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 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.”

Kennedy’s first move after the speech was to visit and reassure the ever nervous Germans. Sorensen’s account of Kennedy’s feelings on the eve of the Moscow talks is revealing:9

The Adenauer government still took an alarmist attitude about the whole matter. But the trip to West Germany had improved popular as well as official feeling in that country about our intentions, the President told his negotiators [i.e., before they left for Moscow], “and I am willing to draw on that as much as necessary, if it’s worthwhile. I don’t, however, want to do what we did in the Berlin talks, getting the Germans suspicious if the Russians aren’t going to agree to anything anyway.” Inasmuch as even a limited test ban treaty required a Soviet acceptance of permanent American superiority in nuclear weapons, he refused to count too heavily on the success of the Moscow meetings. [Italics added.]

But on July 2, three days before the talks with the Chinese were to open and thirteen days before the test ban talks with the West began, Khrushchev reversed the Soviet’s past position and agreed to accept the West’s proposal for a ban on tests in the atmosphere, outer space, and underwater but not underground. This was not only to accept “permanent inferiority” but to leave the door open to a form of testing in which the US was far more proficient and for which it could more easily bear the expense. He asked in return only that it be linked with a non-aggression pact between NATO and the Warsaw powers. This would have made the Chinese feel that he was thereby protecting his rear in the West in the event of a conflict with them in the East.

But Kennedy was in no mood to pay this price even though Sorensen says there was “apprehension that Khrushchev would insist on both or neither.”10 The negotiators were instructed, before leaving for Moscow, to stall on the request for a non-aggression pact. Such a pact was always a bugaboo with Adenauer, who still dreamed that the cold war, the arms race, and the rearmament of Germany would some day force the Russians to accept its reunification on Western terms. The negotiators finally threw Khrushchev a very slim bone. He had to be satisfied with a non-committal paragraph at the end of the Agreed Communiqué on the treaty which mentioned his proposal only to bury it in diplomatic double-talk:11

The heads of the three delegations discussed the Soviet proposal relating to a pact of non-aggression between the participants in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the participants in the Warsaw Treaty. The three governments have agreed fully [Our italics. A delicate touch of humor in that adverb since they had agreed to nothing!] to inform their respective allies in the two organizations concerning these talks and to consult with them about continuing discussions on this question with the purpose of achieving agreement satisfactory to all participants.

That was the last anybody heard of any such discussions. In any case, if the reader will look at the skillful wording again, the communiqué did not promise discussions but only consultations (i.e., with the Germans) on whether to discuss the Pact. This was exquisite conmanship.

The final sentence of the communiqué, cryptic and inconsequential as it appeared to be at the time, marked the burial of Khrushchev’s other hopes. “A brief exchange of views also took place,” the communiqué ended, “with regard to other measures directed at a relaxation of tension.” The “other measures” Khrushchev had in mind were indicated in a speech he made July 20, five days before the treaty was finally initialed, and in an interview with Pravda and Izvestia as soon as the final agreement was reached.12 It was the year before Khrushchev’s ouster, and these two declarations show the central role of disarmament in his domestic and international program.

He quoted Lenin in support of the policy of coexistence and to attack those who saw in war the final victory of socialism. He defended destalinization by citing Hungary as an example of what happens when “the cult of personality” alienates the masses. He said people would judge socialism “by what it gives them” in the way of better living standards. He hoped the limited test ban would make it possible to freeze or reduce military budgets and he suggested among ways to lessen tension that each side reduce its troops in Germany and that the Western powers post inspectors in the East and the Warsaw powers in the West at airfields, railway junctions, and airports as assurance against surprise attack. “After all,” he added in the July 26 interview after the treaty had been initialed, “it is necessary to keep clearly in mind that the ban on nuclear weapons tests does not mean the end of the arms race…does not do away with the burden of armaments…. Let us now advance further…toward liquidating the ‘cold war.’ ” But all this was exactly what the Adenauer regime and our military feared.

I see no reason to believe that Kennedy did not feel the same way. Sorensen’s account reveals how tightly Kennedy held the reins of the negotiations in his own hands: “All communications to the delegation were cleared through Kennedy. Frequently he altered or rewrote completely the daily cable of instructions prepared in the State Department.”13 Sorensen provides no clue to the differences this implies between the departmental drafts and the final White House orders. The former could hardly have been more hard-line than Kennedy’s proved to be. The delegation was instructed sharply to limit the agreement in Moscow to a limited ban on testing. If Kennedy had wanted progress on further and broader issues, if he had wanted to lay the groundwork for a more general armament agreement or political settlement, Khrushchev seemed more than ready for it. At a bare minimum, Kennedy could have had a final communiqué promising wider arms talks in the future. Instead he got a hard and narrow bargain, and it must be assumed that this is all he wanted.

Khrushchev got nothing concrete in return for accepting his terms for a limited test ban treaty. Seen from within the Kremlin, where opposition was brewing, Khrushchev’s failure to win some relaxation of the arms race must have made the treaty seem another humiliating defeat for his policy of wooing Kennedy, as the U-2 was for his policy of wooing Eisenhower. I believe these sealed his political fate.

Both leaders had two constituencies—the universal two-party system of mankind, whether it lives under freely chosen representatives or imposed regimes: the hard-liners and the soft, the tough and the conciliatory. In Moscow the advocates of heavy (military) industry and a return to the heavy hand this entailed were waiting in the wings to take over. In Washington the hardliners were preparing to use a minority veto—the constitutional requirement of a two-thirds vote in the Senate for treaty ratification—to block Kennedy unless he met their terms. In both capitals there was a military-industrial complex, buttressed by the same paranoia and cave-man instinct. In both there were factions which saw the only hope for peace in the extermination of the other side.

The Neanderthals on both sides, with touching faith in science, still hoped that in the arms race they could acquire (but they alone) a new magic weapon which would keep nuclear extermination from being mutual. In both countries there was also a public concerned with the costs and dangers of the arms race, but its strength never matched its numbers.

The difference is that Khrushchev, as leader of the weaker nation, returned from the signing of the treaty with nothing but atmospherics as his trophy. Kennedy could offer the opposition the assurance of another period of American military predominance, and the maintenance for a longer period of the American position as the senior firm in the world atomic oligopoly.

For the treaty was also the first non-proliferation pact. The other nations, in signing it, were pledging themselves never to test except underground, which was very difficult and expensive. Some of them might be close to building a bomb of their own, but adherence to the treaty put up another barrier to their becoming nuclear powers. The treaty also gave both superpowers an excuse not to share the secrets of the new weaponry with importunate allies. As Kennedy said in his TV address the night after it was signed, “this treaty can be a step toward preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to nations not now possessing them.”14

Kennedy had a right to feel that he had brought home quite a prize package from Moscow. Trouble was nevertheless building up in the Senate. “Congressional Republicans,” Sorensen relates, “had consistently bombarded the President with attacks on his ‘fuzzy-minded disarmament advisers.’ ” Predictably, leading members of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, a watchdog that had become a Pentagon poodle, were saying that anything other than “a reasonably sound-proof test ban agreement…could be a greater risk to the national security than an arms race.”

Senator Jackson, the Democratic party’s leading liberal advocate of perpetual arms race, Nixon’s first choice as Secretary of Defense seven years later, was “skeptical” even after Khrushchev accepted Kennedy’s terms. Senator Russell, chairman of the Armed Services Committee and the military’s most prestigious ally in the Senate, opposed the treaty from the beginning and (unlike Jackson) was one of the nineteen who voted against it. Conservative congressmen and newspapermen charged that Kennedy had made a “secret deal” with Khrushchev in Moscow.15 Whatever the “gaps” between America and Russia, the two nations were obviously neck-and-neck when it came to paranoiac politicians.

The biggest obstacle was the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Sorensen tells us that the President had been careful to obtain their approval in advance of the negotiations. “But their agreement,” he adds, “had assumed that a test ban, like all other disarmament proposals [our italics], was only a diplomatic pose unlikely to achieve reality.” When they found themselves confronted with an actual agreement, “they hedged.”16 Phil G. Goulding, in his newly published memoir of his years as the Pentagon’s top press officer,17 gives us a description of how McNamara went over the treaty point by point with the Joint Chiefs in sessions that lasted several days and took many hours each day. “When they were finally finished,” Goulding reports, “the Joint Chiefs agreed with McNamara’s own basic position—that the treaty carried with it certain risks, but that the alternative risks of continued atmospheric testing were far more grave, both from the moral standpoint of the health of unborn generations and from the hard military standpoint that unlimited testing on both sides was allowing the Soviet Union to narrow the gap.” [Italics added.] That obviously was the clincher.

Part of the price which had to be paid, nevertheless, for the support of the Joint Chiefs, was that we would use the advantage given us by the treaty to widen that gap by intensified underground testing. This was imperfectly understood at the time. When Kennedy, the day after the treaty was initialed, made his eloquent TV address for public support,18 he said the treaty would not “prevent this nation from testing underground” but he also added that “unlimited competition in the testing and development of new types of destructive nuclear weapons will not make the world safer for either side.” No one could have guessed from this that we were on the verge of an intensified period of underground testing designed to enable us to pull far ahead technologically of the Russians.

This was one of the main selling points in the Senate hearings on the treaty. “By limiting Soviet testing to the underground environment, where testing is more difficult and more expensive and where the United States has substantially more experience,” McNamara said in his opening presentation,19 “we can at least retard Soviet progress and thereby prolong the duration of our technological superiority.” He added—but to this the senators seem to have paid little attention—“A properly inspected comprehensive test ban would, of course, serve this purpose still better.”

It was not our intention merely to retard Soviet progress while maintaining our margin of superiority. This would have been a freeze, stabilizing the level of destructive capacity and putting a ceiling on the arms race. To reread McNamara’s presentation on the treaty August 13, 1963, to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (along with senators from Armed Services and the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy) is to see why the better atmosphere created by the signing of the limited nuclear test ban treaty was never used for substantive negotiations to stabilize or reduce the burden of armaments. For what McNamara outlined that day was a program for a sharp step-up in the arms race, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

First, as for the quantitative. McNamara said the US then had “more than 500 missiles—Atlas, Titan, Minuteman, Polaris” and planned to more than triple the number in the next two years “to over 1700 by 1966.” Though McNamara did not say so, this was the goal originally set by the Kennedy Administration in its first budget preparations in the fall of 1961. Obviously he and Kennedy saw no reason to change it because of the nuclear test ban treaty.

McNamara estimated that the Soviets had “only a fraction as many ICBM missiles.” Perhaps he did not give a concrete figure because it would have shown a missile gap so lopsidedly in our favor as to make the planned step-up look fantastic. The 1962-63 edition of the annual Military Balance issued by the Institute for Strategic Studies in London credited the Soviet Union with “75+” as of early 1963. If this figure is correct then we had more than six times as many ICBMs as the Soviet Union at the time that McNamara announced that we would more than triple the number by 1966. As for submarine-launched missiles, McNamara said those of the Soviets were “short range, require surface launch, and generally are not comparable to our Polaris force.” McNamara said that by 1966 “our ballistic missile numerical superiority will increase both absolutely and relatively.” 20 When that testimony was read in the Kremlin, the gathering opposition must have felt that Khrushchev had lost his mind in believing that the treaty was a step toward lightening the burden and danger of the arms race.

McNamara dealt next with plans to improve the quality of our nuclear weapons. In four pages of testimony,21 some of it opaque to protect classified information, McNamara indicated the wide variety of improvements we could and would make by underground testing. The only field in which the Soviets were ahead was in large yield weapons. They had tested a 60-megaton “device” (he did not say bomb) and he thought it could be turned into a weapon of 100 megatons. But they had no missile that could carry such a monster and it would be “suitable only for vulnerable high altitude or suicide low level delivery,” i.e., against our air defenses.

The US, McNamara said, could “without any further testing” develop a warhead of 50 to 60 megatons for B-52 delivery. But the US believed that smaller bombs, with greater accuracy, were far more efficient. The key improvement, as admitted throughout the hearings, was in weight-to-yield ratios, i.e., packing more punch into smaller warheads.

We know now in retrospect that this was essential for the next great break-through, which was to put more warheads on each missile (MRV—the Multiple Reentry Vehicle) and then target them separately (MIRV—the Multiple Independently Targeted Reentry Vehicle). With these we are now on the verge of multiplying the number of warheads on these 1700 missiles by three, in the case of Minuteman, and by ten, in the case of Poseidon, the most stupendous expansion yet in nuclear delivery power.

It is even more extraordinary to reread those pages which concern the ABM. McNamara outlined what we could and would do in developing “penetration aids” to confuse any enemy ABM, and techniques to make it difficult for the enemy to counter any ABM of our own. “The ABM warhead designs we now have,” McNamara said that day, “or can develop through underground testing will provide a high probability of killing Soviet warheads even if they incorporate advanced technology far beyond what now exists.” [Italics added.]22

Against this background one can now better understand the full significance of the “safeguards” on which the Joint Chiefs of Staff insisted and to which Kennedy and McNamara agreed before the Chairman of the Joint-Chiefs, General Taylor, would tell the Senate that “while there are military disadvantages to the treaty, they are not so serious as to render it unacceptable.”23 They ensured an intensified arms race. The safeguards, as given by General Taylor in the Senate hearings, read like a meticulously spelled out treaty between the military and the Kennedy Administration, an agreement between two bureaucratic superpowers. It proved more significant than the treaty itself. The terms are worth looking at in full text as a warning for the future, since the peace movement tended euphorically to skip over them as a kind of bone thrown the military. The bone proved to be the giant skeleton for a new stage in the arms race. Here are the “safeguards” Kennedy promised the Joint Chiefs:

(a) The conduct of comprehensive, aggressive, and continuing underground nuclear test programs designed to add to our knowledge and improve our weapons in all areas of significance to our military posture for the future.

(b) The maintenance of modern nuclear laboratory facilities and programs in theoretical and exploratory nuclear technology which will attract, retain, and insure the continued application of our human scientific resources to these programs on which continued progress in nuclear technology depends.

(c) The maintenance of the facilities and resources necessary to institute promptly nuclear tests in the atmosphere should they be deemed essential to our national security or should the treaty or any of its terms be abrogated by the Soviet Union.

[The italics are added. In other words, the military were promised that we would abrogate the treaty—and resume atmospheric tests—if we felt that necessary to national security, even if the Soviets were abiding by it.]

(d) The improvements of our capability, within feasible and practical limits, to monitor the terms of the treaty, to detect violations, and to maintain our knowledge of Sino-Soviet activity, capability and achievements.24

This has the precise and wary wording of a treaty between two powers in which one at least—in this case the military—wholly distrusts the other—in this case the civilian, ostensibly and constitutionally the superior power. The military might well have mustered that one vote more than one-third which is all that the Constitution requires to block a treaty. They had the power and they exacted their price. Even so there were nineteen negative votes to eighty yeas in the Senate when the treaty was ratified September 24, 1963. During the debate Senator McGovern emphasized to the doubters “the repeated assurance of our President and our military leaders that underground testing will be energetically pushed and that we will be prepared to resume atmospheric tests if that becomes necessary.” Then he added, in an exasperation events have justified beyond even his apprehensions at the time,

Indeed, Mr. President, the Administration has been called upon to give so many assurances of our continued nuclear efforts after treaty ratification that a casual observer might assume that we are approving this treaty so that we can accelerate the arms race and beef up the war-making facilities of our country!25

In retrospect to be exactly what the treaty did. A month earlier, in the first flush of enthusiasm over negotiation of the treaty, Senator McGovern made a memorable address in the Senate (August 2) proposing that $5 billion be diverted from strategic weapons to social needs at home. He asked that plans be drawn up for the conversion of war industry to peacetime needs. McGovern said our nuclear stockpiles already represented a huge overkill capacity. “How many times,” he asked the Senate, “is it necessary to kill a man or a nation?” He quoted from a story leaked to The New York Times June 30 of that year which said the Kennedy Administration was considering (this was before the treaty talks) a substantial cutback in the production of nuclear weapons. A “policy-making official” was quoted as saying, “We have tens or hundreds of times more weapons than we would ever drop even in an all-out war, and we have had more than we needed for at least two years.”

If that was a Kennedy Administration viewpoint, it was not shared by McNamara. I believe the story represents the surfacing in the news of conclusions reached by certain arms study groups Kennedy had appointed early in his Administration. The closely guarded secret of their existence has slowly become known over the years to some reporters, including myself, but only on an off-the-record basis, so we still are unable to reveal or independently confirm the participants or the conclusions.

They were kept under wraps because they upset the Pentagon and if they had become known at the time they would have cut the ground from under the 1700-missile expansion which emerged from the first Kennedy- McNamara military budget in late 1961. Maybe some of the participants will some day tell us more in their memoirs, for they were men of weight in both the scientific and general community.

McGovern seems to have touched a tender nerve with his speech, particularly since it was caustic about McNamara’s latest rationalization for so many missiles—the “controlled counter-force” or “no cities” doctrine unveiled in the Ann Arbor speech of June, 1962. The idea was that we needed so many missiles because if the Russians spared our cities in a first strike, hitting only our missile bases, we would not hit their cities in retaliation but only their missile sites. This required an enormous amount of missiles. It also required a lot of addlepated computerism. McGovern blew this nonsense sky-high with two questions in his August 2 speech:

If the United States were aiming at the effective destruction of Russia’s nuclear forces, how could we apply such a strategy unless we knocked out the Soviet missiles before they were launched from their silos? What military objective could we achieve by knocking out missile launchers after their rockets had hit American targets?

The silly doctrine was custom-made for missile salesmanship. It is significant that when McNamara compiled his principal speeches and reports on leaving the Pentagon in 1968 in his book, The Essence of Security, the Ann Arbor speech was omitted. There isn’t even a reference to it in the index.

But when McNamara appeared before the Senate hearings to ask ratification of the test ban treaty, eleven days after that plea by McGovern to reduce spending on missiles, he was in no mood for second thoughts. When Senator Symington asked him about McGovern’s speech, McNamara insisted that he was holding the defense budget “to an absolute minimum.” McNamara submitted a formal memorandum declaring that any such cuts as McGovern proposed would represent “a substantial risk to our national security.”26 As for McGovern’s charge of overkill capacity in our nuclear weapons inventories, McNamara replied cryptically, “I think it is possible to say that we have more weapons than would be utilized in a particular war situation, without concluding that our inventories are excessive.” Such was the evasive nonsense McNamara was still uttering after the treaty offered an opportunity to freeze or reduce the inventories on both sides. I believe he would agree today with the unnamed officials The New York Times quoted in that news story of June 30, 1968, as fearing that the production of atomic weapons was “coming to be based more on the capabilities of the Atomic Energy Commission to manufacture them than on the actual requirements of the military.” Yet this mindless momentum continued despite the treaty, and McNamara was its prisoner and tool.

When Senator Aiken asked McNamara what effect approval of the treaty might have on the military budget during the next few years, McNamara was discouraging:

McNamara: I believe the treaty per se should not lead to a reduction in the budget. As I mentioned, I think we should all be concerned lest we be lulled into a false sense of security and act to reduce the budget for our military forces.

Aiken (still trying to be hopeful): Do you think it might have some tendency perhaps to stabilize the budget at about the present level?

McNamara: No, sir; I really don’t believe that the treaty by itself will have any, should have any, important influence on the budget.

Aiken: It would have no effect whatsoever?

McNamara: No, sir.27

When the Joint Chiefs appeared before the senators a few days later they were blunter:

Senator Curtis: If the safeguards that you favor are adequately carried out, is this test ban, would this test ban, then be a moneysaver?

General Wheeler: On the contrary I would say, Senator, if I may offer my opinion first. As I look at it, the military threat to our security from the Soviet Union specifically and from the Communist bloc in general is not lessened in one degree by this treaty. The safeguards, also, in my opinion, are going to cost sums of money over and above the sizable military budget that the chairman pointed out this morning.

General Le May: I would agree that the military budget will probably go up as a result of the treaty, not down.

Senator Curtis: I see.28

Earlier that same day Senator Morse had asked the Joint Chiefs an untactful question. In the Pentagon it must have seemed downright indecent, almost pornographic.

Morse: Now, you gentlemen have close contact with the large defense contractors of this country. What has been their view generally of this treaty?

General Le May: I certainly have no idea. I have not discussed it with any of them.

Morse: Any of you know of any opposition by the defense contractors?

General Le May: I don’t know of any.

General Wheeler: I would like to speak for myself, Senator, I have no contact with the large defense contractors of the country and I, too, have not discussed it with any of them.

Admiral McDonald: I haven’t discussed it, nor have they discussed it with me.

General Shoup: I have no contacts with them.29

How reassuring that after so many years in the services every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would turn out—so to speak—to be a virgin! But what need was there for seduction by industry, when the insiders so obviously planned to permit no letup in the arms race in the wake of the treaty?

It is startling now to check back and see how our testing has increased since it was “limited” by treaty. I phoned the Atomic Energy Commission April 3, 1970, as this was being written and asked for the figures on testing as of that day. Its press officer told me there had been ninety-eight US tests from 1945 until the treaty went into force on August 5, 1963. Since then there were 210 US tests, or more than twice as many in the seven years since the treaty as in the eighteen years before it. When I asked for the costs, I was given year by year figures including those for the next fiscal year in the new budget. The total cost of testing for those eight years will be $1,834 million, an average of more than $200 million a year. It was some $206 million in fiscal 1964, the year the treaty went into effect. It will be $226 million in fiscal 1971. I have never seen these figures published before.

On the other hand the AEC’s figures on Soviet testing show a sharp decline. It credits the Soviet Union with 126 tests in the years before the treaty, including one underground. It lists only three Soviet tests since. But these figures, like so much else the AEC does, are tricky, indeed doubly so. For the AEC also lists what it calls thirty-five “seismic signals” from known Soviet proving grounds. These are announced in this form: “The US has today recorded seismic signals which originated from the Soviet nuclear test area in the Semiplatinsk region. The signals are equivalent to those of a nuclear test in the low-intermediate range.”

When I asked the AEC why these were not listed as Soviet tests, the answer was that we could not be sure they were tests without actually digging a hole on the site where it took place. When I asked how they could be sure of the three Soviet underground tests they do list as such, the answer was that these “vented” and threw radioactivity into the air which we detected in the same way as we detect atmospheric tests.

All this is part of a phony charade in which the AEC has been engaged ever since talk of a nuclear test ban began in the Fifties. It is designed to support the AEC’s view that we could never be absolutely sure an underground test had taken place without on-site inspection. In a sense, of course, this is true. But the standard of absolute assurance on which the AEC and the other opponents of a comprehensive test ban have always insisted goes beyond normal experience and scientific necessity. If bridegrooms sought the same degree of assurance in marriage, every bride would be put into an iron chastity belt immediately after the ceremony and followed for the rest of her life by two detectives, both eunuchs.

There have always been two ways to approach the statistics on the probability of test detection. The probability has always been high and has grown higher. Today they are probably 98 chances in 100. One can then shake one’s head sadly as the AEC does and say there is a 2 percent chance of evasion. The other, the normal and sensible way, is to say that any power which set out to evade the treaty would have to do so knowing that there were 98 chances in 100 that it would be caught out. This is more assurance than one gets in the normal transactions of life.

The seismic signal nonsense is only one of the ways in which the AEC’s statistics are tricky and understate the volume of testing on both sides since the treaty. The other way is that its figures—the Soviets give out none—are only for what it calls “announced” tests. We do not announce all our tests in order to confuse the other side’s monitors and we do not announce all the tests or “seismic signals” we detect on the other side in order to hide from them just how sensitive our monitoring facilities are. All this has another dividend, of course, in hiding from the public the full extent of testing since the treaty.

Fortunately there are independent sources which also monitor tests and these indicate that the number of “unannounced” tests is very large indeed. The Swedes have a very sensitive seismic recording station at Upsala. “The Swedish Research Institute for National Defense,” the new Yearbook on World Armaments for 1968-69 issued by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute30 notes, “has for each year since the Moscow treaty reported about twice as many Soviet tests as the US Atomic Energy Commission,” i.e., twice as many as the three radioactively monitored tests plus the thirty-five “seismic signals.” The Swedish station also reports that there were at least thirty more Soviet atmospheric tests in the years before the treaty than the AEC announced.

The compilers of the Yearbook believe that US testing has been similarly understated by the AEC. “A search was made,” it says, “in the Bulletin of the International Seismological Centre, Edinburgh, Scotland, for the period 16 January to 14 April 1964. This indicated thirteen [seismic] events whose location in the Nevada test site indicates that they were US tests. During this period the AEC announced only five tests.” The Yearbook concludes that “the true figure” on the number of tests by the two superpowers “could be anything up to twice as large” as those the AEC has announced.

One final touch on this bitter comedy before we pass on in our concluding installment to the SALT talks. The day before the limited nuclear test ban treaty was ratified, Richard Nixon gave it his qualified endorsement but warned against any further agreements with the Soviet Union. He said the treaty signaled the beginning of “the most dangerous period in the cold war.”31 Perhaps it would have been more precise to say arms race rather than cold war. But he could hardly have realized, though not in the sense he intended, how true that was. For in this underground testing we were to develop the multiple independently targeted warheads and the anti-ballistic missiles, the extensive penetration aids and improved missile accuracy, that now threaten to destabilize the precarious balance of terror.

(This is the third in a series of four articles on the struggle against the arms race in the past century and a half.)

This Issue

May 7, 1970