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Arms Control and Disarmament

Modern Arms Control

Although disarmament and arms control agreements were forged prior to World War II (1939–45), the modern arms control effort began in earnest after the CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS of 1962. That situation erupted when the United States discovered that the Soviet Union was constructing launch sites for nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, thereby threatening to put nuclear weapons very close to U.S. soil. President JOHN F. KENNEDY declared a naval blockade of the island, and for two weeks, the United States and the USSR existed in a state of heightened tension. Finally, the USSR and the USSR faced off in what became a white-hot international drama of brinksmanship, each side waiting to see who would blink first. With the United States' promise not to overthrow Fidel Castro's government in Cuba, the Soviets canceled plans to install the missiles. After the crisis, Kennedy wrote to Khrushchev, "I agree with you that we must devote urgent attention to the problem of disarmament. … Perhaps … we can togethermake real progress in this vital field."

Among the earliest arms control treaties were the LIMITED TEST BAN TREATY (LTBT), an agreement that prohibited nuclear test explosions in the atmosphere, under water, or in space, which was signed in 1963 by the United States, Britain, and the USSR, and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, a superpower treaty that banned biological weapons and provided for the destruction of existing stockpiles. The 1972 convention was the first and only example, since 1945, of true disarmament of an entire weapons category. Although negotiation on a comprehensive test ban—an agreement that would prohibit all nuclear testing—continued, this solution remained elusive. Nevertheless, in 1974, the superpowers signed the Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTBT), which limits nuclear tests to explosive yields of less than 150 kilotons. (A kiloton represents the explosive force of one thousand tons of TNT). But the TTBT did not prevent the superpowers from developing nuclear warheads (the bomb-carrying segments of a nuclear missile) with power exceeding 150 kilotons; warheads on the Soviet SS-17 missile possess as much as a 3.6-megaton capacity. (A megaton equals 1 million tons of TNT.) In 1976, the superpowers signed the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty (PNET), which banned so-called peaceful nuclear testing.

Numerous arms control agreements have been designed to improve communications between the superpowers. The first of these, coming just after the Cuban Missile Crisis, was the 1963 HOT LINE AGREEMENT, setting up a special telegraph line between Moscow and Washington. In 1978, the hot line was updated by a satellite link between the two superpowers. The United States and the USSR also sought to create protocols designed to prevent an accidental nuclear war. This effort led to the 1971 agreement, Measures to Reduce the Risk of Outbreak of Nuclear War, which required advance warning for any missile tests and immediate notification of any accidents or missile warning alerts.

One highly celebrated arms control agreement is the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or Non-Proliferation Treaty, designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries. The agreement involves well over one hundred states. Under it, countries not possessing nuclear weapons give up their right to acquire such weapons, and countries with nuclear weapons waive their rights to export nuclear weapons technology to countries lacking that technology.

Another class of arms control treaties seeks to ban weapons from as-yet-unmilitarized areas. These include the 1959 ANTARCTIC TREATY, which prohibits military bases, maneuvers, and tests on the Antarctic Continent; the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, a ban on the testing or deployment of "weapons of mass destruction" in Earth's orbit or on other bodies in the solar system; the 1967 Tlatelolco Treaty, prohibiting nuclear weapons in Latin America; and the 1971 Seabed Treaty, banning the placement of weapons of mass destruction on or below the seabed.

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