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Two faces of the Limited Test Ban Treaty

By Jacob Darwin Hamblin

Fifty years ago, the United States, United Kingdom, and Soviet Union signed a pact to stop testing nuclear bombs in the atmosphere, oceans, and space. As we commemorate the treaty, we will not agree on what to celebrate. There are two sides of the story.

President John F. Kennedy signs the Limited Test Ban Treaty in October 1963.
President John F. Kennedy signs the Limited Test Ban Treaty in October 1963. Courtesy of U.S. Department of State.

Without question, the treaty was a positive highlight for those striving to ease tensions and move the world toward peace. Having come to the brink of disaster during the Cuban Missile Crisis, negotiators got serious about arms control and took specific measures. The subsequent SALT limitations, START reductions, and comprehensive test ban all trace their lineage to that important document of the Kennedy-Khrushchev era.

As an accord about war and peace, the treaty is comprehensible. What about the treaty as an environmental document? There is an intriguing line in the formal text stating a key motivation as “desiring to put an end to the contamination of man’s environment by radioactive substances.”

That motivation has nothing to do with war or peace. It is about the widespread, harmful effects of human actions.

Did governments revise their national policies because their actions were altering the earth? Given the important role of governments in addressing today’s environmental challenges, this would be something extraordinary to commemorate, if it were true.

Nuclear tests prompted serious questions about the changing natural environment. For example, the tests were frequently linked to wild swings in weather. The winter of 1962-63 was horrendous, following on the heels of the most atmospheric testing ever. Plummeting temperatures and extreme weather became the norm throughout the northern hemisphere. People in the town of Bari, on the heel of Italy, had ten inches of snow, and Japan endured its worst snowstorms in recorded meteorological history. In Britain it was called the “Big Freeze of ’63,” and helicopters had to drop supplies into marooned villages.

Even NATO scientists thought linking fusion blasts to geophysical events had promise. In the early 1960s they imagined using hydrogen bombs to trigger earthquakes, steer hurricanes, and redirect ocean currents.  Had the LTBT treaty never been signed, environmental warfare—a NATO term—might have been incorporated into tests.

In addition to weather, geneticists believed that fallout—the radioactive debris from the tests—generated harmful mutations in the world’s gene pool. Each test meant additional birth defects somewhere in the world. Some scientists, such as Caltech biochemist Linus Pauling, tried to stop the tests on legal grounds. What right did the nuclear states have to subject the whole world to the harmful effects of fallout? Pauling’s efforts to present an anti-testing petition to the United Nations, signed by over nine thousand scientists, won him 1962’s Nobel Peace Prize.

Ironically, signing the test ban treaty as a gesture of peace meant that governments never had to make a decision based purely on the harm done by the tests themselves. Although they rolled the fallout controversy into the treaty language, they did so without full engagement of the scientific evidence of harm and without entertaining the argument about the illegality of testing.

American, British, and Soviet government activities prior to test bans illustrated how profoundly insulated they were from health and environmental arguments. Before the first informal testing moratorium in 1958 under President Eisenhower, all three nations rushed to get in as many tests as possible. Britain made five tests at Christmas Island, its Pacific test site, while the Soviets tested 34, more than twice that of the previous year. The United States detonated 72 bombs, including a project to explode bombs in the earth’s newly-discovered radiation belt.

When the Soviets broke the moratorium, they did so with gusto, including a detonation called Tsar Bomba, about 4,000 times the size of the blast that destroyed Hiroshima.

In the year leading up to the Limited Test Ban Treaty—that is, after diplomats already had planned to negotiate an end to the tests—the nuclear powers created the greatest fireworks displays of all time and saturated the atmosphere with radioactive debris. The United States led the way in Operation Dominic, with more than a hundred nuclear tests, including more at high-altitude in the radiation belts. One of these, the Starfish Prime shot, knocked out the electricity in Hawaii. The Soviets also had an ambition program in 1961 and 1962, conducting 138 nuclear tests. All the nuclear powers saw these as the last hurrah.

The nuclear testing blitz in 1962 should serve as a sobering reminder of the tiny impact of scientific arguments about health and environmental effects. On the other hand, these governments were quite responsive to the political problem posed by the fallout controversy, which is why the treaty refers to radioactive debris.

The Limited Test Ban Treaty was not ideal. Because it was above all an arms control agreement, its authors simply swept away the arguments against nuclear testing rather than answer them. Still, the world got what it needed: a genuine ban and the first treaty to point out the threat of global environmental contamination.

Jacob Darwin Hamblin is an associate professor of history at Oregon State University and is the author of Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism. You can follow him on Twitter @jdhamblin.

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  1. […] for Oxford University Press’s blog to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the signing.  It’s available if you click here and I welcome comments, disagreements, and discussion here (or […]

  2. […] atomic bomb makes for a nice counterpoint, as does Jacob Darwin Hamblin’s post on the ‘Two Faces of the Limited Test Ban Treaty‘. The subject of Hamblin’s most recent book also lends a nice apocalyptic tone to […]

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