Back to the eve of destruction?

Senate GOP leaders have endangered us all by their foolish rejection of the test-ban treaty.

By Joe Conason

Published October 19, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

To comprehend the criminal idiocy of the senators who voted down the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, it is useful to try to imagine the world as anticipated by President John F. Kennedy. Living with the Soviet Union on a high wire of mutual terror during the early-'60s, JFK expected the world's peril to become still worse in his own natural lifetime. The doomed young leader believed a day was not too far off when nuclear weapons would be possessed by as many as 40 nations, a number that would increase every year into the dark future.

Had Kennedy been correct -- and there was little reason back then to doubt his gloomy prophecy -- we would now be living on a planet where Yugoslavia, Libya, Argentina, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, Romania, Syria, Iraq, North Korea, Taiwan and literally dozens of other states could have developed or acquired the Bomb.

Aside from the potential destruction threatened by such armaments under the command of the likes of Milosevic and Gadhafi, there would also be an inevitable, continuous increase in the number of thermonuclear devices being tested annually, resulting in the radioactive degradation of the Earth's air, water and soil. Millions of children growing up today would carry the slowly decomposing fallout of those tests inside their bones.

The human population would, in short, be suffering a gradual health breakdown due to radiation poisoning while awaiting the near certainty of a final world-ending disaster.

Instead, thanks to a dedicated international effort to control proliferaton over the past three decades, there are currently only eight countries known to possess nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, Israel, India and Pakistan. And instead of hundreds or even thousands of plutonium-spewing tests occurring at an increasing rate, there have been fewer and fewer in recent years.

This more promising (though still dangerous) situation has come to pass because of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or NPT -- perhaps the single most significant diplomatic achievement since people first started killing each other with stones and sticks. The Senate's refusal to ratify the test-ban treaty would be stupid enough in its own right, but what makes it an act of lunacy is that Trent Lott and Jesse Helms have seriously damaged the non-proliferation treaty as well.

Yet having held no hearings and only a few scant hours of debate on the CTBT -- during which the drooling Helms displayed his usual erudition with references to Monica Lewinsky -- it seems quite likely that he and most of his colleagues have no idea what harm they have done to the world's security. They badly needed the instruction they never received about the international security structure that they so casually undermined.

When the NPT was first signed and ratified in Washington, Moscow and London in 1970, even the most wildly optimistic analysts didn't expect that by 1995, every country in the world except India, Pakistan and Israel would have voluntarily joined the accord. And not even the NPT's most enthusiastic proponents thought that the treaty's enforcement by the International Atomic Energy Authority would be as successful as it has been. Regular on-site inspections have found virtually no significant violations except those by North Korea and Iraq, and the treaty's provisions have so far helped to contain the nuclear ambitions of both rogue states.

Lulled by those accomplishments, many in the West have taken for granted both the NPT and the stable nuclear oligopoly that the agreement has maintained. But when the NPT's 25-year review provision came due in 1995, many states -- including our allies in places like Australia, Germany and Japan -- insisted that new initiatives be undertaken to expand the treaty's safeguards.

Ambassador John Ritch, the U.S. representative to the nuclear arms control agencies in Vienna, describes the NPT as "a bargain: that the non-nuclear states will stay that way if the nuclear states take steps to disarm, including a halt to nuclear testing."

In order to keep the NPT in force, the nuclear powers were expected by the other signatories to begin reducing their own strategic stockpiles, as provided by Article VI of the treaty. Just as importantly, they also had to agree to the implementation of a comprehensive worldwide test ban.

That's the purpose of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: to reinforce the effective nonproliferation regime already overseen by international authorities. The new treaty calls for 321 sensing posts around the world, where the most sophisticated seismic, infrasound, hydroacoustic and radionuclide technologies would be deployed to "feel," "hear" and "smell" violations. Located in every country, the sensing posts would be electronically linked to a central monitoring station. No explosion above a measly 1 kiloton would be likely to go undetected by this system.

In other words, the CTBT is a backup to the NPT, which has kept scores of countries from building, let alone testing, a nuclear device. Since Iraq was discovered to have violated the NPT in 1991, the inspection system has been strengthened and expanded. Recently completed protocols to the original treaty provide that inspectors will be able to go anywhere they suspect fissionable materials have been diverted or misused, rather than serving only as atomic "accountants" at established nuclear facilities.

As of the date that the Senate voted against CTBT, nearly half of the 182 nations under the nonproliferation pact had signed onto the protocols employing new technology and giving unprecedented access to inspectors. "We had a realistic aim to have all countries participating by next year," according to Ritch. "Now the Senate has given countries like Iran an excuse to avoid the more intrusive inspection regime we had begun to erect."

As usual, the mullahs of the Senate are in league with their primitive counterparts abroad.

"In practical terms," Ritch explains, "on-site inspections are more important than the test ban because they can catch bomb-building well before the point of testing. But the test ban is indispensable politically as a buttress to nonproliferation."

Opponents of the CTBT say it is "unverifiable," by which they mean that it isn't perfectly verifiable. Neither is the NPT, which has prevented the rapid proliferation feared only 30 years ago. Perfect or not, the CTBT's monitoring regime would strongly discourage any but the least significant explosions, and would empower invasive inspections of any suspected violator.

Treaty opponents also complain that a test ban would complicate the Pentagon's duty to keep our own arsenal in working order. Most atomic scientists agree, however, that other technical methods, such as computer simulation, are adequate for that purpose. In terms of actual deterrence, such arguments are meaningless anyway. Does anyone really believe that an enemy would risk conflict with the United States by gambling that none of our thousands of warheads would explode upon impact?

Besides, as the opponents know very well, the United States could withdraw from the treaty at any time if it proved detrimental to American security. "The Senate's action is tragic and ironic," says Ritch. "Thinking they were protecting the American nuclear deterrent, the Senate majority has endangered America security by undercutting 30 years of effort to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of precisely those people everyone should most fear."

Evidently, treaty opponents think the U.S. should try to keep its nuclear superiority without benefit of international agreements. They behave as if we would be safer in a world where many other countries were developing nuclear bombs -- so long as we could build (and test) more of them.

Obviously that's madness, emblematic of what C. Wright Mills termed "crackpot realism" during the era of Cold War brinksmanship. Yet such appears to be the attitude of the mentally and morally deficient cowboys in the Senate, whose overriding urge to humiliate the president has now endangered us all. Unless their decision is reversed we may soon find ourselves, as a species, turning back toward the path of extinction foreseen by JFK.

Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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