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Looking Back

A Work in Progress: UN Security Resolution 1540 After 10 Years

The resolution created a universal, legally binding standard out of a patchwork of diverse and potentially conflicting international commitments. Its implementation has been innovative in many ways, but the record also demonstrates some recurring problems.

Igor Khripunov

The first decade of the 21st century saw the international community take new legal measures to prevent weapons of mass destruction (WMD) from falling into the hands of nonstate actors. Together with the discovery of the Abdul Qadeer Khan nuclear proliferation network in 2004, the September 11 attacks in 2001 represented a wake-up call. These events triggered a search for viable options to expeditiously remedy the most glaring gaps in existing international practices, which were not originally intended to meet the terrorist threat.

This search culminated on April 28, 2004, when the UN Security Council unanimously enacted Resolution 1540, a binding legal instrument to deal with new threats that traditional WMD policies could not adequately address. The rationale behind the resolution was to complement and reinforce existing treaties rather than replace them. Indeed, its text explicitly states that none of its obligations alter or conflict with the rights and obligations of parties under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention, or the Biological Weapons Convention or alter the responsibilities of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.[1] Seen in the context of previously established regimes, Resolution 1540 was meant to spur states to carry out their responsibilities under these accords, enlist nongovernmental stakeholders in the fight against WMD proliferation, and widen that fight to include nonstate groups.

In remarks last year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “welcome[d] stronger international measures to prevent terrorist groups” and other nonstate actors “from gaining access to the most lethal weapons and materials” and said that “[b]olstering [the] rule of law in this field is essential.”[2]

Expectations and Reality

From the vantage point of 2014, Resolution 1540’s main accomplishment was to create a universal, legally binding standard out of a patchwork of diverse and potentially conflicting international commitments. In addition, the resolution reinforced nonbinding arrangements such as export control regimes while facilitating the advancement of these arrangements toward the status of customary international law.

In the decade since the adoption of the resolution, the global community has endorsed a range of common practices with regard to international WMD law. Many were introduced with a view toward complying with Resolution 1540 and thus contributed to the development of customary law. Because it was adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the resolution is mandatory for all UN member states. This compulsory measure began laying the groundwork for the United Nations to enforce laws and accords pertaining to WMD proliferation.

Like any innovation, however, Resolution 1540 elicited a mixed reaction. One main reason for skepticism was that not all UN member states considered the threat of WMD terrorism and illicit trafficking in related materials to be their top priority. Some countries initially questioned the UN Security Council’s role in addressing this threat, particularly the council’s decision to impose binding nonproliferation obligations outside the traditional process of negotiations.

UN member states cannot openly disregard their obligations under Chapter VII. In the absence of clearly defined compliance criteria, however, they could lower the bar for implementation by addressing some of the resolution’s provisions, especially those requiring changes to domestic law, at their own discretion. Some governments did just that shortly after the resolution’s adoption.

Resolution 1540 demanded the following actions from UN member states:

  • Refraining from providing any form of support to nonstate actors that attempt to develop, acquire, manufacture, possess, transport, transfer, or use nonconventional weapons and their means of delivery.
  • Adopting and enforcing laws prohibiting any nonstate actor from undertaking, assisting, or financing such activities.
  • Establishing domestic controls to prevent the proliferation of unconventional weapons and related materials, including measures pertaining to accounting, security, physical protection, border and law enforcement, and export- and trade-related controls.

In other words, Resolution 1540 instructed states on what to do but not how to do it. It left methods to the discretion of individual countries.

Despite this latitude for national discretion, many political and resource challenges have impeded compliance. For instance, rank-and-file citizens often doubt the scale of domestic and global terrorist threats. Such doubts are compounded when little concrete evidence exists showing that such groups operate in some regions.

Another obstacle is competing national priorities, which often limit governments’ ability to channel sufficient resources into compliance with Resolution 1540. Inadequate expertise and numbers of personnel keep some governments from producing the comprehensive reports required by the resolution to document steps taken to meet their obligations.

Some member states are more vulnerable to proliferation than others, particularly those with nuclear power, chemical, and biological infrastructure susceptible to malicious acts. Others are only minor participants in world trade, either as producers or transshippers, and have limited ability to control their borders. Lastly, civil society and the business community may not be aware of Resolution 1540 and thus may not be doing their part to manage the WMD problem.

Critical support for efforts to meet these challenges has come from the 1540 Committee and the committee’s group of experts. The committee, a subsidiary body of the UN Security Council, monitors compliance by reviewing country reports and connecting states in need of assistance with available sources of assistance. Its four working groups represent its four areas of work: monitoring and national implementation, assistance, cooperation with international organizations, and transparency and media outreach.

As the name implies, the group of experts is a compact body of subject-matter experts that renders advice on technical matters associated with the resolution. This group of nine experts was established under Resolution 1977, passed in 2011, and Resolution 2055, passed in 2012, to help the committee carry out its mandate. The experts undertake country visits, peer reviews, analysis of states’ national reports and updates, communication with national points of contact, assistance in developing voluntary national action plans, and other operational activity.

Among their most significant contributions was a matrix for evaluating national legislation and other measures to implement Resolution 1540 and for identifying and plugging gaps in these measures. The group of experts prepared a matrix for each state. Each matrix includes 389 fields covering activities related to the operative part of the resolution. To ensure that the matrices remain “living documents,” the committee and experts continuously examine incoming state reports while conducting research on websites of governments and international, regional, and subregional organizations.

The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) lends support to the committee and its group of experts in several areas. It coordinates implementation efforts on a regional basis with help from its regional centers, and it fosters partnership among international organizations and key stakeholders, including civil society. Since 2006, the office has organized or supported more than 30 regional or thematic workshops to raise awareness of WMD-related problems and solutions, help governments build the capacity to make and enforce the necessary laws and regulations, and facilitate assistance to governments that need it.

A Way Forward

From the outset, three principles have underlain Resolution 1540: national discretion, cooperation, and assistance.

National discretion. Neither the 1540 Committee nor its experts are attempting to impose standard or model laws on states. This is a task for national authorities and relevant international organizations qualified to provide advice in this area. Nevertheless, the resolution’s across-the-board mandate helps nurture best practices among UN member states for preventing WMD proliferation and terrorism and harmonize laws and practices dealing with that issue.

Cooperation. The 1540 Committee’s mandate is to work with states to help them implement the resolution and cooperate with one another in doing so. The committee does not constitute a sanctions regime in the UN system. States, however, are free to impose sanctions on nonstate actors should they deem such measures necessary for effective compliance with the resolution.

Assistance. Some states require assistance to build up their capacity to implement the resolution in an efficient and affordable way. The 1540 Committee itself does not provide assistance, but it does play a matchmaking role, connecting available donors with prospective recipients of assistance.

Once a state exercises its prerogative to request assistance, the committee can seek potential partners and donors among other states or relevant international, regional, or subregional organizations. Assistance raises the average level of capacity among UN member states so that they can cooperate among themselves and with international bodies as fully competent partners.

In 2011, UN Security Council Resolution 1977 extended the mandate of the 1540 Committee for another decade, to 2021. Resolution 1977 was a landmark event in the evolution of the nonproliferation system created by Resolution 1540, in part because it represented a major step in institutionalizing that system.

One practical effect of the extension was to expand the tool kit for putting the three principles into practice. New tools include country-specific visits and dialogue among the committee, governments, and assorted stakeholders within countries. Closer contact with national stakeholders helps the committee obtain first-hand information about legislative and enforcement measures.

The first 1540 Committee visit to a state took place in September 2011, just a few months after Resolution 1977 was enacted. The U.S. government invited the committee to pay a visit. Since then, several more countries have invited the committee to make use of this new tool.

Generally, these visits include three segments: high-level meetings, working sessions, and on-site visits. The details of the programs for these visits are worked out by the host country in cooperation with the 1540 Committee experts. The three segments complement one another and provide the 1540 Committee delegation a very broad and complete perspective of progress toward implementation of Resolution 1540 and challenges that remain to be overcome. Country visits have become a well-established practice, but the first visit in Asia occurred only recently, in November 2013, when South Korea invited the 1540 Committee to discuss the country’s third national implementation report and hold consultations with several government agencies, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Nuclear Security and Safety Commission, and the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.

As noted above, cooperation with international, regional, and subregional organizations is crucial to sharing experiences, lessons learned, and effective practices. The 1540 Committee is developing ways of operating with those organizations on a case-by-case basis, reflecting the variation in each organization’s capacity and mandate. Among available options is the development of formal and informal working relationships with UN bodies and nonproliferation arrangements such as nuclear-weapon-free zones and initiatives launched by the nuclear security summits. The preamble of Resolution 1977 recognized the contribution of the 2010 nuclear security summit to the effective implementation of Resolution 1540.

Voluntary national implementation action plans are prepared with assistance from the 1540 Committee to map out national priorities and plans for implementing the key provisions of the resolution. The resulting plans are then submitted to the committee. Drafting an action plan involves conducting a gap analysis—unearthing defects in laws, institutions, or enforcement capacity; ascertaining whether these gaps are serious problems; and establishing priorities for closing the gaps. Following this preliminary analysis, planners identify opportunities or courses of action to help close the gaps. Governments then execute these actions, and, at the request of the government, the committee evaluates them.

Action plans have been submitted to the 1540 Committee by the United States in 2007, Argentina in 2009, Canada in 2010, France in 2011, Serbia and Belarus in 2012, and Kyrgyzstan in 2013. Governments are not required to submit plans, but one hopes more countries will emulate these early examples to make the implementation process more transparent and predictable. An important rationale for developing such plans is to encourage the establishment of an interagency process, where it is missing, as an indispensable decision-making instrument to address WMD risks.

Efforts are under way to include in the implementation process a wide range of stakeholders, including the business community and civil society. To this end, Germany launched in April 2012 the so-called Wiesbaden process by convening in that city the first conference of international, regional, and subregional industry associations. Its objective was to raise awareness of the resolution’s objectives and promote the effective sharing of best practices among industry actors involved in the implementation of Resolution 1540.

The conference was followed by other sector-specific and subregional events. In recognition of civil society’s growing role in supporting states’ implementation of Resolution 1540, the UNODA in January 2013 held the first Civil Society Forum, which was designed to incorporate civil society more fully into international and national efforts to achieve the objectives of the resolution.

Additional tools that can contribute to effective implementation of the resolution may emerge as the 1540 Committee conducts two comprehensive reviews to determine how fully the resolution has been implemented. Under the terms of Resolution 1977, one review must take place before December 2016 and the other before April 2021, which is before its mandate is due to be renewed. After receiving these reports from the committee, the UN Security Council may adjust the committee’s mandate or authorize other initiatives to combat the danger of nonconventional weapons. Charting the way forward, in short, means constructing arrangements that are as nimble and adaptive as possible.

A Source of Sustainability

Making implementation of Resolution 1540 sustainable is still a long-term challenge. As the regularly extended resolution becomes an institution, there clearly is a need to identify a common foundation for threat perception and compliance motivation among those who are, in the long-term perspective, supposed to organize, promote, and implement this process in an environment of changing threats.

One way to achieve this goal is to promote a comprehensive concept of security culture that would be applicable to the broad mission of Resolution 1540. This comprehensive approach would focus on the human performance in several key functional areas, including security of relevant materials and associated facilities, strategic trade and trafficking controls, cybersecurity, and knowledge management.

These areas have common culture elements across all three WMD domains—nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons[3]—but also unique features specific to each of them. In this sense, such culture can be defined as an assembly of beliefs, attitudes, and patterns of behavior that can reinforce or complement operational procedures, rules, and practices, as well as professional standards and ethics designed to achieve WMD nonproliferation goals and prevent WMD terrorism.[4] This approach, which is based on the “human factor,” is vital to the creation of a comprehensive security culture.

There are at least four reasons a common model of comprehensive security culture is becoming a necessity for sustainable implementation of the resolution.

First, if the extension of Resolution 1540 represents a step toward institutionalizing the resolution, then organizations active in this area must instill common beliefs, assumptions, and values among national stakeholders. In short, they need to adjust their cultures to the new norms codified by the resolution. Without a robust, comprehensive culture reinforcing the counter-WMD mandate, the emerging institution built on Resolution 1540 risks falling short of expectations. The goal of sustainability will remain out of reach, and the new institution will fail to accomplish its mission without an integrating culture.

Second, although the strength of Resolution 1540 unquestionably lies in its mandatory legal status for all UN member states and in states’ recognition that it helps fill gaps in the international legal nonproliferation framework, the challenge is how to enlist nongovernmental stakeholders whom the resolution is not likely to bind. Such stakeholders include the business community, academia, nongovernmental organizations, and the public. Culture is crucial in motivating adherence to norms where the force of law is weak or lacking.

Third, breakthroughs in science and technology tend to blur the traditional dividing lines among the chemical, biological, and nuclear domains, affecting more than one domain at the same time. Moreover, modern technologies and their products tend to evolve more quickly than the regulatory process. Control of them, at least in the initial stages, depends increasingly on the vigilance and discretion of human decision-makers and their perception of security. A strong security culture will help create a workforce that is strongly motivated to carry out an in-depth analysis before making any decisions that are potentially proliferation sensitive.

Fourth, developing a comprehensive model for a sustainable WMD culture would help countries that lack relevant experience and expertise understand the role of the human factor and enhance their standards for implementation of Resolution 1540. A universal methodology and common foundation would help them build national human capacity. On the other hand, if WMD specialists continue to pursue their own separate agendas and lack lines of communication or compete with one another for attention and funding, the nation’s defenses will remain porous and unsustainable.

WMD security culture is intrinsic to high standards of professionalism as applied to key elements of the regime created by Resolution 1540. It enables a person to respond to familiar and unfamiliar security threats out of carefully nurtured habit rather than improvisation. In strategic trade and trafficking control, the culture can enhance due diligence in the process of issuing export licenses, verifying end users, and preventing illegal transfers. Cybersecurity benefits from enhanced vigilance, attention to details, and questioning attitudes. In research on advanced dual-use technologies, professional standards in knowledge management require a mindset focused on WMD proliferation prevention and discretion in sharing sensitive information.


No institution tasked with addressing an item atop the global agenda can reach maturity after 10 years. The record of Resolution 1540 and the 1540 Committee is mixed and clearly demonstrates recurring problems. Much-needed assistance has yet to be targeted effectively to meet the specific needs of recipient countries. Security-focused priorities have to be balanced by multipurpose assistance projects visibly addressing, where possible, not only WMD risks but also countries’ economic and development needs. Doubtless part of the problem is the rigid and bureaucratic decision-making characteristic of multilateral programs locked in a narrow definition of security objectives.

On the positive side, innovative methods have been applied, and there have been notable achievements. More than 90 percent of UN member states have submitted national reports detailing measures that they have taken or plan to take to implement the resolution’s requirements. Some 170 states and 50 international and regional organizations have participated in regional events designed to raise awareness of WMD-related problems and solutions, exchange best practices, and invigorate networking among the resolution’s stakeholders. A voluntary fund with a mandate of bolstering implementation and cooperation has been established, drawing on grants from donor countries and the European Union.

Realistically, a world free of WMD terrorism is unlikely to be achieved soon, but the world community is doing its best to prevent such acts from happening. In this sense, the 1540 Committee needs to focus on two fundamental issues: making implementation of Resolution 1540 sustainable and keeping the system flexible enough to continue addressing both current threats and new threats that are bound to emerge from scientific and technological progress. Prospects for accomplishing these goals depend on whether all UN member states take seriously their individual responsibility under the resolution to protect the world from catastrophic acts of WMD terrorism. This is a matter of vision, commitment, and leadership.

Igor Khripunov is a distinguished fellow and adjunct professor at the Center for International Trade and Security at the University of Georgia. He is also editor in chief of the 1540 Compass, a journal published by the center in cooperation with the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs.


1. UN Security Council, S/RES/1540, April 28, 2004.

2. UN Department of Public Information, “‘There Are No Right Hands That Can Handle These Wrong Weapons,’ Secretary-General Says of Mass Destruction Weapons, at 1540 Event, Urging Their Total Elimination,” SG/SM/14968, DC/3432, April 22, 2013.

3. Although there initially was a consensus among drafters of Resolution 1540 that radiological weapons are not covered by the resolution, there is now a growing recognition among experts that “nuclear” in the footnote definition can be interpreted as including “radiological.” Terence Taylor, “Is ‘R’ Covered by 1540?” 1540 Compass, No. 5 (Winter 2014), p. 6.

4. See International Atomic Energy Agency, “Nuclear Security Culture: Implementing Guide,” IAEA Nuclear Security Series, No. 7 (2008), p. 3.

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No Promised Land: The Shared Legacy of the Castle Bravo Nuclear Test

The March 1, 1954, Castle Bravo detonation is the largest nuclear test ever conducted by the United States. It had a devastating effect on the Marshall Islands, and its impact continues today.

April L. Brown

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Castle Bravo nuclear detonation in the Marshall Islands. The U.S. military conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Pacific Proving Grounds from 1946 to 1958. The Castle Bravo test, conducted on March 1, 1954, at Bikini Atoll, was 1,000 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb.

The explosion sent irradiated coral dust throughout the atolls. Neighboring atoll populations, who were neither informed of the tests nor relocated prior to the detonation, today continue to experience health issues, cultural upheaval, and physical dislocation due to the environmental degradation produced by the test and the effects of climate change. The Bravo detonation remains the largest nuclear test ever conducted by the United States.[1] Although the United States tested an additional 55 nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands, Castle Bravo is the most notorious due to its impact, primarily on the people of the Marshall Islands.

The Marshall Islands, two chains of 29 low-lying coral atolls situated north of the equator between Hawaii and Australia, were occupied by the U.S. military during World War II and in 1947 became a UN trust territory administered by the United States. Prior to the U.S. control, the islands, whose first inhabitants likely arrived on the atolls some 4,000 years ago, were claimed by Spain in 1494 and administered by Germany from 1885 until the outbreak of World War I. At that time, Japan began seizing German possessions until it took formal control under the League of Nations charter in 1920.

Initially, many Marshallese welcomed the new governance as the Japanese worked to build up an infrastructure, including schools, and to increase economic trade. With the outbreak of World War II, the Japanese military took over administration and began fortifying several of the atolls. When the fighting in the Pacific intensified in 1942, the Marshallese suffered as the Japanese military began to brutalize the population as food sources became scarce.[2] In February 1944, U.S. Marine and Army forces invaded Japanese strongholds on Kwajalein and Enewetak atolls and turned both into U.S. military bases, the former being the Army’s largest air base in Micronesia.[3] After months of intense fighting in the Pacific theater, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese industrial cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Attracted by its remote location, sparse population, and nearby U.S. military bases, the United States made plans to test its most powerful weapons in the Marshall Islands. U.S. Navy Commodore Ben Wyatt, with cameras rolling, met with Bikini Atoll inhabitants and their leader to “ask” for use of their atoll “for the good of mankind.” Wyatt came to the island on a Sunday after church services and, at one point, likened the Bikinians to the children of Israel who had been saved by their enemies and led to the Promised Land. With the leader’s response that “everything is in God’s hands,” the cameras cut, and the military began preparations to relocate the 167 Bikinian people to another island.[4]

Realistically, the Bikinians had no choice. A month prior to the filmed exchange, U.S. President Harry Truman had already approved Bikini Atoll as the test site for Operation Crossroads, a series of two tests in 1946 designed to study the effects of nuclear weapons. With no understanding of atomic weapons, radiation, or the likelihood of permanent displacement, the Bikinians acquiesced and were relocated to Rongerik Atoll, an uninhabited island 125 miles to the east where they lacked sustainable food and potable water supplies.

The two atomic tests were Able, an airdrop test conducted on June 30, and Baker, an underwater detonation that took place on July 24. The Navy placed 95 vessels, including aircraft carriers and destroyers, in Bikini Atoll’s lagoon, and hundreds of animals were strapped to the decks to monitor the blast’s effects. Thousands of U.S. soldiers were positioned on naval ships outside the blast zone and then brought in to survey the damage, retrieve the irradiated animals, and decontaminate the vessels that were exposed to high levels of radiation.[5]

The U.S. military took pains to impress on the international community the point that the tests were of a scientific nature and not saber rattling. A large contingent of international observers and journalists was on hand to witness the tests, and thousands of cameras captured the spectacular events. The tests overshadowed the U.S. military’s movement of Marshallese populations to different islands to prevent their contamination by radiation. These islands rarely held the food or water supplies necessary to sustain their temporary populations.

In 1947, a year after the two Crossroads detonations, the United Nations awarded trusteeship of the Marshall Islands to the United States. Part of the U.S. charge was to “protect the inhabitants against the loss of their lands and resources” and to “protect the health of the inhabitants.”[6] Once operations in the Pacific Proving Grounds switched from military to U.S. civilian control in 1947 under the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), a new cloud of secrecy shrouded future tests. The AEC ramped up testing to create increasingly powerful weapons. Its next three series of tests—Operation Sandstone in 1948, Operation Greenhouse in 1951, and Operation Ivy in 1952—detonated fission and thermonuclear weapons over Enewetak Atoll. The last test in the Ivy series, Mike, was the first hydrogen bomb; it had a yield of 10.4-12.0 megatons.

Impact of the Bravo Test

The Castle test series, begun in 1954, was intended to test lithium deuteride as a thermonuclear fusion fuel. Islanders had been relocated prior to early tests, but the Bravo test was conducted secretly with no relocations beforehand. Winds that were noted as favorable by weather forecasters three days prior to the blast were deemed unfavorable six hours before the test. Still, Major General Percy Clarkson, the head of the military team responsible for carrying out the testing, ordered the detonation to proceed as planned despite the likelihood that winds would carry the fallout over inhabited atolls.

At 15 megatons, the Bravo shot created a mushroom cloud that rose as high as 130,000 feet and spread over an area more than 25 miles in diameter in less than 10 minutes.[7] Detonated over Bikini Atoll, the explosion vaporized three islands. The nuclear fallout, made up of crushed coral, water, and radioactive particles, rained down over inhabited atolls. Witnesses described watching the sun rise in the west the morning of the detonation and were fascinated by the red and orange colors that lit up the sky. They then described their terror as the shock wave hit. Hours later, the Marshallese described the falling “snow” and how unsuspecting children played in the fallout and women rubbed it in their hair.[8] The residents of Rongelap and Ailinginae atolls bore the brunt of the radioactive fallout.

According to Rongelapese magistrate John Anjain, two Americans arrived on the island by plane and hastily inspected the damage to the atoll on the afternoon of March 2, the day after the blast, but left without warning anyone of the danger posed by the radioactivity.[9] The U.S. military arrived on the morning of March 3 to evacuate the residents, who were already suffering from radiation poisoning.

The U.S. military evacuated other populations on Rongerik and Ailinginae atolls. Weathermen stationed on Rongerik Atoll were instructed on March 2 to stay inside their metal-lined bunkers until they could be evacuated later that day. Marshallese residents received no such warnings. The Marshallese inhabitants of Rongerik Atoll were not evacuated until March 4.

The Bravo event itself might have remained unknown to the U.S. public at the time if it were not for a Japanese fishing vessel, the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon) and its 23 crewmen who were caught inside the contamination zone. Panic spread throughout Japan that the contaminated tuna brought aboard the vessel had entered the market.[10]

A report submitted by the AEC to the U.S. representative on the UN Trusteeship Council on June 9, 1954, downplayed the impact of the Bravo test by emphasizing that there would be no long-term effects on the native Marshallese from Bravo contamination, based on medical estimates. The report said the evacuated Rongelapese appeared happy and content and were provided with better housing on Majuro Atoll than on their home island.[11] The report estimated that the displaced population would be returned to Rongelap Atoll within six months to a year. In reality, the Rongelapese in particular had been exposed to near-lethal doses of radiation. A calculation of the radiation intake of the population shows that Rongelapese adults likely were exposed to internal doses of ionizing radiation of 60-300 rem. Doses at that level typically cause many kinds of physiological damage. According to the study, five to 10 rem can alter blood chemistry and cause genetic damage, while 400 rem would likely kill 50 percent of the exposed population.[12]

The Rongelapese quickly became test subjects of a U.S. government-sponsored program, Project 4.1, entitled “The Study of Response of Human Beings Exposed to Significant Beta and Gamma Radiation Due to Fallout from High Yield Weapons.” The team conducting the study did not ask the Marshallese for their consent or even explain to them that a study was being conducted, which caused even more confusion as Marshallese were shuttled between the islands and testing facilities in the United States. The Marshallese were told they were being treated for their various illnesses, but rarely was a translator present to explain what tests were being conducted or for what purpose. Marshallese were given pills to take with no accompanying explanation as to why they were supposed to take them.

The impact of radiation was evidenced by Marshallese who were returned to their atolls as well as atoll populations that the AEC considered to be unaffected by the Bravo test. Exposed women gave birth to severely deformed babies, some with abnormally large heads and translucent skin, none of whom survived more than a number of days. Not knowing the cause of their illnesses, the Marshallese sickened by radiation were often ostracized and suffered psychological trauma.

As the U.S. nuclear testing continued in the Marshall Islands through 1958, displaced Marshallese, particularly those from Bikini and Enewetak atolls, suffered from malnutrition and sometimes starvation as the islands on which they were placed could not sustain the population. In 1957 the AEC returned the Rongelapese to their atoll, where they remained for nearly 30 years despite pleas to the United States to remove them because of the prevalence of disease. In the decades following the testing, the Marshallese suffered high rates of growth abnormalities in children and other birth defects. Thyroid tumors, especially among Rongelapese women, have resulted in numerous surgeries, which affected their abilities to speak and sing, the latter of which serves as an important aspect of Marshallese culture.[13]

Political and Legal Steps

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After the Bravo test, the U.S. government provided cash payments and established trust funds for the Enewetakese, Bikinians, and Rongelapese for radiation exposure. In the 1970s, the United States began cleaning up Enewetak Atoll in an attempt to make it habitable. Studies by the U.S. government deemed Bikini Atoll too radioactive to inhabit although the United States had encouraged resettlement years earlier.

As litigation, mostly instigated by Bikinians, continued in the U.S. court system, the majority of the Marshallese people voted to establish a new political relationship with the United States. The Republic of the Marshall Islands was established in 1979. In 1986 the Compact of Free Association between the republic and the United States was signed into law, ending the trusteeship arrangement and ushering in a new period of political independence. The compact allows Marshallese citizens to enter, work in, and go to school in the United States and gives the United States the responsibility for the islands’ defense. An affiliated agreement gives the United States full and continued control over military facilities on Kwajalein Atoll to conduct military maneuvers. One section of the compact provides for continued medical care of the remaining 176 Marshallese directly affected by the Bravo detonation.

Section 177 of the compact provided for a separate agreement to deal with settlement issues. The agreement called for the establishment of a $150 million trust fund set up by the U.S. government in exchange for the dismissal of all pending court cases and a pledge not to pursue any future litigation. It also established the National Claims Tribunal to hear Marshallese cases of personal injury and damages to or loss of property. Due to the number of claims, the $45 million provided by the United States to the tribunal has mostly been spent and is considered by the Marshallese to be insufficient.

The U.S. government narrowly defines the affected atolls as Bikini, Enewetak, Utrik, and Rongelap and affected individuals as those who were on the four atolls during the testing period, failing to take into account the frequent movement of Marshallese between atolls or the lingering effects of radiation. This is an obvious point of consternation of the many Marshallese who live on atolls other than the designated four and believe their atolls were similarly affected by U.S. nuclear testing but go unrecognized.

The “changed circumstances” provision in the compact allows for the Marshall Islands to petition the U.S. Congress for additional financial assistance if they can provide proof there were additional damages to property and injuries from the testing program unknown during the time of the compact negotiations and in excess of the original $150 million provided. Years later, the Marshallese believed they had their evidence.[14]

During the administration of President Bill Clinton, congressional pressure to declassify AEC documents related to domestic nuclear testing increased. Prompted by a series of newspaper articles alleging that U.S. citizens had been injected with plutonium without their consent, Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary declassified thousands of documents, many of which dealt with testing in the Pacific Proving Grounds, under the “Openness Initiative.” In 1994, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, held a hearing to review the information contained in the AEC documents.

One of the documents that elicited an outcry and potentially provided the Marshallese with official evidence of damage and injury was a 1973 U.S. government report stating that fallout from the Bravo test possibly affected 13 atolls, including Ailinginae, Kwajalein, Wotho and Wotje and that subsequent explosions may have hit some of the same areas. Miller charged the United States with having “deliberately kept that information from the Marshallese,” which he argued, “clearly constitutes a cover-up.”[15]

Based on this new information, in 2000 the Marshall Islands formally submitted a petition invoking changed circumstances, as allowed by the compact. Following the September 11 attacks, the U.S. government took on a more defensive posture with regard to government openness. Many of the documents that were not already reclassified in the backlash to O’Leary’s massive declassification project were taken off the shelves at the National Archives and Records Administration.[16] In 2005 the Bush administration formally denied the petition submitted by the Marshall Islands as lacking adequate proof.

More recently, Marshallese officials have sought to make the United Nations take responsibility for its part in allowing the United States to conduct nuclear testing while serving as a UN trustee and assist in pressuring the United States to provide adequate compensation. In September 2012, Calin Georgescu, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and toxic waste, encouraged the United States to fulfill its responsibilities to the people of the Marshall Islands affected by the nuclear testing. He said the U.S. government should provide “full funding for the Nuclear Claims Tribunal to award adequate compensation for past and future claims” and health care to those residing in the United States.[17]

Today, nuclear issues remain at the center of the complex geopolitical relationship between the United States and the Marshall Islands. The Marshallese on the islands suffer from health issues, including high cancer rates and the highest rate of diabetes in the world, and high unemployment.[18]

The Marshallese who have relocated to the United States continue to struggle as well. Due to economic pressures to find work and their lack of proficiency with English, few within the Marshallese community pursue higher education. Like the Marshallese that have remained in the islands, the U.S. community suffers from high rates of diabetes and cancer, and it lacks adequate access to medical resources.

Because of limited information about the nuclear tests, few within the United States are aware of the challenges facing this diasporic community. The Marshallese themselves are conflicted. They appreciate the opportunities provided to them by the United States, but cannot understand how their closest ally can deny the obvious effects of nuclear testing on their population in areas such as health issues and loss of land, which contributes to a loss of cultural identity. While reflecting in 1978 on Wyatt’s religious appeal to the Bikinians to allow the United States the use of their island for testing, Bikinian representative Tomaki Juda said, “[W]e are sadly more akin to the Children of Israel when they left Egypt and wandered through the desert for 40 years. We left Bikini and have wandered through the ocean for 32 years and we will never return to our Promised Land.”[19]


April L. Brown is co-founder and executive director of the Marshallese Educational Initiative, a nonprofit organization based in northwest Arkansas. She is a professor of history and director of the honors program at Northwest Arkansas Community College.





1. Citing a February 23, 1954, memorandum contained in U.S. documents hand-delivered to the Marshall Islands in 2013, Marshall Islands Journal editor Giff Johnson argues that U.S. officials had planned for a 12- to 20-megaton blast and that claims that the 15-megaton blast exceeded expectations therefore were false. Giff Johnson, Don’t Ever Whisper; Darlene Keju: Pacific Health Pioneer, Champion for Nuclear Survivors, (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013), pp. 370-371.

2. Holly Barker, Bravo for the Marshallese: Regaining Control in a Post-Nuclear, Post-Colonial World, 2nd ed. (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2013), p. 18.

3. Jonathan M. Weisgall, Operation Crossroads: The Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994), pp. 42-43.

4. The U.S. government invited journalists and Hollywood film crews to Bikini Atoll to record the exchange. See Barker, Bravo for the Marshallese, p. 20. Newsreel footage and the various takes may be viewed in the documentary films The Atomic Café, directed by Pierce Rafferty, Jayne Loader, and Kevin Rafferty from 1982, and Radio Bikini, directed by Robert Stone from 1987. For information and photographs related to the nuclear testing there, see http://www.bikiniatoll.com/.

5. Barker, Bravo for the Marshallese, pp. 20-21.

6. Legal Information System of the Federated States of Micronesia, “Trusteeship Agreement for the Former Japanese Mandated Islands,” n.d., art. 6, nos. 2 and 3, http://www.fsmlaw.org/miscdocs/trustshipagree.htm. The agreement was approved by the UN Security Council on April 2, 1947, and ratified by the U.S. Congress on July 18, 1947.

7. Barker, Bravo for the Marshallese, p. 23.

8. Jessica A. Schwartz, “A ‘Voice to Sing’: Rongelapese Musical Activism and the Production of Nuclear Knowledge,” Music and Politics, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Winter 2012).

9. Barbara Rose Johnston and Holly Barker, The Rongelap Report: Consequential Damages of Nuclear War (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2008), p. 12.

10. Ten days after the March 1 blast, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission reported that 28 Americans and 236 natives of the Marshall Islands “were unexpectedly exposed to some radiation” but had not suffered burns and were in good health. “Fishermen Burned in Bikini Test Blast,” Associated Press, March 16, 1954. Press reports of the sailors’ illnesses and the irradiated fish generated pressure on the U.S. government to pay $2 million in damages to the Japanese government in 1955.

11. “The General Manager, Atomic Energy Commission (Nichols) to the Assistant Secretary of State for United Nations Affairs (Key),” June 9, 1954, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, United Nations Affairs, Vol. III (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1983), pp. 1491-1494.

12. Johnson and Barker, Rongelap Report, p. 97 (citing Hans Behling, John Mauro, and Kathleen Behling, “Reassessment of Acute Radiation Doses Associated With BRAVO Fallout: Report to the RMI Nuclear Claims Tribunal” [McLean, VA: S. Cohen and Associates, 2000]).

13. Barker, Bravo for the Marshallese, pp. 45-46; Schwartz, “A ‘Voice to Sing.’”

14. For a detailed examination of the Compact of Free Association, the section 177 agreement, and the “changed circumstances” petition submitted by the Marshall Islands to Congress in 2000, see Barker, Bravo for the Marshallese, pp. 34-39, 111-116. For the original compact, see http://www.fsmlaw.org/compact/. For the 2003 amended version, see http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-108publ188/html/PLAW-108publ188.htm.

15. Gary Lee, “Postwar Pacific Fallout Wider Than Thought; New Data Show Radiation Spread Beyond Limited Area,” The Washington Post, February 24, 1994.

16. Scott Shane, “U.S. Reclassifies Many Documents in Secret Review,” The New York Times, February 21, 2006; Scott Shane, “National Archives Pact Let CIA Withdraw Public Documents,” The New York Times, April 18, 2006.

17. UN General Assembly, A/HRC/21/48/Add.1, September 3, 2012.

18. Steven Simon et al., “Radiation Doses and Cancer Risks in the Marshall Islands Associated With Exposure to Radioactive Fallout From Bikini and Enewetak Nuclear Weapons Tests: Summary,” Health Physics, Vol. 99, No. 2 (August 2010): 105-123.

19. Juda was speaking to members of a House Appropriations subcommittee during a hearing to discuss the U.S. government’s recent findings that radiation levels were much higher on Bikini Atoll than it had previously claimed. Bikinians living on Kili Island had been asking the U.S. government to relocate their kinsmen for years due to the unsafe living conditions there. Walter Pincus, “Bikinians Must Quit Island for at Least 30 Years, Hill Told,” The Washington Post, May 23, 1978.

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Looking Back: The U.S.-Russian Uranium Deal: Results and Lessons

By combining political interest with economic benefit, the 1993 U.S.-Russian deal to down-blend Russian highly enriched uranium for use in U.S. nuclear power plants has provided a model for future cooperation between the two countries.

Alexander Pavlov and Vladimir Rybachenkov

In February 1993, Russia and the United States signed an agreement on the disposition of highly enriched uranium (HEU) extracted from Russian nuclear weapons.[1] Under the terms of the deal, Russia undertook to down-blend 500 tons[2] of HEU, enough to build 20,000 nuclear warheads, over a 20-year period. The two sides agreed that the resulting low-enriched uranium (LEU) would be used as fuel by nuclear power plants in the United States, hence the informal name of the program, “Megatons to Megawatts.”

In January 1994, Russia’s Techsnab-export (Tenex) and the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC), the state-run companies authorized by their respective governments to implement the deal, signed the contract. In the U.S. case, that meant that USEC was a supplier of enriched uranium to private utilities. According to assessments made at the time, the value of the entire program was expected to reach about $12 billion.


The idea of down-blending excess stockpiles of weapons HEU and using the resulting LEU as fuel for nuclear power plants was first proposed in 1991 by Thomas Neff, a senior researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for International Studies.[3] The idea was received in the U.S. academic community with great enthusiasm and was supported by the Bush administration in view of the signing in July 1991 of the Soviet-U.S. Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), which mandated a reduction of the two countries’ nuclear weapons stockpiles by approximately 5,000 warheads apiece.[4]

Given the difficult economic situation in the Soviet Union at the time, Moscow expressed interest in Neff’s proposal, which opened up the prospect of billions of U.S. dollars in hard currency earnings being generated as a by-product of implementing START I. The idea looked attractive to the Russian government, which hoped that some of that money could be used to support the Russian nuclear industry, which, like all other state enterprises, was suffering from a sharp reduction in government funding.

The HEU-LEU agreement differed in an important way from the 1992 Agreement on the Safe and Secure Transportation, Storage and Destruction of Weapons and the Prevention of Weapons Proliferation, which provided the legal framework for the so-called Nunn-Lugar program. Under the terms of the latter agreement, the United States was the donor and Russia was the recipient of U.S. financial and technical assistance, including money provided to help Russia implement the reductions specified in START I. In contrast, the HEU-LEU agreement was essentially a mutually advantageous commercial deal.

An important element of Neff’s concept was his proposal to down-blend HEU at Russian plants rather than in the United States. The goal of the proposal was to employ as many Russian facilities and people in the post-Soviet nuclear establishment as possible. The Russian side strongly supported this approach, as HEU down-blending on U.S. territory was unacceptable to Russia because the isotopic composition of this material was classified.

The main factor driving the U.S. side was the doubts by many Western experts about the safety and security of the huge Soviet nuclear arsenal after the collapse of the Soviet empire. In addition, a significant part of that arsenal was left on the territory of the newly independent republics of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. The economic and political situation in all three was even worse than in Russia.

Leading Russian scientists, including Yuri Osipov, president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, also gave their backing to the plan. Osipov discussed the proposal with the Russian minister of atomic energy, Viktor Mikhailov, who gave it his full support. After a series of meetings and informal exchanges between Russian and U.S. representatives, the two governments entered into formal negotiations in the summer of 1992. They also set up a joint working group to undertake a comparative analysis of the two sides’ proposals regarding the technology of down-blending HEU.

The Choice of Technology

HEU is produced by increasing the content of the fissile isotope uranium-235 from 0.7 percent in natural uranium to levels of 20 percent or more. In modern enrichment plants, enrichment involves running uranium in the form of the gas uranium hexafluoride through a gas centrifuge. At the plant, many thousands of them are installed, forming enrichment cascades.

Fuel for nuclear power plants typically has an enrichment level of about 4-5 percent, which means that it is LEU. In the global market, the enrichment level of the uranium for nuclear power plants is strictly limited to 5 percent. For weapons use, an enrichment level of 90 percent is desirable.

Stockpiles of HEU were accumulated in the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War era. The HEU-LEU agreement contemplated the reduction of the Russian HEU stockpile by 500 tons by down-blending it to LEU that could be used for nuclear power plant fuel.

However simple this looks, the question of down-blending was not a trivial one. Technologically, this could be done in different ways, and the choice of the blendstock and its form was one of the key elements of the process because it determined the final isotopic composition of the product.

One of the issues associated with blending was the possibility of accumulation in the LEU of the U-234 isotope, which is a kind of a poison for nuclear fuel. After detailed elaborations, the working group agreed with a proposal by Russian experts to use gas-phase dilution by mixing HEU hexafluoride with hexafluoride of slightly enriched uranium. The blendstock of slightly enriched uranium came from depleted uranium produced by uranium enrichment plants and later enriched to 1.5 percent. In this case, the resulting product satisfied the ASTM[5] requirements for power plant fuel isotopic composition, and the whole process also allowed Russian enrichment plants to continue to be busy with producing slightly enriched uranium.

LEU Production in Russia

The first 186-ton batch of LEU was produced in 1995 at the Urals Electrochemical Combine in the Sverdlovsk region from about 6 tons of HEU.

Another three Russian enrichment plants, which were run by the Ministry of Atomic Energy (the precursor to Rosatom, the Russian state atomic energy corporation), joined the program at a later stage: the Siberian Chemical Combine in the Tomsk region, the Electrochemical Plant in the Krasnoyarsk territory, and the Angarsk Electrolysis Chemical Combine in the Irkutsk region. As a result, Russia was down-blending 30 tons of HEU every year by 2000 and producing 900 tons of LEU in the process, charging the United States for about 9,000 tons of natural-uranium component and 5.5 million separative work units (SWUs)—the enrichment services needed to make LEU out of natural uranium—per year. By the time the work under the agreement is completed later this year, Russia will have down-blended 500 tons of HEU and produced a total of 15,200 tons of LEU.

Under the terms of the HEU-LEU agreement, the United States has the right to monitor the HEU down-blending process. In practice, that translates into quantitative monitoring of the flow of uranium hexafluoride in three pipes: two pipes for the HEU and the blendstock inflows and one pipe for the outflow of the LEU produced. U.S. personnel also recorded the U-235 enrichment level in each of these pipes.

In the early years of the agreement, the monitoring was conducted by U.S. inspectors who visited the Russian facilities involved in the program. Later on, however, the United States developed and installed a remote monitoring system at the down-blending facilities, thus eliminating the need for regular visits.

The Problem of Natural Uranium

The natural-uranium component of LEU was an important part of the deal. Essentially, it represents the amount of natural uranium (with 0.7 percent U-235 content) that would have been required to produce a given amount of LEU through natural enrichment rather than by down-blending HEU.

When LEU arrives in the United States under the HEU deal, two market products are delivered for payment: the SWUs and natural uranium feed, the raw material from which LEU was produced. In transactions on the uranium market, these two commodities are usually traded separately and have their individual prices.

According to the terms of the deal, there were two separate lines in the Tenex-USEC contract for the price of the natural component and the price of SWUs. These were based on the market prices at the time and later were periodically reviewed and adjusted by the parties.

Initially, under the terms of the deal, the United States agreed to pay in full for the SWUs and the uranium component required for the production of the down-blended material. This situation remained until April 1996, when the U.S. Congress passed a bill privatizing USEC. The bill introduced strict quotas on sales of the natural-uranium component on the U.S. market. Essentially, it made it impossible for USEC to pay for that natural-uranium component under the HEU-LEU agreement.

The problem was exacerbated by the fact that Russia and the United States had not signed an agreement for peaceful nuclear cooperation. The absence of that document complicated the return to Russia of the natural-uranium component, which no longer could be sold in the United States.

Moscow and Washington were forced to begin lengthy negotiations to find a mutually acceptable solution. The complications were such that LEU deliveries were interrupted for more than six months and the whole program was on the brink of complete collapse.

The two sides finally found a way out of the deadlock in March 1999. The Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy and the U.S. Department of Energy signed an agreement in Washington on the transfer of the natural-uranium component to Russia. They agreed that USEC would return to Russia an equivalent of the natural-uranium component and pay only for the SWU content. In the same agreement, Washington made an exception to its nuclear export law by allowing the natural uranium associated with the HEU deal to return to Russia even though the United States did not have a nuclear cooperation agreement with that country.

At the same time, Tenex and a group of Western companies (Areva, Cameco, and Nukem) signed an option for the purchase between 2002 and 2013 of the Russian natural-uranium component that was being accumulated on U.S. territory.

This arrangement allowed the deal to proceed, and LEU deliveries restarted in August 1999.

Prospects for Post-2013 Sales

In the United States, some politicians and independent observers had been arguing for proposals to induce Russia to continue the HEU-LEU operation after 2013, citing arms control and nonproliferation benefits. Until recently, there also were economic reasons because of a shortage of domestic enrichment capacity in the United States.

Russia, however, has no intention of extending the HEU-LEU agreement. Senior Rosatom executives have made that clear on more than one occasion, insisting that the remaining Russian excess HEU stockpiles would be needed for Russia’s nuclear energy industry.

Considerable uncertainty existed over continued Russian supplies of uranium products to the United States after the HEU deal was finished, taking into account the restrictions imposed in conjunction with the suspension of the anti-dumping investigation agreement signed by the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy and the U.S. Department of Commerce in October 1992.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia and several other former Soviet republics sold many uranium products in the U.S. market at artificially low prices, a practice known as dumping. In response, Washington imposed a high anti-dumping tariff, essentially closing the door to the U.S. market for Russian nuclear suppliers. That door was partially reopened by the 1992 agreement, which created an exemption for the LEU shipments supplied under the HEU-LEU agreement via USEC. It was all but impossible, however, for Russia to provide natural uranium or enriched uranium that was not part of the HEU-LEU agreement, as those exports were not covered by the exemption.

In an effort to resolve that problem, which would have become much more serious for the United States after the supplies under the HEU-LEU had ended, Rosatom and the Commerce Department in February 2008 signed an amendment to the 1992 agreement, allowing the Russian nuclear industry to supply up to 20 percent of the U.S. market demand for uranium products between 2014 and 2020. Under the amendment, Tenex is to sign contracts directly with U.S. nuclear power plant operators, bypassing USEC. As of last January, the Russian portfolio of contracts signed under this arrangement was worth about $6 billion.

Criticisms of the Agreement

In the late 1990s, some Russian media outlets launched a campaign of sharp criticism against the HEU-LEU agreement. They quoted analysts as saying that the terms of the deal were daylight robbery because the price Russia was getting for the 500 tons of HEU being down-blended to LEU was an order of magnitude lower than it should have been. Critics also argued that the agreement undermined Russian national security because it reduced the country’s strategic stockpiles of HEU.

That rhetoric culminated in 1999 during a special hearing launched by the Russian State Duma Committee on Geopolitics. The Duma members who presided over the hearing invited representatives of the atomic energy, foreign affairs, and defense ministries to testify. In his opening remarks, the committee’s chairman, Alexey Mitrofanov, then a member of the nationalist political party LDPR, essentially repeated the arguments outlined above. He said that the Duma should discuss the question of Russian withdrawal from the agreement because the deal ran counter to Russian national interests.

One of the authors of this article, Vladimir Rybachenkov, was invited to the Duma meeting as the Foreign Ministry representative. He attended the hearing and rebutted criticisms by saying that selling 500 tons of weapons-grade uranium down-blended to LEU would barely have any detrimental effects on Russian defense capabilities. He cited Western assessments that estimated Russia still would have another 700 tons of HEU left in reserve.[6]

U.S. HEU reserves were estimated at about 700 tons. In addition, Washington has declared 209 tons of that amount as being surplus to its national security requirements and stated that it was planning to eliminate that amount of HEU unilaterally over the next few years. Available reports suggest that the United States has already converted about 119 tons of HEU to LEU.[7]

Another argument that Rybachenkov made at the 1999 hearing was that the hard currency revenues generated by the HEU-LEU deal were a vital source of additional funding for the Russian nuclear industry, which was facing a serious deficit of state financing. Finally, he said, the overall value of the agreement was set at $12 billion based on the global market prices at the time of the signing of the deal.

Moscow possibly could have tried to find a more generous buyer, such as Saddam Hussein, for its weapons-usable uranium. As a depository of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, however, Russia has a commitment “not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear-weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, or control over such weapons or explosive devices.” The Foreign Ministry arguments were echoed by the representatives of the defense and atomic energy ministries.

In the end, the Duma rejected the LDPR initiative to withdraw from the HEU-LEU agreement.


In its implementation, the HEU-LEU agreement has become an effective instrument of irreversible nuclear disarmament. Its historic significance becomes clear when one realizes that for the first time, the two nuclear weapons superpowers turned a part of a nuclear weapons arsenal into something the countries really needed: electric power for Americans and money for Russia. The two countries mutually benefited from the deal in terms of increased security, thanks to the reduction of their nuclear material stockpiles.

The economic importance of the HEU-LEU deal for the United States can be illustrated by the following figures: For almost 20 years, LEU supplies under the agreement have accounted for about 50 percent of the nuclear fuel consumed by U.S. nuclear power plants. About 10 percent of U.S. electricity is generated from enriched uranium supplied under the HEU-LEU program.

According to a preliminary assessment, the overall revenue the HEU-LEU deal has generated for Russia could be as high as $17 billion, with about $13 billion in hard currency going directly to the treasury.[8] The revenue generated by the program, especially in the 1990s, made a substantial contribution not only to the Russian nuclear industry’s bottom line, but to the Russian treasury as well. In 1999, a year after the 1998 financial crisis, proceeds from the HEU-LEU agreement made up almost 3 percent of the Russian federal government’s revenues.[9] The money was partly used to finance programs to improve safety at the Russian nuclear power plants, convert defense industry plants to peaceful uses, and clean up contaminated areas after nuclear activities in previous years, mostly in the area of the Ural Mountains.

The implementation of the HEU-LEU agreement has created a favorable climate for the United States to adopt a reciprocal decision to down-blend some of the U.S. HEU stockpile on a voluntary basis, thereby making its use in weapons impossible.

The agreement has been a useful platform to demonstrate the possibility of using commercial approaches in the implementation of disarmament initiatives. It has also enabled the Russian and U.S. nuclear industries to gain useful experience in working together to facilitate further cooperation in commercial uranium-enrichment services.

Nuclear disarmament by the two oldest and largest nuclear powers is still a challenge and needs to be accelerated before control over nonproliferation is lost and many nuclear newcomer countries become involved in a new spiral of the nuclear weapons race. Only cooperation and joint projects will be able to stop such a negative development.

The HEU-LEU deal can provide useful lessons in that regard. It proves that countries’ differences, no matter how great, can be overcome if political interest is accompanied by economic benefit. Policymakers need to look for projects that combine those features. Finding such projects and implementing the experience gained in the HEU-LEU deal becomes a more urgent task every day.



Alexander Pavlov is an adviser to the senior vice president of TVEL, a nuclear fuel company, and a member of the editorial board of The Nuclear Club, the journal of the Center for Energy and Security Studies in Moscow. He was deputy director of the Department of International Cooperation of the Soviet/Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy from 1983 to 1993. Vladimir Rybachenkov is senior research scientist at the Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environment in Moscow. He was a counselor at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for Security and Disarmament Affairs from 1994 to 2003 and a counselor at the Russian Embassy in Washington from 2004 to 2010. The article is based on an article by the authors published in the May 2013 edition of The Nuclear Club.




1. Agreement Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Russian Federation Concerning the Disposition of Highly Enriched Uranium Extracted from Nuclear Weapons, n.d., http://partnershipforglobalsecurity-archive.org/Documents/021893_agreement.pdf.

2. In this article, all tonnages are in metric tons.

3. Thomas L. Neff, “A Grand Uranium Bargain,” The New York Times, October 24, 1991.

4. “U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces, End of 1994,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 1995, pp. 69-71.

5. The standards organization formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials is now known as ASTM International.

6. Because these figures are classified in Russia, no official data are available. Foreign scholars estimate that the Soviet Union had accumulated about 1,200 tons of weapons-usable uranium. For a recent estimate, see International Panel on Fissile Materials, Global Fissile Material Report 2011: Nuclear Weapon and Fissile Material Stockpiles and Production, 2011, p. 9, http://fissilematerials.org/library/2012/01/global_fissile_material_report_5.html.

7. Ibid., p. 8.

8. Techsnabexport, “2011 Annual Report: Fulfilling Obligations Under the HEU-LEU Agreement,” n.d., http://ar2011.tenex.ru/results/operational_results/performance_obligations (in Russian).

9. Gennady Leonov and Albert Shishkin, Techsnabexport: Years and People (Moscow: Reform Publishing House, 2009), p. 80 (in Russian).

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JFK’s American University Speech Echoes Through Time

The impact of President John F. Kennedy’s June 1963 “Strategy of Peace” speech at American University can be seen in the events of the years that followed and in the language that Kennedy’s successors used in speaking about nuclear weapons policy.

For a free sample of a feature article as our print and electronic subscribers receive it, check out this month's Looking Back: JFK's American University Speech Echoes Through Time by Daryl G. Kimball.

Daryl G. Kimball

In the modern age, U.S. presidents have delivered dozens of addresses on international peace and security, but few have been as profound or consequential as John F. Kennedy’s “Strategy of Peace” address delivered 50 years ago on June 10 on the campus of American University in Washington.

Coming just months after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis drove home the risks of an unbridled nuclear arms race and the dangers of a direct superpower conflict, the speech was intended to send an unambiguous signal to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that the United States sought to “avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating defeat or nuclear war,” as Kennedy phrased it in the speech.

During and after the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev exchanged letters expressing the need to “step back from the danger,” as Kennedy put it, by making progress on arms control. In a letter to Kennedy on October 28, 1962, as the crisis came to a close, Khrushchev wrote, “We should like to continue the exchange of views on the prohibition of atomic and thermonuclear weapons, on general disarmament and other problems relating to the relaxation of international tension.”[1]

Kennedy, writing back the same day, said that “perhaps now…we can make some real progress in this vital field. I think we should give priority to questions relating to the proliferation of nuclear weapons…and to the great effort for a nuclear test ban.”[2]

Kennedy’s June 10 address was courageous because it was conciliatory at a time of high tension and grave risks. It was prepared with his assistant Ted Sorenson, without the usual interagency review process. Using simple, eloquent phrases, Kennedy praised the Soviet people for their achievements and explained the urgent necessity of pursuing a strategy for peace to avoid the horrific dangers of nuclear war, including renewed steps on nuclear arms control and a hotline for urgent communications between Moscow and Washington. The speech offered a vision of hope and cautioned against defeatism.

At its core, the speech offered a revised formula for achieving progress on restricting nuclear weapons testing, a goal that had eluded President Dwight Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Khrushchev for more than six years. Kennedy viewed the nuclear test ban treaty—ideally a comprehensive ban—as an essential first step toward U.S.-Soviet disarmament and a barrier against the spread of nuclear weapons. In a March 21, 1963, interview, Kennedy said, “[P]ersonally I am haunted by the feeling that by 1970, unless we are successful, there may be 10 nuclear powers instead of 4, and by 1975, 15 or 20.”[3]

Despite renewed efforts to negotiate a test ban in early 1963 and conciliatory offers from each side, U.S. and Soviet negotiators remained divided over the issue of on-site inspections and verification. On June 10, Kennedy sought to break the impasse with a strategy for unilateral but reciprocated initiatives. He announced that the United States “does not propose to conduct nuclear tests in the atmosphere so long as other states do not do so,” and he suggested that this declaration could be codified through a binding treaty.

The historical and documentary record suggests that Kennedy’s June 10 address had a profound effect on Khrushchev’s thinking on the test ban issue and about Kennedy. Kennedy’s address was published in full by the Soviet newspapers Izvestia and Pravda and welcomed by Khrushchev himself. In a statement in July 1963, the Soviet leader, who had previously insisted on a comprehensive ban, accepted for the first time a ban on atmospheric testing, which did not require on-site inspections or monitoring stations.

Two weeks later, the U.S. negotiating team, led by veteran diplomat Averell Harriman, went to Moscow for talks on the limited test ban and, if possible, the long-sought comprehensive test ban. With growing resistance to the test ban concept from the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and from key senators, as well as the insistence of the Soviets on a less frequent inspection system for a comprehensive ban, the negotiators focused on achieving the limited test ban treaty.

Late on July 25, after just 12 days of talks, the negotiators concluded work on the Limited Test Ban Treaty. With a strong, public push from Kennedy, the U.S. Senate gave its advice and consent for ratification on September 24 by a vote of 80-19.

Kennedy’s June 10 speech not only catalyzed action on this treaty, but also led to the formalization of an agreement on establishing a hotline. It ushered in a limited easing of tensions between the superpowers involving reciprocal troop reductions in Europe, U.S. grain sales to the Soviets, mutual British-Soviet-U.S. pledges to reduce production of fissile material for weapons, energetic U.S.- and Soviet-led diplomacy in Geneva from 1964 to 1968 toward conclusion of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and an agreement in 1968 to hold discussions “on the limitation and the reduction of both offensive strategic nuclear weapons delivery systems and systems of defense against ballistic missiles.”[4]

Since June 1963, every U.S. president—Democrat or Republican—has echoed some of the key themes of Kennedy’s “Strategy of Peace” address in his own policies and statements. Kennedy’s successors have continued to pursue many of the disarmament goals outlined during his administration. As the excerpts below indicate, these presidents have recognized to varying degrees the futility of nuclear war, the need to curb proliferation of nuclear weapons to additional states and subnational groups, and the importance of pursuing arms control measures to reduce the risks of nuclear weapons and increase global security. President Barack Obama’s 2009 address in Prague outlining the steps toward the “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” addresses all of these key themes.

The real test for Obama and U.S. leaders yet to come is whether they can match the conviction and the urgency with which Kennedy sought to resolve the nuclear standoff in his 1963 address and in his bold leadership in the final months of his presidency as he sought global nuclear restraint.

Excerpts from Kennedy’s “Strategy of Peace” Address and Subsequent Presidential Remarks on Dealing With the Threat of Nuclear Weapons

The dangers of nuclear war and the arms race

“Today, should total war ever break out again—no matter how—our two countries would become the primary targets. It is an ironic but accurate fact that the two strongest powers are the two in the most danger of devastation. All we have built, all we have worked for, would be destroyed in the first 24 hours…. [W]e are both devoting massive sums of money to weapons that could be better devoted to combating ignorance, poverty, and disease. We are both caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle in which suspicion on one side breeds suspicion on the other, and new weapons beget counterweapons.”
—John F. Kennedy, American University, June 10, 1963

“The world is still engaged in a massive armaments race designed to ensure continuing equivalent strength among potential adversaries. We pledge perseverance and wisdom in our efforts to limit the world’s armaments to those necessary for each nation’s own domestic safety. And we will move this year a step toward [the] ultimate goal—the elimination of all nuclear weapons from this Earth. We urge all other people to join us, for success can mean life instead of death.”
—Jimmy Carter, inaugural address, January 20, 1977

“Today, the Cold War has disappeared but thousands of those weapons have not. In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up. More nations have acquired these weapons. Testing has continued. Black markets trade in nuclear secrets and materials. The technology to build a bomb has spread. Terrorists are determined to buy, build or steal one. Our efforts to contain these dangers are centered in a global non-proliferation regime, but as more people and nations break the rules, we could reach the point when the center cannot hold.”
—Barack Obama, Prague, April 5, 2009

Common interests in peace and security and avoiding nuclear war

“[B]oth the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race. Agreements to this end are in the interests of the Soviet Union as well as ours—and even the most hostile nations can be relied upon to accept and keep those treaty obligations, and only those treaty obligations, which are in their own interest.

So, let us not be blind to our differences—but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
—John F. Kennedy, American University, June 10, 1963

“We are committed to a pursuit of a more peaceful, stable, and cooperative world. While we are determined never to be bested in a test of strength, we will devote our strength to what is best. And in the nuclear era, there is no rational alternative to accords of mutual restraint between the United States and the Soviet Union, two nations, which have the power to destroy mankind.

A very stark reality has tempered America’s actions for decades and must now temper the actions of all nations. Prevention of full-scale warfare in the nuclear age has become everybody’s responsibility. Today’s regional conflict must not become tomorrow’s world disaster.”
—Gerald Ford, address to the UN General Assembly, September 18, 1974

“People of the Soviet Union, there is only one sane policy, for your country and mine, to preserve our civilization in this modern age: A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?”
—Ronald Reagan, State of the Union address, January 25, 1984

Averting conflict and engaging in talks with adversaries

“Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy—or of a collective death-wish for the world.

[I]ncreased understanding will require increased contact and communication. One step in this direction is the proposed arrangement for a direct line between Moscow and Washington, to avoid on each side the dangerous delays, misunderstandings, and misreadings of the other’s actions which might occur at a time of crisis.”
—John F. Kennedy, American University, June 10, 1963

“There are those who doubt whether true international cooperation is possible, given the inevitable differences among nations. And there are those who hear talk of a world without nuclear weapons and doubt whether it is worth setting a goal that seems impossible to achieve.

But make no mistake: we know where that road leads. When nations and peoples allow themselves to be defined by their differences, the gulf between them widens. When we fail to pursue peace, then it stays forever beyond our grasp. To denounce or shrug off a call for cooperation is an easy and cowardly thing. That is how wars begin. That is where human progress ends.”
—Barack Obama, Prague, April 5, 2009

The need for nuclear arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament

“We have also been talking in Geneva about the other first-step measures of arms control designed to limit the intensity of the arms race and to reduce the risks of accidental war. Our primary long-range interest in Geneva, however, is general and complete disarmament—designed to take place by stages, permitting parallel political developments to build the new institutions of peace, which would take the place of arms.…

The one major area of these negotiations where the end is in sight, yet where a fresh start is badly needed, is in a treaty to outlaw nuclear tests. The conclusion of such a treaty, so near and yet so far, would check the spiraling arms race in one of its most dangerous areas. It would place the nuclear powers in a position to deal more effectively with one of the greatest hazards which man faces in 1963, the further spread of nuclear arms. It would increase our security—it would decrease the prospects of war.”
—John F. Kennedy, American University, June 10, 1963

“After nearly a quarter century of danger and fear—reason and sanity have prevailed to reduce the danger and to greatly lessen the fear. Thus, all mankind is reassured.

As the moment is reassuring, so it is, even more, hopeful and heartening. For this treaty is evidence that amid the tensions, the strife, the struggle, and the sorrow of these years, men of many nations have not lost the way—or have not lost the will—toward peace. The conclusion of this treaty encourages the hope that other steps may be taken toward a peaceful world.

It is for these reasons—and in this perspective—that I have described this treaty as the most important international agreement since the beginning of the nuclear age.
It enhances the security of all nations by significantly reducing the danger of nuclear war among nations.”
—Lyndon Johnson, remarks on the signing of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, July 1, 1968

“The Governments of the United States and the Soviet Union…have agreed to concentrate this year on working out an agreement for the limitation of the deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems…[and] on certain measures with respect to the limitation of offensive strategic weapons.

If we succeed, this…may well be remembered as the beginning of a new era in which all nations will devote more of their energies and their resources not to the weapons of war, but to the works of peace.”
—Richard Nixon, announcement of an agreement in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, May 20, 1971

“There is only one way safely and legitimately to reduce the cost of national security, and that is to reduce the need for it. And this we’re trying to do in negotiations with the Soviet Union. We’re not just discussing limits on a further increase of nuclear weapons; we seek, instead, to reduce their number. We seek the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth.

Now, for decades, we and the Soviets have lived under the threat of mutual assured destruction—if either resorted to the use of nuclear weapons, the other could retaliate and destroy the one who had started it. Is there either logic or morality in believing that if one side threatens to kill tens of millions of our people our only recourse is to threaten killing tens of millions of theirs?”
—Ronald Reagan, second inaugural address, January 21, 1985

“In the area of security and arms control, we’ve stepped up patrol against the spread of weapons of mass destruction. The new [C]hemical [W]eapons [C]onvention will ban chemical weapons from the arsenals of all participating states. And once implemented, the agreements we’ve negotiated will ban new nuclear states on the territory of the former Soviet Union. And above all, we’ve sought to erase nuclear nightmares from the sleep of future generations.”
—George H.W. Bush, Texas A&M University, December 15, 1992

“I ask Congress to join me in pursuing an ambitious agenda to reduce the serious threat of weapons of mass destruction. This year, four decades after it was first proposed by President Eisenhower, a comprehensive nuclear test ban is within reach. By ending nuclear testing, we can help to prevent the development of new and more dangerous weapons and make it more difficult for non-nuclear states to build them.”
—Bill Clinton, State of the Union address, January 27, 1998

“There is a consensus among nations that proliferation cannot be tolerated. Yet this consensus means little unless it is translated into action. Every civilized nation has a stake in preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. These materials and technologies, and the people who traffic in them, cross many borders. To stop this trade, the nations of the world must be strong and determined. We must work together, we must act effectively.”
—George W. Bush, announcement of new measures to counter proliferation, February 11, 2004

“[A]s a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it….

So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. This goal will not be reached quickly—perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change.

…[T]he United States will take concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons. To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same.…

To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing, my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty….
And to cut off the building blocks needed for a bomb, the United States will seek a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons….

[T]ogether, we will strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a basis for cooperation.…

[W]e must ensure that terrorists never acquire a nuclear weapon.”
—Barack Obama, Prague, April 5, 2009


Daryl G. Kimball is executive director of the Arms Control Association.


1. Glenn Seaborg, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Test Ban (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1981), p. 176.

2. Ibid.

3. Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, “107 - The President’s News Conference,” The American Presidency Project, n.d., http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=9124 (transcript of President John Kennedy’s press conference on March 21, 1963).

4. Miller Center, “Remarks on Signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty,” n.d., http://millercenter.org/president/speeches/detail/4037 (remarks by President Lyndon Johnson on July 1, 1968).

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Book Review: Rethinking the Utility of Nuclear Weapons

In their respective books on the utility of nuclear weapons, Ward Wilson and Paul Bracken approach the issue from different perspectives, but they agree in seeing today’s policymakers as being constrained by shortages of nuclear knowledge and imagination, reviewer Douglas B. Shaw says.


Reviewed by Douglas B. Shaw

Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons
By Ward Wilson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, 208 pp.

The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics
By Paul Bracken
Times Books, 2012, 320 pp.

How are nuclear weapons useful today? The answer to that question has practical as well as theoretical importance. For example, it has played a major role in the Obama administration’s current effort to determine the appropriate size and composition of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The role of nuclear weapons in the 21st century, however, is not well understood; new knowledge and a new generation of experts are needed to meet this challenge. Ward Wilson and Paul Bracken help this cause with their new books, which probe some of the issues surrounding nuclear weapons from widely divergent perspectives.

In Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, Wilson critically analyzes what he characterizes as myths that lead to traditionally overblown assessments of the usefulness of those weapons. His book suggests that nuclear weapons do not win or prevent wars and that there are viable security alternatives to maintaining a nuclear arsenal.

The first piece of received wisdom that Wilson disputes is that “nuclear weapons shock and awe opponents.” Building on his earlier research and that of others,[1] Wilson questions the role of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in precipitating the Japanese surrender that ended World War II. Arguing, for example, that the atomic bombings were not of a shockingly different scale than the conventional bombings of other Japanese cities in 1945, he offers an alternative explanation in Japanese dismay over the Soviet declaration of war. He suggests that Japan and the United States, for different reasons, might have found the story of the atomic bomb’s decisive role to be a convenient post hoc rationalization for the surrender. Wilson’s arguments about Japanese actions in the final days of the war undermine the case that nuclear weapons are useful for shocking an enemy into surrender.

The issue of whether nuclear weapons shock and awe opponents sufficiently to cause their surrender is important, but also problematic. Any answer must account for the case of Japanese surrender in World War II, but counterfactual analysis does not offer the certainty necessary to change the way policymakers refer to and rely on this emotionally charged historical case. Wilson’s answer is not newly definitive, but he performs an important service by asking this difficult question in a public way.

The second argument in Wilson’s crosshairs is that the increase in explosive yield made possible through the development of fusion weapons, which he calls the “H-bomb quantum leap,” made nuclear weapons more useful. In observing that “the destructiveness of nuclear weapons today is not all that much greater than that of the bombs used to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he raises doubt about the value of explosive yield as a useful measure of the wider effectiveness of nuclear weapons and alludes to the strategic learning that led to a reduction in the average yield of U.S. nuclear weapons. This second finding, however, is indistinct from and does little to further support the first: that nuclear explosions—fission or fusion—do not win wars.

The third item on Wilson’s list of myths is that “nuclear deterrence works in a crisis.” Wilson effectively rebuts this argument by citing several cases in which an adversary’s nuclear weapons did not deter provocative action completely. For example, he observes that the prospect of nuclear attack failed to deter President John Kennedy from blockading Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis, although it moderated his response.

Next, Wilson argues against the notion that “nuclear weapons keep us safe,” specifically, that they contributed decisively to what historian John Lewis Gaddis termed “the long peace” among the great powers following World War II. Wilson critiques Gaddis’ explanation that nuclear weapons kept the peace as “proof by absence” and offers five alternative explanations for the span of more than 40 years without war between the nuclear superpowers.

His alternative explanations weaken the case that nuclear weapons were necessary to explain the long peace, but do not respond to the possibility that nuclear weapons might help explain the absence of war between the superpowers, avoiding a decisive confrontation with Gaddis’ argument. Since si vis pacem, para bellum (“if you wish peace, prepare for war”) has been received wisdom for millennia, another argument would be needed to overturn reliance on preparation for nuclear war to preserve peace among nuclear-armed states.

Wilson’s final target is the argument that “there is no alternative” to relying on nuclear weapons for security because they cannot be disinvented. He responds that obsolete technologies are not disinvented; they simply slide “into oblivion.” He misses an opportunity to invoke Vladimir Lenin’s incisive question, “Kto, kovo?” (“Who can do what to whom?”). If nuclear weapons do not win wars, they are useless as an ultimate guarantee of state security. If nuclear weapons do not reliably deter aggression in a crisis, they are dangerous to those who rely on them because the false sense of security they provide could embolden governments to take actions that risk triggering a crisis. If nuclear weapons do not keep the peace among great powers, they are useless for the great majority of humanity. Yet so far, nuclear weapons show almost no signs of sliding into oblivion. For example, the vocal advocacy of nuclear disarmament by former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) is based on the incompatibility of nuclear weapons with long-term security, even as it treats nuclear disarmament as “the mountaintop,” a goal toward which the path is unclear at this time. People and institutions sufficiently powerful to maintain nuclear weapons persist in believing these weapons are useful. How might they be convinced they are wrong?

Warning Shot

Wilson’s critique of the component assumptions underlying belief in the utility of nuclear weapons is interesting and sometimes compelling. He asks important questions, but his book is more of a warning shot than a broadside against the utility of nuclear weapons. He questions deterrence in surprising terms aimed at its assumptions, but does not attack those assumptions sufficiently to collapse them. Instead of identifying specific arguments to which he objects, Wilson attributes generalized statements to “proponents,” “common interpretations,” “people,” and “general perception.”

He refers to “realism” as if it were a monolithic approach with a singular and uncritical affection for nuclear deterrence. In international relations scholarship, realism is a diverse and nuanced research tradition that illuminates important topics, including how nuclear deterrence may contribute to strategic stability and the prevention of war. The insights realism offers may be impermanent or wrong, but one cannot overturn or build upon them without addressing their specifics. Wilson does not do that, perhaps because he felt that such an undertaking would have been beyond the scope of his book. Whatever the reason for the omission, this undertaking represents an important direction for future research that his book suggests.

Next steps to build on Wilson’s work include a systematic review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy to determine the assumptions decision-makers actually hold, the conditions under which they hold these assumptions, and the roles these assumptions play in nuclear weapons policy. Such research could limit the impact of Wilson’s five myths or reveal 50 more.

Wilson insightfully observes, “[T]he two key questions for nuclear weapons are: When are nuclear weapons the right tool for the job? And how likely are these circumstances to arise?” To these, I would add two more: How many nuclear weapons does the United States need to respond to the answers to the first two questions? How sure can the public be that policymakers know? These questions describe a research agenda that could dramatically improve on the rationale that nuclear weapons provide unique capabilities to respond to an uncertain future. Wilson contributes significantly to the discourse on global security by raising the questions in a way that should prompt debate beyond the world of arms control policymakers and academics.

Modernizing Nuclear Thinking

In the introduction to The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics, Bracken defines his undertaking as “assess[ing], with clear eyes, the new geopolitical dynamics wrought by the bomb’s emergence in what I call the second nuclear age.”

Bracken argues that although the global context of U.S. nuclear weapons policy has changed dramatically since the Cold War, the intellectual basis for this policy has stagnated and eroded. He argues that the legacy of strategic concepts and terms left over from the Cold War fails to comprehend contemporary challenges related to nuclear weapons policy and that wholesale failure to transmit knowledge about nuclear weapons to a new generation underscores this problem.

He makes a strong case for greater analytical focus on and rigor in the development of a framework of strategic concepts to address the full range of dangerous nuclear weapons issues: “More facts will be collected—about Iran’s centrifuges, Pakistan’s plutonium, and China’s missiles—but there will be little comprehension of what these facts mean. What is needed is a framework that offers more perspective and that uses strategic concepts to cut the job down to size. Yet such a framework is hard to devise. It is premature, yet at the same time overdue.”

Bracken observes that policymakers need more facts to inform a sound understanding of contemporary nuclear dangers but nonetheless must act on the basis of an incomplete understanding while waiting for patterns to be discernible among emerging facts in the 21st century.

Bracken cites a number of important changes in the context for nuclear weapons policy. He describes a world in which the number and arrangement of relevant players have changed, bipolar bloc discipline has disappeared, and several world regions now threaten nuclear escalation with their own weapons. He notes that states that have recently acquired nuclear weapons may have more-vulnerable nuclear forces or smaller conventional forces than the United States and the Soviet Union had and may have less time than those two countries did to learn how to maintain stability. An additional complicating factor, he says, is that terrorism can act as an accelerant to crises. Thus, strategic complexity has increased sharply.

These are sound observations, but Bracken’s analysis is clouded by his central characterization of a second nuclear age, as he allows that this second nuclear age is neither second nor an age. He defines it as “post-Cold War” in strategic character but overlapping with the Cold War in time.

He also focuses on the effects of nuclear weapons. According to Bracken, these weapons can kill a million people in a day; induce restraint in a crisis; level the potential consequences of conflict; reduce the cost of defense in terms of dollars, troops, and social strain; confer asymmetric advantage; and facilitate communication and bargaining. His analysis is a helpful exercise in understanding the utility of nuclear weapons, but it is incomplete in that he lumps physical effects together with political effects that are mediated through perception and political processes. He assigns tremendous political influence to nuclear weapons without specifying how nuclear weapons exert this influence. For example, he asserts that, without nuclear weapons, “no one would have taken [France] seriously,” a statement that is both factually wrong and argumentative.

Bracken’s summary of the significant political effects he attributes to nuclear weapons raises more questions than it answers. These questions could have significant policy implications, including the possibility that achieving these political effects in the 21st century may not require nuclear weapons.

Bracken’s book is provocative. Inflammatory word choices abound; for example, he dismisses the risk of accidental nuclear war as “nonsense.” He makes politically loaded assertions, including statements that two U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore, “now devote far more attention to environmental problems than to nuclear war” and that “the United States did everything it could to foster global antinuclear policies after the Cold War.”

Together with an equally relentless torrent of insights about regional instability and other contemporary dangers, this barrage of needless provocations seems designed to shock readers. The goal apparently is to stimulate policy innovation: “Arms control is in desperate need of fresh ideas…. Without new energy and new edginess, arms control’s downward spiral into irrelevance will continue. Arms control is too important to allow this to happen.”

The edgy tone makes Bracken’s book challenging and accessible to readers on both sides of the political spectrum. He challenges the arms control community by stating that, “[w]ithout greater intellectual content behind it, no amount of public marketing by interest groups or social network tweeting is going to sell [arms control] to a disengaged public or a deeply skeptical Congress.”

One topic Bracken raises is as familiar to disarmament activists as it is to war planners: “how catastrophes in the second nuclear age can be exploited to create a much more restricted global nuclear order, or even one that abolishes the bomb altogether.” Many nuclear experts have lamented that something significant will have to change before nuclear weapons receive wider political attention, but that something significant may be catastrophic. Bracken unflinchingly suggests that policymakers should plan for the sort of shocks that can be expected in the second nuclear age.

He challenges supposed orthodoxy by suggesting that some instances of proliferation may be worse than others. This view does not seem to give sufficient weight to the prospects of a proliferation cascade, erosion of already-weak institutional constraints, or other systemic effects. Yet, Bracken’s imaginative lens on proliferation dangers—imagining the day after a bad outcome before it happens—may help develop policy options to manage the dangers he identifies as well as those he does not address.

According to Bracken, “[A] wider conversation is needed,” and “[t]his isn’t something that can be done by a government agency.” He recalls how a prior generation of scholars and other experts “broke the government’s monopoly on the conversation about nuclear weapons [and] broadened it to allow a much wider national debate.” Although he spends a good deal of time on topics such as operational concerns and how militaries can execute only the operations they practice, he remains explicitly open to a wider discussion. He recalls “how the moral concerns over nuclear weapons drove one of the most remarkable technological transformations in military history” from large, city-busting nuclear weapons to smaller-yield, more-accurate weapons designed for counterforce attacks against an opponent’s nuclear forces. According to Bracken, the inclusion of diverse expert views of widely differing perspectives in the U.S. debate over nuclear weapons policy during the Cold War “lowered the risk of nuclear war.”

Points of Agreement

The two books make opposing arguments with surprisingly little contradiction. Bracken’s most shocking insight is that “the superpowers didn’t understand their own forces.” He reinforces this point in saying that “[n]o one fully understood [the U.S. nuclear force], how it would work, or how it could provoke dangerous responses in the enemy’s systems” during the Cold War.

Wilson is similarly shocking. He questions the proposition that nuclear explosives are weapons in the sense of tools suited to achieving military or political objectives. Put another way, he is not sure U.S. nuclear policymakers fully understand what nuclear weapons are and what they do. Both authors encourage prompt, inclusive, and vigorous efforts to better understand nuclear weapons and their role in world politics. In neatly summing up the differences between himself and a group that includes Bracken, Wilson emphasizes that “[w]hat is striking about the debate described above, however, is the extent to which it is not really about nuclear weapons. Both sides, at bottom, are talking about us, about human nature.”

Each author offers a powerfully imaginative perspective on nuclear weapons at a moment when nuclear imagination is in short supply. Bracken sees danger in failing to explore how nuclear weapons can be useful today. Wilson questions whether they ever were useful. Their arguments are most compelling where they overlap, in observing a gap in nuclear knowledge that constrains nuclear weapons policy choices for dealing with an uncertain future. They agree not only that a nuclear knowledge gap exists, but also that it should be treated by more-imaginative and -inclusive dialogue and analysis of nuclear weapons policy issues.

Both authors caricature supposed orthodoxies blinding humanity to catastrophic and changing nuclear dangers. Wilson decries nuclear “myths” left unexamined too long, arguing against a straw-man version of the realist tradition of international relations scholarship. Bracken disputes the capacity of the U.S. government to understand how nuclear weapons can be used to respond to contemporary security challenges, observing that the nuclear weapons policy experts of prior generations “have long since died off,” leaving a culture of “near total indifference” to nuclear issues. If Wilson approaches nuclear issues from the political “left” and Bracken approaches theses issues from the political “right,” they arrive in a common wilderness of analytical insufficiency with regard to nuclear weapons policy. They agree that governments and wider society need to build capacity to think critically and creatively about nuclear weapons in the 21st century.

Douglas B. Shaw is associate dean for planning, research, and external relations at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, where he also is assistant professor of international affairs.  During the Clinton administration, he served in the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the Department of Energy. He holds a Ph.D. in international relations from Georgetown University.


1. Ward Wilson, “The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence,” The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 15, No. 3 (November 2008): 421-439. For an example of previous research in this area, see Martin J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies, 3rd ed. (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).


Looking Back: Iraq: Disarmament Without Resolution

Ten years ago, the world was confronted by a country whose suspected nuclear weapons program was causing acute concern. The international community expended considerable time and effort on inducing Iraq to comply with UN-mandated measures designed to provide assurance that Baghdad was not developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Paul Kerr

Ten years ago, the world was confronted by a country whose suspected nuclear weapons program was causing acute concern. The international community expended considerable time and effort on inducing Iraq to comply with UN-mandated measures designed to provide assurance that Baghdad was not developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

During the summer of 2002, Iraq and the United Nations discussed possible terms for resuming inspections and monitoring of Iraqi weapons programs. On September 16, Iraq agreed to re-admit UN inspectors into the country and subsequently began discussions with the UN on practical inspection details. The United States and United Kingdom, however, pushed the UN Security Council to adopt a new resolution governing Iraq’s disarmament, arguing that the existing resolutions did not provide the inspectors with adequate authority. On November 8, the council adopted Resolution 1441, which required the Iraqi government to complete a series of disarmament requirements contained in previous council resolutions, the first of which was adopted in 1991 following the Persian Gulf War.

These events took place against a backdrop of indications from U.S. officials, including President George W. Bush, that Washington might use military force against Iraq to end what they portrayed as the threat posed by Baghdad’s nonconventional weapons.

Despite Baghdad’s subsequent cooperation with UN weapons inspectors, who found no evidence of ongoing prohibited weapons programs, the United States led an invasion of Iraq in March 2003 without council approval. The world subsequently learned that Baghdad had destroyed its nonconventional weapons and related programs following the 1991 war.

Thus, the UN disarmed Iraq, but did not prevent a war. A partial explanation for that result lies in three elements of the Security Council process: the erosion of international support for sanctions, the mismatch between the resolutions’ goals and mandates, and the circumvention of the council process by the United States and the United Kingdom. These factors warrant consideration by the international community as it continues to debate the proper course of action regarding nuclear programs of concern.


Following the 1991 war, the Security Council adopted a series of resolutions, beginning with Resolution 687, that required Iraq to declare its programs for nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, as well as missiles with ranges exceeding 150 kilometers, and to destroy the weapons and related materials under UN monitoring (see box, page 46). The resolutions also required Baghdad to accept an ongoing UN monitoring regime to prevent Iraqi reconstitution of its prohibited weapons programs.

The story of Iraq’s interference with the inspectors during the 1990s has been told in detail elsewhere.[1] In brief, Iraq interfered with the inspections by, for example, lying to UN inspectors about its WMD programs and destroying weapons and related materials without proper UN supervision. Baghdad decided to cooperate with inspectors in 1995, but never fulfilled all the requirements of the Security Council resolutions.

Iraq continued to exhibit inconsistent cooperation with the inspectors, whom the UN withdrew in December 1998 shortly before the United States and the United Kingdom conducted air strikes on suspected Iraqi weapons facilities. For several years afterward, the council struggled unsuccessfully to induce Baghdad to accept renewed weapons inspections. Iraq finally agreed to admit inspectors in response to Resolution 1441.

The November 2002 resolution gave Iraq “a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations” under relevant council resolutions. The resolution required Baghdad to give the inspectors, whom the resolution provided with enhanced authority, a “currently accurate, full, and complete declaration of all aspects” of the country’s WMD programs and to grant the inspectors “immediate, unimpeded, unconditional, and unrestricted access to any and all” locations and personnel.[2]

By mid-March 2003, the inspectors had not yet completed their task, and Iraq had not fully complied with the requirements of Resolution 1441. Yet, Baghdad had admitted UN inspectors and allowed them to operate freely, albeit after some initial resistance; provided them with information on its past WMD programs; and begun destroying its al Samoud-2 missiles. Moreover, the inspection leaders told the Security Council shortly before the invasion that they needed only a short time to complete their tasks. Nevertheless, on March 19, 2003, the United States led an invasion of Iraq.

Sanctions Fatigue

A September 2004 report from the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), the U.S.-led task force charged with coordinating the search for Iraqi nonconventional weapons, as well as a 2006 CIA report, makes clear that the combination of sanctions and inspections imposed by the Security Council beginning in 1990 and 1991, respectively, prevented Iraq from reconstituting its programs to develop such weapons.[3] “The compounding economic, military, and infrastructure damage caused by sanctions—not to mention their effect on internal opinion in Iraq—focused Saddam [Hussein] by the mid-90s on the need to lift sanctions before any thought of resuming WMD development could be entertained,” the ISG report said.

Until the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, however, Security Council and worldwide public support for the sanctions was eroding, partly because of concerns about the sanctions’ impact on Iraqi civilians. Moreover, some governments were circumventing council-imposed prohibitions on the sale of Iraqi oil, and Baghdad was importing weapons-related materials. Iraq was pursuing what the ISG report described as a strategy to “outlast the containment policy of the United States imposed through the UN sanctions.”[4]

Indeed, the Bush administration was sufficiently concerned that it, along with the United Kingdom, began a campaign in the spring of 2001 to persuade the Security Council to expand the range of goods that Iraq could import.[5] The erosion of sanctions contributed to some observers’ claims that the international community could not contain Hussein’s suspected weapons ambitions.

Ends-Means Mismatch

Iraq initially defied the disarmament requirements of Resolution 687. Shortly after the inspections began in 1991, Hussein chose to withhold information about the country’s WMD programs. Later that year, Iraq destroyed illicit weapons and related materials outside the inspectors’ presence in an effort to maintain the capacity to develop chemical and nuclear weapons in the future.[6] These unilateral destruction efforts were inconsistent with Resolution 687 and greatly complicated the council’s ability to determine that Iraq had actually destroyed the weapons.

In 1995, Iraq decided to “cease efforts” to retain nonconventional weapons and comply with the inspections, according to the 2006 CIA report.[7] After these 1995 efforts were met with “added UN scrutiny and mistrust,” however, Hussein’s regime believed that “inspections were politically motivated and would not lead to the end of sanctions,” said the CIA report, which added that Iraq viewed concerns about nonconventional weapons as a “pretense to bring about regime change.” Consequently, Baghdad turned to “illicit economic efforts to end its isolation, eliminate sanctions,” and protect civilian infrastructure that also could be used in illicit weapons production. These actions “increased suspicions that Iraq continued to hide” nonconventional weapons, according to the report.

These suspicions, coupled with Iraq’s failure to allow the inspectors to verify the destruction of its nonconventional weapons, Baghdad’s subsequent ejection of the inspectors, and its approximately four-year refusal to re-admit them, created an information vacuum that understandably was filled by suspicion. In some quarters, this suspicion evolved into firm convictions that Iraq still had active WMD programs in 2002.

The failure of the UN-formulated incentive structure—the end of sanctions in return for verified disarmament and follow-on monitoring—contributed to this outcome because Iraqi disarmament did not equate with Iraqi compliance and because the Security Council did not effectively adapt to Iraq’s partial compliance and the changed status of the country’s illicit weapons programs.[8]

Security Council Resolutions on Iraq

The following list summarizes the relevant UN Security Council resolutions adopted following the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Demanded that Iraq “unconditionally accept the destruction, removal, or rendering harmless” of its chemical and biological weapons, ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometers, and related components, research programs, and facilities. Required Iraq to refrain from acquiring or developing nuclear weapons or weapons-grade nuclear material.

Established the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) to verify that Iraq complied with these requirements and called for placing all weapons-grade nuclear material under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) control “for custody and removal” with UNSCOM assistance.

Required the UN secretary-general, with the cooperation of UNSCOM and the IAEA, to develop plans for the “future ongoing monitoring and verification of Iraq’s compliance” with the ban on nonconventional weapons and certain missiles.

Maintained the economic embargo against Iraq established by Resolution 661 in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Specified that the Security Council would lift the embargo when the council agreed that Iraq had met all its disarmament obligations.

Approved the plans for ongoing monitoring and verification developed by UNSCOM and the IAEA and submitted by the UN secretary-general to the Security Council, as required by Resolution 687.

Created a program allowing Iraq to sell up to $2 billion of oil every 180 days, a limit that the Security Council later removed. Authorized the United Nations to hold proceeds from these sales in an escrow account. Specified that the funds were reserved for buying supplies “essential” for civilian needs.

Authorized the creation of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) to replace UNSCOM and verify that Iraq had fulfilled its disarmament obligations under Resolution 687.

Allowed Iraq to import most civilian goods through a streamlined review process, although sanctions on military items remained in effect. Tasked UNMOVIC and the IAEA with reviewing proposed contracts with Iraq and sending any items on a new “goods review list,” which included items with potential military applications, to a UN committee for additional scrutiny. Items not on the list were to be approved promptly.


Circumventing the Security Council

The adoption of Resolution 1441 and Iraq’s subsequent decision to admit UN inspectors provided an opportunity to resolve reasonable concerns about Iraq’s suspected WMD programs. It now is known that Hussein ordered his military to comply with the inspections.[9] Indeed, as noted above, Iraq had mostly complied with the resolution’s provisions by the time of the U.S.-led invasion. Moreover, the inspection leaders reported to the Security Council in March 2003 that their teams had found no biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons in Iraq and that resolving the “remaining disarmament tasks” would take only “months.”[10] That month, some Security Council members, such as France, proposed measures for improving the inspections process in lieu of military action.

It has long been clear that the Bush administration planned to invade Iraq regardless of whether Baghdad complied with Resolution 1441’s disarmament requirements.[11] Indeed, Washington’s disdain for the Security Council process was evident before UN inspectors even entered Iraq.[12] For example, a White House spokesman claimed on November 18, 2002, that Iraq had violated the resolution by shooting at U.S. planes that were enforcing no-fly zones over Iraq.[13] Although the resolution prohibited Baghdad from taking “hostile acts” against any UN member state “taking action to uphold any [Security] Council resolution,” the zones had never been authorized by the council. Even the British government said the zones were not supported by the resolutions.[14]

Moreover, U.S. officials claimed, inaccurately, that U.S. intelligence contradicted the inspectors’ findings. For example, Secretary of State Colin Powell, citing unnamed intelligence sources, stated on March 5, 2003, before the invasion, that Iraq was evading UN inspections by moving banned chemical and biological materials. He dismissed Iraq’s destruction of its al Samoud missiles, asserting that Baghdad had ordered “the continued [covert] production” of such missiles. Notably, the United States withheld intelligence from the inspectors.[15]

Lastly, at least some Bush administration officials wished to overthrow Iraq’s government. The administration had a “menu of arguments” for invading Iraq, such as removing the regime in order to end the government’s human rights violations and to “score a geopolitical victory,” Richard Haass, the Department of State’s policy planning director at the time of the invasion, said during a television interview on September 5, 2003.[16] Iraqi compliance with Resolution 1441 presumably would not have satisfied these goals because Hussein would have remained in power.

Concluding Observations

The Security Council failed in its mission to eliminate Iraq’s illicit weapons programs peacefully. The resolutions did not convince Hussein’s government that it would be rewarded for compliance, and the sanctions were losing their ability to compel such compliance. In addition, the council did not adapt its compliance mechanism to the uncertainty created by Baghdad’s unilateral weapons destruction, which, although ill considered and illegal, did eliminate Iraq’s illicit weapons. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to believe that the Security Council could have devised a method for resolving this situation, had the United States and United Kingdom allowed the process to continue.

One lesson that can be drawn from the Iraq experience is that UN-mandated sanctions and inspections can effectively manage international concerns about illicit nonconventional weapons programs, but the durability and effectiveness of these tools depend on a variety of factors, including the support of council members, cooperation by the target country, and an incentive structure that properly aligns means and ends.

The Iraq experience also suggests that Security Council resolutions may have a better chance of succeeding if they can adapt to changed circumstances. Maintaining flexibility may be necessary in order to resolve satisfactorily whatever WMD issues may be of concern, especially if the target government has satisfied some or all of the resolution’s goals, even while failing to follow the mandated procedures.

As the international community continues to employ and refine sanctions and inspections to help address the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, it is worth noting that Iraq is the only other case in which the Security Council has placed sanctions on a country for reasons relating to proliferation of nonconventional weapons. One also could consider the major powers’ relationships with India and Pakistan following those governments’ 1998 nuclear tests. The Security Council responded to those tests by adopting Resolution 1172, which imposed no sanctions but required India and Pakistan to end their nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Although both governments have continued those programs, the United States and other governments have not imposed sanctions for more than a relatively brief period and overall have maintained and increased ties with them. Governments, such as those of Iran and North Korea, have surely considered all three of these cases. Perhaps they have learned that noncompliance, rather than its opposite, may yield favorable results.



Paul Kerr has been a nonproliferation analyst at the Congressional Research Service since 2007. He previously was a research analyst for five years at the Arms Control Association.




1. See, for example, “Iraq: A Chronology of UN Inspections,” Arms Control Today, October 2002.

2. UN Security Council, S/RES/1441, November 8, 2002.

3. Directorate of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, “Misreading Intentions: Iraq’s Reaction to Inspections Created Picture of Deception,” Iraq WMD Retrospective Series, January 5, 2006, http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/news/20120905/CIA-Iraq.pdf; Charles Duelfer “Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq’s WMD,” September 30, 2004, https://www.cia.gov/library/reports/general-reports-1/iraq_wmd_2004/index.html.

4. For an explanation of these events, see ibid. See also Alex Wagner, “UN Security Council Overhauls Iraqi Sanctions Regime,” Arms Control Today, June 2002.

5. These changes were codified in Security Council Resolution 1382, adopted in November 2001.

6. Duelfer, “Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI”; CIA, “Misreading Intentions.”

7. CIA, “Misreading Intentions.”

8. Security Council Resolution 1284, adopted in late 1999, may have further obscured the process. The resolution stated that, following Iraq’s compliance with “key remaining disarmament tasks,” the council would “suspend” sanctions for 120-day periods, renewable by the council. UN Security Council, S/RES/1284, December 17, 1999.

9. Iraqi military leaders “were instructed at a meeting in December 2002 to ‘cooperate completely’ with the inspectors, believing full cooperation was Iraq’s best hope for sanctions relief in the face of U.S. provocation.” Duelfer, “Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI.”

10. Hans Blix, “Oral Introduction of the 12th Quarterly Report of UNMOVIC,” March 7, 2003, http://www.un.org/Depts/unmovic/SC7asdelivered.htm; Mohamed ElBaradei, “The Status of Nuclear Inspections in Iraq: An Update,” March 7, 2003, http://www.un.org/News/dh/iraq/elbaradei-7mar03.pdf

11. For example, the British Secret Intelligence Service chief noted in July 2002 after meeting with U.S. officials in Washington that the Bush administration intended to overthrow Hussein based on the justification that the regime had illicit weapons programs and had supported terrorism. See Memorandum to David Manning from Matthew Rycroft, Iraq: Prime Minister’s Meeting, 23 July, July 23, 2002, http://downingstreetmemo.com/memotext.html

12. The inspectors arrived in Iraq on November 25, 2002.

13. Along with France and the United Kingdom, the United States established the no-fly zones over the northern and southern thirds of Iraq after the 1991 war.

14. Memorandum to Prime Minister Tony Blair from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, “Iraq: Legal Background,” March 8, 2002. http://downingstreetmemo.com/iraqlegalbacktext.html

15. The CIA acknowledged this in a letter to Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Letter from Stanley M. Moskowitz to Senator Carl Levin, January 20, 2004, http://www.fas.org/irp/congress/2004_cr/cia012004.pdf

16. See http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/1820.

Looking Back: Norman Cousins and the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963

The year 2013 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the first treaty to limit nuclear weapons testing. Observances of this anniversary undoubtedly and deservedly will focus on the roles of President John Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who pressed for and signed the accord. Yet, Norman Cousins, a private citizen, also played a critical role in bringing the treaty to fruition.

Lawrence S. Wittner

The year 2013 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the first treaty to limit nuclear weapons testing. Observances of this anniversary undoubtedly and deservedly will focus on the roles of President John Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who pressed for and signed the accord. Yet, Norman Cousins, a private citizen, also played a critical role in bringing the treaty to fruition.[1]

In late 1962, the world was reeling from the near-catastrophic Cuban missile crisis. The crisis, in October of that year, gave new impetus to efforts to ban nuclear testing, which had been a topic of international discussions since the early 1950s. On August 5, 1963, Kennedy and Khrushchev signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits nuclear tests in the atmosphere, under water, and in outer space. The treaty, which was the world’s first formal nuclear arms control agreement, entered into force on October 10, 1963.

Cousins and Disarmament

Cousins is perhaps most famous as the editor of The Saturday Review of Literature, later renamed Saturday Review, a major magazine of the arts and public affairs. He also became a leading advocate for world peace and nuclear disarmament.

Cousins was disturbed by the catastrophic destruction wrought by World War II, but it was the atomic bombing of Japan, in August 1945, that transformed his life. Immediately after learning of the annihilation of Hiroshima, he sat down and wrote a lengthy editorial, soon published as a book, entitled “Modern Man Is Obsolete.” In it, he argued that given the advent of nuclear weapons, human survival could be secured only through the creation of world government.

Much of his early anti-nuclear work focused on aiding the victims of the bombing of Hiroshima. One example was his initiation of the Hiroshima Maidens project, which brought 25 young Japanese women disfigured by the atomic bombing to New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital in 1955 for plastic and reconstructive surgery. Cousins and his wife legally adopted one of them.

In the mid-1950s, as the development of the hydrogen bomb led to growing controversy over nuclear weapons testing, Cousins began his efforts to end nuclear weapons explosions. During the 1956 U.S. presidential campaign, he helped convince former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate, to make the halting of nuclear testing a key issue in his campaign. Cousins also worked on the issue with medical missionary Albert Schweitzer and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, a leader in the Non-Aligned Movement’s campaign to bring the nuclear arms race under control.

Cousins’ best-known disarmament venture, however, emerged when he helped establish a major nuclear disarmament organization: the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. In 1957, the new organization, which became known as SANE, made its debut with an advertisement, written by Cousins, in The New York Times and other newspapers. The ad, calling for the immediate suspension of nuclear testing by all countries and signed by 48 prominent Americans, declared that stopping nuclear tests would halt radioactive contamination and provide “a place to begin on the larger question of armaments control.”[2] Comparable “ban the bomb” organizations sprang up around the world, assailing nuclear testing and demanding nuclear disarmament.

The Road to the Treaty

The growing public concern about nuclear testing that SANE and its brethren helped to generate was a key factor behind the U.S.-British-Soviet agreement on a nuclear testing moratorium that began in October 1958. The moratorium collapsed at the end of August 1961, when the Soviet Union, followed quickly by the United States and the United Kingdom, resumed testing, and the three nuclear powers continued their efforts to negotiate a test ban treaty without much success. As a result, testing continued to inspire intense public controversy, with SANE and its co-chair Cousins playing a leading role.

In this context, Cousins stepped forward in an effort to break the great-power deadlock over a test ban treaty. Asked by Pope John XXIII to speak with Khrushchev in order to improve relations between the Vatican and the Kremlin, the SANE leader arranged to meet with Kennedy in November 1962 before his departure. During their discussion, Cousins inquired if the president wanted him to use the visit to transmit a peace and disarmament message to the Soviet premier. In response, Kennedy urged Cousins to convince Khrushchev that his administration sought peaceful relations with the Soviet Union and that a test ban treaty would provide an important route toward this goal.

Accordingly, Cousins met alone with Khrushchev that December for an intense exchange that lasted more than three hours. Khrushchev expressed his desire to meet Kennedy “more than halfway” in the quest for peace, adding that they should move “right away…to conclude a treaty outlawing testing of nuclear weapons.”[3] Five days later, Khrushchev dispatched a lengthy letter to Kennedy devoted entirely to the test ban issue, with proposals that left Kennedy exhilarated. This was the first direct communication between the Soviet and U.S. leaders since the Cuban missile crisis, two months earlier.

Despite this promising start, U.S.-Soviet test ban negotiations became bogged down in early 1963 in a sharp dispute over the number of on-site inspections. Khrushchev, under the impression that the Kennedy administration was willing to accept two to four inspections per year to monitor a test ban treaty, had gone to the rest of the Soviet leadership and secured agreement to two to three inspections. Then, when Kennedy responded by demanding a higher number, the Soviet leader felt betrayed and angered.

U.S. government officials, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, once more turned to Cousins and emphasized his importance as an intermediary with Khrushchev. On March 12, Kennedy held an 80-minute private meeting with Cousins at the White House, in which he urged the SANE leader to meet again with Khrushchev and stress that the U.S. government genuinely wanted a test ban treaty. Following up, Kennedy telephoned Cousins the day before he left for his new mission to the Soviet Union and made the same point.

That April, conferring with Khrushchev at the Soviet leader’s country retreat, Cousins found him angry and suspicious of the U.S. government, especially over the issue of the number of inspections. Nevertheless, Cousins marshaled all his persuasive powers to restore the momentum for a test ban. Finally, at the end of their six-hour conversation, Khrushchev relented and stated that he accepted Kennedy’s explanation that the U.S.-Soviet dispute over inspections was “an honest misunderstanding.” He said, however, that “the next move” was up to Kennedy.[4]

Returning to the United States, Cousins met with Kennedy and pressed him to adopt “a breathtaking new approach toward the Russian people, calling for an end” to the Cold War.[5] In a follow-up message, he proposed “the most important single speech” of Kennedy’s presidency, a speech that would “create a whole new context for the pursuit of peace.”[6] Enthusiastic about the idea, Kennedy had Cousins discuss the speech with Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy’s special counsel and major speechwriter, who drew on a draft by Cousins and prepared it for delivery.

On June 10, 1963, speaking at American University in Washington, Kennedy focused on what he called “the most important topic on earth: world peace.” In the nuclear age, he said, “total war makes no sense” and peace had become imperative. “A fresh start,” he argued, should be made on “a treaty to outlaw nuclear tests.” He reported that he had ordered a halt to U.S. atmospheric testing and had arranged for the beginning of high-level treaty negotiations in Moscow. “Confident and unafraid,” Kennedy concluded, “we labor on—not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace.”[7]

That speech proved the catalyst. On July 25, 1963, the negotiators in Moscow signed an agreement for a ban on atmospheric nuclear testing: the Limited Test Ban Treaty.

In the United States, Kennedy publicly lauded the treaty for ending “the atmospheric tests which have so alarmed mankind”[8] and formed a Citizens Committee for a Nuclear Test Ban, masterminded by Cousins, to promote its approval by the U.S. Senate. In this capacity, Cousins met with congressional leaders, White House officials, and Kennedy to plan and direct the public campaign for ratification. Much of Cousins’ work along these lines took place behind the scenes, although he did debate administration nemesis Edward Teller several times on television. Thanks to the Citizens Committee’s efforts, to administration lobbying, and to the breadth and depth of anti-nuclear sentiment in the United States, the Senate approved the treaty on September 24, 1963, by a vote of 80-19.

Although Kennedy and Khrushchev certainly deserve considerable credit for their willingness to back the treaty, the remarkable role of Cousins in fostering it should not be forgotten. He had helped to launch the crucial worldwide movement, mobilizing prominent individuals such as Stevenson, Schweitzer, and Nehru; creating and encouraging organizations such as SANE;[9] and arousing worldwide public opposition to nuclear tests. Furthermore, he became a key figure in the diplomatic maneuvering that led directly to the U.S.-Soviet agreement on an atmospheric nuclear test ban.

Helping to Make History

Glenn Seaborg, who chaired the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission from 1961 to 1971 and played an important part in the administration’s test ban discussions, recalled that Cousins’ April 1963 meeting with Khrushchev “helped to make history.”[10] So too did Cousins’ instigation of the American University address. According to Kennedy White House aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “[L]eft to itself, the Department of State would not…ever have proposed an American University speech.”[11]

Kennedy certainly recognized Cousins’ importance in the long and successful effort to secure a nuclear test ban. Not only did the president call on Cousins for extraordinary tasks―things usually left to seasoned diplomats―but, as a further sign of his gratitude, eventually presented Cousins with one of the original signed copies of the treaty.

Cousins’ importance in securing this treaty should serve as a reminder that although diplomats are crucial to the negotiation of treaties, citizen activism also can play a significant role in initiating them and bringing them to fruition. Admittedly, Cousins was a very influential individual, with access to the mass media and to top government leaders. Nevertheless, his influence was magnified by the role he played as a respected leader of a social movement, in this case, the burgeoning nuclear disarmament movement.

Cousins hoped to end nuclear weapons testing and thereby not only reduce nuclear fallout, but also begin the process of disarmament and the creation of a more peaceful world. The Limited Test Ban Treaty, however, allowed testing to continue underground. It was not until the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996 that most countries around the globe agreed to end nuclear testing entirely. The United States has signed the CTBT but not ratified it, as the U.S. Senate rejected ratification of the treaty in 1999.

That treaty, a part of President Barack Obama’s arms control and disarmament agenda, might well be brought back to the Senate for another try during Obama’s second term. If it secures Senate approval, that would surely be an appropriate follow-up to the determined efforts of Norman Cousins and all the other individuals, within government and elsewhere, who worked for a safer, saner world.

Lawrence S. Wittner, a professor emeritus of history at the State University of New York at Albany, is author of a three-volume history of the international disarmament movement. His latest book is Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual (2012).


1. This article is adapted from material that appears in three of the author’s books. See One World or None: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement to 1953 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993); Resisting the Bomb: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1954-1970 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997); Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009).

2. “We Are Facing a Danger Unlike Any Danger That Has Ever Existed,” The New York Times, November 15, 1957.

3. Norman Cousins, The Improbable Triumvirate: John F. Kennedy, Pope John, Nikita Khrushchev (New York: W.W. Norton, 1972), pp. 53-54.

4. Ibid., p. 101.

5. Ibid., p. 116.

6. Cousins to Kennedy, April 30, 1963, “Nuclear Test Ban” Folder, Box 36, Theodore Sorensen papers, John F. Kennedy Library, Boston.

7. “Commencement Address at American University in Washington, June 10, 1963,” Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1963 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office [GPO], 1964), pp. 460-464.

8. “Radio and Television Address to the American People on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, July 26, 1963,” Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1963 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1964), p. 602.

9. SANE merged with the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign in 1987 to form Peace Action.

10. Glenn T. Seaborg, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Test Ban (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1981), p. 207.

11. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), p. 909.

Reconsidering the Perilous Cuban Missile Crisis 50 Years Later

Fifty years ago during the Cuban missile crisis, the Soviet Union and the United States came dangerously close to war. It could have escalated too easily into an all-out nuclear exchange.

Barton J. Bernstein

Last month I said we weren’t going to [allow Soviet missiles and nuclear weapons in Cuba]. Last month I should have said we don’t care. But when we said we’re not going to, and they [the Soviets] go ahead and do it, and then we do nothing, then I think our risks increase.

— President John Kennedy, in the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, October 16, 1962[1]

Fifty years ago during the Cuban missile crisis, the Soviet Union and the United States came dangerously close to war. It could have escalated too easily into an all-out nuclear exchange.

In October 1962, the United States had about 27,000 nuclear weapons, and the Soviets had about 3,000. In a first salvo of a nuclear exchange with its intercontinental adversary, the United States could have launched about 3,000 nuclear weapons and the Soviets about 250.[2] The total megatonnage in that initial exchange would probably have been approximately 50,000 to 100,000 times greater than that of the Hiroshima bomb. Such use of nuclear weapons in 1962 would have imperiled not only the Soviet and U.S. peoples, but much if not all of humankind.

In seeking to determine policy in October 1962, President John Kennedy met in secret from October 16 to 22 with his chosen high-level advisers in the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or ExComm.

To the world, the week of the Cuban missile crisis began publicly on October 22, with Kennedy’s dramatic TV and radio announcement of what he termed Soviet “offensive” missiles in Cuba. He declared that the weapons must be withdrawn and that he was establishing a naval quarantine.[3]

To do nothing in the face of the Soviet act would be unacceptable, he indicated. The implication of Kennedy’s October 22 speech and various other U.S. government statements was that the Soviet deployment in Cuba was overturning the strategic nuclear balance and that unless the Soviet missiles in Cuba were removed, they would place the United States in imminent military peril.

Kennedy also implied that first trying secret diplomacy would have been inadequate and that a public confrontation, the quarantine, was both essential and prudent. Left unspoken in public by Kennedy on October 22 and throughout the week by the U.S. government was what would happen if the Soviets militarily challenged the U.S. quarantine or if they did not soon agree to withdraw their missiles from Cuba. The odds of war seemed quite high.

The near-deadly week of dramatic public confrontation, with the U.S.-imposed quarantine and the dangers of a shoot-out at sea or far worse, seemed to end when the Soviets backed down on October 28. They publicly promised to withdraw their missiles from Cuba, and the United States seemed to promise not to invade Cuba in the future. In fact, the crisis continued, although behind the scenes and in greatly reduced form, for some weeks in the fall of 1962 while the two great powers argued about the removal of Soviet bombers from Cuba and whether there would be on-site inspection of the removal of the Soviet missiles.[4]

The missile crisis raises many important and often interrelated questions that are considered in this article. How did the public understand the crisis at the time, and how did memoirist-historians and others present it for a number of years afterward? What of significance was covered up or not addressed in those published treatments? In particular, what were the limitations and failures of U.S. decision-making during the crisis, and how should newer evidence and interpretations influence assessments of the crisis?

How close did the crisis come to going out of control and spiraling into war? What are the implications of such near-disasters for managing crises and for high-level decision-making, especially when involving nuclear weapons? What role did ethical thinking play in the high-level decision-making?

The ‘Finest Hour’ Interpretations

In the fall of 1962 and for about a quarter-century afterward, Kennedy’s handling of the missile crisis was viewed as his finest hour. By the official and quasi-official U.S. versions of events, which generally dominated popular and scholarly understanding into the mid-1980s, Kennedy had been skillfully tough and resolute and therefore eminently successful. He had, through shrewd intelligence and careful planning, avoided war while compelling Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to back down.

Kennedy, in that popular version, had on October 27 resisted the Soviet Union’s public demand for a trade of the 15 U.S. intermediate-range Jupiter missiles in Turkey in return for Soviet removal of its missiles from Cuba. Kennedy had maintained the NATO alliance, defended the U.S.-led system of collective security, and showed that victory could be won without yielding to Communist demands. It was a story of American pluck and skill, of U.S. strength and power, and of wise presidential leadership in managing a crisis.

Such general contentions were promoted in the memoirs-cum-histories by Kennedy aides Theodore Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in their heralded, mid-1960s volumes on the Kennedy administration.[5] Their uncritical analyses of the missile crisis were further advanced in the late 1960s by Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days on that dangerous period. (President Kennedy’s brother, Robert, who was attorney general at the time of the crisis, was a member of the ExComm.)

The truly great triumph of the pro-Kennedy memoirists was the celebration of U.S. and Kennedy success and the creation of often false history that sometimes involved knowing deception on crucially important matters in the Cuban missile crisis.

Uncovering a Different History

As key documents and the tapes of the ExComm meetings were slowly declassified and other new information became available, the narrative and interpretation advanced by the ardently pro-Kennedy literature on the crisis were punctured decisively. Declassified documents revealed that, on October 16, building on earlier small attacks (Operation Mongoose), President Kennedy and his brother Robert had wanted new sabotage expeditions against Cuba, apparently without realizing that such quasi-military activities could have led the Soviets and Cubans to believe that a U.S. attack was beginning and to respond by unleashing military retaliation directly against the United States.[6]

The ExComm recordings, when declassified, also underscored that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had first interpreted the Soviet missile emplacement in Cuba as constituting a domestic political threat to the administration, not a significantly increased military threat to the United States. McNamara, national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, and President Kennedy had all agreed that the Soviet missiles did not realistically increase the military threat to the United States.[7]

At the time of the crisis, the United States assumed it had significant superiority over the Soviet Union in intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and other delivery systems capable of reaching its main adversary. The U.S. numbers included about 177 ICBMs versus what was believed, incorrectly, to be about 75 Soviet ICBMs. It turned out, according to Soviet information released much later, that the Soviets probably had only about 20 to 44 ICBMs. Thus, the U.S.-to-Soviet ratio of at least 4-to-1 and possibly more than twice that gave the United States a near-counterforce capability.[8]

In other words, a U.S. first strike could destroy a very high number of the Soviet land-based ICBMs and might, according to the then-recent public explanations of counterforce thinking, make any Soviet retaliatory strike unlikely. Such analysis, with the continuing large U.S. buildup in missiles under Kennedy, meant that the Soviets were dangerously behind and that the situation would worsen for them.[9]

In looking back on the missile crisis and in particular in focusing on the ExComm transcripts, analysts should be struck by the poor intellectual quality of the discussions at those high-level meetings. The dialogue was sometimes spastic and frequently desultory. Some of the most important issues were treated inadequately or virtually ignored.

One of the most important such issues was why, in the analysis of ExComm members, the Soviets had put the missiles in Cuba. That was possibly the crucial question. It was not pursued systematically; distressingly, it was treated in piecemeal ways. The general answers often converged, albeit loosely, on the idea that Khrushchev was seeking to gain valuable leverage in the ongoing Berlin problem, probably to challenge U.S. credibility and that possibly he hoped to weaken U.S. support in Latin America. Much of that could be cast as likely challenges to the United States’ and Kennedy’s “courage and commitments.”[10]

The analysis of a likely Berlin motive for Khrushchev was possibly correct,[11] although the evidence on that interpretation is still not adequate. Yet, other Soviet motives now generally recognized as important received little attention from Kennedy and the members of the ExComm in October 1962.

Aside from a few passing comments, mostly by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and CIA director John McCone,[12] no one in the ExComm focused on the fact that the Soviets were far behind in the strategic arms race and might well be acting, in part, to narrow that gap or to stop it from getting worse. Excluding that motive undoubtedly helped greatly narrow the range of options that U.S. decision-makers considered during the crisis.

Significantly, no ExComm member suggested that Khrushchev and the Soviets might have been acting, at least in part, to defend Cuba from a feared U.S.-sponsored attack.[13] Yet in a well-publicized statement of September 11, 1962, the Soviets emphasized their commitment to defending Fidel Castro’s regime against a U.S. attack and seemed genuinely to fear that the United States (after the 1961 Bay of Pigs venture) might sponsor such an attack.[14] Moreover, as some ExComm members knew, the United States had carried out a series of secret CIA marauding attacks on Cuba in the preceding 12 months as part of Operation Mongoose and had developed secret plans for possible large-scale U.S. military attacks.

Surprisingly, aside from a few, rather oblique passing comments, no one in the ExComm concluded that Khrushchev and the Soviets might have been responding to the very recent U.S. emplacement of Jupiter missiles in Turkey. At one juncture, Kennedy did briefly liken the Soviet emplacement in Cuba to a U.S. missile emplacement in Turkey, but he apparently had forgotten that the United States already had put missiles in Turkey. When he was told that the United States had done so, he seemed to lose interest in thinking about explaining the Soviet reaction as a response to the U.S. action in Turkey.[15] Yet, years later, Khrushchev was publicly and quite plausibly to claim exactly that.[16]

It still remains something of a puzzle that the ExComm almost completely ignored these multiple explanations of likely Soviet motives: protecting Cuba, narrowing the gap in strategic nuclear missiles, and responding to U.S. missiles in Turkey. There was a marked failure of intellect in the ExComm, as well as a marked failure to seek, even briefly, to view the international situation from an adversary’s perspective.

Such failures, as McNamara pointed out in later years, suggest the need to learn an important lesson: seek to understand the adversary and how the situation looks to that country’s leadership. That may require a level of empathy and a reduction in self-righteousness.[17]

The various pro-Kennedy memoirs also concealed a crucial set of facts that significantly alters the narrative. On October 27, Kennedy made a deal with the Soviets through his brother Robert under which the United States would yield to the Soviet demand for removal of U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey. One term of the deal, however, was that the deal had to remain secret. Only about half of Kennedy’s top U.S. advisers knew of that agreement.[18]

The deal was kept secret for about 25 years, and thus most of the attentive world did not know that Kennedy, despite the many claims about his steady toughness, had actually “softened” to make a deal in order to achieve a U.S.-Soviet settlement. Even Lyndon Johnson, who, as Kennedy’s vice president, succeeded him as president after his assassination in 1963, was not aware of the deal.

As president, Johnson often was driven by his sense of rivalry with his dead predecessor. One must wonder whether Johnson, in his lengthy quest for victory in Vietnam, would have clung so resolutely to a policy of toughness in that conflict if he had known that the key claim of Kennedy’s finest hour was factually false. If Johnson had known that, might he have been more flexible in Vietnam and have conducted meaningful negotiations to end that costly war?[19]

Managing a Crisis?

Another issue, probably separate from the problems of generally not understanding Soviet motivation, was failing to anticipate the profound difficulties of managing a crisis and of avoiding potentially catastrophic errors. In discussing U.S. responses to the Soviet missiles in Cuba, no one in the ExComm dwelled on the likelihood of catastrophic error and thus on the need to take that issue into account.

In the ExComm’s planning and analysis, there was usually a heady and profoundly unrealistic sense that the crisis could be well managed: Serious mistakes would not occur, organizations would not make dangerous errors, and crucial orders would not be misunderstood or violated.

The group generally ignored basic and seemingly obvious problems, such as if someone in the U.S. system launched nuclear missiles through error or anti-Soviet anger or if someone in the Soviet system did that.

In elaborate chains of command with various people operating at different levels and often acting amid anxiety and fatigue in a crisis in making crucial decisions, various mistakes—serious mistakes—are virtually inevitable. Signals will be misinterpreted, actions will not be properly calibrated, situations will be misunderstood, necessary revisions of procedures will not be made, and excessive risks will be taken. These problems may be compounded, adding to the danger that what is desired at the upper levels of government may easily unravel and come undone elsewhere in complicated systems and organizations.[20]

Political scientist Scott Sagan and journalist Michael Dobbs have done important work in documenting this phenomenon for the missile-crisis period. Among what seem to have been unusually dangerous errors in the crisis were the following: a high-level U.S. military alert (DEFCON-2) given in the open communications system, possibly presaging to a wary Soviet Union a likely U.S. first strike; a test launch in California of a U.S. ICBM that might have been interpreted by Soviet agents as the beginning of a U.S. first strike; a Soviet submarine captain in the Caribbean apparently coming close to using a nuclear torpedo against U.S. ships; and a U.S. U-2 reconnaissance plane straying into Soviet air space, with U.S. planes armed with nuclear weapons rushed aloft to help but fortunately no shoot-out in the air.[21] Any one of these acts could have escalated, and some might have quickly involved the use of nuclear weapons.

In none of these frightening U.S. cases was Kennedy or even one of his top associates actually in control. Similarly, in the Soviet case of the submarine captain, Khrushchev and other high-level Soviet officials were not truly in control.[22]

The many revelations, decades after the crisis, of near misses led McNamara to conclude that such crises cannot be managed and therefore must be avoided.[23]

Larger Questions

For a present-day reader of the ExComm minutes and related declassified materials, it still seems lamentable and not easily explicable that Kennedy and his advisers so easily rejected an initial attempt at secret diplomacy with the Soviets before moving to the dangerous option of a quarantine. The scattered evidence indicates that no one in the ExComm significantly pushed for trying secret diplomacy first, the quarantine emerged as the responsible alternative to invasion or attack, and there was a developing majority, not including the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a few others, on endorsing the quarantine route. Those dissenters wanted stronger military action without initial attempts at diplomacy.

Probably the most spirited argument along the lines of trying diplomacy first came in an October 18 letter of advice to Kennedy from Charles Bohlen, a former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union and recognized Soviet expert. Bohlen argued that diplomacy first was far safer. If it failed, the United States could still move to other routes to try to secure withdrawal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba.[24] In contrast, if the United States began with a public confrontation—a quarantine or even more—the result could be war.

Bohlen did not spell out the implications, but they were stark. What would happen if the war became nuclear? How could it be stopped? What would be left of the United States or other countries?

Such painful implications indirectly raise a related set of unstated issues dealing with ethical considerations. Did a U.S. leader have the moral right to choose a course that, quite plausibly, could have meant nuclear war, the deaths of many or all U.S. citizens, similar carnage in the Soviet Union and on much of the European continent, and perhaps the ending of all human life itself? In other words, what was the ethical obligation of the president and his advisers to humanity at large?

During the recorded ExComm deliberations and in the various declassified files of that time, no one in the upper reaches of government explicitly raised that profound question of ethical rights and responsibilities reaching beyond obligations to the United States itself and involving responsibilities to and the rights of other peoples elsewhere.[25]

On the 50th anniversary of that perilous crisis, it seems appropriate now to analyze and assess it. That involves, at least in part, focusing on the narrow U.S. decision-making, the rather quick U.S. elimination of the option of secret negotiations, and the exclusion in 1962 by both sides of large ethical questions reaching beyond the United States and Soviet Union to consider the obligations of those nation-state leaders to humankind



Barton J. Bernstein, a professor emeritus of history at Stanford University, has been writing and lecturing on the Cuban missile crisis since 1962. He wishes to acknowledge Alexander George, Martin Hellman, David Holloway, and Scott Sagan for their advice over the years and McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara for their participation in interviews.




1. Timothy Naftali and Philip Zelikow, eds., The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy; The Great Crises, Vol. 2 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), p. 443.

2. Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945-2010,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2010, p. 81; Raymond L. Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1989), p. 208; see also Norman Polmar and John D. Gresham, DEFCON-2: Standing on the Brink of Nuclear War During the Cuban Missile Crisis (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2006), p. 16.

3. Public Papers of the Presidents: John F. Kennedy, 1962 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO), 1963), pp. 806-809. This is the source for all references to Kennedy’s October 22, 1962, speech.

4. Barton J. Bernstein, “Kennedy and Ending the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Foreign Service Journal (July 1979); Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, pp. 110-114; Daniel G. Coleman, “The Missiles of November, December, January, February…: The Problem of Acceptable Risk in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Summer 2007): 5-48.

5. Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), pp. 667-718; Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), pp. 794-841.

6. Naftali and Zelikow, Presidential Recordings, p. 454; U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-63, Vol. 11 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1997), pp. 45-47.

7. Naftali and Zelikow, Presidential Recordings, pp. 440-441, 464.

8. Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, pp. 202-203, 206-207 (October 27, 1962, estimate on Soviet missile-launcher numbers and the figure of possibly 44 Soviet missile launchers, which was a much later U.S. intelligence estimate). Soviet Gen. Dmitri Volkogonov in 1989 stated that there were only “about twenty” Soviet ICBM launchers in October 1962. Most analysts seem to have accepted Volkogonov’s report, not the U.S. intelligence’s higher number of 44, and have assumed that the number of reported missile launchers indicated the number of Soviet ICBMs in October 1962. Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, Khrushchev’s Cold War: The Inside Story of an American Adversary (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), p. 440.

9. Fursenko and Naftali, Khrushchev’s Cold War, p. 430.

10. Naftali and Zelikow, Presidential Recordings; Sorensen memorandum, October 17, 1962, Sorensen Papers, John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, MA.

11. Fursenko and Naftali, Khrushchev’s Cold War, pp. 441-451, 457-460, 464, 492. Analysts should have serious doubts about ascribing a Berlin motive because the evidence on that issue seems weak.

12. Naftali and Zelikow, Presidential Recordings, p. 410.

13. On Operation Mongoose, see Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, pp. 6-10. On anti-Castro actions and plans, see Polmar and Gresham, DEFCON-2, pp. 48-50, 218-230.

14. David Larson, ed., “The Cuban Crisis” of 1962: Selected Documents and Chronology (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963), pp. 7-17.

15. Naftali and Zelikow, Presidential Recordings, p. 451.

16. Nikita Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers, trans. and ed. by Strobe Talbott (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970), pp. 492-494; Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes, trans. and ed. by Jerrold L. Schechter (Boston: Little, Brown, 1990), pp. 170-177; Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, pp. 10-11; for a different view, see Fursenko and Naftali, Khrushchev’s Cold War, p. 492.

17. Robert McNamara, telephone interviews with author, 1990-1992; Robert S. McNamara with Brian VanDeMark, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Times Books, 1995), pp. 322-323.

18. McGeorge Bundy, interviews with author, 1990-1992; Barton J. Bernstein, “Reconsidering the Missile Crisis: Dealing With the Problems of American Jupiters in Turkey,” in The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited, ed. James Nathan (New York: St Martin’s, 1992), pp. 94-96.

19. See Max Holland and Tara Marie Egan, “What Did LBJ Known About the Cuban Missile Crisis? And When Did He Know It?” October 19, 2007, http://hnn.us/node/43977.

20. These general notions are developed far more fully and with sophistication in other works. See Scott Sagan, The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995); Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living With High-Risk Technologies (New York: Basic Books, 1984).

21. Sagan, Limits of Safety, chs. 2-3, 5; Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War (New York: Knopf, 2008), pp. 48-49, 60, 95-98, 174-176, 237, 271-274; William Burr and Thomas S. Blanton, eds., “The Submarines of October: U.S. and Soviet Encounters During the Cuban Missile Crisis,” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book, No. 75 (October 31, 2002), and Alexander Mozgovoi, “The Cuban Samba of the Quartet of Foxtrots: Soviet Submarines in the Caribbean Crisis of 1962,” Military Parade, trans. Svetlana Savranskaya (2002).

22. Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight, pp. 237, 283-284, 296.

23. James G. Blight and David A. Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989), pp. 100-101.

24. Charles Bohlen, Witness to History, 1929-1969 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1973), pp. 491-492 (October 18, 1962, memorandum).

25. See Blight and Welch, On the Brink, pp. 182-183 (uncritically trusts officials’ highly dubious 1980s recollections on 1962 broad ethical concerns). For similar trusting use of highly dubious post-1962 materials on 1962 broad ethical thinking in the crisis, see Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight, p. 271 (relying on material found on pages 106 and 127 of Robert F. Kennedy’s book Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis). Because there are very substantial 1962 archival materials on the missile crisis period, including many ExComm recordings, and there is no 1962 evidence in any of these materials of such ethical thinking, analysts should not rely on much later claims by officials that such thinking occurred during the crisis. The essential evidence should be 1962 material, not later claims.

Osirak and Its Lessons for Iran Policy

As the international community seeks to stave off an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program, policymakers would do well to draw lessons from the first attack to destroy a nuclear facility, Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor on June 7, 1981. At the time, the attack drew near-universal condemnation, but it soon came to be seen as a milestone in nonproliferation, demonstrating that force could be a practical option to halt a suspected nuclear weapons program without harmful repercussions for the attacker.

By Bennett Ramberg

As the international community seeks to stave off an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program, policymakers would do well to draw lessons from the first attack to destroy a nuclear facility, Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor on June 7, 1981. At the time, the attack drew near-universal condemnation, but it soon came to be seen as a milestone in nonproliferation, demonstrating that force could be a practical option to halt a suspected nuclear weapons program without harmful repercussions for the attacker.

More recently, however, the pendulum has begun to swing back, as postmortems coupled with recent reporting of Iraqi archival material captured by the United States during the occupation of Iraq after the 2003 invasion tell a different story.[1] They reveal the Osirak reactor did not provide the foundation for a nuclear weapon but rather for an illusion that misled Iraq and Israel. The illusion prevailed because of the peculiar personalities of each country’s leader and because of misperceptions about Osirak’s bomb-making capacity.

Unwilling to gamble that deterrence could cope with a nuclear Iraq, Israel applied a multipronged strategy to halt the reactor’s construction—diplomacy, a media campaign, sabotage, and assassination. The failure of all these left two approaches—watchful waiting, preferred by some who did not see Osirak as an imminent threat, and military action, promoted by Prime Minister Menachem Begin. In the end, the force of Begin’s personality drove the cabinet’s decision to bomb Osirak. However, rather than putting a stake into the ambitions of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Israel’s strike stimulated Iraq to pursue a secret uranium-enrichment program dedicated to producing a nuclear weapon.

But for Hussein’s megalomania, Iraq might have had a nuclear weapon by the mid-1990s. Not satisfied with the eight-year war with Iran, which ended in 1988, Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and thus saved Israel from the challenge of destroying his weapons program. Iraq’s defeat at the hands of the U.S.-led coalition destroyed much of Hussein’s military establishment, but the bombing campaign, which was undertaken with incomplete knowledge of his hidden enrichment program, missed significant portions, leaving it to international inspectors to destroy the remainder and prevent rebuilding.[2]

The Osirak saga and legacy have much to teach present-day decision-makers about the need for solid intelligence and the limitations of diplomacy, public relations, sabotage, and assassination. If Israel and others resort to the use of force against Iran, they will find that unless Tehran agrees to the transparent elimination of its remaining suspect activities and eschews rebuilding, international inspectors must do the job. Failing that, concerned countries must prepare themselves to repeat their military action, perhaps multiple times, once they have chosen this course.

The Iraqi Nuclear Program

In 1976, Iraq signed a contract with France for the Osirak reactor, also known as Tammuz 1, a 70-megawatt “swimming pool” light-water reactor to be fueled with a 12-kilogram loading of uranium enriched to 93 percent uranium-235, and for the 500-kilowatt Tammuz 2 training reactor. A party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) when it entered into force in 1970, Baghdad bowed to Paris’ insistence that it accept Osirak in lieu of a heavy-water plant better suited to maximizing plutonium production. By placing the reactors under safeguards, Iraq agreed to regular inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), management of the reactor by French personnel through 1989, automatic cameras to record activity around the reactor core, and lead seals on fuel rods. France pledged to halt reactor operations by withholding new fuel if evidence pointed to reactor misuse.[3]

Yet in private meetings with aides in 1978-1981 and later, Hussein repeatedly declared the need to acquire nuclear weapons to confront Israel.[4] Osirak, however, was unlikely to produce the necessary feedstock. Thus, Hussein’s hopes of getting a nuclear weapon by the mid-1980s were either misinformed or delusional.

The reasons were simple. Diversion of spent fuel from the plant would have required a reactor shutdown appropriately timed to maximize plutonium-239 harvesting, then rearrangement of the core to mask fuel rod removal, reduction of reactor performance, and falsification of the operating records, all under the noses of French monitors and international inspectors.

An alternative, lifting the reactor’s reflector to insert uranium elements into the core or placing a uranium blanket around it to secretly breed weapons-grade plutonium in between IAEA inspections, was impractical. In a 1983 postattack analysis, the CIA concluded, “We strongly believe that building a blanket…would be difficult for Iraq to do without being detected by the IAEA or the French.”[5] Alternatively, Iraq could have pilfered its IAEA-monitored cache of highly enriched uranium fuel provided by France to make a nuclear weapon. As it turned out, Iraq tried that in the period prior to the start of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but failed.[6]

Hussein’s 1979 and 1980 arrests of two senior scientists, Hussain al Shahristani for his alleged connection with the outlawed Dawa party and then Jafar Dhia Jafar for complaining about the arrest, further complicated matters. Then Iraq’s war with Iran, prompting a September 1980 Iranian air strike on the nuclear complex where Osirak sat, drained Baghdad’s resources, threatening the Baathist regime’s survival.

Both acts exacerbated the problems of an already dysfunctional program. On the eve of the Israeli Osirak strike, Iraq’s nuclear program was in a state of “drift,” according to a Norwegian scholar who interviewed Jafar and other scientists after the 2003 U.S. occupation. The undertaking required larger facilities “not subject to external oversight and safeguards,” more consistent political direction, and basic organizational resources. “As a result, Iraq’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability was both directionless and disorganized.” [7]

Run-Up to the Strike

When Israel contemplated striking Iraq in 1980-1981, much of the information above remained opaque, was not understood, or was dismissed. Rather than a program adrift, Israel saw an emerging existential threat. Feeding that view were Iraq’s decades-long calls and actions to eliminate Israel. Just three years before Baghdad and Paris finalized the Osirak deal, Hussein had marshaled hundreds of tanks on Israel’s Syrian doorstep in the Yom Kippur War. After the war, Iraq supported and harbored Palestinian guerrillas. Next to Moammar Gaddafi’s Libya, Begin saw Iraq as “the most irresponsible” adversary Israel confronted.[8]

Israel knew the tricks of nuclear dissimulation, having relied on the tactic in building the Dimona weapons reactor. Begin and his colleagues plotted a series of steps to halt Osirak. Their first move was a genuine attempt at diplomacy, but they were prepared to abandon that approach if it proved to be a dead end. That turned out to be the case, as France was not swayed by repeated Israeli arguments to terminate the Osirak export.

The next step was to embarrass France publicly. Israel leaked information to the media that characterized Osirak as a nuclear weapons Pandora’s box. In time, Israel ominously warned, failed diplomacy could bring “other actions.”

As diplomacy stalled, Israel turned to sabotage and assassination. On April 6, 1979, in the French Mediterranean town of La Seyne-sur-Mer, explosions rocked the warehouse that housed the reactor core awaiting shipment to Iraq. Threats followed by bombings directed at offices of Italian and French companies providing laboratory equipment for the nuclear program also failed to hold back exports. The assassination of three scientists working on Osirak likewise did not stop the project.

By the fall of 1980, Begin had had enough. To avoid the possibility of a radiological release, he decided to attack Osirak before operations commenced. Yet, he still had to convince senior Israeli colleagues.

On October 14, he convened his security cabinet. In the intense debate that followed, Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin, military intelligence chief General Yehoshua Saguy, and others questioned Iraq’s ability to build a nuclear weapon and the feasibility of a successful strike while forecasting serious negative political consequences of an attack in and outside the Arab world. However, the decision ultimately was Begin’s. Author Rodger Claire captured the moment:

After the hours of debate and squabbling, Begin stood and looked down the table, his dark eyes flickering from the face of one cabinet member to the next. Some of these men he had known for four decades, had fought next to against the British in ’47. He put both hands on the edge of the table and leaned in toward the general and minister…and announced, “There will be no other Holocaust in this century! Never. Never again!” The ministers remained silent. No one dared oppose him—at least to his face.[9]

On June 7, 1981, eight F-16As carrying 16 bombs destroyed Osirak.

The raid on Osirak did not work out as Begin anticipated. Rather than stopping Iraq’s nuclear program, the raid stimulated it. For Hussein, what at first blush seemed to be a disaster turned out to be a liberation of sorts. Ridding the country of French government oversight, contractors, managers, and monitors while feigning NPT fidelity, he embarked on what became a decade-long secret quest to build a uranium bomb. He settled on electromagnetic isotope separation and centrifuge technologies and, by the time the Gulf War started, was within a few years of fulfilling his ambition.[10]

Echoes in Iran

The Osirak story, before and after the attack, has much to teach today’s leaders as they attempt to fashion policies against Iran. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge distinctions.

Iran has in place a program that is far more advanced and sophisticated than Iraq’s was, even at its 1991 peak. It is better hardened and has generated significant quantities of uranium enriched up to 20 percent. Unlike Hussein, however, who called for an Arab nuclear weapon, Iranian leaders repeatedly declare their opposition to nuclear weapons.

Yet, some of the similarities are uncanny. Like Hussein’s Iraq, Iran frequently calls for Israel’s elimination. Iran funds and arms surrogates. Iran has failed to provide the IAEA with full nuclear transparency. Many Israeli decision-makers believe that Iran, like Iraq, poses an existential nuclear threat, although, as before, there is no unanimity.[11]

Osirak suggests the following cautionary points and strategies that bear on Iran.

•   Do not allow emotion and fear to trump objective intelligence assessment. Iran’s bombast and its documented progress in generating enriched uranium naturally make Israel nervous. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose public remarks currently sound much like Begin’s, should be careful to ensure that his decisions are based on fact rather than emotion.

•   Intelligence must be vetted over and over again. Israel’s intelligence clearly failed to assess the Osirak risk adequately, and the same was true of U.S. and Israeli intelligence on Iraq’s enrichment program.

•   Assassination of nuclear scientists will not retard nuclear progress. Israel’s presumed use of assassination in Iraq had no material impact on the Iraqi program. It does not appear to have had a material impact on Iran.

•   Public diplomacy to halt Osirak had no consequence. Its effect on Iran remains murky.

•   Sabotage may slow nuclear development, but it must be critically significant as well as successful. Israel’s effort to destroy the Osirak reactor core as it awaited shipment failed. Had it succeeded, it would have delayed commencement of reactor operations by years. By contrast, cyberattacks on computer systems managing Iran’s centrifuges seem to have had only months-long impacts. Clearly, the longer the interruption of normal operations, the better the opportunity for other events to intervene that could reduce the proliferator’s intention or capability to build a nuclear weapon.

•   Air power can retard nuclear development. Israel’s successful bombing of Osirak did that in part because Osirak was a solitary, soft target, but it also stimulated Iraq to mount an even more intense effort to get nuclear weapons. Likewise, when the United States bombed elements of Iraq’s nuclear program, it again retarded the enterprise, but bad intelligence allowed portions of the infrastructure to survive. Only the insertion of inspectors with authority to dismantle and destroy the enterprise eliminated the risk. Israel’s 2007 bombing of Syria’s North Korean-engineered Al Kibar reactor offers a caveat: military action can halt nuclear ambitions if the target country does not have the scientific capacity to rebuild. Clearly, Iran has that capacity.

In sum, Iraq provides many lessons for dealing with Iran today, but some distinctions remain. The international community never subjected Baghdad to the sanctions or IAEA cajoling Iran has faced. That is understandable because the community believed Iraq was complying with its NPT obligations.

Although the Osirak episode tested other modes to constrain proliferation, its legacy lies in the use of force. The lesson is that air power alone will not stop a country determined to get nuclear weapons. Repeated attacks may retard progress, but without an epiphany that leads the attacked country to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, it takes personnel on the ground to finish the job.

Bennett Ramberg is a foreign policy writer and consultant based in Los Angeles. He served in the Department of State in the administration of George H.W. Bush.


1. Dan Reiter, “Preventive Attacks Against Nuclear Programs and the ‘Success’ at Osiraq,” Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 12, No. 2 (July 2005): 355-371; Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, “Revisiting Osirak,” International Security, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Summer 2011): 201-132; Hal Brands and David Palkki, “Saddam, Israel and the Bomb,” International Security, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Summer 2011): 133-166.

2. For conflicting official accounts of the damage, see Eliot Cohen, Gulf War Air Power Survey, Vol. 2, 1993, pp. 316-317; Charles Duelfer, “Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq’s WMD,” Vol. 2, “Nuclear,” September 30, 2004, p. 4, www.cia.gov/library/reports/general-reports-1/iraq_wmd_2004/index.html.

3. Shlomo Nakdimon, First Strike (New York: Summit Books, 1987), pp. 149, 295.

4. Brands and Palkki, “Saddam, Israel and the Bomb,” p. 134.

5. Directorate of Intelligence, CIA, “The Iraqi Nuclear Program: Progress Despite Setbacks,” June 1983, p. 13, www.gwu.edu/%7Ensarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB82/iraq19.pdf.

6. Duelfer, “Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq’s WMD.” See Reiter, “Preventive Attacks Against Nuclear Programs and the ‘Success’ at Osiraq”; Richard Wilson, “Incomplete or Inaccurate Information Can Lead to Tragically Incorrect Decisions to Preempt: The Example of Osirak,” February 9, 2008, www.physics.harvard.edu/~wilson/publications/pp896.html.

7. Braut-Hegghammer, “Revisiting Osirak,” pp. 109-110.

8. Nakdimon, First Strike, p. 132. For the Mossad’s psychological assessment of Hussein, see “Begin on the Eve of the Osirak Raid,” Jerusalem Post, June 1, 2006, www.jpost.com/Israel/Article.aspx?id=23541.

9. Rodger W. Claire, Raid on the Sun (New York: Broadway Books, 2004), p. 100.

10. Dhafir Selbi, Zuhair Al-Chalabi, and Imad Khadduri, Unrevealed Milestones in the Iraqi National Nuclear Program 1981-1991 (self-published, 2011), p. 116.

11. For a review of Israel’s existential concerns, see Jim Zanotti et al., “Israel: Possible Military Strike Against Iran’s Nuclear Facilities,” CRS Report for Congress, R42443 (March 27, 2012), pp. 9-11.

The Test Ban and the 1956 Election

Barry H. Steiner is a professor of political science at California State University, Long Beach, where he has taught since 1968. Specializing in war and peace studies, he has worked on nuclear strategy, preventive diplomacy, arms races, and arms control. He gratefully acknowledges the comments of Lawrence D. Weiler on an earlier version of this article.

Barry H. Steiner

Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, has been called “the first national political leader to take a clear-cut position for the limitation of [nuclear weapons] testing.”[1] In his 1956 campaign against President Dwight Eisenhower, the former Illinois governor capitalized on widespread fear of radiation from nuclear weapons tests to propose a testing moratorium, but he had not intended to make the tests a major campaign issue at first.[2]

After initially referring to the moratorium in April 1956, he next mentioned it on September 5. Only in October did he establish his proposal as a campaign staple. Starting in September, the Republican camp argued strongly against the moratorium proposal.

Before and after the election, which Eisenhower won handily, leading Democratic officials put forward the view that Eisenhower had rejected a test ban initiative because Stevenson had proposed it. Stevenson’s running mate, Senator Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.), mentioned in October a rumor that the National Security Council (NSC) on September 11 had considered halting nuclear weapons tests and had decided to dismiss the proposal because Stevenson suggested it.[3] Stevenson himself wrote in a postelection article that “[t]here
was…reason to believe that the National Security Council itself between September 5 and September 19 had voted ‘unanimously’ in favor of a similar superbomb proposal; but this decision had then been set aside for obviously political reasons.”[4]

The historian Robert A. Divine, tracking the U.S. public debate on the test ban, concluded in 1978 that, with NSC records “still tightly sealed, there is no way to know whether the President had indeed rejected a test ban recommendation, and if he had, whether political or security factors [were] decisive.”[5] This article, using declassified NSC and Department of State records, pursues this issue, confirming that

•   Eisenhower received from his closest advisers during the campaign a proposal for declaring a U.S. moratorium on testing and that neither he nor his administration ever acted on or acknowledged it in the course of the campaign;

•   the moratorium recommendation was made outside the NSC machinery and was never formally considered by the council; and

•   Eisenhower’s rejection of the moratorium was political in that he was unwilling to champion what Stevenson initially proposed.

Origins of the Proposal

Divine ascribes to Harold Stassen, who served as Eisenhower’s special assistant for disarmament from 1955 to 1958, the initiative for the administration’s 1956 test ban moratorium proposal. He also states that Eisenhower authorized the NSC “to restudy the whole question of a test ban” in response to a September 11 Soviet message to the president calling for a halt to nuclear weapons tests.[6] However, the proposal emanated from the State Department in late August, prior to the Soviet letter to Eisenhower as well as Stevenson’s September 5 speech, and did not entail any new time-consuming study.

Unlike virtually all arms control and disarmament initiatives of that era, the moratorium proposal did not receive formal consideration and debate in the NSC. Stassen, who was both policy proposer and negotiator, was the primary figure on this subject in the NSC, which under Eisenhower was a highly structured policy organization. As Stassen worked for interagency policy consensus and negotiating authority, his ideas were repeatedly debated and critiqued by other NSC members.

A prodigious worker, Stassen was said to be “playing several chess games simultaneously—one with Washington, one with the Allies, one with the U.S.S.R., and one with the general public.”[7] Appointed by Eisenhower and dependent on the president’s support, Stassen also was a Stevenson ally as the administration’s strongest advocate for nuclear weapons limitation. It would be entirely plausible for Stevenson, despite leading the opposing political camp, to be guided by Stassen when pushing weapons limitations.

Yet the State Department rather than Stassen was the source of the moratorium initiative. On August 31, 1956, Deputy Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Robert D. Murphy wrote to Stassen and argued, “We believe there are political considerations which make it highly desirable that the [United States] take the initiative with regard to nuclear tests. The Soviets have come out for discontinuing tests of atomic and hydrogen weapons independent of general agreement on disarmament.”[8] Murphy noted that the British government also favored discussing the testing issue separately from a general disarmament agreement and that U.S. opposition had isolated the United States politically on that question. He urged a unilateral announcement of a “temporary cessation for a one-year period of thermonuclear and large-yield nuclear tests,” and he provided a draft cessation announcement approved by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.

In the letter, Murphy referred to a shift on the test ban issue by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in July 1956, conceding that “overriding political considerations” could make agreement on limiting nuclear tests advisable.[9] The source of this shift is known to have been AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss, the strongest advocate among the president’s advisers for vigorous nuclear weapons testing.[10]

The origins of the proposal in the State Department indicated the need for a faster track and a different focus than the ones the NSC provided. Although arms negotiation policy was a focus of the council, the proposal was designed to gain a short-term propaganda advantage in the absence of negotiations. The Soviet Union had resumed nuclear testing on August 24, and the administration decided in August to begin publicizing Soviet nuclear tests in order to discredit Soviet support for a test ban. The initiative would have helped to direct negative attention to Soviet testing, if it persisted, or to influence the Soviet Union to cease a testing program that had military importance. At the same time, the moratorium did not restrict any U.S. military program; Murphy noted that the United States had no plans for tests in the Pacific for a period of “well over a year.”[11] The proposal was framed to permit the United States to initiate nuclear weapons testing when it would next be ready to do so.

The Policy Context

The test moratorium proposal also was unusual for being a stand-alone statement and for being a unilateral step. U.S. policy in 1956, approved by the NSC, insisted on a comprehensive disarmament agreement, in which test cessation depended on agreement by all states to halt production of fissionable materials for weapons and on on-site inspection. The conditions, which were publicized in a U.S. statement on April 26, 1956, to the three-power Subcommittee of the United Nations Disarmament Commission, held fast in spite of the State Department’s moratorium proposal.[12] The still-born administration moratorium proposal did not represent a change in this policy. Stassen, taking account of Stevenson’s “endeavor to infer that the administration was considering some different position,” privately denied on October 15 that any policy shift had occurred.[13]

The White House meeting of September 11, 1956, cited by Kefauver, did not focus on the test ban question alone, but reviewed a series of steps in a disarmament program Stassen had proposed in June 1956 for discussion and approval. Stassen now was seeking authority to prepare negotiating documents for that proposal.[14] A declassified summary of this meeting makes it clear that U.S. approval of a nuclear weapons test moratorium would continue to depend on Soviet approval of prior U.S. conditions: “There was spirited discussion regarding the discontinuance of atomic tests. Agreement was indicated that any stopping must be predicated upon an inspection plan for determining whether any tests are conducted, and for observing such further tests as are conducted. It would be necessary to develop an understanding on the part of the non-atomic powers of what the tests are for, and under what procedures they would be conducted.”[15] A second summary indicated that Eisenhower and Dulles believed Stassen’s test ban concept would need to be restudied.[16] Neither summary suggests a decision to propose a test ban publicly.

Eisenhower probably had received the test moratorium proposal by September 11, and the absence of discussion of that proposal at the meeting on that date, by officials who are known to have been aware of its existence, suggests that it had already been rejected. Instead, the more ambitious U.S. approach to disarmament remained in effect.

Response to Stevenson’s Proposal

Eisenhower generally preferred to insulate arms policy from public debate, but in this instance, he acted politically not only to reject the moratorium that his advisers recommended, but also to reject debate over its merits.[17] He did not want to be affected by public opinion in any way, to protect his freedom of action. He sought to avoid language that would “publicly tie his hands so that in the future [he could] do nothing,” and he suppressed his own view that “the need for atomic tests would gradually lift and possibly soon disappear.”[18]

Yet in seeking to affect public opinion on the test moratorium during his re-election campaign, Eisenhower publicly criticized Stevenson’s testing proposal in a way that was inconsistent with the logic behind the test moratorium proposal recommended by his own advisers, and he sought to mislead the public about it. For example, when publicly responding to Stevenson’s proposed moratorium in October 1956, Eisenhower, in spite of his advisers’ private support of such an initiative, maintained that “it would be foolish for us to make any…unilateral [moratorium] announcement.”

His advisers understood that preparations to test could be made during the moratorium period,[19] but Eisenhower, portraying his objection to the moratorium as based on national security considerations, observed that “months and months” were required to prepare for nuclear tests, while the Soviets “could make tremendous advances where we would be standing still.”[20] He portrayed the moratorium as a complex security initiative, even as his advisers privately informed him that it was relatively simple to implement, without cost to the United States. His public statement that debating the moratorium would “lead only to confusion at home and misunderstanding abroad”[21] made sense only on the assumption that the moratorium was a complicated issue.

Most effectively, the administration turned Stevenson’s initiative against him by publicizing on October 21 another Soviet letter to Eisenhower renewing Soviet support of a testing moratorium and noting that “certain prominent public figures in the United States” advocated a similar step.[22]

The Episode in Historical Context

According to McGeorge Bundy, Stevenson’s test ban moratorium proposal “was remembered as evidence of the danger to a challenger in seeming to be soft.”[23] Yet if not for this proposal, Eisenhower probably would have announced the temporary test moratorium that his advisers had proposed. Moreover, by mid-1957 the administration had proposed a two-year suspension of weapons tests in exchange for Soviet agreement to a nuclear weapons production cutoff, and Eisenhower publicly linked a temporary test suspension to disarmament.[24] In 1958 the United States entered into an informal test moratorium with the Soviet Union. Security interests had not changed in the interim to explain this shift.

Stevenson underestimated arms control politics. According to Divine, Stevenson “confronted the American people with vital issues that should have been aired years before,”[25] including the reasons for developing hydrogen bombs and for the emergence of the Soviet-U.S. deadlock over controlling them. However, the administration was determined not to respond, concealing its interest in arms restraint while putting Stevenson on the defensive for his interest in the same thing.

Stevenson’s ties to Stassen also might have hurt him politically. The administration could support and even depend on the Stevenson-Stassen alliance, for insofar as Stevenson believed he was helping Stassen’s hand in the administration, he was more likely to speak out as he did, unwittingly aiding the Eisenhower campaign.[26]

Domestic political controversy also has dogged more recent U.S. debate over a nuclear weapons test ban. Now the issue is whether U.S. adherence to the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty can be broadened by accession to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which was negotiated under UN auspices from 1994 to 1996. Since 1992, the United States, a signatory to the CTBT, has been observing an informal moratorium on all nuclear weapons tests that has been virtually unchallenged on security grounds. For political reasons, however, the United States has been unable to turn this restraint into a formal treaty commitment.

When the Clinton administration, calling the CTBT “the longest-sought, hardest-fought prize in arms control history,”[27] sent it to the Senate for ratification in September 1997, Republican opposition focused on the difficulty of ensuring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the absence of testing and on the problem of ensuring the detection of cheating through existing means of verification. A vote on ratification in October 1999 failed to receive the necessary two-thirds majority in the Senate. One appraisal of this defeat cited inadequate appreciation of the CTBT’s “domestic political ramifications” as a cause.[28]

Since then, the United States has supported the CTBT regime, most notably its global network of test monitoring stations. The Obama administration has made clear that its objective in this support has been not only to deter nuclear weapons proliferation, which is the primary purpose of the treaty, but also to help make the case that strengthening CTBT verification capabilities makes the treaty more worthy of Senate ratification than it was in 1999.

Earlier this year, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher said the Obama administration had “begun the process of engaging the Senate” on the test ban.[29] It remains to be seen whether this administration will be successful in surmounting the political hurdles to ratification of a treaty that is central to the international arms control and nonproliferation agenda.




Barry H. Steiner is a professor of political science at California State University, Long Beach, where he has taught since 1968. Specializing in war and peace studies, he has worked on nuclear strategy, preventive diplomacy, arms races, and arms control. He gratefully acknowledges the comments of Lawrence D. Weiler on an earlier version of this article.




1. McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival (New York: Random House, 1988), p. 329.

2. Robert A. Divine, Foreign Policy and U.S. Presidential Elections (New York: New Viewpoints, 1974), 2:138. For an opinion that Stevenson favored a unilateral initiative, see Clinton P. Anderson with Milton Viorst, Outsider in the Senate: Senator Clinton Anderson’s Memoirs (New York: World Publishing Company, 1970), p. 141. Stevenson himself seems to have had in mind a joint Soviet-U.S. moratorium. Adlai E. Stevenson, “Why I Raised the H-Bomb Question,” Look, No. 21 (February 5, 1957), pp. 24-25.

3. Howard E. Frost, “Test Ban Negotiations and the 1956 Presidential Campaign” (unpublished paper, March 16, 1987), p. 2. The paper can be found in Box 127 of the Jerome Wiesner Papers in the Institute Archives and Special Collections at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For a published reference to the September 11 date, which a veteran contemporary journalist cited as being obtained from an “unimpeachable authority,” see Chalmers M. Roberts, “The Case for Harold Stassen,” The New Republic, March 10, 1958. For a reprint of the article, see Robert E. Matteson, Harold Stassen: His Career, the Man, and the 1957 London Arms Control Negotiations (1993), p. A-10. The source of the rumor is still undetermined.

4. Stevenson, “Why I Raised the H-Bomb Question,” p. 24 (emphasis in original).

5. Robert A. Divine, Blowing on the Wind: The Nuclear Test Ban Debate, 1954-1960 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 91-92.

6. Ibid., p. 86.

7. Matteson, Harold Stassen, p. 37. Thus far, no study of Stassen has utilized declassified NSC and State Department records. For works neglecting Stassen’s role, see Bundy, Danger and Survival; Robert R. Bowie and Richard H. Immerman, Waging Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). For Eisenhower’s policy structure, see Bowie and Immerman, Waging Peace, pp. v-vii.

8. Robert D. Murphy letter to Harold E. Stassen, August 31, 1956, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, Vol. 20, Regulation of Armaments: Atomic Energy (Washington: Government Printing Office (GPO), 1990), pp. 419-420 (hereinafter Murphy letter reproduction).

9. Ibid., p. 419.

10. A footnote in the reproduction of the Murphy letter cites to this effect a Strauss letter to Stassen dated July 26, 1956. For a larger excerpt from the Strauss letter, which was declassified in 1986 (four years prior to the publication of the Foreign Relations of the United States volume), see Frost, “Test Ban Negotiations and the 1956 Presidential Campaign,” pp. 10-11.

11. Murphy letter reproduction, p. 421.

12. See Harold Stassen letter to Emmet J. Hughes, October 15, 1956, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, Vol. 20, Regulation of Armaments: Atomic Energy (Washington: GPO, 1990), p. 436.

13. Ibid. At this point, the view that Stassen was taking in private with administration staff members was very different from the one that the Stevenson camp presumed he held and that Stassen knew the Stevenson camp held.

14. “Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Stassen) to the President,” June 29, 1956, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, Vol. 20, Regulation of Armaments: Atomic Energy (Washington: GPO, 1990), pp. 402-408. An initiative on weapons testing is mentioned in this memorandum (p. 407) as one of many “Courses of Action” proposed by Stassen.

15. A.J. Goodpaster, “Memorandum of Conference With the President, September 11, 1956; 3:45 P.M.,” September 14, 1956. A copy of this memorandum is attached to Frost, “Test Ban Negotiations and the 1956 Presidential Campaign.” Guiding the Frost paper, this memorandum is more explicit about the discussion of the test ban question at the September 11 meeting than is the lengthier summary of this meeting by W.H. Jackson. W.H. Jackson, “Memorandum of a Conversation, White House, Washington, September 11, 1956,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, Vol. 20, Regulation of Armaments: Atomic Energy (Washington: GPO, 1990), pp. 425-427.

16. Jackson, “Memorandum of a Coversation.” This report was found in the State Department Disarmament Files.

17. According to Bundy, Eisenhower “thought politics was a game only other people played, and he believed it should stop well short of the nuclear issue.” Bundy, Danger and Survival, p. 331.

18. Divine, Blowing on the Wind, pp. 86, 100-101. See Divine, Foreign Policy and U.S. Presidential Elections, pp. 2:156-157.

19. Divine, Blowing on the Wind, p. 90.

20. Divine, Foreign Policy and U.S. Presidential Elections, p. 2:141.

21. Divine, Blowing on the Wind, p. 91.

22. Ibid., p. 98.

23. Bundy, Danger and Survival, p. 330.

24. Divine, Blowing on the Wind, pp. 146, 149; Robert A. Divine, Eisenhower and the Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 126.

25. Divine, Foreign Policy and U.S. Presidential Elections, p. 2:161.

26. Divine writes that Stevenson “apparently only raised [the test ban proposal] because he understood that the National Security Council was planning a similar proposal.” Divine, Foreign Policy and U.S. Presidential Elections, p. 2:138. If this is true, then Stevenson must have trusted some authoritative figure in the administration who provided him with this information.

27. Terry L. Deibel, “The Death of a Treaty,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 81 (September/October 2002), p. 143. Background on the CTBT is provided in Keith A. Hanson, The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 2006).

28. Ibid., p. 160.

29. Ellen Tauscher, “Statement to the Conference on Facilitating the Entry Into Force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty,” New York, September 23, 2011, http://usun.state.gov/briefing/statements/2011/173911.htm.


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