50th Anniversary of the Limited Test Ban Treaty

On October 10, 1963, the Limited Test Ban Treaty entered into force, prohibiting all test detonations of nuclear weapons except underground.

Freeman Dyson, Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University, served as FAS chairman from 1962-1963 and argued in favor of the test ban. In August 1963, Prof. Dyson testified on behalf of FAS before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in its hearings on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Recently, FAS President Dr. Charles Ferguson asked Prof. Dyson to comment on the significance of this anniversary and what can be done to further reduce nuclear dangers.


Prof. Freeman Dyson’s remarks:

When Averell Harriman [who was President John F. Kennedy’s special emissary on the test ban treaty] went to Moscow in 1963 to negotiate the Limited Test Ban Treaty, several scientists offered to go along with him to give him technical advice.  He firmly rejected their offer to help. He said, if you want a treaty, keep the scientists out of it.  As a result, he had the treaty negotiated and signed in two weeks.

The trouble with scientists is that they are hung up on verification. They invent clever ways of verifying treaties and are always trying to make verification more sensitive. In the real world of power and politics, too much verification is worse than too little. The more sensitive the verification, the more frequent the false alarms. In the real world, false alarms are worse than undetected violations. Elaborate verification systems give opportunities to opponents of treaties to sidetrack negotiations into interminable discussion of technical details.

If the scientists had not been hung up on verification, we could have had a comprehensive test ban treaty in 1963 or even earlier, with enormous benefit to our economy and our security. We could ratify the comprehensive test ban treaty today, and still reap some of the benefit. But our politicians are now also hung up on verification, having learned a bad lesson from our scientists.

Much more important than the comprehensive test ban is a drastic reduction of our nuclear weapons.  Again, the obsession with verification gets in the way of effective action. I am fighting for drastic and unilateral reduction of our weapons, preferably going all the way to zero. Our own weapons are more dangerous to us than weapons in Iran or North Korea.  Our weapons are far more numerous and often exposed in places where they might be stolen or captured.  Besides being dangerous, they are also unusable for any sane military purpose. And we have the power to get rid of them without engaging in threats or in military action.

President George Bush senior showed us the way in September 1991 when he got rid of half of our nuclear stockpile in one afternoon. He did this unilaterally, avoiding the delays of negotiation with other countries or with the Senate. It is high time for us now to get rid of the other half. FAS ought to be out in front, pushing to make it happen.


Dr. Charles Ferguson’s comments: 

I must admit that when I first read Prof. Dyson’s remarks I was taken aback. I felt that my professional experience in the nuclear arms control community had taught me to see significant value in improved verification capabilities, not just from the technical perspective but also from the skeptical politicians’ perspectives. Specifically, I recall the political fight in the Senate in 1999 when I worked first at FAS as a nuclear arms control analyst. Certain senators expressed concern that nuclear tests could be muffled and thus not detected with the International Monitoring System (IMS) under development by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). The IMS has continued to improve substantially in the past 14 years since the U.S. Senate rejected the CTBT. Indeed, the small explosive yield tests in North Korea in 2006, 2009, and 2013 were all detected. Moreover, having this sensitivity of the IMS has allowed CTBT proponents to dispel the notion that Russia or China could hide tests and thus further improve their nuclear arsenals. In my opinion, verification improvements were needed and have further strengthened the case for ratification of the CTBT by the United States. These capabilities were not available in 1963.

An important side note is that the Limited Test Ban Treaty did essentially nothing to halt the arms race. Testing was driven underground, but the Soviet Union and the United States conducted hundreds of tests and developed more advanced nuclear weapons. The CTBT, in contrast, would help halt further development of advanced nuclear weapons due to the comprehensive nature of this treatment. Granted some nations could use advanced computer simulation capabilities to develop advanced nuclear weapons, but they would not have the validating confidence of a nuclear test if the CTBT were in force. While the Obama administration wants this to happen, it is far from likely to happen in his remaining time in office considering the opposition from many senators to his policies. So, while we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the LTBT, we should recognize that we must redouble our efforts to achieve the far more valuable enactment of the CTBT.

Another benefit of the enhanced IMS is the capability to detect radionuclides dispersed from nuclear accidents. The radionuclide monitoring station in Japan was sensitive enough to detect radioactive contaminants from the Fukushima Daiichi accident. Moreover, hydro-acoustic detection devices in the IMS can be used for purposes such as tsunami detection. These are just a couple of examples of how technologies developed for verification of a nuclear treaty have positive spin off effects in other fields.

Turning to further nuclear arms reductions, I agree with Prof. Dyson that “much more important than the comprehensive test-ban is a drastic reduction of our nuclear weapons.” The thousands of nuclear weapons still maintained by the United States with more than 1,500 deployed strategic warheads are much more liabilities than assets. We as a nation need to move quickly to make further reductions well below 1,000 deployed warheads. In 1997, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences considered 200 deployed weapons as more than adequate for deterrence purposes. That study was two decades ago. The time is more than ripe to chart a pathway to that level. Prof. Dyson also makes an excellent point about the efficacy of a presidential nuclear initiative such as that taken by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 and 1992 to reduce by thousands the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. FAS Nuclear Information Project Director Hans Kristensen has similarly called for such action by President Obama within the context of the New START agreement. As in the early 1990s, when Soviet leader Gorbachev and Russian leader Yeltsin reciprocated with reductions, a U.S. executive decision can be timed to proceed or move in tandem with a Russian executive decision.

Nonetheless, I believe that there will be a considerable role for verification technologies as nuclear-armed states proceed to slash their arsenals to low levels. At levels below a hundred weapons, the United States and Russia may likely need rigorous verification mechanisms in order to have the confidence that the other side is following through with their commitments. Remember that President Reagan’s favorite saying, “Trust, but verify,” comes from a Russian proverb.

I welcome readers’ comments. The renewed FAS seeks to stimulate national and international debates. Only through vigorous discourse will we achieve greater understanding and better solutions for tackling the vexing political and technical challenges of reducing nuclear dangers. Let us know what you think.

One thought on “50th Anniversary of the Limited Test Ban Treaty

  1. Freeman is being provocative, and well he should be. There is a tendency for arms controllers to make thing more complicated than they need to be. Nuclear weapons need ‘demystifying’. The first UN General Assembly resolution had it right: abolish this most-terrible WMD. Unfortunately, the Cold War left no option but deterrence; but it was always a terrible and lousy option. Instead we made a sport of arms racing, and when the Cold War ended, we we forgot to reverted immediately to the abolition option. But, the option is there; there will be a resolution adopted in the UN General Assembly to start negotiations now and hold a world summit in 2018 to wrap things up. May we be wise enough to follow that course of action!

    I am afraid Freeman has it wrong about the scientists and the LTBT. The reason Harriman didn’t want them along was because it had already been decided NOT to go for a comprehensive ban. Scientist were already in agreement that a atmospheric testing ban could be monitored by existing national technical means.

    I cannot let this anniversary pass without mentioning that it was the LTBT that provided a handle — its amendment provision — for non-nuclear-weapon states to force the United States and the United Kingdom to convening an international conference on nuclear testing in January 1991. Gorbachev welcomed the initiative, but Reagan and Thatcher were furious; it was the beginning of the end for nuclear testing.

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