Other nations also became nuclear powers. In 1952, Great Britain exploded its first atomic bomb. In 1960, France tested a nuclear device, and in 1964 China followed suit. All kept adding nuclear weapons to their arsenals.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)
The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 nearly resulted in nuclear war between United States and the Soviet Union. The following year, the two superpowers, along with Britain, made the first attempt to control nuclear arms development. The three nuclear nations signed a treaty promising not to test atomic weapons in the atmosphere or on land. But the treaty still permitted underground testing.
After China tested its first atomic device in 1964, the nuclear powers initiated negotiations that finally resulted in the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 (in force on March 5, 1970). The NPT takes the form of a series of promises between those nations already possessing nuclear weapons and those nations without them.
Those nations possessing nuclear weapons promise to:
- not help nations without nuclear weapons acquire or develop them;
- place security safeguards on their nuclear_materials and technology to prevent their export to non-nuclear weapons nations;
- share nuclear technology for peaceful purposes with all treaty members;
- work to end the nuclear arms race and reduce their nuclear-weapons stockpiles.
Those nations not possessing nuclear weapons promise to:
- not acquire or develop nuclear weapons;
- accept security safeguards, including U.N. inspections, on all domestically produced or imported nuclear materials and technology to assure they are not being used for military purposes;
- place security safeguards on their nuclear_materials and technology to prevent prohibited exports to other non-nuclear weapons nations;
- share nuclear technology for peaceful purposes with all treaty members.
Today, about 180 countries, including all five original nuclear powers, have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Non-nuclear weapons members of the NPT must agree to accept the system of safeguards and inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency. This independent U.N. agency requires two things from non-nuclear nations. First, they must declare what nuclear materials and equipment they possess. Second, they must submit to regular inspections to make sure nothing they possess is being diverted to weapons development. Most of the treaty members that possess nuclear weapons have also agreed to observe strict security safeguards on such exports as waste from nuclear power plants that could be reprocessed into weapons-grade material.
The Breakup of the Soviet Union
The breakup of the Soviet Union into 15 independent nations in 1991 brought an end to the 40-year Cold War nuclear arms race. The Start II Treaty of 1993 between the United States and Russia greatly reduced the number of nuclear warheads in both countries. The following year, the two powers agreed to stop targeting each other's territory with ballistic missiles. The former Cold War adversaries also declared a suspension of all forms of nuclear testing.
But there was a negative side to the Soviet breakup. Nuclear missiles capable of reaching the United States still existed not only in Russia, but also in three new nations once part of the USSR: Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. The United States also grew concerned that these three nuclear nations, as well as Russia, could not effectively keep their nuclear material and technology secure from improper exports or even smuggling. Also troubling was the potential emigration of former Soviet scientists to nations seeking to develop nuclear weapons. To help address these issues, the U.S. Congress granted $800 million in aid to help the former Soviet states "denuclearize."
Following the Persian Gulf War in 1991, U.N. inspectors discovered that Iraq had established a massive nuclear-weapons program. It was only a few years away from producing an atomic explosive device. Even more shocking, Iraq had signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It had proceeded with a secret nuclear program even though NPT safeguards were in place and inspections were occurring. Iraq had been illegally importing nuclear materials and equipment for years from western nations, including the United States.
The United Nations instituted widespread inspections of Iraqi installations and strengthened safeguards preventing international trade in nuclear materials and technology. This seemed to put the Non-Proliferation Treaty back on track. But in 1998, Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, refused to permit U.N. inspectors into certain areas. This led to the removal of the inspectors from Iraq and to U.S. and British bombings of suspected nuclear facilities. In spite of continued bombing, the lack of on-site inspections makes it difficult to prevent Hussein from continuing his pursuit of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.
The Korean peninsula is divided into South Korea and Communist North Korea. From 1950 to 1953, war raged between North and South, with Chinese troops aiding the North and U.S. troops (acting on behalf of the United Nations) helping the South. Nearly 40,000 American troops remain stationed in South Korea.
North Korea signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1986, but delayed agreeing to required inspections and other safeguards on its nuclear program. Negotiations among the United States, South Korea, and North Korea ended with an agreement in 1991 making the entire Korean peninsula a nuclear weapons-free zone.
In 1992, North Korea signed an agreement allowing U.N. inspections of its nuclear facilities, which had been suspected of producing materials for nuclear weapons. But when the inspectors arrived, North Korea denied them access to some installations. Meanwhile, satellite pictures revealed evidence of continued nuclear-weapons development. In 1993, North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but then quickly suspended its withdrawal.
In 1994, the United States and North Korea reached another agreement. In exchange for the North Koreans freezing their nuclear-weapons program, the Americans promised to provide aid for oil imports. But four years later, the United States detected the North Koreans constructing a huge new underground nuclear complex. The famine-plagued Communist country then demanded massive food shipments before it would allow inspections of this underground facility. In March 1999, the Clinton administration agreed to give North Korea $60 million in food assistance.
India and Pakistan
When India gained its independence in 1947 from Great Britain, it was carved into two countries--India, with a mostly Hindu population, and Pakistan, with an overwhelmingly Muslim population. The two South Asian countries, among the poorest in the world, have never gotten along well. They have already fought three conventional wars and almost fought a fourth in 1990. Hindu-Muslim religious hatreds continue to fuel longstanding border disputes. Currently, the two countries are engaging in a regional nuclear arms race. Neither country has signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but both have agreed not to attack each other's nuclear installations.
India exploded its first nuclear device in 1974. When India conducted new nuclear tests in May 1998, Pakistan followed with its first test explosions. In April 1999, India and then Pakistan tested missiles that could hurl nuclear warheads deep inside each other's territory.
Unlike the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War, India and Pakistan are next door to one another, making missile flight times extremely short. Neither country has the careful controls that the Americans and Soviets developed to prevent accidental missile launchings.
The United States imposed trade and economic aid restrictions on both nations after the round of nuclear tests in 1998. President Clinton said at that time, "I cannot believe that we are about to start the 21st century by having the Indian Subcontinent repeat the worst mistakes of the 20th century." A full-scale nuclear war could leave 100 million dead plus radioactive fallout throughout the rest of Asia and possibly the world.
Is the NPT Working?
Although Iraq, North Korea, India and Pakistan, and a few other countries have the potential for starting a nuclear war, most of the world's nations today have rejected atomic weapons. South Africa had developed a half-dozen atomic bombs. But in 1991, it decided to dismantle them all, the first nuclear-weapons nation to do this. Argentina and Brazil decided not to proceed with their nuclear-weapons programs. Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine have all agreed to give up their nuclear weapons and sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 1995, 178 nations agreed to extend the NPT indefinitely. The next year, most nations in the world, including the United States, signed a treaty banning all tests of nuclear weapons.
At the end of the century, the Non-Proliferation Treaty seems to be containing the spread of nuclear arms. But just as the United States believed it was justified making and using atomic bombs to end World War II, almost any nation may feel equally compelled at some time in the future to build or acquire, and then use, the ultimate weapon.
For Discussion and Writing
- What is the purpose of the Non-Proliferation Treaty? How is it enforced?
- How did the breakup of the Soviet Union both strengthen and weaken efforts to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the world?
- Which of the nations currently developing nuclear weapons do you think poses the greatest threat to the United States? Why?
For Further Information
ACTIVITY: Next Steps
In this activity, students decide which area presents the most danger and recommend steps the United States should take to reduce the danger of nuclear war in this area.
Form small groups. Each group should:
a. Review these four areas: (1) Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine; (2) Iraq; (3) North Korea; and (4) India and Pakistan.
b. Decide which area presents the most danger of nuclear war and why.
c. Make recommendations on what the United States should do to reduce the danger of nuclear war.
d. Present its decision and recommendations to the rest of the class.