"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement"
July 1, 2020
Looking Back: Norman Cousins and the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963

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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annihilation of Hiroshima, he sat down and wrote a lengthy editorial, soon published as a book, entitled “Modern Man Is Obsolete.”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.