The Treaty Betrayed

On October 13 the US Senate saw fit not to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This made me sad, both for my country and for the world. I believe that it was a serious mistake both because the CTBT would have been good in itself and because I believe that the failure to ratify the treaty will have serious consequences for American foreign policy for years to come.

Fifty-four years ago I watched from a distance as the work we had done at Los Alamos was verified in the Trinity test. This was a necessary test for us. We did not know whether the device we had invented, designed, and built would explode. Like others who had worked on the atomic bomb, I was exhilarated by our success—and terrified by the event. A few weeks later atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fortunately, none has been dropped on an adversary since then.

I assume we want to keep it that way. One of the key elements in achieving this is for as few countries as possible to possess nuclear weapons technology. Another is maintaining the capacity to respond to any who attempt to use it.

The effort to get a comprehensive test ban treaty has a long history in this country. The basic purpose of a test ban is straightforward. On the one hand it would help curb proliferation, that is, the spread of atomic and nuclear weapons to additional countries. On the other it slows or stops the nuclear arms development race among existing nuclear powers.

In 1958, the President’s Science Advisory Committee, of which I was a member, suggested to President Eisenhower that he propose a ban on tests of nuclear weapons. Eisenhower accepted our suggestion, and was joined by both of the other then-existing nuclear powers, the Soviet Union and Great Britain, in seeking such a ban. In 1961, Eisenhower said that one of his chief regrets upon leaving office was that this had not been achieved. Every administration since has had a stated goal of working for a comprehensive test ban treaty.

A scientific conference involving scientists from the three nuclear powers was held in 1958 to investigate the feasibility of a test ban. The conference determined that the process for detecting underground tests of weapons with an explosive power lower than 20 kilotons was unreliable. (For comparison, the Trinity test and the two bombs dropped in World War II had yields of between 15 and 25 kilotons.) Today reliable detection is possible for tests with explosive power as low as approximately one kiloton. The 1958 conference led to a treaty banning atmospheric nuclear weapons testing in 1962.

Opponents of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty have now raised three basic objections to it. First, those who wish to continue nuclear weapons development believe, correctly, that new weapons need to be tested in order to discover whether they work. Second, while the CTBT prohibits any testing whatever—“zero tolerance”—there might be small-scale tests that…

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