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Will the United States Start a New Nuclear Arms Race?

by William Lambers on Feb 25, 2004

William Lambers

A secret and sudden attack with nuclear weapons: It’s the most horrific threat facing the United States. Yet when President Bush outlined his administration’s plan for stopping nuclear proliferation earlier this month, he imposed no restrictions on the U.S. nuclear arsenal. That’s a grave mistake. Reducing nuclear weapons worldwide must include limitations on the U.S. stockpile. A look back to the Eisenhower administration shows why.

In the late 1950s, nuclear fears were even greater than today. The Soviet Union and the United States were engaged in a massive arms race. The U.S. government conducted special studies to see how much damage Soviet atomic bombs could inflict on America. The results were appalling. One study showed 65 percent of the U.S. population either killed or wounded.

Today, President Bush faces the prospect of North Korea or even Iran becoming a nuclear power. China, India, Pakistan, Great Britain, France and Israel already have substantial nuclear arsenals. The nightmare of numerous nuclear states is one that pushed Eisenhower to start arms control efforts. The Bush administration should do so, too.

A key element of Eisenhower’s policy against nuclear proliferation was a test ban treaty. U.S. nuclear tests were suspended while treaty negotiations were held with the Soviet Union. The test ban potentially jeopardized the strength of the U.S. nuclear arsenal because much could be learned, militarily and scientifically, from continued testing. But Eisenhower considered a test ban a risk worth taking.

Unlike Eisenhower’s arms control plan, President Bush’s policy puts little restraint on the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Bush’s plan for new nuclear weapons is taking the country down the path toward a resumption of test explosions. New nuclear testing will encourage Russia to do the same. More testing will mean more nuclear weapons, and the United States and Russia have retained thousands of bombs despite the end of the Cold War.

In February, Russia conducted nuclear-related military exercises reminiscent of the Cold War. One of the Russian tests involved a missile that can penetrate defense systems such as those the United States is attempting to develop. President Bush must recognize the potential of a renewed arms race with Russia and seek arms control measures such as those Eisenhower pursued.

When Eisenhower considered a nuclear test ban treaty in 1958, he met with resistance. Military leaders feared that the Soviet Union might cheat and conduct secret nuclear tests. Eisenhower concluded that such a risk was justified for the sake of reduced tensions and arms control.

The Eisenhower administration laid the groundwork for what later became the Limited Test Ban Treaty. This treaty, signed in 1963 during the Kennedy administration, banned atmospheric, underwater and outer-space nuclear explosions. This limited test ban treaty provided a key respite from the Cold War. It helped reduce tensions between the two superpowers. Today, a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty (banning all types of nuclear test explosions) could bolster the Bush administration’s efforts to limit nuclear proliferation.

But the Bush administration seemingly has no interest in a comprehensive test ban. Failure to ban nuclear testing eliminates any chances of substantial nuclear arms reductions worldwide. Imagine the shockwave should the United States resume nuclear testing! It would be the grand opening to a 21st-century arms race. No international norm would exist against the testing and development of these weapons. Failure to limit and lower nuclear stockpiles worldwide also increases the chances of terrorist theft of these weapons. The dangers of continued nuclear weapons development are unlimited.

If Bush were to heed the precedent of the Eisenhower administration, he might reconsider his policy. According to an Eisenhower adviser, Dr. James Killian, increasing nuclear weapons technology would “steadily complicate our defense (and) augment instability.” Killian furthered warned the “chances for error and the consequences of (accidental war) become enormous.” These dangers will hang over the heads of Americans for years to come if the Bush administration sparks a new arms race.

The current Bush doctrine relies too much on nuclear weapons development and too little on restraint. There are inherent dangers in continuing to develop nuclear weapons and shelving arms control treaties. The United States cannot tell the world it’s against weapons of mass destruction and then continue to brandish its own. That’s not leadership in a dangerous world.

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).