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former IAEA Director-General

Looking Back

The Risk of ‘Blundering’ Into Nuclear War: Lessons From the Cuban Missile Crisis

I was not in the government at the start of the Cuban missile crisis, but I was considered, rightly or wrongly, to be an expert on Soviet missiles.

December 2017
By William Perry

I was not in the government at the start of the Cuban missile crisis, but I was considered, rightly or wrongly, to be an expert on Soviet missiles. I was called to be part of a small team to analyze intelligence data that was coming in every day and prepare a report to go on President Kennedy’s desk first thing in the mornings to guide him in his decisions and actions.

So, I was right in the middle of it and knew exactly what was going on. I believed, then, that every day that I went in was going to be my last day on earth. That’s what I thought about the Cuban missile crisis at the time. Kennedy, after it was over, said he thought the probability of those events leading to a nuclear war was about one chance in three, one in three, which is pretty scary when the consequence at the other end of it is the end of civilization.

William PerryKennedy’s statement was optimistic because he didn’t know, when he made that statement, some things that we now know. He didn’t know at that time that the Soviets already had tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba with authorization to the commanders to use them without reference to Moscow. If Kennedy had accepted the unanimous recommendation of his Joint Chiefs of Staff, which was to invade Cuba with conventional forces, our troops would have been decimated on the beachhead, and a general nuclear war would surely have followed. We can only wonder why Kennedy did not follow the combined recommendation of his Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Had he followed it, we would have surely had a nuclear war. He did not know that the Soviets had submarines escorting the ships that were carrying missiles to Cuba, that those submarines had nuclear torpedoes and that one of our destroyers, not knowing that either, was dropping depth charges at a submarine, and that the skipper of the submarine was preparing to launch a nuclear torpedo. That, in itself, would have brought about a nuclear war. The Soviets had a policy then that it took two out of three [commanders] on the submarine to decide to launch a nuclear torpedo, and the other two commanders had voted against it. It was that close—one person different would have changed that decision.

We were amazingly close to a civilization-ending nuclear war in Cuba, even closer than I realized at the time because I didn’t know some of those things. That’s a very scary situation.
But I want to emphasize one very important point. Neither Kennedy nor [Nikita] Khrushchev wanted a nuclear war. In spite of that, we almost blundered [into] one.

The danger today, I think, is the same. It’s not the danger of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un launching an attack, the United States launching an attack, or Russian President Vladimir Putin launching an attack. It’s a danger that we will blunder into a nuclear war. That was a very, very real danger in the Cold War.

In the Cold War, we always thought that the danger was that the Soviet Union was going to conduct a surprise attack, as a bolt out of the blue; and all of our policies, all of our weapons programs, and so on were based on responding to that. But that was never the threat. The threat was always that we would blunder into a nuclear war, and that threat was almost realized in the Cuban missile crisis.

William Perry was U.S. secretary of defense from February 1994 to January 1997. Early in his career, he worked on classified government efforts to assess Soviet missiles. In October 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, he was part of a small group of analysts gathered to help inform President John F. Kennedy during that perilous Cold War period. This is adapted from his remarks at a Ploughshares Fund conference October 26 in Washington.



Posted: December 1, 2017

Looking Back: Compliance Versus Bargaining - An Implication of the Iran Nuclear Deal

The negotiations that produced the Iran nuclear agreement showed a dynamic that may affect how states approach future proliferation conflicts and the potential for resolving them diplomatically. 

October 2016

By George Perkovich

The Iran nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), passes a milestone this month, which invites thinking about some of the agreement’s implications. One year ago, October 18, 2015, was “adoption day,”1 the date on which the accord came into effect and participants began taking steps necessary to implement their commitments.

Among other things, the negotiations that produced the agreement showed a dynamic that may affect how states approach future proliferation conflicts and the potential for resolving them diplomatically. The issue is whether a proliferation dispute is framed as a matter of compliance with rules or as a matter of bargaining for a fair deal instead. Compliance and fair bargaining need not be mutually exclusive concepts and processes. If rules are fair, enforcing compliance with them can be fair too. In international politics, however, all states do not necessarily perceive all rules to be fair, nor do states always agree on the fairness of proposed ways of enforcing compliance with rules.

Iranians show support for Iran’s nuclear activities at a demonstration outside the Tehran Research Reactor on November 23, 2014. Under the nuclear accord, Iran agreed to slightly irradiate fuel plates, before reactor use, to prevent later processing to make highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. (Photo credit: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States and, perhaps, Russia and China saw the Iran case primarily as a compliance problem. Iran broke the rules of the nonproliferation regime, specifically International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and disclosure requirements. The IAEA and subsequently the UN Security Council issued binding requirements of transparency and confidence building, including a demand that Iran “suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities.”2 Iran was not meeting these requirements. Thus, the international community continued to pressure Iran with sanctions until it complied.

Iran could not effectively dismiss the concept of compliance, but Iranian officials sought to portray the dispute as a matter of fairness or justice. They said Iran had no choice but to conduct illicit nuclear activities because the United States and Israel were illegally sabotaging Iran’s declared activities. They insisted that all countries have a “right” to enrich uranium3 and the United States and its allies were engaged in neocolonial nuclear repression. Iran also argued that the nuclear-weapon states had failed to live up to their obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to eliminate nuclear arsenals and that they frequently exhibited double standards in choosing when, where, and how to apply nonproliferation rules. 

The six countries negotiating with Iran, known as the P5+1, were correct that compliance was and is at the heart of the diplomatic struggle with Iran. Civilization and international security are advanced by the creation and enforcement of rules to regulate technologies and activities that can threaten peace and security. The NPT is the foundation of a rules-based global nuclear order. Therefore, it is vital to enforce compliance with rules derived from the NPT. 

Yet, the international system generally lacks judicial and enforcement mechanisms that are as legitimate and effective as those in well-governed states. The IAEA admirably performs some important functions in the rules-based system, but it does not have clear enforcement authority. The actions of the IAEA Board of Governors can be subject to the exertions of major powers and resistance by dissident states for reasons that are germane and meritorious or not. The UN Security Council is the entity that is expected to mobilize international power in response to violations of NPT-related rules when the IAEA reports violations to it. The Security Council has the authority to enforce mandates regarding international peace and security. Enforcement most commonly takes the form of political demands and sanctions. Military action can be the ultimate means of enforcing rules, and in the international system, the Security Council is supposed to be the authorizer of legitimate uses of force. Yet, the council is a highly politicized body, and the five permanent, veto-wielding members enjoy disproportionate influence within it. As a result, the council is often inefficient or less than just in catalyzing or withholding international action, particularly the use of force. 

In sum and hardly shocking, disputes over questions of nuclear rules and their enforcement are subject to the politics that flow from the distribution of power within the international system. In practice, this makes it difficult to separate compliance with rules from debates over fairness.

The tensions inherent here are exacerbated by the fact that the NPT is based on “bargains” that have been unevenly and inadequately fulfilled. Some states argue that the treaty’s Article IV promise of nuclear cooperation in return for nonproliferation is not fulfilled. These states feel that restrictions on access to nuclear technology continue to grow tighter, whereas the “sacrifices” that nuclear-weapon states are supposed to make are unfulfilled. 

Excerpt from the Statement by President Obama on the Adoption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, October 18, 2015

Today marks an important milestone toward preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and ensuring its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful going forward.... Today, Iran begins to take the steps necessary to implement its JCPOA commitments, including removing thousands of centrifuges and associated infrastructure, reducing its enriched uranium stockpile from approximately 12,000 kilograms to 300 kilograms, and removing the core of the Arak heavy-water reactor and filling it with concrete so that it cannot be used again, among other steps. These next steps will allow us to reach the objectives we set out to achieve over the course of nearly two years of tough, principled diplomacy and will result in cutting off all four pathways Iran could use to develop enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. I am confident in the extraordinary benefits to our national security and the peace and security of the world that come with the successful implementation of the JCPOA.

I have directed that the heads of all relevant executive departments and agencies of the United States begin preparations to implement the U.S. commitments in the JCPOA, in accordance with U.S. law, including providing relief from nuclear-related sanctions as detailed in the text of the JCPOA once the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified that Iran has completed all of its nuclear steps. We will also be closely monitoring Iran’s adherence to its commitments, working closely with the IAEA and the other JCPOA participants, to ensure Iran fully fulfills each and every one of its commitments.

Many states and civil society groups have reason to believe that Article VI represents a bargain of nonproliferation in return for the eventual elimination of all nuclear arsenals.4 This was affirmed in the 1995 decision to extend the NPT indefinitely. Many argue that, despite the dramatic reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, the world’s nuclear-armed states are not seriously committed to pursuing the abolition of these weapons. The ongoing modernization of the Chinese, Russian, and U.S. nuclear arsenals strengthens this argument. Few if any states argue that the world would be more secure without the NPT, but widespread dissatisfaction exists over how its terms have been interpreted and enforced. 

The Iran case brought these divergent perceptions of fairness and compliance to the center of international politics. The nuclear-weapon states argue either that they have fulfilled their NPT obligations or that the obligations are not what Iran and others say they are. Although the nuclear-weapon states’ arguments have merit, it is also the case that the nuclear-weapon states would resist allowing others the authority to judge their compliance, for example with Article VI’s call for disarmament. 

Other examples of double standards, selective enforcement, and perceived unfairness include differences in the ways that major powers treat India, Israel, and Pakistan. These three states did not sign the NPT, so they did not forgo the “right” to acquire nuclear weapons. Yet, different major powers have treated each of them differently, most notably when the United States, backed by France and Russia, pushed the Nuclear Suppliers Group to exempt India from nuclear trade restrictions.5 As a group, the three non-NPT states have been treated more indulgently than Iran, Iraq, and other states that did sign the NPT. There are sound legal and strategic reasons for treating states that have legally agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons differently from those that did not sign the NPT, but this does not alleviate the sense that the nuclear order is unfair. 

The competing frames of compliance versus fairness have important implications that are not often analyzed. If fairness is central, the notion of negotiating and bargaining among parties with equal standing informs how one sees the contest. Compromise emerges naturally as an acceptable outcome. In the compliance frame, however, the contest is not among actors with equal standing, but rather is an effort by authorities to compel a deviant actor to comply. Negotiation and compromise are not obviously required. We do not pay a violator of rules to correct its behavior and comply; we compel it. In one frame, fairness involves give and take. In the other, fairness is simply compliance.

The first meeting of the Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria, on October 19, 2015. The group was established to monitor implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action curtailing Iran’s nuclear activities. (Photo credit: Dieter Nagl/AFP/Getty Images)The tension between compliance and fairness will play out in general debates, as in NPT review conferences, and in future cases if and when a non-nuclear-weapon state seeks to develop indigenous capabilities to enrich uranium or separate plutonium. States and nongovernmental organizations will intensely debate whether the nuclear-weapon states are complying with their disarmament obligations and what are fair measures of progress toward that end. Discord also will be expressed over whether and how strengthened approaches to IAEA safeguards, including the toughened provisions of the additional protocol, are necessary to uphold the objectives of the NPT and whether inducements, or bargains, should be offered to make this more acceptable. 

The most potent criticism of the JCPOA is that by granting Iran the right to enrich uranium, it will now be practically impossible to persuade or collectively compel other states not to initiate fuel-cycle programs. This criticism has some validity at an abstract level, but is misguided and ultimately not convincing. 

First, critics seem to assume that the United States and its negotiating partners have the power to grant such rights and that they did so in the JCPOA. U.S. officials say that the deal does not establish any right to enrich uranium.6 In any case, Article IV of the NPT neither specifies a right to acquire specific types of nuclear equipment or material nor precludes such acquisition for peaceful purposes. Yet, largely as a result of the contest with Iran, much of the world now believes that enrichment is a sovereign right that is not for the United States or any cabal of states to grant. 

Second, the damage done by allowing highly conditioned enrichment activities in Iran is exaggerated. The number of other states that have displayed the interest and capability to begin enrichment programs, as Iran did, is quite small. South Korea is the only one.7 Indeed, in negotiations with the United States, South Korea has used arguments of fairness to seek consent to conduct fuel-cycle activities. Seoul has juxtaposed its standing as a non-nuclear-weapon state-party to the NPT to that of India, which deploys nuclear weapons outside the NPT and has nonetheless won U.S. support for exempting it from nuclear trade restrictions. Seoul also cites the nuclear deal’s acceptance of enrichment in Iran. More speculatively, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are cited. The former has significant motivation to copy Iran, but lacks technical wherewithal.8 The latter has more capability but less motivation.9 Saudi Arabia and Turkey each would have more motivation to balance Iran if there were no nuclear deal and Iran’s nuclear program was unconstrained. 

Third, there was not a viable alternative to accepting circumscribed enrichment in Iran. Once it was understood that Iran would not be physically forced to comply with demands to totally relinquish enrichment activities and capabilities, the only way to establish verifiable limits on these activities was through bargaining. Iran won the right to continue enrichment; the international community won limits on the scale and scope of these activities and unprecedented verification and enforcement modalities.

To be sure, Iran paid an enormous price for winning these points. It lost hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue and trade as a result of sanctions and was politically isolated. It had to accept more comprehensive monitoring and verification of its future nuclear activities than other states. Nevertheless, given the long pattern of illicit Iranian nuclear activities and the evidence to doubt that its nuclear program was exclusively peaceful, Iran was able to bargain for more than it was arguably entitled under the NPT. This occurred in part because of the fundamental reality mentioned earlier: the rules-based international system, unlike domestic governance, does not have predictable recourse to physical power to enforce compliance. 

War is the final arbiter in the international system. If war is not a welcome option among the countries that would have to wage it in order to enforce compliance, which was the case regarding Iran, then negotiation and bargaining must be tried. In a bargaining process, the value of fairness naturally comes into play.


1.   Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Statement by the President on the Adoption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” October 18, 2015, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/10/18/statement-president-adoption-joint-comprehensive-plan-action.

2.   UN Security Council, S/RES/1696, July 31, 2006.

3.   Hassan Rouhani, Statement to the UN General Assembly, New York, September 24, 2013, https://gadebate.un.org/68/iran-islamic-republic.

4.   Leonard Weiss, “Nuclear-Weapon States and the Grand Bargain,” Arms Control Today, December 2003, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2003_12/Weiss.

5.   Mark Hibbs, “The Nuclear Suppliers Group’s Critical India Decision,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), June 18, 2016, http://carnegieendowment.org/2016/06/18/nuclear-suppliers-group-s-critical-india-decision-pub-63848.

6.   For example, see Office of the Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State, “Kerry’s Interview With Reuters on Iran’s Nuclear Program,” August 11, 2015, http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/st/english/texttrans/2015/08/20150812316777.html#ixzz4JgTSh3XQ.

7.   Toby Dalton, Byun Sunggee, and Lee Sang Tae, “South Korea Debates Nuclear Options,” CEIP, April 27, 2016, http://carnegieendowment.org/2016/04/27/south-korea-debates-nuclear-options-pub-63455.

8.   Tristan Volpe, “Calling Out the Saudi Nuclear Bluff,” CEIP, August 25, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/publications/?fa=61095.

9.   George Perkovich and Sinan Ülgen, “Why Turkey Won’t Go Nuclear,” CEIP, April 10, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/2015/04/10/why-turkey-won-t-go-nuclear-pub-59756.

George Perkovich is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He works primarily on nuclear strategy and nonproliferation issues and South Asian security.

Posted: September 30, 2016

Looking Back: The 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice

The 20-year-old advisory opinion on the legality of nuclear weapons threat or use continues to be a guide to the norms requiring nonuse of the weapons and negotiation of their elimination. 

July/August 2016

By John Burroughs

The 1996 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) was the culmination of a decades-long debate on the legality of nuclear weapons. In recent years, it has shaped how international law is invoked by the initiative focused on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons use and served as a foundation for the nuclear disarmament cases brought by the Marshall Islands in the court.

The legality of use of nuclear weapons had been considered by the UN General Assembly since 1961, when the body adopted Resolution 1653 by a divided vote.1 The resolution declared that such use “is contrary to the rules of international law and to the laws of humanity.” But the General Assembly’s 1994 resolution2 requesting the ICJ “urgently to render” an advisory opinion on the matter set in motion an entirely different, extraordinary process. The General Assembly asked the court to opine on the following question: “Is the threat or use of nuclear weapons in any circumstance permitted under international law?” This put the issue before the judicial branch of the United Nations, the highest court in the world on questions of international law.

Several nuclear-weapon states chose to defend the lawfulness of using nuclear weapons in extended arguments to the court. Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States argued that although nuclear arms, like other weapons, are subject to the law of armed conflict, whether their use would be lawful or unlawful would depend on the circumstances. France contended that absent a specific prohibition, the weapons may be employed in the exercise of the right of self-defense. States not reliant on nuclear weapons, plus Australia, a country closely aligned with a nuclear-armed state, argued that the effects of nuclear explosions are inherently uncontrollable and indiscriminate and that the use of such weapons is therefore unlawful in all circumstances.3

Over two weeks of dramatic hearings in November 1995, 22 states made oral arguments, most after also submitting written arguments, and another 23 made written submissions only. Altogether, 45 states participated, the largest number to do so in ICJ proceedings to that date. Civil society also played a role. More than 700 groups worldwide had joined together in the World Court Project to support the General Assembly’s request for an opinion and to publicize the initiative.

Release of the Opinion

The court deliberated for an unusually long period of time before delivering its opinion on July 8, 1996.4 For advocates of the illegality of threat or use of nuclear arms sitting in the Peace Palace courtroom in The Hague and listening to the court’s president, Mohammed Bedjaoui, read the opinion, the experience was something of a roller coaster ride.

A positive early signal was the observation that the “destructive power of nuclear weapons cannot be contained in either space or time” and the acknowledgement of “the unique characteristics of nuclear weapons, and in particular their destructive capacity, their capacity to cause untold human suffering, and their ability to cause damage to generations to come.” Toward the end of the opinion, Bedjaoui read the following key finding: 

[Under] the principles and rules of law applicable in armed conflict—at the heart of which is the overriding consideration of humanity…methods and means of warfare, which would preclude any distinction between civilian and military targets, or which would result in unnecessary suffering to combatants, are prohibited. In view of the unique characteristics of nuclear weapons…the use of such weapons in fact seems scarcely reconcilable with respect for such requirements.

Then he continued, reading a finding that was baffling at the time and has not become any less so in the two decades since then:

[T]he Court cannot lose sight of the fundamental right of every State to survival, and thus its right to resort to self-defence, in accordance with Article 51 of the [UN] Charter, when its survival is at stake. Nor can it ignore the…“policy of deterrence.”

Accordingly, in view of the present state of international law viewed as a whole…and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court is led to observe that it cannot reach a definitive conclusion as to the legality or illegality of the use of nuclear weapons by a State in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which its very survival would be at stake.

One of the several formal conclusions, each adopted by a vote of the judges, in reply to the General Assembly’s question joined the “general” illegality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons under the law of armed conflict with the court’s uncertainty regarding the extreme circumstance of self-defense.5 Because a judge had died shortly before the hearings, the court had 14 members instead of the normal 15. The judges’ votes on the conclusion were evenly split, 7-7; it was considered adopted due to the positive vote of Bedjaoui. Yet, the tie vote is misleading. In powerful dissents, three of the seven judges who voted against the conclusion maintained that the threat or use of nuclear weapons is unlawful in all circumstances.6 Thus, 10 of the 14 judges took the position that such threat or use is at least generally unlawful.

At the close of the reading of the opinion, Bedjaoui unexpectedly turned to a matter not raised by the General Assembly’s request. Given the “eminently difficult” legal issues posed by nuclear weapons, the court underlined the importance of Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT),7 explained its meaning, and observed that fulfillment of the nuclear disarmament obligation “remains without any doubt an objective of vital importance to the whole of the international community today.” All judges voted for the resulting formal conclusion: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”

Governmental Responses

The participating nuclear-armed states responded to the issuance of the opinion essentially by stating that nothing in it requires them to change their policies. The United States correctly noted that the court “declined to pass on the policy of nuclear deterrence” and incorrectly claimed, as did France in stronger terms, that the “opinion indicates that the use of nuclear weapons in some circumstances would be legal.” In fact, the court only stated its inability to decide the matter in certain possible circumstances and stressed that states must always comply with rules protecting civilians from the effects of warfare. The UK commented, “Like the Court, we believe that the use of nuclear weapons would be considered only in self-defence in extreme circumstances.” Russia observed that the opinion “reflected a complex, mostly political role of nuclear weapons in the modern world.”8

States of the Non-Aligned Movement, in particular Indonesia and Malaysia, had led the campaign to obtain a General Assembly majority in favor of asking the court for its opinion. Their emphasis was on the court’s unanimous conclusion regarding the disarmament obligation. In a resolution put forward by Malaysia in the fall of 1996 and adopted annually since then,9 the General Assembly underlines the conclusion and calls on all states to fulfill the obligation by immediately commencing multilateral negotiations leading to the early conclusion of a convention prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons. The resolution receives a substantial number of opposing votes and abstentions, due in part to the position of states such as Japan that negotiation of a convention is premature. However, in years when the paragraph welcoming the court’s statement of the disarmament obligation has been voted on separately, it has been approved by an overwhelming majority, not including France, Israel, Russia, the UK, and the United States.10

Nuclear Weapons Threat or Use

In reaching its conclusions, the court considered a range of legal issues relating to threat or use of nuclear weapons, not all of which can be reviewed here. One significant finding was that a customary norm of nonuse of nuclear weapons has not arisen out of the practice of nonuse since World War II due to states’ continued assertion of doctrines of deterrence that contemplate resorting to nuclear arms. Another was that impacts on the environment must be taken into account in assessing whether an attack complies with the law of armed conflict. Also important was the court’s examination of the legal status of threats. It found that “if the use of force itself in a given case is illegal—for whatever reason—the threat to use such force will likewise be illegal.” But the heart of the court’s analysis and of the arguments made by states concerns the application of the law of armed conflict to the use of nuclear weapons.

The court laid particular emphasis on two elements of what is commonly referred to as international humanitarian law: the prohibition of causing unnecessary suffering to combatants and the principle of distinction between combatants and noncombatants. Under the principle of distinction, the court stated categorically, “States must never make civilians the object of attack and must consequently never use weapons that are incapable of distinguishing between civilian and military targets.” The court did not refer to another aspect of the principle of distinction, the prohibition of attacks on military targets expected to cause excessive incidental harm to civilians and civilian objects when weighed against the expected military advantage. Perhaps the court considered it to be inapplicable in the nuclear realm, where collateral casualties can number in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

The court said that the rules of international humanitarian law it highlighted reflect “elementary considerations of humanity” and are “fundamental.” Moreover, they are “intransgressible,” an innovative term that must mean that the rules are not to be violated whatever the circumstance. The court further said that for a use of force in response to an armed attack to be proportionate, a requirement for the lawful exercise of the right of self-defense, it must also comply with international humanitarian law. Although the court declined to address whether the legal doctrine permitting reprisals aimed at dissuading further unlawful acts by an enemy could justify a use of nuclear weapons in response to a prior use, it stated that any reprisal must meet the requirement of proportionality. The court found that it was unable to assess the legality of use in marginal scenarios such as use of low-yield nuclear weapons in remote areas, but stated that the nuclear-weapon states had failed to make the case for legality in such circumstances.

The thrust of the analysis is captured by the court’s finding that, in view of their “unique characteristics,” the use of nuclear weapons is “scarcely reconcilable” with the requirements of international humanitarian law. That finding has been taken up as a subsidiary theme by the initiative on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons (see box).

Given its analysis of the application of international humanitarian law to the use of nuclear weapons, what sense can be made of the court’s inability to determine the lawfulness or unlawfulness of a threat or use of nuclear weapons in an extreme circumstance of self-defense in which the very survival of a state is at issue? This provision has been the subject of harsh criticism, and most members of the court signaled their discomfort or disagreement with it in their separate statements accompanying the opinion. It seems incongruous that a court would declare itself unable to apply the law to an important issue in the matter before it. The provision left an opening for states relying on nuclear arms to claim that their policies of deterrence are lawful and that use could be lawful—an opening that they in fact seized. No similar clause exists in international law governing the use of force, the conduct of warfare, and the use of particular weapons. Further, the court’s finding arguably implies that international humanitarian law possibly could bend in extreme circumstances of self-defense, whereas the essence of that law is that it applies to all states, whether aggressor or defender, in all circumstances. Indeed, as already noted, the opinion elsewhere is abundantly clear that whatever the circumstance, use of nuclear weapons must comply with international humanitarian law. States must “never use weapons that are incapable of distinguishing between civilian and military targets.”

The court’s reference to the policy of deterrence in justifying the finding suggests that the finding is as much or more about threat than it is about use. It appears to reflect the stark realities of threat and counterthreat at least implicitly faced by states when other potentially adverse states possess nuclear weapons. All of this points toward the comprehensive prohibition and elimination of nuclear arms as the only real solution to the dilemmas posed by their existence, a subject addressed by the court in the final section of the opinion.

Humanitarian Initiative on Nuclear Weapons

The initiative first made its mark with the provision in the final document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference referring to the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.” It has continued through conferences in Oslo; Nayarit, Mexico; and Vienna in 2013 and 2014 and is a moving force in the 2016 UN open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament. While emphasizing the unacceptable consequences of nuclear weapons explosions and the inability to provide adequate relief to survivors, influential actors in the initiative have also referred to the basic incompatibility between nuclear weapons and international humanitarian law. Thus, a 2011 resolution of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement “finds it difficult to envisage how any use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the rules of international humanitarian law.”11

In her presentation to the 2014 Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, Helen Durham, director of international law and policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross, outlined concerns motivating the resolution.12 She stated that “the sheer scale of civilian casualties and destruction that would result from the use of a nuclear weapon in or near a populated area and its long-term effects on human health and the environment raise serious questions about the compatibility of this weapon with the rules” of international humanitarian law. She also noted that the use of a low-yield nuclear weapon “far from civilian settlements” would raise such questions due to the impact of radiation on combatants, the eventual spread of radiation, and radiological contamination of the environment.

A 2015 General Assembly resolution, “Ethical imperatives for a nuclear-weapon-free world,” puts the matter more strongly: “given the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, it is inconceivable that any use of nuclear weapons, irrespective of the cause, would be compatible with the requirements of international humanitarian law or international law, or the laws of morality, or the dictates of public conscience.”13

The Disarmament Obligation 

In declaring the obligation to pursue in good faith and conclude negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control, the court made a significant contribution to the elucidation of international law. Its construction of NPT Article VI, read together with other parts of the opinion, clarifies that negotiation of an instrument or instruments eliminating nuclear arms would advance the objective of general and complete disarmament in the same way that the conventions on biological and chemical weapons advance that objective.14 The court also explained that the obligation is one of result—nuclear disarmament in all its aspects—as well as conduct—the pursuit of good faith negotiations. In both respects, essentially the same approach to interpretation of Article VI was taken by the 2000 NPT Review Conference when it adopted the “unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals” separately from the reaffirmation of the ultimate objective of “general and complete disarmament under effective international control.”

The court’s formulation of the obligation and its underlying analysis compel the reading that the obligation applies universally, including to states not party to the NPT, as a matter of customary international law. In its analysis, the court notes that “the vast majority of the international community” is bound by the NPT, implicitly invoking the doctrine that customary international law can arise out of multilateral treaties with widespread participation. Moreover, the court cites General Assembly resolutions on nuclear disarmament, beginning with the very first, unanimously adopted resolution, which set up a commission to make proposals for “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.”15 When very widely supported, General Assembly resolutions can provide evidence of customary international law.

The Marshall Islands' Cases

The proposition that the disarmament obligation applies universally is now being tested in three nuclear disarmament cases brought in April 2014 by the Marshall Islands in the ICJ. These are contentious cases that will lead to binding judgments between the litigating states, not advisory opinion proceedings. Two of the cases, against India and Pakistan, are based on a customary international obligation to pursue and conclude negotiations on nuclear disarmament as declared by the court. The third, against the UK, rests on NPT Article VI and the customary obligation.

In the case against the UK, a central issue is whether the UK is breaching the obligation to pursue negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament by opposing and refusing to participate in multilateral deliberations and negotiations on that subject. The issue is posed acutely by the UK’s absence from the 2016 UN open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament. The working group is charged with addressing legal measures to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons. Its deliberations are premised on the view of most states that the time to negotiate legal instruments relating to nuclear disarmament is now, not some distant future. That is also the implication, the Marshall Islands contends, of the disarmament obligation articulated by the court.

Unlike the UK, India and Pakistan support General Assembly resolutions calling for commencement of multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament, although they are not participating in the working group. In their cases, a principal issue is whether they are breaching the obligation and the requirement of good faith in implementing it by engaging in improvement, diversification, and quantitative buildup of their arsenals and failing to seek negotiated limits on such activities. 

Hearings on preliminary issues in the cases against India, Pakistan, and the UK were held in The Hague in March. The issues concern whether the cases come under the terms of the three states’ declarations accepting the court’s jurisdiction and whether the cases are otherwise suitable for determination on the merits. The court’s judgments on preliminary issues are expected soon. In April 2014, the Marshall Islands also filed applications against the six other nuclear-armed states (China, France, Israel, North Korea, Russia, and the United States), but none of them have current declarations on file accepting the court’s jurisdiction. They have ignored or, in the case of China, declined the Marshall Islands’ requests that they come before the court in the matter.


The advisory opinion came at a high point of multilateral disarmament diplomacy. The Chemical Weapons Convention had been negotiated, the NPT had been indefinitely extended, and negotiation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was nearly complete. The initiative to obtain the opinion and the opinion itself reflect that moment.

In the subsequent two decades, efforts toward consolidating a multilateral nuclear disarmament regime have been stymied. Nuclear-armed states have done little to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their security postures, let alone acknowledge that their use is incompatible with the law of armed conflict. Their planning for maintenance and modernization of their arsenals for decades to come and the associated projected vast spending—$1 trillion by the United States over the next three decades—manifests a lack of good faith in meeting the obligation of negotiating the elimination of nuclear arms. On the positive side, nuclear weapons have not been detonated in war, the demand for disarmament is still being vigorously pressed by non-nuclear-weapon states and civil society actors, and the contradiction between reliance on nuclear arms and what the court called “elementary considerations of humanity” is being exposed with renewed energy. In this complex environment, the advisory opinion remains an indispensable guide to the norms compelling nonuse of nuclear weapons and their universal elimination. 


1.   UN General Assembly, “Declaration on the prohibition of the use of nuclear and thermo-nuclear weapons,” A/RES/1653 (XVI), November 24, 1961. The General Assembly adopted this resolution in a 55-20 vote, with 26 abstentions.

2.   UN General Assembly, “Request for an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons,” A/RES/49/75K, December 15, 1994. The General Assembly adopted this resolution in a 78-43 vote, with 38 abstentions.

3.   For more about the hearings, see John Burroughs and Jacqueline Cabasso, “Nukes on Trial,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April 1996, pp. 41-45.

4.   Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, I.C.J. Reports, July 8, 1996, p. 226, http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/95/7495.pdf

5.   Ibid., para. 105(2)E.

It follows from the above-mentioned requirements that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law; However, in view of the current state of international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake.

6.   Ibid., pp. 375-428, http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/95/7519.pdf (Shahabuddeen dissent); Ibid., pp. 429-555, http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/95/7521.pdf (Weeramantry dissent); Ibid., pp. 556-582, http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/95/7523.pdf (Koroma dissent).

7.   NPT Article VI states that “[e]ach of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

8.   For the statements of France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States in response to the issuance of the advisory opinion, see John Burroughs, The Legality of Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons (Münster: LIT Verlag, 1997), pp. 153-155.

9.   UN General Assembly, “Follow-up to the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons,” A/RES/70/56, December 7, 2015. The General Assembly adopted this most recent resolution on the ICJ opinion in a 137 to 24 vote, with 25 abstentions.

10.   In votes on General Assembly Resolution 61/83 on December 6, 2006, the paragraph was approved by a 168-3 vote (Israel, Russia, and the United States voting no) with five abstentions (Belarus, France, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, and the UK). The resolution was adopted as a whole by a 118-27 vote, with 26 abstentions.

11.   Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, “Resolution 1, Working Towards the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons,” November 26, 2011, http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/resolution/council-delegates-resolution-1-2011.htm

12.   Helen Durham, “The Use of Nuclear Weapons and International Humanitarian Law,” Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, December 9, 2014, https://www.bmeia.gv.at/fileadmin/user_upload/Zentrale/Aussenpolitik/Abruestung/HINW14/Presentations/

13.   UN General Assembly A/RES/70/50, December 7, 2015. The General Assembly adopted this resolution by a vote of 132 to 36, with 16 abstentions.

14.   The court construed NPT Article VI as follows: “The legal import of that obligation goes beyond that of a mere obligation of conduct; the obligation involved here is an obligation to achieve a precise result—nuclear disarmament in all its aspects—by adopting a particular course of conduct, namely, the pursuit of negotiations on the matter in good faith.” Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, I.C.J. Reports, July 8, 1996, para. 99. The court elsewhere discusses the conventions on biological and chemical  weapons, observing that “[t]he pattern until now has been for weapons of mass destruction to be declared illegal by specific instruments.” Ibid., paras. 57-58.

15.   UN General Assembly, “Establishment of a Commission to Deal With the Problems Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy,” A/RES/1 (I), January 24, 1946.

John Burroughs is executive director of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, which is the UN office of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms. He is a member of the Marshall Islands’ international legal team.

Posted: July 5, 2016

Looking Back: Gen. Marshall and the Atomic Bombing of Japanese Cities

In a May 1945 meeting, General George Marshall sought to avoid using atomic bombs on Japanese cities or to warn Japan so that noncombatants could safely flee the cities. 

November 2015

By Barton J. Bernstein

The U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima with a uranium weapon and Nagasaki with a plutonium weapon in August 1945 caused the deaths of more than 100,000 Japanese, mostly noncombatants, by the end of that year and injured about the same number. Those bombings also killed thousands of Korean noncombatants and some Allied prisoners of war.

Much has been written over the years about the bombings. That literature includes considerable discussion of the process that led to President Harry Truman’s decision to use the two bombs and to target enemy cities, the resulting killing of massive numbers of noncombatants, and the debate over the necessity and ethics of conducting two bombings rather than one or even none.

The still-controversial history of the bombings involves disputes in areas such as sources, the uses of evidence, the standards for assessing and interpreting decision-making, and the basis for defining and evaluating morality and ethics in the context of war.

A key source in this contested history has been the evidence of individuals who were involved in the U.S. government’s development of and decision-making on nuclear weapons. Yet, many of these individuals, be they supporters or critics, somewhat rewrote their history in the aftermath of the August 1945 bombings.

Untangling postwar contentions from actual pre-Hiroshima actions is generally not a simple matter. It requires close attention to pre-Hiroshima archival sources, which account for well more than 100,000 pages in multiple libraries. In using these sources, the analyst should give much greater weight to the pre-Hiroshima sources than to the later, postwar claims in cases of significant discrepancies.

After the war, in memoirs and in related statements, three former wartime members of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff—Admiral William Leahy, the de facto chairman of the Joint Chiefs; General Henry Arnold, head of the Army Air Forces, and Admiral Ernest King, head of the Navy—publicly raised sharp questions about the military-political necessity of those atomic bombings and indicated there were other ways of ending the war. In his own widely reviewed memoir I Was There,1 Leahy passionately condemned the bombings as unethical and even barbarous. Yet, the available records, including his own diary, give no indication that he expressed this opinion to Truman or to any other government associate before the bombings.

Marshall as the Exception

Admiral Ernest King (left), Admiral William Leahy (center), and General George Marshall arrive at the White House for a wartime conference with President Franklin Roosevelt on July 29, 1942. [Photo credit: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]Of the four retired wartime military chiefs, only General George Marshall, the wartime Army chief of staff, never in public or in any documented private statements in the postwar period joined in such criticisms or even in hints of having ever entertained such doubts about the 1945 use of nuclear weapons. In various interviews and related statements, Marshall strongly defended the atomic bombings of Japanese cities as militarily and politically necessary and as ethically justifiable.

Nevertheless, Marshall was the only one of those four top-level men who, before the atomic bombings, actively sought to avoid the use of the new weapons on Japanese cities or to provide an adequate warning to Japan so that noncombatants could safely flee the cities. Fiercely loyal to Truman, unwilling to write a memoir, and wary of political controversy, Marshall in the aftermath of the war never revealed or even hinted that he had been a partial dissenter before the bombings, nor did other high-level memoirists ever disclose such information about Marshall’s pre-Hiroshima thinking.

On May 29, 1945, however, about seven weeks before the Trinity test on July 16 in New Mexico and about 10 weeks before the August 6 bombing of Hiroshima, the 64-year-old Marshall argued generally for not using the weapon on Japanese cities but on a “straight military [target] such as a naval installation,” in the words of the meeting minutes.2 If a city was chosen, it should be a “large manufacturing” area, he urged, and the United States should at least provide a substantial warning about the weapon in order to spare noncombatant lives.

For him, the definition of noncombatants included workers, as well as their families. That conception apparently did not change for Marshall in his thinking about the manufacturing that might contribute directly to Japan’s war effort.

Marshall presented his ethically influenced analysis in a secret meeting with Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, both Republicans in a Democratic administration.

Stimson was serving in his fourth presidential cabinet; his previous posts included secretary of war under President William Taft and then secretary of state under President Herbert Hoover. As part of what was designed as a bipartisan national security system, Stimson had rejoined the government as President Franklin Roosevelt’s war secretary about 18 months before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

By late May 1945, the 77-year-old Stimson and the 50-year-old McCloy had been working comfortably with Marshall for about five years. It was a close relationship of mutual trust and sincere respect. Their policy differences, when they occurred, were hammered out in private. During the war years, the three men easily maintained such discretion and energetically practiced secrecy. Such behavior flowed from their temperament and the context.

Marshall (left), UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill (center), and U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson meet at Fort Jackson in Louisiana on June 7, 1942. [Photo credit: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]Marshall, McCloy, and Stimson sought to avoid or minimize open controversy about how to conduct the war, including the uses of weaponry. These men did not want fractious publicity about policy decisions, and they sought to limit considerations of the politics of war to high-level, often secret decision-making. That was part of the intended political strategy of creating and maintaining national consensus on many war-related matters.

The three men were generally aided in such arrangements by the Senate’s special investigating committee. Initiated early in the war under then-Senator Truman (D-Mo.), the panel had helped insulate the government’s policymaking on defense issues from public scrutiny. When Truman, elected vice president in 1944, became president in April 1945, that Senate committee, maintaining its ways from the Roosevelt period, continued to help protect the chief executive and his bipartisan national security system from intrusive scrutiny on the conduct of the war.

On the subject of the atomic bomb, only a few congressional leaders drawn from each political party even knew of the top-secret project. The funding, about $1.8 billion by mid-1945, was tucked into appropriations bills without the bulk of senators or representatives knowing about it or about the Manhattan Project itself and the weapons it was designed to build.

The May 29 Meeting

At the May 29 meeting, much of the discussion among Marshall, McCloy, and Stimson focused on military policies to help end the Asian war and the use of significant weapons—atomic bombs and toxic gas—against Japan in future months. Breaking ranks with the other two officials, Marshall hoped to use gas, thereby violating Roosevelt’s public pledge of no first use of a “poisonous or noxious” gas,3 but McCloy and Stimson showed no interest in endorsing such a radical departure from established policy. By their response, they seemed uneasy about such a proposal.

With a nuclear bomb likely to be ready and to be used in about early August 1945, the three men talked about that weapon. Still untested at the time of the meeting, it was expected to be hundreds of times more powerful than even the largest conventional bombs. The uranium bomb was predicted, as of late April 1945, to produce the equivalent of about 8,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT power, and the plutonium weapon about 4,000 to 6,000 tons.4 Regardless of which kind of atomic weapon was used, it clearly would cause massive destruction on any target area by blast and heat, as all three men easily recognized.

At the time of the meeting, none of the three men apparently knew anything of significance, and quite likely they understood nothing at all about nuclear radiation and its great perils for humans: death or agonizing injury and even impairments in the gene pool for future generations. None of the three men actually knew anything in depth about the science and technology of the new uranium and plutonium bombs.

The issue that troubled Marshall, as he made clear to Stimson and McCloy at their meeting, was that these new, massively powerful bombs, if used on a city, would kill many noncombatants. To Marshall, that type of killing apparently constituted a dangerous and dramatic crossing of an important moral and ethical threshold by slaying innocent men, women, and children.

In public statements in the 1930s, Roosevelt had emphasized the moral and ethical line that would be crossed by bombing noncombatants. For Marshall, who had entered the Army more than a decade before World War I, and for Stimson and McCloy, such a line had at one time seemed deeply embedded in the informal U.S. code of conducting warfare.

By late May 1945, however, Marshall and his two colleagues at the meeting knew that U.S. conduct of so-called conventional warfare, especially with B-17 bombers and then the new B-29 bombers, had crossed that threshold with bombs, including incendiaries, against German and Japanese cities. U.S. and UK aircraft massively fire-bombed the German city of Dresden in February 1945, killing about 35,000 to 45,000. The U.S. fire-bombing of Tokyo in March killed about 80,000. The Tokyo count, with about 16 square miles burned out, was the highest by any bombing raid through late May 1945. In both enemy cities, the dead and injured, as all three U.S. officials knew, had been mostly noncombatants.

Whether and how such bombings would speed the ending of the wars in Europe and Asia was often rather vague. Among many U.S. government officials, there was a general sense that such bombings would help erode morale in the two enemy states and in multiple ways, often loosely defined, contribute to pushing the two enemy governments toward surrender.

Those attacks had greatly upset Stimson. He had worried on ethical grounds about the killing of noncombatants in such attacks, and he wished that such killing could be avoided or minimized by “precision” bombing.5 Before, during, and after the May 29 meeting, Marshall apparently never expressed, even in secret, governmental inner circles, such worries or doubts about massive conventional bombing of enemy cities.

As the head of the Army, Marshall had the moral authority, had he wished to use it, to complain inside the government and to urge different bombing policies. He never had done so or even come close to doing so.

Yet, even in prospect, the atomic bomb in May 1945 seemed markedly different to him, raising unsettling ethical and moral issues. Apparently troubled by the thought of targeting a city with that weapon, Marshall feared that moral opprobrium might be heaped on the United States in the aftermath. Thus, he offered a proposal for alternatives—bombing a military installation or bombing a large manufacturing area with a prior warning—by which he hoped to protect the United States and its new president from moral and ethical accusations of acting improperly.

A Likely Missed Opportunity

Marshall’s pleas on May 29 did not seem to gain support from Stimson or McCloy. Two days later, Stimson helped shape the nuclear targeting policy by outlining with a secret blue-ribbon panel, the Interim Committee, that the weapon should be used without any warning to Japan and on a military-industrial target surrounded by workers’ houses.6

As Stimson and the other meeting participants, including Marshall, well understood, enemy workers were usually defined as noncombatants. Furthermore, even if there might be some ambiguity about categorizing workers, there was none regarding their children, nonworking wives, and elderly relatives. Thus, many thousands of enemy innocents could be expected to be slain or injured by the atomic bomb.

Having been quietly defeated in the small meeting on May 29, Marshall raised no objections about that targeting and no-warning policy on May 31 in the larger meeting, which included James Conant, president of Harvard University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Karl Compton. Marshall also did not do so in the next 10 weeks in various discussions with Stimson, McCloy, or Truman as the United States moved to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Marshall quite likely missed an opportunity to establish an alliance with the president on redefining the targeting. Marshall did not know that Truman, around the time in late July 1945 that he endorsed the military order to use nuclear weapons on Japanese cities, had chosen to believe that the bombs’ targets would be truly of a military nature. In what was most likely self-deception, Truman wrote in his diary on July 25 that he had instructed Stimson that the new bomb should be used “so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children.” The target, Truman falsely contended, would be “purely military.”

Truman wrote of the Japanese being “savages,” calling them “merciless and fanatic.” The United States, he claimed, was markedly different in its conduct of the war and its concern for noncombatants.

Marshall apparently never said to anyone that he had regretted not seeking before the Hiroshima bombing to make common cause with Truman on the targeting policy. Had Marshall risked going outside the chain of command and bypassing Stimson, the general might well have been successful in July 1945 and thereby have helped to redefine the targeting policy for the atomic bomb to avoid killing and injuring noncombatants. Whether Marshall ever regretted not approaching Truman on this matter is uncertain.

Marshall’s Reshaped History

After the war, Marshall apparently never disclosed, even to his official biographer, historian Forrest Pogue, that, at the May 29 meeting with Stimson and McCloy, he had sought to alter the course of nuclear history as it was then unfolding.

McCloy’s minutes of the May 29 meeting, the only available record of Marshall’s secret counsel there, were not declassified until about two decades after the general’s October 1959 death. Dismayingly, that documentary record has generally been of little or no interest to most historians studying nuclear weapons or Marshall.

While concealing his May 1945 effort, Marshall himself, in an interview with Pogue in February 1957, somewhat rewrote the pre-Hiroshima history on the atomic bomb. Marshall contended incorrectly that the Truman administration, before the first atomic bombing of Japan, had provided the Japanese with a vague warning of the planned use by the United States of that new weapon on Japan.

Although the United States had issued broad warnings about large-scale destruction, it never gave Japan an explicit warning about the atomic bomb in the run-up to the Hiroshima bombing. One wonders—admittedly, in the absence of evidence—whether Marshall’s flawed recollection, as captured by Pogue, was an expression of the general’s unacknowledged personal regret. It might also have been an effort to protect his president, government, and country.

At the May 29 meeting, Marshall had unsuccessfully sought to reshape the future, and in 1957, he sought to reshape the past. He largely failed in those two efforts. By remaining silent about his advice of May 29, he helped obscure the possibility of a different history of nuclear weapons.

Stimson never mentioned Marshall’s May 29 advice in his memoir and in an article that drew on it. McCloy did not either in his many postwar commentaries, even though they often were critical of the atomic bombings. Truman, in his ghost-written memoir and elsewhere, never mentioned and probably never knew of Marshall’s urgings on the targeting of nuclear weapons.

Different Targeting?

The effect on Hiroshima of the atomic bombing on August 6, 1945, is shown in a photo from that day. The building on the right was preserved as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. [Photo credit: Keystone/Getty Images]If the United States had issued a substantial, explicit warning to Japan before using the atomic bomb on Hiroshima; if the U.S. attacks truly had targeted manufacturing areas; or, more significantly, if the targets in Japan had been actually a military installation, the postwar dialogue about the bombings might have been different.

To consider the plausible alternative history in which the United States chose a military target and therefore avoided the deaths of massive numbers of noncombatants is not to seek to justify the atomic bombings. It is intended to force a rethinking of important aspects of the August 1945 bombings and of the moral and ethical underpinnings of those bombings.

Whatever their use, the bombs dropped in August 1945 would have crossed a profoundly important and greatly troubling threshold. They represented exceptional power delivered by a new technology. If they had been used against an enemy military installation with comparatively few deaths and injuries to enemy noncombatants, the important moral and ethical threshold of killing massive numbers of noncombatants, despite the earlier attacks on Dresden and Tokyo and the similar conventional bombings elsewhere, would not have been crossed in the atomic bombings of Japan.

Part of the older moral and ethical code would have been respected in what nevertheless was a brutal, savage war. Fought broadly across three continents and numerous islands, that long war killed many millions of noncombatants among the total of about 55 million people.

By most estimates, noncombatant deaths, including those in German death camps and those from starvation, malnutrition, and disease elsewhere, significantly outnumbered the ones among soldiers from bombing and ground warfare.

The two atomic bombs probably added at least 100,000 to the tally of noncombatants but only about 12,000 to the number of military men killed.

Analysts might contend that limiting the use of the new, devastating weapon to military targets might have made it seem less terrible and thus less effective as a psychological weapon. In a similar vein, the analysts might argue that the large number of deaths and the high percentage that were noncombatants created its own firewall in making future use by any country morally more difficult.

To discuss such matters involving the dead and who was killed or might otherwise have been killed under a different targeting plan may seem ghoulish and cold blooded. In fact, these matters, which involve ethical considerations, are important in critically examining how the atomic bomb has been understood and why.

Marshall’s proposals add an important element to the debate over these matters. His proposals make clear that policies on atomic bomb targeting that were different from the ones actually used were not simply hypothetical possibilities but truly plausible alternatives in 1945. For arms control analysts and others who wish to think critically about such alternatives, the generally neglected document on Marshall’s meeting of May 29, 1945, provides firm evidence that an important member of the U.S. government recommended seeking to use the atomic bomb in a way that would not kill massive numbers of noncombatants.

Barton J. Bernstein is a professor emeritus of history at Stanford University and has long written and lectured on the decision to use the atomic bomb and other aspects of the history of nuclear weapons.


1.  William D. Leahy, I Was There: The Personal Story of the Chief of Staff of Presidents Roosevelt and Truman Based on His Notes and Diaries Made at the Time (New York: Whittlesey House, 1950), pp. 440-441.

2.  John J. McCloy, “Objectives Toward Japan and Methods of Concluding War With Minimum Casualties,” May 29, 1945, in Marshall Papers, George C. Marshall Library, Lexington, VA (memorandum of conversation with General George Marshall with handwritten note by McCloy or Marshall stating “C/S [Marshall] has noted and has no further suggestions”).

3.  Statement of President Franklin Roosevelt on June 8, 1943, in The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Vol. 1943, ed. Samuel Rosenman (New York: Harper, 1950), p. 242.

4.  For the formal estimates in the spring of 1945 of TNT equivalence for the two types of atomic bombs, see Gen. Leslie Groves to Secretary of War, “Atomic Fission Bombs,” April 23, 1945, pp. 5-6, in Top Secret of Special Interest to Groves Files, #25, Manhattan Engineer District (MED) Records, RG 77, U.S. National Archives.

5.  Henry Stimson diary, June 1 and 6, 1945, Sterling Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT. The subject has also been thoughtfully treated by various interpreters. See McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (New York: Random House, 1988); Sean Malloy, Atomic Tragedy: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb Against Japan (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008).

6.  For the Interim Committee minutes of May 31, 1945, see Harrison-Bundy Files, #100, MED Records, RG 77. For President Harry Truman’s Potsdam diary of July 25, 1945, see Truman Papers, Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, MO. For Marshall’s interview with Pogue of February 11, 1957, see Larry and Joellen Bland, eds., George C. Marshall Interviews and Reminiscences for Forrest C. Pogue, rev. ed. (Lexington, VA: George C. Marshall Research Foundation, 1991), pp. 422-425.

Posted: November 2, 2015

Nonproliferation Benefits of India Deal Remain Elusive

The lifting of the barriers to international nuclear cooperation with India was intended to bring New Delhi into the nonproliferation mainstream.

June 2015

By John Carlson

In 2005 the Bush administration decided to normalize India’s participation in international nuclear cooperation. In a joint statement with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, President George W. Bush announced that he would work to achieve full civil nuclear energy cooperation with India.[1] Singh affirmed that India was “ready to assume the same responsibilities and practices and acquire the same benefits and advantages as other leading countries with advanced nuclear technology, such as the United States,” and announced a number of nonproliferation and disarmament commitments.

The International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors convenes in Vienna on August 1, 2008, for a meeting during which it approved a safeguards agreement with India. (Samuel Kubani/AFP/Getty Images)In 2007, India and the United States concluded a nuclear cooperation agreement. The following year, at U.S. instigation, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) decided to exempt India from the group’s requirement for comprehensive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards as a condition for nuclear supply. Ten countries have since signed nuclear cooperation agreements with India.[2]

As a result of the U.S. initiative, India is now receiving the benefits of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) without assuming any of the NPT’s obligations, a situation widely seen as damaging the NPT. Today, as India seeks to join the NSG, it is timely to reflect whether India can be seen as sufficiently “like-minded” for its bid to gain consensus support.

Commitments Undertaken

A key objective for the 2005 U.S. initiative was to encourage India to meet international nuclear norms. If India really did intend to assume “the same responsibilities and practices…as other leading countries…such as the United States,” what might it be expected to do?

India could reasonably have been expected to assume the same obligations and responsibilities as NPT nuclear-weapon states. There is no justification for India to expect to receive more-favorable treatment than these states if it does not accept obligations that are at least as rigorous.[3] Under the NPT, the nuclear-weapon states have pledged to refrain from transferring nuclear weapons to other states or assisting others to acquire nuclear weapons, to require safeguards on nuclear transfers to non-nuclear-weapon states, and to pursue negotiations on cessation of the nuclear arms race and on nuclear and general disarmament.

In addition to these explicit obligations, the NPT contains implicit principles. For example, in the terms of their voluntary-offer safeguards agreements,[4] the nuclear-weapon states implicitly agree to separate their military and civilian nuclear programs. Another implicit obligation, applicable to all NPT states, is effective control of uranium-enrichment, spent fuel reprocessing, and other sensitive nuclear technologies, a commitment that for nuclear-weapon states arises from the NPT Article I prohibition on assisting others to acquire nuclear weapons. This responsibility encompasses acts of omission, such as inadequate control enabling unauthorized transfer of sensitive technology. Similarly, there is an implicit obligation on all NPT parties to maintain effective security for nuclear materials.

The nuclear-weapon states have incurred further obligations and responsibilities by signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and allowing the installation of CTBT monitoring stations, supporting the negotiation and conclusion of a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), and placing all imported nuclear material under IAEA safeguards.

In the 2005 joint statement, India undertook to identify and separate civilian and military nuclear facilities and programs “in a phased manner,” voluntarily place civilian facilities under IAEA safeguards, conclude an additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement with respect to civilian facilities, continue its unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, work with the United States for the conclusion of a multilateral FMCT, refrain from transferring enrichment and reprocessing technologies to new states and support international efforts to limit their spread, and secure nuclear materials and technology through comprehensive export control legislation and through harmonization of and adherence to Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and NSG guidelines.

The first three points were reiterated in the 2007 U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation agreement.

Comparing Commitments

The commitments assumed by India are considerably less than those of the nuclear-weapon states. The analysis below compares the two sets of commitments point by point.

Not transferring nuclear weapons to other states or assisting others to acquire nuclear weapons. India’s commitments not to transfer enrichment and reprocessing technologies to states that do not have them, to establish comprehensive export control legislation, and to adhere to the NSG guidelines and MTCR regime are welcome, but only partially correspond to the obligations impose by NPT Article I. The effectiveness of India’s export control arrangements is not clear at this stage.

Pursuing negotiations on disarmament. India has given no commitment comparable to the one in NPT Article VI. In contrast to the nuclear-weapon states, India has avoided any legal obligation to engage in nuclear disarmament efforts. There is a limit to how far nuclear disarmament can proceed without India. India actually is working in the opposite direction, increasing its nuclear arsenal.

Separating military and civilian programs and accepting IAEA safeguards. India released its separation plan, as the document is known, in 2006.[5] Fourteen of the 22 power reactors that were in operation or under construction at that time have been or will be designated for IAEA safeguards, together with some associated facilities.[6] For the future, India reserves the right to decide which additional facilities, if any, it will place under safeguards.

In the case of foreign-supplied facilities, India is obliged by the suppliers to place these under safeguards. For indigenous facilities, which include enrichment facilities, fast breeder reactors, and other power reactors, the separation plan says India will take into account “the nature of the facility concerned, the activities undertaken in it, the national security significance of materials and the location of the facilities.”

Major parts of India’s civilian program remain outside IAEA safeguards and evidently will remain so in the future. The relationship among civilian safeguarded facilities,[7] civilian unsafeguarded facilities, and military facilities is opaque, especially in view of the provisions of the Indian-IAEA safeguards agreement. This agreement allows safeguarded material to be used in normally unsafeguarded facilities and in specified circumstances to produce unsafeguarded plutonium and allows unsafeguarded material to be used in safeguarded facilities. Such flexibility is particularly problematic given that, unlike the nuclear-weapon states, India continues to produce fissile material for weapons.

The scope of the nuclear-weapon states’ voluntary-offer safeguards agreements varies. The Chinese and Russian agreements designate certain facilities as eligible for safeguards, while the United Kingdom and the United States make all civilian facilities eligible for safeguards. France is in between; all facilities with material under bilateral safeguards obligations are designated for IAEA safeguards. In spite of their variations, however, these agreements are consistent in not allowing the use of safeguarded material in unsafeguarded facilities, or vice versa. Facilities either are designated for safeguards, or they are not.

As for India’s additional protocol, New Delhi has reneged on its commitment, made in the 2005 joint statement and the 2007 cooperation agreement, to apply this to its civilian facilities. India’s additional protocol is the most limited of all. The Chinese and Russian additional protocols apply at least to facilities involved in collaborative programs with non-nuclear-weapon states, while the UK and U.S. protocols apply to all the civilian facilities in those countries. India’s additional protocol, however, does not apply to any facilities. This blatant dishonoring of a specific commitment raises questions about India’s attitude toward commitments.

Safeguards in India have some positive aspects. For example, designation of a facility for safeguards is irreversible. In addition, India has placed a larger proportion of facilities under safeguards than China and Russia have, although nowhere near the examples of the UK and the United States, and the IAEA undertakes inspections at all safeguarded facilities. Nevertheless, the separation between military and civilian programs in India has a long way to go compared with the nuclear-weapon states.

Signing the CTBT and hosting CTBT monitoring stations. Signing the CTBT would be a major step in support of nuclear disarmament. The CTBT requires ratification by 44 specified countries before it can enter into force. Eight of those countries have not ratified the treaty: China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, and the United States, which have signed but not ratified the treaty, and India, North Korea, and Pakistan, which have not signed it.

U.S. ratification depends on gaining the necessary number of votes in the Senate, which the Obama administration is pursuing. The general expectation is that when the United States is able to ratify the treaty, China and most of the others will quickly follow. If India does not ratify the CTBT, however, China could use that as a reason not to do so. India’s position therefore is critical because signing the CTBT will build confidence in its intentions among the other holdouts.

A further negative factor is that late in the CTBT negotiations, India withdrew approval for the four monitoring stations planned for its territory.[8] The absence of these stations detracts from the ability of the CTBT monitoring system to provide effective coverage of a key part of the world—South Asia, China, Central Asia, and the Middle East. India has said it will maintain its unilateral test moratorium, but New Delhi’s refusal to allow these stations can be seen as casting doubt on its commitment to its test moratorium. India should show good faith by allowing the four monitoring stations to proceed and signing the CTBT.

Supporting an FMCT. The effort to achieve a global cutoff of fissile material production for nuclear weapons is another important area in which India could demonstrate its good intentions. Along with North Korea and Pakistan, India is one of only three countries still producing fissile material for nuclear weapons. It is not asking too much for India to seriously consider ceasing production of fissile material now as the nuclear-weapon states did many years ago.[9] Serious moves in this direction would have an immediate effect in reducing tensions with Pakistan. Indeed, India could show leadership by initiating negotiations with Pakistan on a bilateral fissile material cutoff agreement.

Placing all imported nuclear material under IAEA safeguards. Under its agreement with the IAEA, India accepts safeguards on imported nuclear material only if this is required by an arrangement to which India is a party, such as a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement. Today, all established uranium suppliers are NPT parties obliged to require safeguards on all nuclear transfers to a nonparty. It is not known whether all countries supplying uranium to India are insisting on safeguards; if not, they are in violation of their NPT obligations. It would be regrettable if India were taking advantage of this. It would be a welcome gesture of good faith for India to place all imported nuclear material under IAEA safeguards.

Bilateral Agreements

A number of major suppliers—Australia, Canada, Japan, the United States, and the European Union—apply similar conditions for the supply of nuclear material and other goods. They require the recipient country to accept conditions covering areas such as peaceful assurances, application of IAEA safeguards, and consent rights for reprocessing, enrichment to levels above 20 percent uranium-235, and retransfers. The agreements include accounting and tracking requirements so that material and items subject to the agreements can be identified.

India has refused to allow suppliers to track nuclear material, maintaining that IAEA safeguards are sufficient. The IAEA, however, does not distinguish between materials of different origins. Without tracking, material covered by particular agreements cannot be readily identified, making it impossible to know if bilateral conditions are being met.

Because of India’s refusal to accept tracking, the administrative arrangement required for the 2007 U.S.-Indian nuclear agreement to go into effect still has not been concluded.[10] Following President Barack Obama’s visit to India in January, it seems that officials have finally found a practical solution. It appears that the United States would supply nuclear material only in the form of fuel assemblies for U.S.-supplied reactors. This material would stay in a self-contained U.S. bubble within the Indian fuel cycle. India would provide detailed reactor operational information to enable the United States to calculate plutonium production.

It is difficult to understand why India has been so obstinate on this issue. Once India adopts modern nuclear accounting, a step the IAEA is working to help it achieve, New Delhi could easily generate the information required under bilateral agreements in the same way as every other country with such agreements.


On the basis of the terms set by the 2005 joint statement—that India is ready to assume the same responsibilities and practices as other leading countries, such as the United States—lifting the barriers to nuclear cooperation with India cannot be considered a success. The disparity between the commitments assumed by the NPT nuclear-weapon states and those of India clearly shows the opportunity lost in failing to require more of India. As a result of that failure, India has achieved a privileged position, gaining the benefits of the NPT without any of the obligations.

This situation has been exacerbated by the willingness of some governments to compromise nuclear cooperation standards for short-term political gain. Far from assisting India’s integration into the global nuclear community, such compromises will make integration longer and more fraught. Lifting the restrictions on India was intended to bring India into the nonproliferation mainstream. Yet, India has shown limited interest in meeting international nuclear norms and is instead determined to go its own way. This will not be lost on governments considering whether India is sufficiently like-minded to join the NSG.

At a time when Russia and the United States have made very substantial cuts to their nuclear arsenals and the international community is calling for the other nuclear-armed countries to join in arms reductions, India is working in the opposite direction. Indians see access to imported nuclear material as freeing up indigenous material for their weapons program.[11] With its civilian and military programs closely linked, New Delhi is operating on a fuel cycle model that the nuclear-weapon states abandoned decades ago. Moreover, India is increasing production of fissile material, adding to regional tensions.

It is alarming that New Delhi has not articulated the limits of its nuclear ambitions. Indian leaders believe that their country’s principal adversary is not Pakistan, with which it has broad nuclear parity, but China. This suggests India could be considering increasing its nuclear arsenal by a factor of two or three or perhaps more.
It can be hoped that India’s role in international nuclear affairs will be more positive, but a transition from nuclear outlier to leader will require a major change in India’s attitude toward disarmament and regional security.

John Carlson is a counselor to the Nuclear Threat Initiative and nonresident fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. He was director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Nonproliferation Office and chair of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Standing Advisory Group on Safeguards Implementation. The views in this article are his own.


1. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Joint Statement Between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,” July 18, 2005.

2. In addition to the United States, the countries that have signed and brought into force an agreement with India are Argentina, Canada, France, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Namibia, Russia, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. Australia has signed an agreement.

3. For more, see John Carlson, “Challenges and Opportunities for Extending NPT-Related Commitments to Non-NPT States,” Policy Brief, No. 15 (September 2014), http://www.a-pln.org/content/policy-brief-no-15-challenges-and-opportunities-extending-npt-related-commitments-non-npt.

4. Under their voluntary-offer safeguards agreements, nuclear-weapon states under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty can designate facilities that are eligible for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. The IAEA can select from these eligible facilities for conducting safeguards activities. In practice, for reasons of resource limitations, the IAEA conducts safeguards at only a limited number of facilities in nuclear-weapon states.

5. IAEA, “Communication Dated 25 July 2008 Received From the Permanent Mission of India Concerning a Document Entitled ‘Implementation of the India-United States Joint Statement of July 18, 2005: India’s Separation Plan,’” INFCIRC/731, July 25, 2008.

6. Of the 14 reactors designated for safeguards, six already were subject to safeguards because they were supplied by a foreign country. Thus, the net increase for safeguards is eight indigenous reactors.

7. In this context, the term “civilian safeguarded facilities” means the facilities that are listed in the annex to India’s IAEA safeguards agreement.

8. Ramesh Thakur and John Carlson, “How India Can Support the CTBT Before Signing,” Japan Times, April 8, 2015, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2015/04/08/commentary/world-commentary/india-can-support-ctbt-signing.

9. France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have formally declared that they are not producing fissile material for nuclear weapons. China has not made such a declaration, but is believed to be following suit.

10. A further issue, outside the scope of this paper, is India’s nuclear liability laws.

11. See Akhilesh Pillalamarri, “India’s Nuclear-Weapons Program: 5 Things You Need to Know,” The National Interest, April 22, 2015, http://www.nationalinterest.org/feature/indias-nuclear-weapons-program-5-things-you-need-know-12697?page=show.

Posted: June 1, 2015

Looking Back: Ukraine’s Nuclear Predicament and the Nonproliferation Regime

In the early 1990s, Ukraine’s claim to rightful ownership of nuclear weapons that had been part of the Soviet arsenal became a bone of contention in the country’s relations with Russia and the United States.

By Mariana Budjeryn

November 16, 2014, marked 20 years since Ukraine joined the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear-weapon state, relinquishing the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union. Today, the nuclear renunciation of Ukraine, along with those of Belarus and Kazakhstan, is hailed as a great contribution to the cause of nuclear nonproliferation. This accomplishment is all the more laudable considering the unprecedented challenges created by the demise of the nuclear superpower and the ambiguous status of the nuclear armaments left on the territory of its non-Russian successors.

Of the three successors, Ukraine followed the most difficult path to the NPT, fraught with contention and acrimony. Soon after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s initial commitment to denuclearization gave way to a more cautious treatment of its nuclear inheritance. Ukraine’s claim to rightful ownership of nuclear weapons, based on its status as a legal successor to the Soviet Union on par with Russia, became the most controversial aspect of its disarmament negotiations with Russia and the United States.

This article examines the origins and development of this claim. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the claim to nuclear ownership did not arise solely or even primarily from a desire by Ukraine to leverage its bargaining position and exert financial compensation and security guarantees from Russia and the West. Instead, it originated as a challenge to Russia’s privileged status as the sole nuclear heir of the Soviet Union and an attempt to reconstitute relations with Moscow on the basis of formal equality.

From Renunciation to Ownership
One Saturday in April 1986, after an unexpected power surge, a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine burst into flames, exposing millions of unsuspecting people across northeastern Europe to plumes of radioactive material. The Chernobyl accident also exposed the negligence of the Soviet leadership, which led to the explosion, and its duplicity, which was evident in its handling of the aftermath. In the years that followed, the accident spurred widespread anti-nuclear sentiment that became an integral part of Ukraine’s pro-independence movement: “anti-nuclear” became synonymous with “anti-Soviet.”[1]

At the same time, due to the secrecy and centralization of Soviet strategic military affairs, very few Ukrainians knew that the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal was located on their territory.[2] Those privy to the knowledge included political leaders who viewed the centralized control of the strategic systems as an impediment to Ukraine’s drive away from Moscow. In the words of prominent diplomat Volodymyr Vasylenko, “By being a nuclear power [Ukraine] could not have full independence.”[3]

These considerations led Ukraine to proclaim its intention to become a neutral state and “adhere to three non-nuclear principles: not to receive, develop or acquire nuclear weapons” in the Declaration of Sovereignty passed by the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada, on July 16, 1990.[4] The declaration also affirmed Ukraine’s right to form its own military and conduct an independent foreign policy. In an attempt to act out this right and “remind the outer world of its existence,” Ukraine asked to join the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state prior to the 1990 NPT Review Conference.[5] Moscow thwarted this attempt due to the perception that participation in a major international regime by a Soviet republic would exacerbate decentralizing tendencies within the Soviet Union.[6]

Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and Belarusian leader Stanislav Shushkevich pose after signing an agreement in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on December 21, 1991, on unified control over nuclear weapons within the Commonwealth of Independent States. (RIA Novosti)The events of August 1991 radically altered the context within which Ukraine was to decide its nuclear future. The failed coup of August 19, attempted by conservative Soviet military and security apparatchiks, highlighted the defenselessness of Ukraine, a self-proclaimed sovereign state with only the republican police to protect it from the Soviet military behemoth. On August 24, the Rada passed the Declaration of Independence, which marked the birth of Ukrainian statehood. More than anything else, the document conveyed a profound sense of insecurity with its opening words: “Proceeding from the mortal danger that gripped Ukraine during the coup d’etat in the USSR.”[7]

Not accidentally, the very next bill passed by the Rada was a resolution subordinating all military units located on Ukraine’s territory to the Rada and ordering the establishment of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry and national armed forces.[8] Subsequently, Ukraine claimed ownership of all property and financial assets on its territory formerly belonging to the Soviet Union.[9] The problem was that some of these military units and properties were associated with the Soviet nuclear complex.

As the crumbling of the union became irreversible, Ukraine began negotiating its relationship with a fellow country striving for democracy, the Russian Federation led by Boris Yeltsin. This new Moscow held the promise of a partnership based on equality rather than domination. In September 1991, Yeltsin declared that Russia was no longer an empire, saying that it would be an “equal among equals.”[10] Kyiv’s pro-independence politicians, including moderate nationalists who saw Ukraine as a European country and feared that Moscow’s long tradition of dominating Ukraine would continue, thought this equality should apply in all respects, including the right to Soviet succession.

This new stance was first articulated by Vyacheslav Chornovil, the leader of the national-democratic Rukh party, who issued a statement in September 1991 stressing that Ukraine, like Russia and other republics, was the “rightful heir to all the material and technical resources, including weapons, of the former Soviet Union.”[11] The fate of Ukraine’s nuclear inheritance, he maintained, should be decided through treaties with “nuclear states.” Meanwhile, the existence of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, coupled with its aspiration to relinquish them, would serve as “a good incentive” for the creation of its independent armed forces, as well as for international recognition of Ukraine “as a fully fledged subject of international law.”[12]
Collective Insecurity

As Chornovil had understood, the establishment of Ukraine’s national army was a daunting task. It encountered formidable resistance from the command of the Soviet military, the only central Soviet institution still intact in late 1991. With about one million troops on its territory formally under oath to Moscow, the new Ukrainian state had to decisively secure their loyalty. Preserving unified control over strategic armaments was a technical and political necessity. Yet, the label “strategic” encompassed not only nuclear warheads, but also the vast research and development, communications, and intelligence infrastructure; air defense systems; and the troops of the 43rd Rocket Army and 46th Air Army associated with the strategic arsenal. What kind of independence would Ukraine achieve, after all, if part of its military remained subordinated to Moscow?

As it turned out, the expectation that nuclear weapons would prompt international recognition of Ukraine could not have been farther from reality. The United States stated explicitly that it opposed any possibility of independent control over nuclear armaments by non-Russian republics. U.S. Secretary of State James Baker insisted that Soviet nuclear weapons remain under “safe, responsible and reliable control with a single unified authority,” the precise nature of which was for “Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and any common entity to determine.”[13] Indeed, the United States granted Ukraine diplomatic recognition only after such unified control was formally preserved in the form of the Joint Strategic Command (JSC) of the newly created Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Nevertheless, the nuclear settlement reached at the CIS founding meetings in December 1991 was highly ambiguous. It envisioned a kind of nuclear umbrella to provide for the collective security of all members of the commonwealth. Ukraine committed to eventually transferring all tactical and strategic nuclear weapons to Russia. Until that time, it undertook some obligations traditionally associated with nuclear-weapon states, such as adherence to the no-first-use principle and commitment not to transfer nuclear weapons to other states.[14] Agreements spoke of joint command and control, but said nothing of who possesses the weapons.

The moderate nationalist members of the Rada, however, opposed any idea of a collective security arrangement with Russia. As Ivan Zayets, a Rukh member of the Rada security and defense committee, argued, a collective security system with Russia would hinder Ukraine’s prospects to “integrate…into the world economy and world civilization.”[15] Thus, although Ukraine joined the JSC, it steered clear of every other CIS security commitment.

Unsurprisingly, the JSC soon proved unworkable. Principled differences over the role of the CIS, mixed loyalties, and overlapping chains of military command erupted in a series of incidents late in early 1992. In one of the incidents, crews loyal to Moscow flew six SU-24 strategic bombers out of a Ukrainian air base to Russia. In response, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk on March 12 halted the transfer of tactical nuclear weapons to Russia and moved to establish “administrative control” over strategic forces, obligating all troops to take a Ukrainian military oath.[16] Although the transfer later resumed and was completed within the agreed time, the disputes over the status of strategic forces were to plague negotiations with Ukraine until the very end.[17]

Succession Without Possession
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (center) speaks with British Foreign Secretary William Hague (left) and acting Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia after a ministerial meeting in Paris on the Budapest Memorandum and the Ukraine crisis on March 5. (U.S. Department of State)Meanwhile, the historic Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) signed by the United States and the Soviet Union on July 31, 1991, was cast into dubious legal territory as one of its signatories no longer existed. Ukraine and Kazakhstan, although not Belarus, insisted that they should become parties to the treaty. Despite Russian objections, the United States decided to go along with these demands. In May 1992 in Lisbon, the United States, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus signed a protocol making the latter three countries parties to START “as successor states” of the Soviet Union.[18] Lest this should be construed as the right of the non-Russian republics to claim those strategic armaments not subject to START reductions, Article 5 of the Lisbon Protocol obligated them to join the NPT as non-nuclear-weapon states “in the shortest possible time.”[19] Until then, the weapons were to remain under the control of a single unified authority.

The protocol did not specify the nuclear status of the non-Russian republics before they joined the NPT, and diplomatic notes submitted at the signing in Lisbon revealed that Russia and Ukraine had very different opinions on the issue. The Ukrainian note claimed that Ukraine voluntarily renounced its legitimate right to possess nuclear weapons as an equal successor of the Soviet Union and, in exchange, the country would demand security guarantees from the nuclear-weapon states.[20] The Russian Foreign Ministry stressed that Russia considered Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine “non-nuclear weapons states at the moment of the signing of the Protocol.”[21]

In mid-1992, Ukraine commenced negotiations with the United States on security guarantees. By the end of that year, however, it became clear that the United States was not prepared to make any binding security commitments to Ukraine beyond political assurances extended to all NPT non-nuclear-weapon states or pledged in other multilateral instruments such as the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act.[22] Moreover, neither security assurances nor financial aid and compensation for denuclearization would be forthcoming until Ukraine joined the NPT.[23]

Meanwhile, the perceived threat of border revisionism by Russia grew. Moscow’s involvement in the conflicts in Transnistria and the Caucasus, as well as its support for Crimean separatism, ran counter to the democratic equality Yeltsin once promised. To Ukraine’s demands for security guarantees, Russia responded that it would respect Ukraine’s borders only “within the borders of the CIS,” a formulation Ukraine rejected because that demand effectively made its territorial integrity hostage to membership in the CIS.[24]

By February 1993, Ukraine had become the only signatory not to ratify the START-Lisbon package. Kravchuk submitted it to the Rada in November 1992, but the vote was repeatedly postponed. Decried as Ukraine’s backtracking on its commitments, the lack of progress in denuclearization landed Kyiv in complete international isolation. Bereft of allies and threatened by Russia, Ukraine redoubled its insistence on nuclear ownership.

From Ownership to Renunciation
The claim of nuclear ownership crystallized as the main focus of Ukraine’s position by early 1993. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry reported that Ukrainian-Russian nuclear negotiations were at an impasse because of principled differences on nuclear ownership and the status of strategic forces on Ukrainian territory.[25] That July, the Rada passed a set of foreign policy principles, claiming pointedly that, “as a result of historical events, Ukraine became the owner of nuclear weapons.”[26] Russia unsurprisingly construed this as a unilateral declaration of nuclear status.[27]

Within Ukraine, the right to nuclear ownership, which stemmed from insistence on legal equality with Russia, was translated into two main narratives.[28] Kravchuk and the Foreign Ministry employed it to substantiate Ukraine’s entitlement to financial and political compensation for relinquished state property of strategic significance.[29] They maintained that Ukraine’s nuclear ownership did not contradict the NPT since the country did not aspire to operational control over its weapons.30 Some senior Rada members, however, considered it the basis for retaining the 46 SS-24 missiles that were not subject to START reductions. Under this approach, Ukraine’s complete nuclear disarmament would be achieved through further treaties and in conjunction with reductions by other nuclear possessors.[31]

When the Rada finally voted on START in November 1993, it was this second narrative that found expression in its extensive reservations. The ratification bill, citing the 1983 Vienna Convention on the Succession of States, claimed that “all property of the strategic and tactical nuclear forces on Ukrainian territory, including nuclear warheads, is the state property of Ukraine.”[32] The Rada upheld proportional reductions under START, amounting to 36 percent of delivery vehicles and 42 percent of warheads, and proclaimed itself not bound by Article 5 of the Lisbon Protocol obligating Ukraine to join the NPT in the shortest possible time.[33]

Despite its initial outrage, the Clinton administration decided to engage in active diplomacy to mediate the crisis. In January 1994, this effort yielded the Trilateral Statement signed by the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, and the United States, pledging unconditional security assurances, technical assistance, and compensation for the highly enriched uranium contained in strategic and tactical weapons. In doing so, Moscow and Washington effectively recognized Ukraine’s claim that relinquishing its nuclear weapons entitled it to compensation. In a subsequent letter urging the Rada to remove its reservations, Kravchuk underscored the political significance of the trilateral process, in which Ukraine engaged in negotiations with Russia and the United States as a “fully fledged and equal partner.”[34]

In February 1994, the Rada granted full ratification to the START-Lisbon package, restoring the link with the NPT. In November 1994, the Rada ratified the NPT, also with reservations.[35] Although it continued to insist on the ownership of the weapons it was relinquishing and pointed to the shortcomings of the NPT in capturing Ukraine’s unique situation, the main focus of the reservations was the inadequacy of the security commitments Ukraine was receiving in return.[36] These commitments were formalized on December 5, 1994, in a memorandum signed by Russia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States in Budapest at the summit of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe.[37]

Security assurances pledged by the nuclear-weapon states in the Budapest Memorandum remained substantively unchanged from what the United States brought to the negotiating table in 1992. They included negative and positive nuclear security assurances and commitments to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and abstain from economic coercion, the threat of force, or use of force. The memorandum also provided for consultations of signatories “in the event of a situation arising that raises a question concerning [parties’] commitments.”[38] The Ukrainian leadership, however, knew full well that these security assurances would neither deter violators nor lead to their punishment. Following the signing of the memorandum, Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine’s new president, conceded, “If tomorrow Russia goes into the Crimea no one will even raise an eyebrow. Besides…promises, no one ever planned to give Ukraine any guarantees.”[39]

The consultation mechanism was invoked for the first time in 20 years in March 2014 following the reports of a mass influx of unmarked Russian troops into Crimea, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declined to participate. In a statement released following the meeting, Ukraine, the UK, and the United States called on Russia to take seriously the assurances given “in return for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons.”[40] Thus, over the years, the recognition that the nuclear arsenal was Ukraine’s to give up has become commonplace. In the early 1990s, however, the issue of the status of nuclear arms on Ukrainian territory was no matter of casual semantics.

Ukraine’s claim to nuclear ownership was not entirely untenable; its legal succession to the Soviet Union was recognized in relation to conventional armed forces.[41] If successful, however, the claim would have dragged out the country’s denuclearization indefinitely, with profound repercussions for the entire post-Cold War settlement. It ultimately collided with the interests of Ukraine’s powerful interlocutors and the precepts of the international nonproliferation regime. The very existence of the NPT meant that a different set of rules applied to the nuclear part of Ukraine’s military inheritance than to the conventional one. Furthermore, the NPT’s stark binary categories of “nuclear-weapon state” and “non-nuclear-weapon state” could not be reconciled with Ukraine’s new category of “nuclear ownership”—legal possession without operational control—which fell somewhere in the middle. Ukraine could sustain its claim only by remaining outside of the NPT. That option would have spelled isolation from the international community, which Ukraine ultimately wanted to join, not defy.

The normative power of the NPT and the pressure applied by Russia and the United States reinforced each other. As Ukraine yielded to these formidable political and normative pressures, it failed to obtain binding guarantees of its national security. The importance of the Budapest Memorandum, however, was in linking Ukraine’s accession to the NPT with security assurances against conventional as well as nuclear threats.Because of this connection, Russia’s military campaign against Ukraine violates the Budapest Memorandum and is detrimental to the NPT and the value of security assurances for future nonproliferation efforts.

Last August, as Russian troops poured into eastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin reminded the world that Russia is one of the world’s most powerful nuclear nations. At one time, this privileged status carried with it a sense of special responsibility for fostering the nonproliferation regime. Today, Russia’s nuclear boast suggests that it has resolved to use its nuclear status as a license to act with impunity. This is a perilous situation for the NPT. Just as it had benefited from the support of nuclear-weapon states, so is it particularly vulnerable to a nuclear possessor’s breach of commitments undertaken in connection with the treaty.

Mariana Budjeryn is a Ph.D. candidate at the Doctoral School of Political Science, Public Policy, and International Relations at the Central European University in Budapest. Her research focuses on the politics of nuclear disarmament of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union.


1. Jane Dawson, Eco-Nationalism: Anti-Nuclear Activism and National Identity in Russia, Lithuania, and Ukraine (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), p. 78.

2. The precise numbers on Ukraine’s nuclear inheritance are unknown. It is generally believed that the inherited arsenal consisted of 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles, including 130 liquid-fueled SS-19 and 46 solid-fueled SS-24 missiles, 44 strategic heavy bombers armed with AS-15 Kent cruise missiles, close to 2,000 nuclear warheads to arm these strategic delivery systems, and more than 2,600 tactical nuclear weapons.

3. John Lloyd and Chrystia Freeland, “A Painful Birth,” The Financial Times, February 25, 1992. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Anatoloy Zlenko recalled similar reasoning on the issue in his memoirs. See Anatoliy Zlenko, Dyplomatiia I Polityka. Ukraїna v Protsesi Dynamichnykh Heopolitychnykh Zmin [Diplomacy and politics. Ukraine in the process of dynamic geopolitical changes] (Kharkiv: Folio, 2003).

4. “Deklaratsiia pro derzhavnii suverenitet Ukraiiny [Declaration of state sovereignty of Ukraine],” Vidomosti Verkhovnoii Rady Ukraiiny [Official Bulletin of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine], No. 31, St. 429 (July 16, 1990), http://zakon1.rada.gov.ua/cgi-bin/laws/main.cgi?nreg=55-12. 

5. Victor Batiouk, Ukraine’s Non-Nuclear Option (New York: UN Institute for Disarmament Research, 1992), p. 3. Batiouk served as a representative of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to UN institutions in Geneva from 1978 to 1984 and then as Ukraine’s permanent representative to the United Nations from 1992 to 1994.

6. William Potter, The Politics of Nuclear Renunciation: The Cases of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, Occasional Paper (Washington, DC: Henry L. Stimson Center, April 1995), p. 13. The United Kingdom and the United States chose not to challenge Moscow’s opinion.

7. “Akt proholoshennia nezalezhnosti Ukraiiny [Act of declaration of independence of Ukraine],” Vidomosti Verkhovnoii Rady Ukraiiny [Official Bulletin of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine], No. 38, St. 502 (August 24, 1991), http://zakon.rada.gov.ua/cgi-bin/laws/main.cgi?nreg=1427-12.

8. “Postanova pro viis’kovi formuvannia na Ukraiini [Resolution on the military units in Ukraine],” Vidomosti Verkhovnoii Rady Ukraiiny [Official Bulletin of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine], No. 38, St. 562 (August 24, 1991), http://zakon2.rada.gov.ua/laws/show/1431-12.

9. “Zakon Ukraiiny pro Pidpryiemstva, Ustanovy Ta Orhanizatsii Soiuznoho Pidporiadruvannia, Roztashovani Na Terytorii Ukraiiny [Law of Ukraine on enterprises, institutions and organizations of union subordination on the territory of Ukraine],” Vidomosti Verkhovnoii Rady Ukraiiny [Official Bulletin of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine], No. 46, St. 615 (September 10, 1991), http://zakon3.rada.gov.ua/laws/show/1540-12.

10. Michael Dobbs, “Yeltsin Promises Russia Will Not Dominate Union,” The Washington Post, September 4, 1991.

11. “Vyacheslav Chornovil pro bez’iadernyi status Ukraiiny [Vyacheslav Chornovil on the non-nuclear status of Ukraine],” Molod Ukrajiny, September 12, 1991.

12. Ibid.

13. Sidney D. Drell and James E. Goodby, The Gravest Danger: Nuclear Weapons (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2003), p. 72.

14. “Soglasheniie o sovmestnykh merakh v otnoshenii iadernogo oruzhiia. [Agreement on joint measures on nuclear weapons],” December 21, 1991, http://cis.minsk.by/reestr/ru/index.html#reestr/view/text?doc=3.

15. “Protokol no. 7. Zasidannia komisii Verkhovnoii Rady Ukraiiny z pytan’ natsionalnoii bezpeky i oborony [Protocol no 7. meeting of the Defense and Security Committee of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine],” October 21, 1991, Fond 1-P, Opis 1, Delo 2179, Central State Archive of Ukraine.

16. Serge Schmemann, “Ukraine Halting A-Arms Shift to Russia,” The New York Times, March 13, 1992; “Ukaz pro nevidkladni zakhody po budivnytstvu Zbroinykh Syl Ukraiiny [Decree on urgent measures regarding the establishment of the armed forces of Ukraine],” April 5, 1992, http://zakon2.rada.gov.ua/laws/show/209/92.

17. In fact, the transfer was completed by May 6, 1992, ahead of the June 1, 1992, deadline stipulated in the Commonwealth of Independent States agreement of December 21, 1991. The Russian announcement on the completion of the transfer was timed to coincide with the visit of Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk to Washington. It came as a surprise to Kravchuk, embarrassing him and underscoring how much control Russia still had over military affairs on Ukrainian territory.

18. “Protocol to the Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms,”  May 23, 1992, http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/27389.pdf.

19. Ibid.

20. For the content of the note, see Valeriy Kuchinsky, “Za Bezpeku Bez Konfrontacii [For security without confrontation],” Polityka i Chas, Nos. 9-10 (October 1992), p. 38. Kuchinsky was chief of the disarmament department at the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

21. “Written Statement by the Russian Side at the Signing of the Protocol to the START Treaty on 23 May 1992 in Lisbon,” Arms Control Today, June 1992, p. 36.

22. For a more detailed discussion of the negotiation process on security assurances, see Sherman Garnett, “The Role of Security Assurances in Ukrainian Denuclearization,” in Missed Opportunities?: The Role of Security Assurances in Nuclear Non-Proliferation, ed. Virginia Foran (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1997); Mariana Budjeryn, “The Breach: Ukraine’s Territorial Integrity and the Budapest Memorandum,” NPIHP Issue Brief, No. 3 (September 2014), http://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/Issue%20Brief%20No%203--The%20Breach--Final4.pdf.

j23. In terms of financial aid, the United States had made funds available to post-Soviet states under the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, created by legislation sponsored by Senators Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and passed in November 1991. In addition, in September 1992, Russia and the United States signed a $5 billion deal for the purchase of highly enriched uranium contained in dismantled Soviet warheads. This awakened Ukrainian leadership to the fact it had neither demanded nor received any compensation for the tactical weapons transferred earlier and the strategic warheads to be dismantled. It was understood that Russia would work out a settlement with Ukraine and others, but the entitlement to compensation was ultimately connected to the contentious question of ownership. In addition, until mid-1993, Russia refused to consider the idea of retroactive compensation for the tactical nuclear weapons transferred in 1992.

24. “Zapys Besidy Zastupnyka Ministra Zakordonnykh Sprav Ukraiiny B. Tarasiuka Z Poslom Z Оsoblyvykh Doruchen’ Ministersva Zarordonnykh Sprav RF M. Strel’tsovym. [Report of a meeting of Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister B. Tarasiuk with Ambassador-at-Large of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation M. Streltsov],” January 12, 1993, Fond 1, Delo 7039, Archive of the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

25. “Pro Kompleksne Vyrishennia Shyrokoho Kola Pytan’, Pov’iazanykh Z Roztashovanoiu Na Terytorii Ukraiiny Stratehichnoiu Iadernoiu Zbroieiu I Taktychnymy Iadernymy Boiezariadamy, Vyvedenymy Vesnoiu 1992 Roku P Ukraiiny Dlia Iikh Rozukompledtuvannia I Znyshchennia [On the comprehensive resolution of the wide range of issues related to the strategic nuclear weapons located on the territory of Ukraine and tactical nuclear warheads, removed from Ukraine in spring of 1992 for their dismantlement and elimination],” March 1993, Fond 1, Delo 7057, List 23-25, Archive of the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

26. Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, “Postanova pro Osnovni Napriamy Zovnishnioii Polityky Ukraiiny [Resolution on the main principles of the foreign policy of Ukraine],” Vidomosti Verkhovnoii Rady Ukraiiny [Official Bulletin of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine], No. 37, St. 379 (July 2, 1993), http://zakon2.rada.gov.ua/laws/show/3360-12.

27. Yuri Dubinin, “Ukraine’s Nuclear Ambitions: Reminiscences of the Past,” Russia in Global Affairs, April 13, 2004, http://eng.globalaffairs.ru/number/n_2913. Dubinin headed the Russian delegation to the talks.

28. There was a third narrative: retaining all nuclear weapons as a strategic deterrent, advocated by Rada members Colonel-General Volodymyr Tolubko and ultranationalist Stepan Khmara. This narrative, however, was marginal in Ukraine’s nuclear discourse and found no support with the Rada or the executive branch.

29. “Memorandum Ministerstva Zakordonnykh Sprav Ukraiiny [Memorandum of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine],” December 11, 1992, Fond 1, Delo 6857, List 241-246, Archive of the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

30. Ibid., p. 243.

31. Dmytro Pavlychko, Holosy Moho Zhyattia. Statti, Vystupy, Interv’iu. Dokumenty [The Voices of My Life. Articles, Speeches, Interviews. Documents] (Kyiv: Osnovy, 2013), pp. 419-421 (Pavlychko’s speech to the Rada on June 2, 1993). Pavlychko was the chair of the Rada foreign affairs committee and a member of the Presidium, a body comprised of senior Rada leadership that controlled the legislative agenda.

32. Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, “Postanova pro ratyficatsiiu Dohovoru mizh Soiuzom Radianskykh Sotsialistychnykh Respublik i Spoluchenymy Shtatamy Ameryky pro skorochennia i obmezhennia stratehichnykh nastupal’nykh ozbroien’, pidpysanoho u Moskvi 31 lypnia 1991 roku, i Protokolu do nioho, pidpysanoho u Lisaboni vid imeni Ukrainy 23 travnia 1992 roku [Resolution on ratification of the treaty between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United States of America on strategic arms reductions and limitations signed in Moscow on July 31, 1991, and its protocol signed in Lisbon on behalf of Ukraine on May 23, 1992],” Vidomosti Verkhovnoii Rady Ukraiiny [Official Bulletin of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine], No. 49, St. 464 (November 18, 1993), http://zakon3.rada.gov.ua/laws/show/3624-12. The 1983 Vienna Convention on Succession of States in Respect of State Property, Archives and Debts never entered into force as not enough parties had ratified or signed it. Ukraine ratified it on January 8, 1993. For more detail on the  convention, see https://treaties.un.org/pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=III-12&chapter=3&lang=en.

33. Ibid.

34. “Lyst Presydenta Ukraiiny L. Kravchuka Holovi Verkhovnoii Rady Ukraiiny I. Plyushchu [Letter of President L. Kravchuk to speaker of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine I. Plyushch],” January 24, 1994, Fond 1, Opis 16, Delo 4964, Central State Archive of Ukraine.

35. The 10-month delay between the ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was primarily due to the change of government in Kyiv, with early parliamentary elections taking place in March and early presidential elections in June 1994.

36. Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, “Zakon Ukraiiny pro Pryiednannia Ukraiiny Do Dohovoru pro Nerozpovsiudzhennia Iadernoii Zbroii Vid 1 Lypnia 1968 Roku [Law of Ukraine on accession to the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons of July 1, 1968],” Vidomosti Verkhovnoii Rady Ukraiiny [Official Bulletin of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine], No. 47, St. 421 (November 16, 1994), http://zakon2.rada.gov.ua/laws/show/248/94-вр. Article 4 contained a caveat that Ukraine would treat the use or threat of use of force against its territorial integrity as “extraordinary circumstances that jeopardize its supreme interests,” a formulation taken verbatim from NPT Article X, which deals with withdrawal from the treaty.

37. China and France pledged similar security assurances separately in a bilateral format.

38. UN General Assembly and UN Security Council, “Memorandum on Security Assurances in Connection with Ukraine’s Accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” A/49/765, S/1994/1399 (December 5, 1994).

39. Taras Kuzio, Ukraine Under Kuchma (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), p. 220 (quoting a December 6, 1994, Reuters article).

40. Office of the Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State, “U.S./U.K./Ukraine Press Statement on the Budapest Memorandum Meeting,” March 5, 2014, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2014/03/222949.htm.

41. As a Soviet successor state, Ukraine acceded to the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe in July 1992 and undertook proportional reductions in accordance with the treaty.

Posted: December 4, 2014

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.

Posted: May 1, 2014

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.

Posted: March 4, 2014

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).

Posted: December 4, 2013

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).

Posted: June 3, 2013


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