The Test Ban and the 1956 Election

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,