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Starting a Peace Race with the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

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Fears of a nuclear-armed Iran may provoke a Middle East arms race, one that would place even more burdens on an impoverished region.

We see a similar scenario in Asia with India and Pakistan, where malnutrition rates are high while spending on nuclear weapons continues. The World Food Programme’s relief operation for flood-ravaged Pakistan has faced severe funding shortages.

At the same time, costly nuclear missile tests by Pakistan and India have gone forward; and in North Korea there have been famine conditions as the country has developed its nukes.

We need to challenge all these countries. But not to an arms race; rather to what President Kennedy called a “peace race.” This is our best hope for unifying the world in eliminating the threat of nuclear weapons and lifting this burden off all peoples.

This unity must first begin at home between Democrats and Republicans. A starting point should be ratifying a pact eliminating all nuclear weapons testing, finally finishing a job started long ago by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy.

Back in 1963 when Kennedy put before the Senate a treaty with the Soviet Union limiting nuclear weapons testing, he gained strong support from the other side of the aisle. Republican Senator Everett Dirksen met with President Kennedy to help him win over key votes for treaty approval.

Former President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican who actually started the road toward the treaty during his administration, lent his support in the form of a letter to the Senate. Eisenhower urged the treaty be passed as “people are frightened… world fears and tensions are intensified. There is placed upon too much of mankind the costly burdens of an all out arms race.”


Expensive and dangerous nuclear weapons: Dwight Eisenhower talking about pursuit of a nuclear test ban treaty in March of 1960 (audio and photo courtesy of the Eisenhower Library)


The Limited Test Ban Treaty won approval from the Senate one year after the Cuban Missile Crisis when the US and Soviets almost went to nuclear war. The 1963 treaty was a first step towards arms control in the fast-escalating nuclear age.


President Kennedy signs the Limited Test Ban Treaty in October, 1963 in the Treaty Room at the White House (courtesy Kennedy Library)

 But decades later, what Ike and Kennedy started is not yet finished. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) still needs to be ratified. This treaty goes a step further than the limited one of 1963 and bans all nuclear test explosions, including underground. The United States and seven other nations have yet to approve this treaty for it to take effect. Russia has already ratified it.

The U.S. Senate rejected the treaty in 1999 and the bipartisan cooperation of 1963 was absent, with almost all Republicans voting together against it. Now, in 2012, is the time to reconsider ratification for the sake of America’s national security.

Resuming nuclear weapons testing places additional costs on an arsenal that already costs Americans at least $52 billion a year. Progress toward nuclear disarmament is needed to reduce this burden which drains our treasury. But costs alone are not the only issue.

What would Russia and China’s reaction be should we resume nuclear weapons tests? As the Russian deputy foreign minister said, his country intends to fully comply with its CTBT commitment, “if other nuclear states do likewise.” But if we resume nuclear testing, will Russia follow? What will China do? Would a new arms race come next?

The CTBT is an important step toward nuclear disarmament, because you reach a wall in arms reductions if you are leaving the door open to new nuclear testing and development.

A CTBT would increase momentum toward gaining a disarmament agreement with Russia on tactical nuclear weapons, and offer hope of arms reductions in Asia, where China and rivals India and Pakistan have nuclear weaponry.

Arms Control Under Secretary Ellen Tauscher says, “Nowhere would these constraints be more relevant than in Asia, where you see states building up and modernizing their forces. A legally binding prohibition on all nuclear explosive testing would help reduce the chances of a potential regional arms race in the years and decades to come.”

But without a commitment to end nuclear weapons testing, it is far less likely such agreements will ever take place. Unity among the nuclear states is also needed to implement diplomatic pressure to get North Korea and Iran to abandon their nuclear ambitions.

One way Kennedy gained support for the limited test ban treaty was to ensure that the U.S. would commit to extensive research into technologies needed to ensure the reliability of the nuclear arsenal.

Today, there are opportunities to quell fears that the CTBT is not verifiable, and that nations could cheat the treaty. As Jonathan Medalia writes in a Congressional Research Service report, the U.S. could add additional planes for its nuclear detection system operated by the U.S. Air Force. This Atomic Energy Detection System has been place since the start of the Cold War, even detecting the Soviet Union’s first tests in 1949 and 1951.


The Air Force’s WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft collects air samples from areas around the world where nuclear explosions have occurred. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Enhancing our own technical means would complement the treaty’s existing monitoring system which, even though not fully operational, detected North Korea’s 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests.


In ratifying the CTBT, the U.S. can join Russia and urge other nations to follow their lead and take further measures to reduce nuclear weapons. As diplomat Gerard Smith once wrote, “In urging others not to acquire this awesome capacity, the United States and Russia may persuasively say that they have found it expensive, dangerous and, ultimately, useless.”

Nuclear weapons in the world is a shared risk among all nations, for the cost of the armaments, the danger of terrorist theft, and the international tensions are a burden all countries feel. It is in the interest of all nations to end nuclear testing once and for all, and work toward further agreements reducing the nuclear menace.

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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.