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Finish What Ike and Kennedy Started: A Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

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The Salt Lake Tribune recently published its own editorial in favor of the U.S. Senate approving the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). This is the treaty that would ban all nuclear test explosions, of which the U.S. conducted over 1,000 during the Cold War.

Nine nations, including the U.S., are needed to ratify the treaty before it takes full effect. If this happens it would finally finish what Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy initiated during some of the most tense years of the Cold War.

Eisenhower believed a test ban treaty was a potentially significant stepping stone to other key agreements related to nuclear disarmament. Kennedy shared the same view. Neither president achieved the comprehensive nuclear test ban they sought. Their efforts did produce a limited treaty banning atmospheric, underwater, and outer space testing. Underground testing would continue through the Cold War.

Research begun during their administrations also built the foundation of the international monitoring system that exists today to detect nuclear test explosions. This type of verification, backed by decades of experience, is necessary to ensure countries adhere to the CTBT.


Dwight Eisenhower announces the first nuclear test ban treaty negotiations in 1958. Listen to announcement here. (courtesy Eisenhower Library)

 

It was not until 1996 that the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was crafted and opened for signature to all nations. The U.S. signed the treaty under Bill Clinton, but the Senate rejected it in 1999.

President Obama is now pressing for the Senate to pass the treaty. Utah is one of the states where the debate will be centered, particularly in their upcoming Senate election. 

The Salt Lake Tribune’s recent editorial highlighted powerful reasons for supporting the treaty, such as the Stockpile Stewardship program that maintains the nuclear arsenal without test explosions. The Tribune cites the JASON Panel's report which states that under Stockpile Stewardship, “the lifetimes to today’s nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence.” Continued investment in Stockpile Stewardship will assure the reliability of the nuclear arsenal without test explosions.

Supporters of resuming nuclear testing want to perfect new nuclear weapons. They cite the importance of strengthening the nuclear deterrent, although the conventional forces the U.S. maintains also offer a powerful, non-nuclear deterrent against potential aggressors.

The editorial rightfully discusses the dangers of new nuclear testing, stating "it could lead to a cascade of tests by other nations." This is an important topic for debate. Does the U.S. want to invest money in new nuclear test explosions which are certain to escalate international tensions? If other nations then follow with their own tests, will it lead to a collapse of nuclear treaties and disarmament hopes? How might U.S. resumption of nuclear tests hurt our efforts to build missile defense cooperation with Russia?

The U.S. is going forward with missile defense to guard against the threat from North Korea and Iran, but Russia is suspicious of our missile defense designs. The new START Treaty should help to improve U.S.-Russian relations in this regard, and so too can the CTBT. 

With the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals, and thousands of strategic and tactical weapons, we cannot underestimate the importance of Russian-American nuclear cooperation. Resuming nuclear testing could cause damage to this effort and even ignite a new arms race. Also, how might China, India, and Pakistan respond to new U.S. nuclear testing? In addition, consider the nonproliferation efforts underway to reduce the likelihood of nuclear weapons theft by terrorists. 

We want to be reining in nuclear arsenals across the globe, not encouraging their expansion through nuclear weapons testing. New testing will not help us disarm North Korea's nuclear arsenal or Iran's potential one.

There is just not much for the U.S. to gain by testing. There is plenty to lose when you consider the possibility of destroying the non-proliferation framework that currently exists. Do Americans also want their wallets lightened by new nuclear weapons testing, continued large nuclear arsenals, and a new arms race? It is unlikely most Americans see that as the path to peace. In Congress there is a resolution gaining support (H. Res 278) calling for less nukes and more emphasis on the threats of terrorism and global hunger.  

As Eisenhower said, nukes are an expensive and dangerous business. While complete nuclear disarmament is a distant goal, there is much to be gained from continued reductions and control of these weapons. This step-by-step progress toward nuclear disarmament needs to go forward, and the CTBT is an essential part.

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About William Lambers

William Lambers is the author of several books including Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World. This book features over 50 interviews with officials from the UN World Food Programme and other charities discussing school feeding programs that fight child hunger. He is also the author of Nuclear Weapons, The Road to Peace: From the Disarming of the Great Lakes to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Open Skies for Peace, The Spirit of the Marshall Plan: Taking Action Against World Hunger, School Lunches for Kids Around the World, The Roadmap to End Global Hunger, From War to Peace and the Battle of Britain. He is also a writer for the History News Service. His articles have been published by newspapers including the Cincinnati Enquirer, Des Moines Register, the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Buffalo News, San Diego Union Tribune, the Providence Journal, Free Lance-Star (VA), the Bakersfield Californian, the Washington Post, Miami Herald (FL), Chicago Sun-Times, the Patriot Ledger (MA), Charleston Sunday Gazette Mail (WV), the Cincinnati Post, Salt Lake Tribune (UT), North Adams Transcript (MA), Wichita Eagle (KS), Monterey Herald (CA), Athens Banner-Herald (GA) and the Duluth News Journal. His articles also appear on History News Network (HNN) and Think Africa Press. Mr. Lambers is a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Ohio with degrees in Liberal Arts (BA) and Organizational Leadership (MS). He is also a member of the Feeding America Blogger Council.