Arms Control Debate

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America's use of atomic bombs against Japan in 1945 ushered in a new era that posed the danger of nuclear holocaust. During the Cold War (1945–1991), the threat of nuclear warfare increased as a result of the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both nations expanded their nuclear armaments to ensure that they could totally destroy the other's society in the event of war. Yet both also recognized that nuclear weapons had to be controlled if the world was to avoid catastrophe. Throughout this period, American society and culture felt a tension between on the one hand seeking national security through increased nuclear armament and on the other wishing to feel more secure by limiting the number and spread of nuclear arms.

1946 to 1968

The term arms control was coined in the 1950s by scientists and politicians seeking to prevent nuclear war. Unlike disarmament advocates, arms control advocates seek to ameliorate the conditions that might lead to war without trying to rid the world of nuclear weapons, which they tend to see as a utopian fantasy. Efforts to control the atomic bomb developed along with the bomb itself: On July 17, 1945, scientists at the Manhattan Project's Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory petitioned President Harry S. Truman to warn Japan about the nature of the new weapon and give it a chance to surrender before the bomb was used. The petition warned of a postwar arms race if some means of control were not found. Although Truman did warn Japan, he did not specifically warn about nuclear weapons.

The idea that nuclear weapons should be placed under international control gained credence after World War II. In 1946, the Department of State appointed a panel, led by Dean Acheson and David Lilienthal, to study the question of international control. The March 1946 Acheson-Lilienthal Report proposed the creation of an international agency that would control all uranium, plutonium, and thorium in the world to prevent any individual country from secretly developing nuclear weapons. Shortly thereafter, President Truman appointed Bernard M. Baruch as U.S. delegate to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission. The Baruch Plan revised the Acheson-Lilienthal Report, proposing severe and immediate penalties for violators and the elimination of the United Nations Security Council members' veto power. The Soviet Union refused to give up the veto and countered with a proposal to prohibit the production, possession, or use of nuclear weapons. Negotiations continued through 1948, but neither side made a serious effort to break the impasse.

With arms control negotiations at a stalemate, in 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed the creation of an international agency to supply nations with fissionable material for nonmilitary projects, suggesting that international cooperation might lay the groundwork for arms control agreements. The International Atomic Energy Agency was formed by the United Nations in 1956 to promote nuclear science and nonmilitary nuclear technology.

During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet Union and the United States came to the brink of nuclear war. Hoping to prevent future crises, they installed a hotline between Moscow and Washington, D.C. to allow for immediate communication. Following worldwide protests against nuclear testing, Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union signed the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere, underwater, and in outer space. Underground nuclear tests were still allowed, and the three nations continued to build their nuclear arsenals; France and China also developed nuclear bombs in the 1960s. Despite this, the treaty had symbolic importance and showed that international agreements on nuclear weapons were possible.

In the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the nonnuclear nations that signed the treaty agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons. In exchange, they were to be given assistance with nonmilitary nuclear technology and the five declared nuclear nations promised to work toward future arms control measures and disarmament.

1969 to 2002

In November 1969, the spirit of détente led to the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union, which resulted in two arms control agreements signed in 1972. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty limited the number and placement of ABM systems the two countries could possess (on June 13, 2002, the United States formally nullified this treaty). The Interim Agreement on the Limitation of Strategic Office Arms limited the numbers of strategic missile launchers on land and sea. The June 1979 SALT II Treaty established precise limits on certain missiles, missile systems, and bombers. In January 1980, the Senate debate on SALT II was postponed in retaliation for Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Although the treaty never formally entered into force, both countries pledged to abide by it.

In December 1987, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) dismantled all medium and short-range missiles and allowed for on-site inspection. Other important weapons treaties signed during the late 1980s include the Conventional Forces Europe Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty, and the Threshold Test Ban Treaty.

In July 1991, George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), limiting long-range nuclear weapons, which had first been proposed in 1982 by President Ronald Reagan. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, a supplemental agreement between the United States, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan was signed. START I became effective on December 5, 1994. In April 2003, START II came into force and established even deeper cuts.

In 1955, President Eisenhower had first proposed the idea of an Open Skies Treaty, in which the United States and the Soviet Union would allow each other to conduct aerial inspections of their weapons sites. An Open Skies Treaty was finally signed in March 1992 by twenty-seven members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the former Warsaw Pact. It allows for aerial observation and makes the resulting data available to all signatories.

In 1996, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was signed, making nuclear weapons tests illegal. To become law, at least 44 countries that owned nuclear power plants had to ratify it. By April 2003, 167 countries had signed on and 98 had ratified it, but the U.S. Senate has refused to do so.

The Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, known as the Moscow Treaty, was signed on May 24, 2002. Both countries agreed to reduce their arsenals to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads by 2012. Each side is allowed to determine the makeup of those arsenals. Arms control advocates regarded this as a weak treaty but acknowledged that it established the United States and the Soviet Union as allies and reaffirmed their mutual commitment to arms control.


Bundy, McGeorge. Danger and Survival. New York: Random House, 1968.

Cantelon, Philip L.; Hewlett, Richard G.; and Williams, Robert C., eds. The American Atom: A Documentary History of Nuclear Policies from the Discovery of Fission to the Present, 2d edition. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Internet Resources

U.S. Department of State. "Bureau of Arms Control." Available from <>.

Mizin, Victor. "The Treaty of Moscow." Nuclear Threat Initiative. Available from <>.

Mara Drogan

See also:Aerospace Industry; Bush, George W.; Civil Defense, 1946–Present; Containment and Détente; Eisenhower, Dwight D.; H-Bomb, Decision to Build; Kennedy, John Fitzgerald; Kissinger, Henry; Johnson, Lyndon Baines; Nitze, Paul; Nixon, Richard M.; Peace Movements, 1946–Present; Reagan, Ronald .