Strengthening the Non-Proliferation Regime
Atop a spindly tower in the predawn New Mexico desert hung the chunky metal
sphere the men called “Gadget”. In bunkers five and a half miles [9 km] away, the
physicists, chemists, mathematicians, and soldiers fidgeted, looked at their watches, and
wondered if “Gadget” would really work.
At exactly 15 seconds before 5:30 a.m., all wondering dissipated as “Gadget”
exploded, releasing its nuclear energy in a millionth of a second. It whipped up a fireball
that could have been seen from another planet and generated a blast that was heard 200
miles [300 km] away. The heat of Gadget’s explosion—hotter at its center than the center
of the sun—fused the desert sand into a half-mile ring of jade-colored radioactive glass
[nearly a kilometer across]. Some swore that the sun rose twice that day.
On August 6, 1945, 21 days later, the second atom bomb shattered the Japanese city of
Hiroshima, eventually causing the death of an estimated 148,000 people. The nuclear age
That was fifty-nine years ago. Weapons up to 4,000 times more powerful have since
been tested. The combined power of all the world’s warheads is estimated to equal 20
billion tons of TNT—over a million times the killing power of the Hiroshima bomb!
In June 1946 the United States presented a plan to the newly formed United Nations
organization. The plan called for the creation of an international agency that would have
authority to control and inspect all atomic-energy activities worldwide. After such an
agency was established, the United States would hand over its atomic secrets, scrap its
existing atom bombs, and not make any more.
The Soviet Union asserted that first, atomic weapons should be done away with. Once
that was done, then control and inspection arrangements could be worked out. The issue
became deadlocked, and in the cold-war years that followed, hope of UN control of
atomic weapons perished.
In 1949 the Soviets exploded their first atom bomb, which ended the United States
monopoly on nuclear weapons. Suspicion and distrust deepened between East and West,
and the arms race began in real earnest. The U.S. response to the Soviet bomb was the
development of a vastly more powerful weapon, the hydrogen bomb. The first one tested
(in 1952) was about 800 times more powerful than the early atom bombs. After only nine
months, the Soviets had successfully developed their own hydrogen bomb.
Next came the ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile). The Soviet Union was first
with this in 1957. Now a nuclear strike could be accomplished in minutes rather than
hours. The United States rushed to catch up and by the following year had added the
ICBM to its arsenal.
In the meantime other countries worked on and tested atom bombs of their own. In
turn, the United Kingdom in 1952, France in 1960, The Peoples Republic of China in
1964 and others became nuclear powers and “joined the brotherhood of the bomb”
(Ziring, p. 341).
The action-reaction syndrome continued unabated in the 1960’s. Both the United
States and the Soviet Union experimented with antiballistic missiles. Both learned how to
fire missiles from submarines. Both developed multiple warheads.
The race continued into the 1970’s with the significant development of MIRV
(multiple independently-targeted reentry vehicle). One missile could now carry many
warheads, each of which could be directed to a separate target. For example, the modern
American MX, or Peacekeeper, missile carries ten such warheads; so does the Soviet SS-
18. Each missile, therefore, can destroy ten cities.
Missiles were becoming more accurate too, and this, along with the development of
MIRVs, led to renewed fears. Instead of targeting cities, opposing missile bases and
military installations could be and were targeted many times over by MIRVs. Some now
speculated that nuclear war might be winnable. A powerful first strike might eliminate
the capacity or will of the adversary to strike back.
Each side felt compelled to counter such a threat by ensuring its ability to retaliate
even if the other successfully hit first with a surprise attack. Without the ability to strike
back, it was reasoned, there would be little to deter enemy aggression; indeed, aggression
might prove to be irresistibly tempting. So - more weapons.
Now well into the twenty first century, the arms race continues at breakneck speed. A
recent addition to the gallery of arms is the neutron bomb—a small hydrogen bomb
designed to kill people with radiation but to leave buildings and vehicles intact. Another
is the cruise missile—able to skim through the air just above the trees (and below enemy
radar) to deliver a nuclear punch with accuracy to a target 1,500 miles (2,400 km) away.
The latest entry, popularly called Star Wars, adds outer space to the battlefield.
Though the history of weapons development may suggest that the nuclear arms race
has continued with absolutely no restraint, a number of agreements have been reached.
Some of these limit testing or establish ceilings on certain weapons systems, while others
inhibit the spread of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear states.
The United Nations is involved in its efforts to control nuclear weapons and other
weapons of mass destruction. In fact the First Committee of the General Assembly
reviews security and disarmament every year. Also the Conference on Disarmament,
which includes 66 nations that meet in Geneva, has already “negotiated the
Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, and the Chemical
Weapons Ban—determines its own rules and agenda, but reports annually to the General
Assembly and deals with negotiating topics referred to it by the Assembly. Last but not
least is the U.N. Disarmament Commission, whose main task over the past year was to
prepare a further general Assembly Special Session on Disarmament ( SSOD)” (Dean, p.
These agreements have been reached only through painstaking, time-consuming
efforts. And no agreement has significantly reduced existing weapons.
“Despite the end of the Cold War and its positive effects on the arms race, the problem
of nuclear proliferation remains real and urgent. Indeed, with the breakup of the Soviet
Union and the loss of central control over weapons located in the former Soviet republics,
dangers of proliferation have increased” (Ziring, p. 345).
The Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, for example, which was
approved by the United Nations General Assembly in 1968, took over seven years of
debate and negotiations in two committees (the eighteen nation Disarmament Committee
and the Political and Security committee of the General Assembly) which resulted in an
effort to solve proliferation of nuclear weapons by preventing it. In fact, it becomes
possible only because the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union found it in
their best national interests to do so. However the two other permanent members of the
Security Council, France and the Peoples Republic of China, refused to sign it and
continued their testing of nuclear devices. To date more than 140 nations have ratified it,
with China and France climbing on board by ratifying it in 1991. Many states such as
Argentina, Brazil, India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan did not want to adhere to it.
Argentina and Brazil did, however, enter into a Joint Safeguards Agreement with the
IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) to “prevent the diversion of fissionable
materials to military uses” (Ziring, p.346).
Many attempts to create nuclear free zones in South Asia “have done little to
dissuade the major countries of the region from proceeding with the development of
nuclear weapons” (Ziring, p. 341). For example, India’s development of a nuclear device
as a signal to its large neighbor China, managed instead to create paranoia on the part of
neighboring Pakistan. They, in turn accelerated their own efforts to join the nuclear club.
“Both countries justify their behavior on national security grounds, but it was New Delhi
that was most outspoken on its right to possess nuclear weapons as long as the United
States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China did not destroy their own
stockpiles”( Ziring, p. 344). Naturally, India was saying, “either a nuclear weapon free
world or accept us as a nuclear power”. This argument, of course, opens a Pandora’s Box
of “adding strength to the political and strategic motivations of other states to follow their
example” (Ziring, p. 344).
However, many questions can be asked concerning the continued threat of
proliferation, namely: “What happens if the number of nuclear states expands to fifteen or
to twenty-five? Would the threat of a major war be greater, or would nuclear proliferation
reduce the danger of nuclear war? What role should the United Nations play in reducing
or stopping the expansion of the nuclear club? Could an international control system help
prevent additional states from “going nuclear”?” (Ziring p. 344)
At the core of the problem is this: The superpowers, namely the P-5 consisting of the
United States, Great Britain, France, the Russian Federation and the Peoples Republic of
China, deeply distrust and fear each other. Ironically, the insecurity that results merely
generates a demand for more weapons. More weapons, in turn, makes everyone appear
increasingly sinister and menacing to the other; hence, people feel less secure than ever.
“And they will have to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into
pruning shears. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war
anymore” – Isaiah 2:4
These words on the base of a statue of a man bending swords into plowshares
graces the World Headquarters of the United Nations Building in New York City.
Unfortunately, no nation or group of nations has been able to accomplish this grand goal,
with or without the assistance of the United Nations.
Dean, Jonathan and Thomas E. McNamara. “Tracking Weapons, Terrorism & Drug
Trafficking in an Age of Proliferation”. A Global Agenda. Ed. Angela Drakulich
New York, New York
Ziring, Lawrence, Robert Riggs and Jack C. Plano. The United Nations—International
Organization and World Politics Fourth Edition Belmont, California
www.nv.doc.gov/news&pubs/photo&films/atm.htm Cover photo