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Nuclear Arms Control – Now, More than Ever

by William Lambers on Aug 11, 2005

William Lambers

The United States continues to live under the fear of nuclear attack. The source of this threat has changed from the Soviet Union to terrorist groups. Yet what hasn’t changed is the need for the United States to provide leadership in enhancing nuclear security worldwide.

Anti-terrorist efforts include improving security at Russian nuclear sites, which are considered vulnerable to theft. The Bush administration is also forming a network of nations to intercept illegal shipments of nuclear technology. But these vital tasks are only part of the nuclear security puzzle. What is being overlooked is how arms control initiatives can play a role in preventing nuclear terrorism.

It was during the Cold War that Americans first came to grips with the possibility of a surprise nuclear attack. Dwight Eisenhower described America as constantly living “under the specter of wholesale destruction” following the development of the Soviet atomic and hydrogen bombs. In response, he proposed the peaceful use of atomic energy as a first step toward disarmament, and later called for a treaty banning the production of all fissile material (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) used to produce nuclear weapons.

Today, such a treaty would cap a source of weaponry that terrorists can potentially seize. The less fissile material that exists, the less opportunity for terrorists to use it. The Bush administration supports a fissile material treaty but omits verification and inspectionÊ provisions, labeling them intrusive and costly.

During the Cold War, President Eisenhower and his advisers expressed similar concerns during arms control talks with the Soviets. Eisenhower reasoned that a central idea behind inspection was to build confidence and increase the prospects of gaining additional disarmament agreements. During the 1980s, President Reagan used this approach when negotiating with the Soviets. The Stockholm Conference of 1986 established on-site inspection of Soviet military activities. This set in motion a chain of events that led to verifiable treaties which reduced both the Soviet and American nuclear arsenals. President Reagan, in just three words, highlighted the key element behind these dramatic advances in arms control: “Trust, but verify.”

Today, a fissile material treaty lacking verification will produce no confidence among the member states. Nations will have no evidence that other treaty members have ceased producing the fissile material, only a pledge. The treaty would essentially be worthless. Progress toward nuclear disarmament, essential in this age of terrorism, would be impeded.

Thousands of nuclear weapons still exist in Russia and the United States despite the arms control treaties at the end of the Cold War. At least five other nations possess sizable stockpiles. Can we be sure all these weapons are safe from terrorists?

Then there are the Russian tactical nuclear weapons, of which America has little knowledge. The United States needs openness from Russia on the disposition of these tactical weapons. A breakthrough on this critical issue could come as part of an overall commitment toward deeper, verifiable nuclear arms cuts. Such a commitment could also be aided by the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which would ban all types of nuclear test explosions. But the United States has rejected this treaty and instead kept its options open for testing new nuclear arms. Such action could provoke an arms race with Russia and China.

It was during the Cold War that the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations vigorously pursued a nuclear test ban treaty. This was seen as an early step toward nuclear disarmament. Eisenhower considered such steps crucial for America’s security since in his view nuclear weapons were “the only thing that can destroy the United States.”

This realization must not be lost on U.S. policy makers today. President Bush and the Senate should support the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a vital step toward nuclear disarmament. Simply put, the less nuclear weaponry, the less chance of nuclear terror.

The London and Egypt bombings are grave reminders to Americans of September 11. But future attacks could be even more devastating if terrorists were to utilize nuclear weapons. The Bush administration must not turn its back on arms control as an integral aspect of preventing the ultimate catastrophe, a terrorist nuclear strike.


William Lambers is an author and historian who partnered with the World Food Programme on the book “Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World” (2009).