut issue with Kennedy as it was with Stevenson. “In the early stages of his public career,” Theodore C. Sorensen, his other official biographer, says in his Kennedy (Harper & Row, 1965), “his foreign policy speeches had a militant ring. Defense, in his view, was the bulk of diplomacy and disarmament was only a dream. But with increased perspective and responsibility came a renewed commitment to peace. Nothing gave him greater satisfaction in the White House than signing the Nuclear Test Ban treaty.”

  2. 2

    To Move A Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F. Kennedy (Doubleday, 1967), p. 228.

  3. 3

    Senator George McGovern, A Time of War, A Time of Peace (Random House, 1968), p. 44. A first-rate summary of the Sino-Soviet factor in the achievement of the treaty from his memorable speech in the Senate, Sept. 16, during the ratification debate.

  4. 4

    Morton H. Halperin and Dwight H. Perkins (East Asian Research Center), Communist China and Arms Control Harvard, 1965), p. 169.

  5. 5

    Walter C. Clemens, Jr., The Arms Race and Sino-Soviet Relations (Hoover Institution, Stanford, 1968), p. 50.

  6. 6

    Sorensen, Kennedy, p. 733.

  7. 7

    Ibid., p. 730.

  8. 8

    Ibid., p. 730.

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