Commentary Magazine


At the Brink of a Test Ban

It is now eighteen years since the first atomic bomb was exploded in the desert of New Mexico, and for nearly a third of that time three nations—the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union—have been negotiating at Geneva on a treaty to ban the testing of nuclear weapons. The first step in these protracted negotiations was the appointment of a committee of experts under the auspices of the United Nations which published a report in August 1958 confirming the then common belief that of all the conceivable measures of arms control, a treaty to ban nuclear tests would be the easiest to arrive at and to administer. Yet precisely the reverse has turned out to be true, for on a dozen occasions since that report was issued, the negotiations at Geneva have all but broken down, as one draft treaty after another—usually presented in a spirit of “take it or leave it”—has gone by the board.

Today, however, after five years, both sides have finally arrived at agreement on the principles upon which a test-ban treaty should be designed. They differ only in their notions of how frequently inspection teams should be allowed on each other’s territory to look for evidence of nuclear explosions underground. Yet even this difference is insignificant, for the Western proposal of seven inspections a year and the Soviet proposal of three, offer virtually equal degrees of security from cheating on the one side and espionage on the other. That is to say, if the Western proposal is sufficient to deter the Soviet Union from clandestine tests—and this is what Western delegates at Geneva claim—the terms the Russians favor would serve the same purpose. If, on the other hand, the Russians are afraid of too great a breach in the supposedly impenetrable wall of secrecy surrounding the Soviet Union’s military installations, it is most puzzling to know why they should have dared put forward their own latest proposals which, for the first time in three years, allow foreign inspectors access to Russian soil.

So thin, indeed, is the technical disagreement at Geneva that it has all the appearances of being a cloak for a general reluctance on the part of the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union to sign a test-ban treaty. (The British government makes no great secret of its willingness to sign anything that its partners in the long negotiations will agree upon.) Just as bridegrooms will hesitate on the brink of marriage, so the great powers seem to be trying to summon up the courage to solemnize something that has come to look inescapable.

Though the current disagreement at Geneva is not based on a significant conflict of technical judgment, technical considerations are nevertheless still relevant to the questions that must now be decided—at least in the United States. It is plain that there will be no test-ban treaty unless the Senate’s fears for American security can be overcome; and in the last few months—with the possibility of a treaty actually in sight—these fears have been played upon more intensively than at any time since the winter of 1959, when a group of scientists led by Dr. Edward Teller was busy picking holes in the first set of proposals to ban tests by international agreement.

To be sure, Mr. Kennedy is much more outspoken in his public advocacy of a treaty than Mr. Eisenhower was in 1959; with the test ban, as with the tax cut, Mr. Kennedy is, apparently, trying to drag a reluctant Congress along a well-marked highway. It is tempting, but it may also be legitimate, to suppose that the Russian government has analogous troubles, if only because there is now such bounteous evidence that a taste of modern military power is one of the most effective means of giving a group of men a pacific cast of mind. It is only natural that those without executive responsibility should be freer to indulge the fear that it is treaties which are dangerous.

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The principle that no test-ban agreement could ever provide an absolute guarantee that violations would be detected was clearly spelled out in the original report of the committee of experts, and with varying degrees of clarity it has informed the policies of all the governments involved ever since. Here, as with any international agreement, what really matters is that signatories should be offered a reasonably large chance of knowing when other parties have broken the rules. Throughout the negotiations, the United States has consistently pressed for a more stringent system of supervision than the Russians would accept; and it needs no great flight of speculation to link the Russian willingness to rest content with little or no inspection to the calculation that a good clipping service and a little conventional espionage would provide adequate information about the nuclear activities of the United States.

The report of the committee of experts also made it plain, so far as tests on the earth were concerned, that explosions underground would be the most difficult to detect from a distance. Techniques for detecting such explosions, which inevitably resembled techniques for recording earthquakes at distant places, were hurriedly sketched out on the basis of experimental information about a single underground explosion that seems to have misled the committee into over-optimism of a minor kind. The first draft of a treaty outlined by the committee would have strung out 180 seismic stations on the surface of the earth, roughly a score of them in the Soviet Union and an equal number in the United States. Almost as an afterthought the committee noted that it would be necessary to reinforce this network of detection posts by inspecting the sites of suspicious disturbances of the earth’s crust so as to make quite certain that these were earthquakes and not underground explosions.

At the outset the Russians insisted the committee’s report should be regarded as the technical basis for a treaty, and that the diplomats should be concerned only with its implementation. Soon, however, fresh experimental evidence collected by the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission forced an ad hoc group called the Berkner Committee on Seismic Improvement to the conclusion that 180 seismic stations would not be as efficient as had been supposed. The same committee made far-reaching recommendations as to how still more efficient networks of seismic equipment could be designed.

Picking holes in the system of detection, and suggesting means for its improvement, have been energetic pursuits ever since the beginning of 1959. For a long time the tide ran with those who argued that tests could be concealed by exploding the bombs in underground caverns or far away from the earth, in outer space. This school of thought had its most striking successes in the summer of 1960, when President Eisenhower announced that he was reserving his right to break the moratorium on testing then in effect, and when he also set a vast program of seismic research into motion. Eventually, of course, it was the Russians and not the Americans who broke the moratorium first, but at the same time the benefits of the American research program began to flow in. Not merely were more sensitive detecting instruments developed, but a great deal was learned about earthquakes that might be mistaken for nuclear explosions. And in addition, the possibilities of exploding bombs in caverns or in outer space were recognized to be more theoretical than real.

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As a consequence of all this, American negotiators in the last two years have been able to propose progressively simpler networks of detection posts, even up to the point of yielding on the need for people to operate equipment inside the Soviet Union—which is just as well, considering that the Russians have repudiated all proposals on this issue ever since the meeting between Mr. Eisenhower and Mr. Khrushchev in May 1960. Whereas in 1958 the United States held that every suspicious event should be investigated by inspectors, the American draft treaty of August 1961 asked for between twelve and twenty on-site inspections per year. By now that figure has been reduced to seven. At the beginning of this year, the Russians once again (after three years’ hostility to the idea) agreed that some on-site inspection should be embodied in the treaty, but have refused to go above three a year.

The insignificance of this difference is plainly evident. Accurate records—now for the first time available—show that in the Soviet Union each year there are likely to be 170 natural earthquakes corresponding in size to underground explosions with a yield equivalent to a tenth of that of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The same records show that it would be possible to place arrays of seismic equipment around the periphery of the Soviet Union so as to identify 140 of these events for the innocuous things they are. The result is that a mere thirty events recorded on the seismometers would come under suspicion. The Western proposal to inspect seven of them every year means that on the average one out of every 4.3 small earthquakes would be investigated to see if it might have been a nuclear explosion. But in 1960, when the West asked for twenty annual inspections of the Soviet Union, Western negotiators thought there would be seventy suspicious earthquakes in a year, or more than twice as many as are now expected. The 1960 proposals corresponded to the inspection of one in every 3.5 small earthquakes. Thus, though the number of inspections is smaller than in any previous proposal by the West, there has been no substantial change in the proportion of earthquakes open to inspection.

These facts, which are not themselves in dispute, give the lie to those who, like Dr. Teller, insist that an agreement to ban tests along the lines now proposed by the West in Geneva would be “virtually un-policed.” To explode a bomb underground very much larger than a tenth of the size of the one dropped on Nagasaki would be to court detection. Even to let off an explosion corresponding in power only to 2,000 tons of conventional explosives would involve a risk of being caught once on every four occasions. And mounting a series of five tests, even if at different locations so as to make the sequence less conspicuous, would entail a two-in-three risk of being caught.

Another line of attack on the current Western proposals at Geneva has been led by Representative Craig Hosmer of California, who is a senior though somewhat unreflective member of the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy and also Chairman of a body known as the Committee on Nuclear Testing of the Republican Conference. Since the beginning of the year Mr. Hosmer has produced three reports critical of the administration’s policy at Geneva, has written once to President Kennedy, and several times to various newspapers. And in the Upper House, Senator Thomas J. Dodd of Connecticut has lent bi-partisan support. The most direct challenge to have emerged from this activity is the assertion that the proposed system for detecting tests by ringing the borders of the Soviet Union with seismometers would leave a “big hole” in Central Russia, where the Soviet Union could (at least in suitable kinds of bedrock) carry out small underground tests without fear of being caught. Representative Hosmer claims to have gleaned all this at the hearings held at the beginning of March by the Joint Committee of which he is a member. His inferences, however, have been flatly contradicted by senior officials of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and appear to be without foundation—based as they are on the misconception that seismic-detecting instruments are ineffectual at distances of more than 650 miles from the point of an underground explosion.

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Ironically, the vigor of the attempts by agencies of the administration to defend the treaty now proposed by the West at Geneva cannot fail to display as meaningless the difference between the West and the Soviet Union on the number of on-site inspections. If, for example, the American proposals would ensure a two-in-three chance of detecting a series of five small underground explosions, the Russian proposal that there should be only three inspections every year would entail two chances out of five that a series of five tests would be detected. The difference between these ratios is clearly not big enough to influence the policies of nations in any important way. Thus there is no technical reason why East and West should not quickly agree on some simple compromise (if necessary as crude as that of splitting the difference between three and seven), and then as quickly have the ambassadors sign on the dotted lines. That both sides continue to insist on the technical nature of their dispute is an intolerably devious attempt to obscure the issues at large with a bit of “science.” But if technical difficulties no longer stand in the way, what then is the trouble? May it be that military considerations are behind the evident reluctance of the two parties to conclude a treaty?

This, too, seems unlikely. In the tests carried out last year, both nations must have gathered enough information to equip all the missiles now in service or on the drawing boards with efficient warheads. The Russians almost certainly have the design of extremely powerful warheads for the very large rockets which their generals appear to favor, while the United States must be well supplied with designs of warheads for the smaller missiles making up the Western strategic deterrent. Both nations must also have learned by their tests that the improvement of warheads has reached a point of diminishing returns for the investment of scientific effort. In the immediate future, greater military benefits will probably come from improving the accuracy of bombardment missiles. As for entirely “clean” thermonuclear weapons and radically new anti-missile devices, they are still some years away. Both parties must have learned, moreover, that underground explosions are a painfully slow means of making progress with the design of weapons (as Dean Rusk told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 11). Evidently it would not be a great military disaster for the United States, at least for the next few years, if Mr. Hosmer were right in his gloomy estimate of how ineffectual is the proposed supervisory system, and if the Russians were to explode a few weapons underground without being found out. Some advances might be won in this way, but they could not be significant, let alone decisive.

In his statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Rusk provided a wry comment on these calculations of relative military advantage. “Our military position,” he remarked, “might well be more secure today if we had successfully achieved agreement on a test-ban treaty several years ago, earlier in the negotiations.” His point was that the progress in military equipment in the last five years had only seen to it that both super-powers were evenly matched at a higher rung of the ladder of destructive-ness. And the Secretary of State went on to say that the administration considered it “doubtful that either side would, through further testing, achieve major advances in any significant area which could be translated into a military advantage without the other side making a similar or offsetting gain.”

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There remains, then, the question of why the test-ban treaty remains unsigned. It is tempting to think that the delay may only be fleeting, just long enough to upset the positions held by the Mr. Hosmers of this world; but that would be too optimistic. For overshadowing the issue of when a treaty is to be concluded is the more daunting question of what it can be expected to accomplish. Here the outlook is confused, for the prospect of a test ban is all things to all men.

The days have long since gone when the major powers at Geneva could virtually promise the accession of France and China to any treaty that might be signed. France is already a member of the nuclear club, and even before de Gaulle’s disaffection toward NATO became overt, he had consistently foresworn adherence to any treaty that did not bind the two great powers to give up all further production of nuclear explosives. It would be folly now to expect French accession, and the outlook for China is equally gloomy. Though China (like France) cannot become a significant counter in the world’s balance of power at least until the end of this decade, the Chinese determination to make bombs has been openly and often declared.

So it is that President Kennedy’s frequently repeated, and entirely earnest, statement that a test ban would help in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons must be interpreted as carrying more psychological than predictive weight. To be sure, some countries that have never thought of making bombs would probably accede, and others would be dissuaded, more or less effectively, from carrying forward plans to smooth the path for a decision to make bombs. But some nations, among which India is the most prominent example, might consider their interests so closely threatened by the emergence of China as a nuclear power that they would decline to be restrained by a test-ban treaty without some external (and acceptable) guarantee of nuclear defense.

To the extent that a test ban is only a partial restraint on the will of fifth, sixth, and seventh nations to join the nuclear club, the major powers are discouraged from signing. For it has been common ground, all through the last five years, that the testing of weapons by any nation, signatory or not, would automatically confer a right to abrogate the treaty on any nation wishing to do so. It is understandable that both major powers should be uneasy about committing themselves to a treaty, with all its complex provisions for supervision and inspection, only to see it abandoned within a year or so. Unexpectedly, it is as if the major powers find themselves united by their suspicion of what smaller powers may do next.

This difficulty might perhaps best be resolved by turning the test ban into a foundation for more comprehensive agreements—an idea which has always been implicit in the negotiations at Geneva anyhow. Indeed, the point may have been reached at which the test ban can only come into effect if it is linked with some tangible promise that arms-control measures tending still further to limit the risks of nuclear war will follow closely upon it. There is the possibility of an agreement not to help other countries to become nuclear powers; not to test ballistic missiles; not to site nuclear weapons in specified parts of the world; not to manufacture nuclear explosives (which would entail tricky political issues of inspection). Any or all of these measures (as well as an agreement to reduce stockpiles) might well serve as a spur to the signing of a test-ban treaty. So there is a strong case for asking that questions like these should be taken up urgently, either by the three negotiating parties or by the seventeen-nation conference of the U. N., also meeting at Geneva.

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Finally there is the matter of public relations. By exaggerating the technical differences that separate them at Geneva, the principal governments only provide their opponents at home with ammunition. There is some evidence that the Russian government was persuaded only with the greatest difficulty to agree to three on-site inspections every year, and that it is now sulking because this dramatic change of policy did not win American approval. It may also be that the Americans have stuck with the figure of seven because, while it is easy to silence the opposition of people like Mr. Hosmer on intellectual grounds, it is not so easy to still the widespread distrust in the United States of any agreement with the Russians.

Historically, however, these are empty postures. People want a test ban, and it would do some good. Even if it did not turn out to be a panacea, it would remove the cruellest edge from the universal anxiety over nuclear war, and it could well lead to more far-reaching agreements with some real promise of security. It is fashionable to say that so long as they are talking at Geneva, good works are being done, but this too is beginning to sound hollow. Like the shepherd boy who cried “wolf!” too many times, the negotiators at Geneva have been on the verge of agreement so often that the joke has begun to pall. At his news conference last month, President Kennedy used a different image when he said: “If we don’t get [a treaty] now . . . perhaps the genie is out of the bottle and we’ll never get it back in again.” This may be an over-simplification, for in one sense, of course, the genie has been out for eighteen years, and the test ban alone will not get it back. But without the test ban, the genie will never be put back. So much is now certain.

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