The Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963

Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

The Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty sought to end the testing of nuclear weapons and alleviate some of the tension in the Cold War. In this lesson, learn about this important treaty and its implications.

A Controversial Ability

Controversy is embedded in human history; the atomic bombs that ended World War II are no exception. Their use ushered in a new era where nuclear weapons became a constant threat. This was true especially in the Cold War (1945-1991) between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Both nations began to stockpile and test such weapons, yet scientists were beginning to see their dangerous effects due to the massive number of tests carried out by both sides. They called for a reduction in testing which resulted in the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. Let's use the idea of a countdown to explore the need for the treaty, its negotiation and signing, and implications.

Three: Why a Treaty?

Where do we begin? Let's go back to August 1945 when the U.S. dropped two atomic (early type of nuclear) bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan. The bombs killed or severely injured hundreds of thousands. Never before had a single weapon of such destructive power been used. These two bombs forced the end of World War II while at the same time opened a dangerous door to the nuclear world.

A nuclear explosion
nuclear explosion

At the event of the first detonation of such a weapon, and upon seeing the initial explosion, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer remarked, 'I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.' The ability of such destruction was not to be taken lightly. After World War II, the Soviet Union also began to test a similar weapon, and as they entered the Cold War with the U.S., the situation became quite dicey. Both nations tested and stockpiled as many such weapons as they could. The fate of the world hung in the balance.

Think back to Oppenheimer's quote; destruction wasn't the only issue. With constant testing in Earth's atmosphere, radioactive contamination from explosions was a problem. When a nuclear weapon detonated, it released contamination into the atmosphere, sometimes quite high up. Winds then carried it as far as they could blow. Few areas of the world were untouched. And it wasn't just humans affected; crops, vegetation, and the like also suffered. Underwater testing, another popular method, contaminated thousands of square miles of ocean.

J. Robert Oppenheimer
J. Robert Oppenheimer

Two: An Arduous Process

Starting in the mid-1950s, under both scientific and public pressure, both the Soviet Union and the United States started drawing up proposals to limit testing. Other nations, including France, the United Kingdom, and Canada, also expressed their support. But there were two key issues that hampered these early proposals:

  • Conventional vs. Nuclear: Would treaties address just nuclear tests, or would other weapons be included, such as guns, missiles, tanks, etc.?
  • Verification & Oversight: Who would actually monitor the ban on tests? The Soviet Union passionately opposed any supervision.

These points caused proposal attempts to go nowhere as the 1960s started. Two key Cold War events would reignite the conversation. First, an American spy plane was shot down by the Soviets when no spying was supposed to take place. Second, the Cuban Missile Crisis where Soviet nukes were in Cuba aimed at the United States. As both events were resolved through diplomacy, it began to seem that an agreement on testing could be reached in the same way.

In the summer of 1963, the United States, United Kingdom, and Soviet Union again met to negotiate a treaty to limit testing. The successful Limited Test Ban Treaty was their brainchild. It would eventually be signed by more than 100 nations. Notable exclusions were China and France.

Compromise and diplomacy yielded three key provisions:

  1. No further testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, underwater, or in outer space.
  2. Testing could continue underground in a way that damage would not spread outside of the testing nation.
  3. Signing nations would work to end weapons stockpiling and existing environmental contamination.

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