The Test Ban Challenge: Nuclear Nonproliferation and the Quest for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

Government Officials Since Eisenhower Have Seen Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban as Vital for Curbing Nuclear Proliferation, According to Declassified Documents

State Department Memos Show Consternation Created by Jimmy Carter's Offer to Deng Xiaoping to Assist Chinese Underground Testing

Posted August 11, 2010

Edited by William Burr

For more information contact: 202/994-7000

Craters from underground nuclear tests at the Nevada Test site.  According to the Department of Energy's caption: "Most subsidences leave saucer-shaped craters varying in diameter and depth, depending upon the yield, depth of burial, and geology. This is the north end of Yucca Flat. Most tests have been conducted in this valley." The current U.S. moratorium on underground tests would be confirmed by ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Photo from National Nuclear Security Administration, Nevada Site Office.


More craters from underground nuclear tests at Nevada Test site. [Source of photo: Department of Energy]



The "Yankee" shot, 14 May 1954 (GMT), during the Castle series of nuclear weapons tests in the South Pacific. While its predicted yield was 9.5 megaton, the actual yield was 13.5 megatons, making it the second largest nuclear test in U.S. history. According to the caption on the back of the photo, "this photo was taken at a height of approximately 12,000 feet--50 miles from the detonation site. Two minutes after Zero Hour, the cloud rose to 40,000 feet--the height of 32 Empire State Buildings. Ten minutes late, as it neared its maximum the cloud stem had pushed upward about 25 miles, deep into the stratosphere. The mushroom portion went up to 10 miles, and spread for 100 miles." (For details on the Castle test series, see information collected by the Nuclear Weapons Archive. The United States stopped testing in the atmosphere after it signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963.

[Source: National Archives, Still Pictures Division, Air Force Collection 342-B, box 911, file 04-0588]



The following text is from the Department of Energy Web site:

"This video reviews Project CANNIKIN, a nuclear test conducted on Amchitka Island, Alaska, at 11:00 a.m., Bering Standard Time, on November 6, 1971. CANNIKIN, a slightly less-than-five-megaton device, was the largest underground nuclear test conducted in the United States. CANNIKIN was conducted to proof test a warhead for the Spartan missile, a Safeguard Ballistic Missile Defense Program.

The video shows the nuclear device and instrumentation canister being lowered into the shaft, detonation sequences, and test effects. A long-range view of water turbulence after the detonation is shown, but no tsunami or large ocean wave was observed or recorded. Numerous ground shock waves are shown at normal speed and as seen by high-speed, slow-motion cameras located at various sites on the island. Surface effects at ground zero and other island locations were filmed one day after the test. Approximately 38 hours after the test, a subsidence crater, approximately 1.5 miles in diameter and 55 feet deep, began to form.

Many scenes in the video have no sound intentionally; no material was deleted."


Washington, D.C., August 11, 2010 - The next nuclear policy challenge for the Obama administration, right after Senate action on the New START Treaty, will be Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which President Obama sees as a condition for a world free of nuclear weapons. As he declared in his Hradcany Square speech, "After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned." Most U.S. presidents since Dwight D. Eisenhower have sought, sometimes only rhetorically, a comprehensive test ban of nuclear testing in all environments (underground, atmospheric, underwater, outer space). While emphases and motives have shifted--the fallout danger and limiting Soviet nuclear advances were initially central goals--from the start U.S. government officials saw a ban on nuclear testing as highly relevant to inhibiting nuclear proliferation.

Documents published today for the first time by the National Security Archive illustrate how nonproliferation goals shaped internal U.S. discussions of the CTBT from the 1950s through the late 1970s. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) director Paul Warnke wrote to President Jimmy Carter in July 1978 that a CTBT is "a central element of our efforts to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons" not least because it would strengthen the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and prevent tests by states which were on the "threshold" of a nuclear weapons capability. The documents provide new detail on how nonproliferation objectives informed support within the U.S. government for the test ban:

  • In 1957, disarmament advisers argued that a test ban could benefit U.S. security interests because of the "hesitancy of potential fourth countries to develop weapons programs clandestinely."
  • During the late 1950s, U.S. government officials believed that the Soviet Union supported a test ban because it "would be a relatively cheap way of stopping or at least inhibiting fourth country nuclear weapons capability."
  • According to ACDA officials (1965), a CTBT could not provide an "iron-clad assurance"—countries could build and stockpile weapons without tests—but it would "contribute significantly to the inhibitions on proliferation world-wide."
  • In 1978, Carter administration arms controllers argued that a comprehensive test ban would weaken incentives to acquire nuclear weapons because to "win the full prestige of possessing nuclear weapons," a state would "need to demonstrate its capability with a test."
  • An example of how new presidential priorities--playing the "China card"--could jeopardize nonproliferation goals emerged in January 1979, when President Jimmy Carter secretly offered Deng Xiaoping assistance for Beijing's underground nuclear test program, an offer that State Department officials worried could undermine support for the test ban.

The nonproliferation arguments supporting the comprehensive test ban that developed during the 1960s and 1970s have remained central to the thinking of recent Democratic administrations and still resonate today. Thus, concerns about nuclear proliferation influenced presidential candidate Bill Clinton's advocacy of a test ban; during the campaign, he asserted that "the biggest threat to the future" was "the proliferation of nuclear technology" and "to contain that we ought to … join the parade working toward a comprehensive test ban." Likewise, checking proliferation and curbing the weapons programs of new nuclear states have been central to the Obama administration's support for the test ban. According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the treaty "is an "integral part of our non-proliferation and arms control agenda." She further declared that "A test ban treaty that has entered into force will permit the United States and others to challenge states engaged in suspicious testing activities—including the option of calling on-site inspections to be sure that no testing occurs on land, underground, underwater, or in space." (Note 1)

Since the Eisenhower administration, serious obstacles have made it difficult for presidents, no matter how supportive, to make a comprehensive test ban treaty the supreme law of the land.  For Eisenhower and Kennedy, disagreements with the Soviets about verification requirements eventually compelled the latter to settle for a treaty that banned atmospheric and underwater testing but allowed underground testing to continue. While Jimmy Carter had deep convictions about the danger of nuclear proliferation, his attempt to revive the comprehensive test ban could not survive the collapse of détente and internal opposition that resounds today. First, powerful organizations within the U.S. government--the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the weapons labs--saw testing as a way to keep abreast, or stay ahead, of the Soviet Union and other rivals in producing new weapons systems. Opposition also rested on concerns about stockpile reliability and whether testing was necessary to confirm it. Second, the degree to which a comprehensive test ban could be verified, especially whether clandestine underground tests were detectible, had been a point of controversy since the late 1950s.  And third, powerful forces in Congress were skeptical of the treaty and sympathetic to arguments in favor of developing and testing new nuclear weapons. (Note 2)

While Bill Clinton signed the CTBT in 1996, he failed to get it ratified. The labs gave the treaty lukewarm support at best and arguments about verification persisted. In 1999, before the Clinton administration had made a serious case for the treaty, Republican conservatives, with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) in the forefront, forced the Treaty to a premature ratification vote. The vote, 48-51, was far from the two-thirds required for ratification. (Note 3) Today, Congressional critics, mainly Republican, insist on a "right" to test nuclear weapons, disparage verification capabilities, make allegations about Chinese and Russian "cheating," dismiss the treaty's impact on nuclear proliferation, and raise questions about the problem of entry-into-force (the 44 countries with nuclear weapons potential must ratify before the treaty goes into effect). They also, like the labs, raise questions about warhead reliability programs. (Note 4) Treaty supporters point to major studies on key issues. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the monitoring system is so effective that clandestine tests would provide minor benefits while risks of detection would be substantial. On warhead reliability, a JASON report concludes that with proper care that the warheads can last for "decades." On charges that Beijing and Moscow are cheating, CTBT supporters argue that the evidence is flimsy and that the only way to be sure is through ratification so that Russian nuclear activities can be monitored. On the contribution to nonproliferation, supporters have argued that a test ban would strengthen international norms and constrain signatories from improving nuclear capabilities, among other benefits. (Note 5) The entry-into-force issue is a serious one, because it would require solving a tough diplomatic problem: how to get Israel, India, North Korea, and Pakistan to ratify. Thus, even if the New START Treaty is ratified, the test ban treaty faces serious political obstacles. (Note 6)


Read the Documents

Document 1: The Test Ban and the "Fourth Country" Problem
George Jaeger, Office of Intelligence Research, U.S. State Department, to Mr. Terrill et al., "Draft Background Paper on Nuclear Testing and the ‘Fourth Country' Problem," 16 May 1957, enclosing paper on same subject from "The President's Special Committee on Disarmament Problems," Secret
Source: State Department FOIA release

With global anxieties about nuclear weapons and atmospheric testing on the upswing, President Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to address these concerns by participating in international negotiations on nuclear and conventional arms. Eisenhower appointed former Minnesota governor Harold Stassen to serve as his Disarmament Adviser and to represent him in negotiations with allies and adversaries. The pros and cons of a nuclear test ban and the possibility of a test moratorium were subjects of internal debate and officials working for Stassen explored the arguments for various nuclear disarmament measures.

As the staff paper reproduced here suggests, nuclear proliferation was an emerging policy concern (although it was then called the "fourth country" problem because the next proliferant would be the fourth one after the United States, Soviet Union, and United Kingdom). According to the staff paper, ongoing discussion with Moscow had disclosed that Soviet officials were concluding that a nuclear test ban was directly relevant to nonproliferation objectives. From the U.S. perspective, however, a fissile materials production cutoff was more important to checking nuclear proliferation, because a test ban could not stop a determined country from secretly producing a crude atomic bomb. Indeed, a partial test ban that allowed countries like the United States and the Soviet Union to develop and stockpile weapons would leave some countries motivated to acquire nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the "hesitancy of potential fourth countries to develop weapons programs clandestinely" would make a properly verified comprehensive test ban beneficial to U.S. security interests.

Document 2: A "Cheap Way" to Inhibit Proliferation
Philip J. Farley, Special Assistant to the Secretary for Atomic Energy, to Joseph Wolf, Director, Office of Political Affairs, USRO [U.S. Mission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and European Regional Organizations], 28 March 1958, Secret
Source: National Archives, Department of State Records, Record Group 59 [RG 59], Records of the Special Assistant to the Secretary of State for Atomic Energy and Outer Space. Records Relating to Atomic Energy Matters, 1944-1963, box 349, 18.14 Weapons Test Moratorium f. Unilateral Suspension by the USSR, 1958

In the spring and summer of 1958, the United States contemplating a nuclear test moratorium in association with the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, so getting a handle on Soviet thinking was very important. That Moscow saw clear nonproliferation benefits stemming from a nuclear test ban was evident in numerous comments made by Soviet officials and which Philip Farley cited in a letter drafted by Lawrence Weiler. In sum, the Soviets believed that a test ban "would be a relatively cheap way of stopping or at least inhibiting fourth country nuclear weapons capability."

Documents 3A and 3B: Proliferation With or Without a Test Ban

Document 3A: Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to President Kennedy, "The Diffusion of Nuclear Weapons With or Without a Test Ban Agreement," n.d. [circa 26 July 1962]
Source: Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, Vice President's Security File, box 7, Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

Document 3B: Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to President Kennedy, "The Diffusion of Nuclear Weapons With or Without a Test Ban Agreement," 16 February 1963, Secret
Source: National Archives, Record Group 359, White House Office of Science and Technology, box 215, Disarmament-Nuclear Test Ban-1963

Dwight D. Eisenhower's concern about nuclear proliferation would grown during his last year in office (see briefing book on the fissile materials production cutoff), but John F. Kennedy was even more apprehensive, which he epitomized during the 1960 campaign when he forecast the emergence of up to 20 new nuclear weapons states by the end of 1964. While his forecast was overstated, the nuclear proliferation problem had a telling impact on Kennedy administration policy and diplomacy in a number of areas, including pressures on Israel, anxiety about China (and exploration of possible counter-measures), whether to help or hinder French nuclear capabilities, "non-diffusion" talks with the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, the multilateral force proposal, and the comprehensive test ban negotiations, among other topics. (Note 7)  

Kennedy supported a comprehensive test ban, and internal debates over nuclear testing, verification, and related issues were standard agenda items for much of this presidency.  To help Kennedy prepare for a meeting on 27 July 1962 with the Committee of Principals (the major executive branch inter-agency body on arms control), McNamara sent him a report on the possible impact of a comprehensive test ban on "diffusion", a term used before the word proliferation became standard. (Note 8) Although he estimated that up to 16 countries would have the resources to produce and deliver nuclear weapons in the next ten years, after reviewing the disincentives and incentives for a nuclear capability, McNamara suggested that only a few would actually go that far: China and Israel were likely candidates as well as India and Sweden and possibly South Africa. If China went nuclear, he saw possible pressures on Japan and Australia. McNamara also saw pressure on Germany and Italy that could be mitigated by a multilateral force.

McNamara suggested that with the spread of nuclear reactor technology "many more" proliferants might appear during the 1970s. If unrestricted nuclear testing remained possible, would-be nuclear states would have the opportunity to improve their technology and reduce the costs of nuclear weapons. While McNamara believed that pressure from Washington, Moscow, and other countries was important to checking proliferation, a comprehensive test ban would "slow the trend toward cheaper weapons" and would also hinder, if not prevent, proliferation. While nuclear weapons could be produced and stockpiled without tests, a country could not be "sure" of its weapons without testing them or without access to "detailed design" information from other nuclear powers. By contrast, an atmospheric test ban would have a "more limited" impact on proliferation and would do nothing to delegitimize testing as such.

The following year, when Kennedy was preparing for a meeting with the Principals on 18 February 1963, McNamara sent him an updated version of this paper. (Note 9) This time, the estimate of countries with a capability during the next decade was lower (8 instead of 16 because only 8 countries would have a capability to test within 6 years). Another difference was that McNamara was better informed about the degree to which the superpowers could enlist other states to join the test ban negotiations. The French nuclear test program was a problem in this respect, but McNamara believed it unwise to apply significant pressures to try to secure de Gaulle's cooperation (just as Washington had eschewed pressure to back up its proposal for French participation in a multilateral force). Moreover, in the international political climate of 1963, McNamara estimated that Washington would be no more willing to work with Moscow to induce French cooperation than Moscow would be interested in getting U.S. aid to apply "direct pressure" on Beijing. (Note 10)

Document 4: Adrian Fisher, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency to Committee of Principals Deputies, enclosing "The Impact of a Comprehensive Test Ban on Proliferation," 19 August 1965, Secret
Source: RG 59, Records Relating to the Committee of Principals, 1964-1966, box 1, Committee of Principles June through December 1965 

In the summer of 1963, unable to agree on ways and means to verify a ban on underground tests, London, Moscow, and Washington signed a Limited Test Ban Treaty, banning atmospheric and underwater tests. Thus, underground nuclear testing remained permissible until 1992 when the current U.S.-French-British-Russian-Chinese moratorium began.  While discussions of a CTBT revived under President Johnson, they did not go far; his interest was minimal except for the public relations benefits that could be gained from espousing the test ban. Moreover, Pentagon opposition was especially sharp because a test ban would hinder the development of new strategic weapons, such as multiple independently re-targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). (Note 11) In addition, the Joint Chiefs of Staff remained skeptical that U.S. intelligence could detect suspicious events without on-site inspections, which had been a source of disagreement with Moscow. Nevertheless, officials at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, who would play a central role in negotiating the Nonproliferation Treaty, had greater confidence in intelligence capabilities and argued that a CTBT was important for curbing nuclear proliferation. A treaty could not "provide iron-clad assurance"—countries could build and stockpile weapons without tests—but it would "contribute significantly to the inhibitions on proliferation world-wide." Moreover, "key potential nuclear powers", including Israel and India, would be likely to sign.

An alternative was a threshold test ban (TTB), limiting underground tests to a seismic magnitude of 4.75.  In ACDA's estimation, this was significantly less likely to check nuclear proliferation because it would be "discriminatory in favor of the existing nuclear powers with their sophisticated testing experience." Moreover, it "would be much less of a technical inhibition on proliferation than a complete ban." Nevertheless, a year later, ACDA director William C. Foster tried to make headway on a TTB proposal, but the Atomic Energy Commission opposed because it would "impose serious inhibitions" on the underground testing program. Secretary of State Dean Rusk believed that the proposal only had "popgun" importance and President Johnson never gave it serious attention. (Note 12)

Document 5: Nixon and the CTBT
"Executive Summary Prepared by Interagency Group," n.d. [Circa June 1972], Top secret, excised copy
Source: U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume E[Electronic]–2, Documents on Arms Control and Nonproliferation

The Nixon presidency put nuclear proliferation issues on the backburner. The administration gave obligatory support to a CTBT at the Geneva disarmament talks but did not initiate major studies of a test ban until late 1971. Nixon himself had little good to say about the Nonproliferation Treaty. As he declared to Kissinger during one of their (taped) Oval Office conversations, "the Nonproliferation Treaty has nothing to do with the security of the United States of America." Kissinger agreed, saying that the treaty was "made at the expense of other countries," presumably because it limited their freedom of action. Thus, so far as it can be told, no one in the administration had an incentive to prepare reports making a positive case for a relationship between a comprehensive test ban treaty and nuclear nonproliferation.

The 1971-72 policy review examined the pros and cons of a CTBT. When the study was completed, the "Executive Summary" listed nonproliferation interests as one of the arguments for a test ban (along with constraining Soviet weapons development), but there was no enthusiasm at the top for pushing it. Indeed, a meeting of the NSC Verification Subcommittee schedule to discuss the study in June 1972 was cancelled. Nevertheless, the Soviets remained interested in a comprehensive test ban and during 1974 they tried, without success, to get Nixon and Kissinger interested in it, the May 1974 Indian "peaceful" nuclear test notwithstanding. Nevertheless, Nixon wanted a treaty to sign at the summit meeting with Leonid Brezhnev so he agreed to a bilateral Threshold Test Ban Treaty, which was hastily negotiated and then signed during the summit. (Note 13)

Documents 6A, 6B and 6C: Revival of the CTBT

Document 6A: Robert S. Rochlin through Thomas D. Davies to the Director, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, "CTB Discussions in Moscow," 22 March 1977, Secret

Document 6B: Paul C. Warnke (ACDA Director), "Notes for President's Evening Reading," n.d. [Circa 2 October 1977], Secret

Document 6C: "President's Evening Reading," n.d. [Circa 2 November 1977], Secret, with notes and UPI report attached,
Source: State Department FOIA releases

Jimmy Carter put the danger of nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation at the center of his 1976 presidential campaign. A SALT agreement securing deep cuts in strategic weapons was a paramount goal during his first months in office, but Carter also wanted to revive the CTBT. Early in his presidency he called for the end of nuclear testing, although his security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, however, saw the CTBT as a "nonstarter." Thus, when Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and ACDA director Paul Warnke went to Moscow for ill-fated discussions of SALT II, they had a brief to raise the test ban, which Warnke's talking points treated as a "key measure to curb nuclear proliferation." During the following months, London, Moscow, and Washington held a series of meetings to harmonize positions on a treaty. (Note 14) In addition to the standard verification problems, for the Carter administration, a central problem was that the chief Soviet negotiator insisted that "peaceful nuclear explosions" [PNE] conducted for economic development activities should be permitted with only "weapons tests" prohibited.  U.S. negotiators argued, however, that "an exception for PNEs would encourage other nations to emulate the Indian example and develop their own nuclear capability."

In early November 1977, Vance informed Carter, through a "President's Evening Reading Item" [Carter's handwritten comments appear on the text], that CPSU Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev had given some ground on the PNE issue by agreeing to a "three-year treaty banning nuclear weapons tests" with a three-year moratorium on PNEs. President Carter saw enough progress to instruct Vance to "expedite an agreement" and U.S. negotiators were able to persuade the Soviets to support a treaty that would "continue indefinitely." Brezhnev's announcement included language about "stop[ping] production of all nuclear weapons," which Carter wanted the State Department to pursue.  

Document 7: The Non-Proliferation Benefits of the CTBT
Jerry Kahan (Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs) to Ambassador Paul Warnke, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, 1 May 1978, enclosing letter from British Foreign Secretary Peter Jay to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, with British memo on "Comprehensive Test Ban," 26 April 1978, and State Department memorandum, "Nonproliferation Benefits of a CTB," n.d., Secret
Source: State Department FOIA release

By the spring of 1978, internal U.S. government controversy over the CTBT had surfaced, with the Joint Chiefs and the nuclear weapons labs (Los Alamos, Livermore, etc.) raising questions about the integrity of the weapons stockpile in a world without nuclear tests. In these circumstances, President Carter "backed away" from his earlier support of treaty of indefinite duration and decided in favor of a five-year treaty. That led to consternation in Moscow, but State Department officials argued that even five years could have "direct" and "indirect" benefits. Jerome (Jerry) Kahan, who had worked on nuclear proliferation issues since the Ford administration, sent Warnke a copy of briefing paper on the "Nonproliferation Benefits of a CTB," that had been prepared for Vance to use at a meeting of the Special Coordinating Committee [SCC], chaired by national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Among the direct benefits were locking in NPT "holdouts" such as India and South Africa into commitments to refrain from nuclear testing.  With the administration worried about a South African nuclear testing, if that country signed the test ban treaty it would "resolve [that] proliferation danger." Among the indirect benefits were that the treaty would "reduce the prestige motive" associated with acquiring and testing nuclear weapons, provide "evidence" of U.S. willingness to fulfill the arms control/disarmament obligations in Article VI of the NPT, and "reaffirm commitments by the nuclear weapons states to stop ‘vertical proliferation.'" Moreover, it would be easier to persuade countries to make a five-year commitment (which could facilitate agreement later to an indefinite treaty).

Attached to the Kahan memo is a letter to Vance from British ambassador Peter Jay enclosing a memorandum on the CTBT from Foreign Secretary David Owen. Concerned about the "maintenance" of the British nuclear stockpile, Owen saw a five-year treaty as an advantage in this respect presumably because there would be little reason to worry about deterioration of nuclear weapons in five years. Moreover, a five-year treaty would offer a "reasonable chance" that "key non-nuclear states" would sign it.

Document 8: Trying to Protect the Nonproliferation Benefits
Cyrus Vance to President Carter, "Comprehensive Test Ban," n.d. [circa 12 June 1978], Secret
Source: State Department FOIA release

The lab directors, Secretary of Energy Schlesinger, and the Joint Chiefs objected that they had been out of the loop on decision to go to five years. This led to successful efforts to weaken the scope of the treaty by permitting small nuclear experiments and to take it to three-years instead of five. The paper trail on those developments is not available, but Vance's letter to Carter raising concerns about them is at hand. He questioned the need to laboratory experiments "at the hundreds of pounds or tons level" for checking the reliability of weapons. Arguing that Washington would not want "non-nuclear weapons states" to carry on experiments at such a level, Vance recommended restricting them to "minimal yields (a few pounds or somewhat higher)." As an alternative he proposed a "vigorous Safeguards program that stresses computer simulation and an enhanced quality assurance program."

Vance also raised questions about proposed requirements for a National Seismic Station (NSS) network and a proposal to delay the cessation of tests until the NSS system was in place, which some envisaged taking as long as four years. The latter proposal he found especially troubling: not only were the Soviets unlikely to accept such delays, but "wouldn't any significant delay in ending testing after entry-into-force virtually eliminate any nonproliferation benefits of a CTB?"
Document 9: Debate on the Non-Proliferation Benefits
Spurgeon Keeny (Deputy Director, ACDA), Leslie Gelb (Director, Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs), and Joseph Nye (Deputy Undersecretary of State for Security Assistance, Science and Technology), "Non-Proliferation Benefits of a CTB," 8 November 1978, with attached memoranda from Joint Chiefs of Staff, ACDA, and State Department
Source: National Archives, Record Group 59, Department of State records, Records Warren Christopher, 1977-1980, box 25, Comprehensive Test Ban

ACDA and Department of State officials were confident that a CTBT, even if initially of three to five years duration, would advance the nonproliferation cause but the leadership of the Joint Chiefs of Staff thought otherwise. When Vance and Warnke sent the Chiefs a new version of the paper on nonproliferation benefits, acting Chairman Bernard Roger argued that he saw no "causative relationship" between the CTBT and nonproliferation because a "nation's decision to develop nuclear weapons is dependent upon perceptions of vital self-interest, not upon the existence of a CTBT." Rogers proposed a new interagency study weighing the impact and "national security risks" of a treaty, advice which Warnke rejected (not least because it would be "singularly inappropriate to conduct a study that purports to question the President's judgment").  Having discussed proliferation and the test ban with members of the Joint Staff, top ACDA and State Department officials Keeny, Gelb, and Nye updated the nonproliferation benefits paper (tab 5), which they also forwarded to Vance. 

ACDA and State Department arms controllers argued that even a "limited duration" agreement could strengthen the nonproliferation system by reducing criticism of the NPT, weaken incentives to acquire nuclear weapons (to "win full prestige of possessing nuclear weapons," a state would "need to demonstrate its capability with a test"), and win the acceptance of key threshold states, such as India and South Africa, as well as major allies, Japan and NATO Europe. For example, Indian Prime Minister Desai had indicated willingness to support an "adequate CTBT", which was also one of his conditions for accepting full-scope safeguards on India's nuclear facilities (requiring IEAE inspection of all).  Even the liability of three-year duration for the proposed treaty could be overcome by showing that the nuclear weapons states "have accepted increasingly severe restrictions on their freedom to conduct nuclear tests." That would make it possible to persuade "many states" that the limited duration approach is a "reasonable first step." By contrast a proposal for a new version of the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, which the JCS favored, "would be denounced as discriminatory" (it would permit tests of 3-5 kilotons) and reduce U.S. influence as a force for nonproliferation. 

Document 10: Conflict with SALT II
Memorandum to President Carter from Zbigniew Brzezinski, "Approach to CTB," 21 September 1978, with enclosed memoranda from Cyrus Vance, Paul Warnke, Harold Brown, and James Schlesinger, Secret
Source: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Zbigniew Brzezinski Collection, box 36, Serial Xs - 9/78-12/78

The backtracking from an indefinite comprehensive test ban treaty did not improve its prospects and these memos from the fall of 1978 show how uncertain its future was. Energy Secretary James Schlesinger and Secretary of Defense Harold Brown raised more doubts about the whole enterprise, with Schlesinger citing "technical risks" and the prospect of a "confrontation" with Congress where opposition was likely to be fueled by the criticism of the JCS and the lab directors (Los Alamos, Livermore, etc.), and Brown showing interest in exploring the "reduced yield" threshold test ban option.  Both pointed to the "potential negative" impact on SALT II ratification, which they treated as a much higher priority than the test ban. Recognizing that the CTBT could complicate SALT II ratification, Vance and Warnke nevertheless wanted to move forward on the negotiations with Moscow and London.  They saw progress in the talks with the Soviets, who were "mov[ing] toward our positions on national seismic stations, on-site inspection procedures, and peaceful nuclear explosions." Brzezinski, however, was also worried about SALT and Congress and wanted to see if the Soviets would be amenable to spinning out the CTBT negotiations to minimize the conflict. Apparently, the prospective opposition or the risks to SALT II did not faze President Carter because he instructed "Zbig" that he was inclined "to go ahead with a 3-year treaty – to be concluded simultaneously with SALT II." That prospect was unlikely, however, and the continuing deterioration of relations with Moscow during the coming year would doom the test ban treaty and SALT II. As test ban negotiator Herbert York later put it, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, "all was lost." (Note 15)

Documents 11A and 11B: Policy Conflicts

Document 11A: Memorandum to Secretary Vance from Policy Planning Staff Director Anthony Lake, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Roger Sullivan, and Assistant Secretary of State for Politico-Military Affairs Leslie Gelb, "Technical Assistance to China for Underground Nuclear Testing," 15 March 1979, enclosing memo to Vance from Lake on same, 26 February 1979, Secret/Nodis
Source: National Archives, Department of State records, Record Group 59, Records of Policy Planning Staff director Anthony Lake, box 17, Sensitive 1/1-3/31/79

Document 11B: Reginald Bartholomew, Anthony Lake, and Michael Armacost to the Secretary [Edward Muskie], "Assistance to China's Underground Nuclear Testing Program – INFORMATION," 31 October 1980, Secret/Nodis
Source: Record Group 59, Records of Policy Planning Staff Director Anthony Lake, box 6, October 1980

Besides SALT II, the Carter White House had other foreign policy priorities which could have negative implications for the test ban and broader nonproliferation goals. The normalization of relations with Beijing was a top agenda item, with the White House playing the "China card" on "anti-Soviet" basis, developing formal diplomatic relations with Beijing in order to gain leverage over Moscow. (Note 16) In the wake of the late 1978 normalization agreement, Deputy Premier and number-one leader Deng Xioaping traveled to Washington in January 1979 to meet President Carter. To encourage Beijing to halt atmospheric nuclear testing, Carter suggested to Deng that the Chinese meet with White House science adviser Frank Press to find out "how it might be made easier to for you to do your testing underground." According Lake's memo from February 1979, "Deng said the Chinese would consider the offer."

The idea for the offer may have come from Brzezinski, who had been the architect of the administration's "China card" diplomacy and was eager to strengthen the new relationship. It took some weeks before word of Carter's proposal reached the State Department, but as these memos make plain, it was not a pleasant surprise for the State Department leadership. According to Lake, the  White House proposal was difficult to reconcile with the CTBT and it could cause problems in a number of other areas, for example, by feeding "paranoia" in Moscow and by raising questions about the U.S. nonproliferation commitment. India would be disturbed because it was already worried about China, while a nuclear testing deal with China could encourage pro-nuclear weapons sentiment in Taiwan and South Korea.  Recognizing that Vance was troubled by these implications, Lake, Sullivan, and Gelb advised him on how to deal with the White House. At Vance's next meeting with Brzezinski and Brown, he should raise the problem and propose study on the implications of a "positive Chinese response." If U.S. assistance could not be avoided, Lake et al. recommended a "benign and innocuous" form of aid, such as "unclassified assistance in basic seismology."

Perhaps taking Vance's advice, Carter reconsidered the offer and decided to limit it to unclassified technology. While Beijing did not respond to Carter's proposal and a follow-up offer in early 1980, after Washington protested an atmospheric test on 16 October 1980, the Chinese responded that they could transition more quickly to underground testing with U.S. technological assistance. While top State Department officials advised Secretary Edmund Muskie (who had replaced Vance after the latter resigned from office) that it would be advantageous if Beijing stopped atmospheric testing, they saw some of the same "potentially serious drawbacks" that had been pointed out to Vance. Among them was that future talks with Moscow on a comprehensive test ban could be jeopardized and that Washington could be open to charges from Third World countries of a "double standard of cooperation in nuclear weaponry among the nuclear powers." Moreover, not only were there export control problems to consider, but in light of Beijing's developing capability to strike U.S. targets with ICBMs, it was problematic whether the United States should facilitate improvements in China's nuclear arsenal. Because of the complications, the advice that Muskie received included the possibility of not taking "any action" until Washington had reviewed security relations with Beijing.



1. Lawrence S.Wittner, Resisting the Bomb: A History of the World Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003),  442; "Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Remarks at CTBT Article XIV Conference," 24 September 2009.

2. For surveys of the early phases of CTBT diplomacy, see Nigel Ashton, Kennedy, Macmillan, and the Cold War: The Irony of Interdependence (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 192-219, and Shane Maddock, Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the Present (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 132-141, 188-195, 207-215.  Raymond Garthoff's brief survey of the test ban during the Carter administration remains on point, see Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1994), 832-835. President Jimmy Carter has a few passage on the test ban in his memoir, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President (New York: Bantam Books, 1982), 217, 223, 229, 231, and 249.

3. For the CTBT debacle in the Senate during the Clinton administration, see I.M. Destler, "The Reasonable Public and the Polarized Policy Process," in Anthony Lake and David Ochmanek, eds., The Real and the Ideal: Essays on International Relations in Honor of Richard H. Ullman (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001),82-84.

4. For the controversy, see William J. Broad, "Nuclear Labs Raise Doubts Over Viability of Arsenals," The New York Times, 26 March 2010.

5. For an extended response to criticisms of the CTBT and useful discussion of the nonproliferation benefits, see Kaegan McGrath, "Verifiability, Reliability, and National Security: The Case for U.S. Ratification of the CTBT," Nonproliferation Review 16 (November 2009): 407-433.

6. For background on the current debates, see "Nuclear Disarmament," CQ Researcher, 2 October 2009, esp. 819-820 and 829 and Hugh Gusterson, "The CTBT Debate Begins Again," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (on-line), 1 June 2009.  For Senator John Kyl's (R-AZ) argument against a "flawed, irrelevant treaty," see "Why We Need to Test Nuclear Weapons," The Wall Street Journal, 20 October 2009.

7. Joseph Cirincione, Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 28. For coverage of Kennedy and nuclear proliferation, see Maddock, Nuclear Apartheid, 145-216.  For Kennedy and the Israeli nuclear program, see Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 99-174.  For more on Eisenhower and Kennedy and the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), see National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book 94, "The Making of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, 1958-1963,", 8 August 2003.

8. For the meeting, see U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963 Volume VII [FRUS] (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1995), 510. 

9. For this meeting, see FRUS 1961-1963, 648-649

10. Nevertheless, a few months later, Kennedy would try to enlist Khrushchev to work against the Chinese nuclear program, but to no avail. See William Burr and Jeffrey Richelson, "Whether to ‘Strangle the Baby in the Cradle': The United States and the Chinese Nuclear Program, 1960–64," International Security 25 (Winter 2000/01), 71.

11. Lawrence S. Wittner, Resisting the Bomb: A History of the World Disarmament Movement, 1954-1970 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 431.

12. See Glenn T. Seaborg, Stemming the Tide: Arms Control in the Johnson Years (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1974), 230-232.

13. Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation, 471, 476.  For an inside view of the treaty negotiation, see Edward Ifft, "The Threshold Test Ban Treaty," Arms Control Today, March 2009,

14. For background, see Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation, 832-835.  See also Wittner, Resisting the Bomb: A History of the World Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present, 51-52.

15. Garthoff, Detente and Confrontation, 834-835; Wittner, Resisting the Bomb: A History of the World Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present, 98.

16. Garthoff, Detente and Confrontation, 758-785.