Commentary Magazine


Test-Ban Inspections

[The following letter was written before the partial test-ban treaty was concluded, but as Mr. Maddox points out in his reply below, the history of the negotiations is still relevant, for it contains lessons for future negotiations in the field of arms control.—Ed]

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To the Editor:

Having observed and been somewhat involved on the United States side in both the nuclear test ban negotiations and the disarmament conference in Geneva, I can’t let several of John Maddox’s points [“At the Brink of a Test Ban,” June] go without comment.

For example, he says the East-West experts who, in 1958, laid the technical foundation for the test ban negotiations, included on-site inspection of unidentified underground events in their report “almost as an afterthought.”

It is true their report recognized that the majority of earth tremors could be identified as such by a global network of internationally operated control posts, but it also noted that there would be a residue of unidentified underground events—presently estimated at thirty to forty annually—and it called for “timely inspection” of these events to make sure they were not sneak nuclear weapons tests. As can be seen from the following quotation from the report, the experts did not consider limiting the number of unidentified events eligible for inspection:

When the control posts detect an event which cannot be identified by the international control organ and which could be suspected of being a nuclear explosion, the international control organ can send an inspection group to the site of the event in order to determine whether a nuclear explosion had taken place or not. The group would be provided with equipment and apparatus appropriate to its task in each case. . . .

This report was signed by Soviet as well as Western scientists, and Soviet political negotiators appeared to go along with its basic premises. In the ensuing three-power talks, seventeen articles of a test ban treaty expected to run to 25 articles, were hammered out. Then, following a progressive hardening of their line, the Soviets on September 1, 1961 unilaterally broke the three-year-old moratorium on nuclear weapons testing. On November 28, 1961 they formally repudiated the whole concept of international control and on-site inspection, points which Mr. Maddox apparently did not consider relevant to his analysis.

The Soviets returned to the principle of on-site inspection last December, offering a maximum of two or three inspections per year on their territory. The lowest figure mentioned by the United States has been seven. Mr. Maddox calls this difference “insignificant,” and he makes a very serious charge. He says both the United States and the Soviet Union are guilty of engaging in “an intolerably devious attempt to obscure the issues at large with a bit of ‘science.’” So “thin” is this “technical disagreement,” according to Mr. Maddox, 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 mainstay of this charge is Mr. Maddox’s assertion that the two nuclear sides “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.” This notion has been perpetrated by some oversimplified news reports. But a study of the Conference documents as well as reference to several news conferences by President Kennedy and Secretary of State Rusk show clearly that the more basic divergence is over how the inspections will be carried out, something the Soviets simply refuse to discuss until their quota of two or three inspections is accepted. What criteria will be used to determine if an event is eligible for inspection? What will be the size of the area inspected? Will inspectors have unimpeded access to it? What equipment will they be allowed to take with them? How much time will they have to conduct their inspection? How large will the inspection team be? How will it be formed? How and to whom will it report? No amount of prodding by the West—and by some of the non-aligned delegations to the Conference of the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Committee—has succeeded in drawing the Soviets out on this, the real crux, of the current deadlock. The Soviets say, “Accept our ceiling of two or three on-site inspections first and then we’ll talk about the details.” The U.S. and the U.K. say: “We want to be sure they are real inspections, effectively seeking evidence of sneak nuclear tests, and not conducted tours.”

It is interesting to note that while the Soviets have returned to the principle of on-site inspection, they continue to deny that there is any scientific justification for it. They say their offer of two or three annual on-site inspections is purely political—an attempt to meet the Allies half way. However, they have steadfastly declined invitations to present their own data in support of this contention. They prefer to limit themselves to quotes from Western press clippings of Congressional hearings, often torn out of context.

Whether or not one accepts that the prospect of three annual on-site inspections poses a sufficient risk of discovery to deter a potential violator is, of course, basically a political judgment. But it cannot be made intelligently without reference to scientific data. The United States believes that available data, much of it developed at U.S. government expense, indicates that the reduced U.S. quota of seven inspections is much more realistic than three—this, in view of the present state of the art of detection, location, and identification of underground events, and in view of the estimated average annual number of unidentified events on Soviet soil.

Robert Don Levine
Public Affairs Officer
U. S. Information Service
Geneva, Switzerland

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Mr. Maddox writes:

To argue about these issues may seem irrelevant now that a partial test ban has been signed, but the history of the negotiations contains many lessons for the negotiation of the other measures of arms control that may now be within reach.

In reply to Mr. Levine: I described the 1958 scheme for on-site inspection as an “afterthought” because it appeared for the first time in the report of the Expert Committee as a necessary, but unexpected, complement to the use of remotely sited seismometers for detecting and identifying underground tests. The Committee did not appreciate the technical and political difficulties of carrying out a physical inspection of every site at which a suspicious seismic event occurred, and within six months Mr. Macmillan was in Moscow with the much more practicable proposal that there should be a quota of on-site inspections. The moral is that no committee, working theoretically, can be expected to define the technical procedures necessary to make a treaty secure.

It is true that the Soviet Union has often changed its position on important issues, but it is wrong to suppose that the West has been entirely consistent, though its record is much better. For example, at the end of 1955 the issue of how high an inspection quota should be, became embittered as the result of disagreement on the frequency of small earthquakes in the Soviet Union. Experience has shown the Russians to have been right in their contention that Western estimates were twice as high as they should have been (and this is part of the reason why the West has felt able to reduce the size of the quota for which it asked).

Mr. Levine has not changed my view that the difference between three inspections a year and seven is unimportant. Some on-site inspection must be provided for, but the number of inspections requested by either side is really a measure of what chance of discovery would be sufficient to deter the other side from cheating. To say that a certain chance will do, and that half that chance will not do, is to make a metaphysical assertion. In any case, this is not a technical matter at all, but a psychological one or, as Mr. Levine says, a political one. The same is true of questions like what areas are to be thrown open to on-site inspection; they are not technical absolutes, but some of the factors influencing the efficiency of a single on-site inspection. One of my complaints was that it has been customary to support chosen positions on issues like these with technical arguments; improvements in seismology might make it possible to change the quota of on-site inspections, but not improvements in the political climate. In this connection I think the United States was slow to recognize the importance of the Russian return to the principle of on-site inspection earlier this year.

I did not intend to question the honor of the U.S. government or the integrity of the men who have made test-ban policy for the last five years. Indeed, I argued that pressures outside the test ban proper have probably forced them into unduly rigid attitudes. My sense of exasperation, in May of this year, was founded on statements like the one made by John Foster describing the impasse at Geneva to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. On March 11 of this year he said: “. . . The Soviet Union is aware that our number is based on a set of provisions accompanying the number and unless all of the provisions are included, that we are unwilling to even talk about the numbers. But they have been unwilling to say anything until and unless you accept three on-site inspections and three unmanned stations.” Both sides, it seems to me, were over-rigid. Both of them could properly be asked to compromise, and that was the real purpose of my article.

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