Five Decades Since JFK's Call for a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

Fifty years ago on Monday, June 10, President John F. Kennedy delivered his eloquent and influential “Strategy of Peace” address 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.

As the essay "JFK's American University Speech Echoes Through Time" in the June issue of Arms Control Today explains, "… 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.”

On June 10, Kennedy 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. Within weeks, U.S. and Soviet negotiators concluded the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) and Kennedy went on to lead a high-profile public campaign to win the Senate's support for ratification in September.

In the years that followed, U.S.-Soviet-led talks led to the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the superpowers began negotiations on the limitation of strategic nuclear arms. CTBT negotiations were not concluded, however, until 1996.

Four years ago, on April 5, 2009, President Obama outlined his plan for moving toward the “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

"To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing," he said, "my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty."

"After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned," President Obama declared.

In recent weeks, national security experts such as Amb. Tom Pickering, former administration officials such as Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher, and key Senators such as Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) have urged President Obama to provide renewed energy and leadership on key priorities, including U.S. ratification of the CTBT.

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 reduce the nuclear danger through his 1963 address and his follow-up efforts to win ratification of the LTBT.