1955-62: From peace movement to missile crisis

1955: Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation

Hiroshima blast site

In May 1955, the Soviet Union proposed a cessation of nuclear testing enforced by an international commission as part of an incremental process towards general nuclear disarmament. In that same year, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower concluded that a test ban was not in the national security interest of the United States. In December that same year, efforts to gain better understanding of the repercussions of nuclear testing culminated in the UNGA establishing a Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation.

The Peace Movement against Nuclear Weapons

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Well-established peace-oriented organizations were highly active in protesting against nuclear weapons after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. However, these groups, including the Nobel-prize-winning Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the Religious Society of Friends and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, were unable to gain much traction in the mainstream. Although, when the United Kingdom conducted its first hydrogen bomb test in 1957, nuclear testing had received considerable public attention. Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin noted that governments and public organizations considered nuclear testing a “burning public issue.”

New groups formed out of the peace movement devoted to addressing nuclear weapons and testing. In the West, some of the more influential groups were the US Women’s Strike for Peace, the US Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy, the international Pugwash Conference of Scientists and the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. After discovering traces of radioactive isotopes in children’s teeth in the United States and Europe, doctors and dentists together with scientists used their technical and scientific expertise in lobbying against nuclear testing.

By the mid-1950s many governments and public organizations considered nuclear testing a "burning public issue".
Participants of the first Pugwash Conference

Peace groups organized grassroots campaigns to increase public awareness of the issues surrounding nuclear testing. Women’s Strike for Peace, SANE and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament organized petitions, protests and demonstrations in major cities. These demonstrations attracted tens of thousands of supporters and received considerable attention from the media. Attempting to raise public concern about nuclear weapons, these groups sought to establish direct contact with legislative representatives and influence government policy. The Women’s Strike for Peace and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament created direct action wings and were willing to break trespassing laws at nuclear test facilities in order to give prominence to the exigency of the situation.

The Peace Movement against Nuclear Weapons cont.

Women’s Strike for Peace

The international Peace Movement played an essential role throughout the Cold War in keeping the public informed on issues of disarmament and pressuring governments to negotiate arms control treaties. This movement along with many Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) was instrumental in the various attempts to negotiate a Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1968, the NPT Review Conferences in 1995 and 2000, the Partial Test Ban Treaty amendment conference in 1991 and finally the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) negotiated in 1996.

The international Peace Movement played an essential role throughout the Cold War in keeping the public informed on issues of disarmament and pressuring governments to negotiate arms control treaties.

1958: Nuclear testing “under conditions of secrecy”

In March 1958, the Soviet Union stated that it would initiate a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, provided other Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) followed suit. However, two weeks later President Eisenhower, after a series of underground nuclear tests, concluded that nuclear testing was possible “under conditions of secrecy” and again called for a meeting of experts to asses the situation. Stopping short of acknowledging problems of verification, the Soviet Union agreed to participate in this conference. This represented the first decoupling of a moratorium on nuclear testing from the movement towards nuclear disarmament.

Problems associated with nuclear test ban verification

In 1958, the United Nations organized a meeting of scientific experts from Canada, France, Poland, Romania, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States to analyze the problems associated with nuclear test ban verification. The final report concluded that a network of 160-170 land-based posts, together with an additional 10 sea-based posts outfitted with nuclear detection technologies, would be necessary to detect atmospheric and underwater nuclear tests having a yield greater than one kiloton, and underground nuclear tests with yields greater than five kilotons. The report also advised that a mechanism of On-Site Inspections (OSI) would be the most effective way to resolve issues of ambiguity with the network. However, disagreement arose over the voluntary or mandatory nature of the OSI. The United States and the United Kingdom supported mandatory OSIs as a way to clarify ambiguous seismic activity, while the Soviet Union believed voluntary OSIs could serve as confidence-building measures between parties.

1958: Hardtack II and the Latter Hole Theory

Nevada Test Site craters

The United States conducted a series of underground tests known as Hardtack II at the Nevada Test Site between September and October 1958, resulting in an analysis that contradicted the findings of the report of the UN expert group. Detection of underground tests was found to be significantly more difficult than predicted. By conducting nuclear tests in large underground cavities, it was theoretically possible to muffle seismic activity resulting from the detonation. In some scenarios, this technique, first labeled the Latter Hole Theory and later known as ‘decoupling’, was said to prevent detection of testing of significant  yields.

1959: Detection of nuclear testing in the atmosphere and in space

US U-2 Aircraft

The United States proposed a test ban below 50km in the atmosphere in early 1959 for all nuclear devices. Eight control posts would have been required in the Soviet Union, but there was no mention of on-site inspections. The Soviet Union responded with a proposal for a comprehensive test ban that included a limited amount of on-site inspections. Later that year experts met once again in Geneva to discuss the detection of nuclear testing in the atmosphere and in space, as well as the verification of seismic activity.

In 1959, the United States hastened to propose a ban on nuclear testing under water and in the atmosphere.

That same year, the United States hastened to propose a ban on nuclear testing under water and in the atmosphere. The test ban would also limit underground tests resulting in seismic magnitude of 4.75 or above. The Soviet Union added that the ban should include testing in space and proposed a four to five year moratorium on underground nuclear testing. However, the downing of a US U-2 aircraft over Soviet territory disrupted a summit meeting between the United States and the Soviet Union expected to achieve considerable progress towards a nuclear test ban. Meanwhile the development of nuclear weapons went on unabated. On 13 February 1960, France became the fourth country in the world to test a nuclear device.

On 13 February 1960, France became the fourth country in the world to test a nuclear device.

1961: Antarctic Treaty

The Antarctic Treaty entered into force on 23 June 1961.

Originating in a moment of cooperation between Cold War rivals the United States and the Soviet Union, the Antarctic Treaty entered into force on 23 June 1961 after opening for signature on 1 December 1959. The Antarctic Treaty obligates Parties to refrain from engaging in “measures of a military nature, including testing of any type of weapons,” including nuclear explosions, in Antarctica and prohibits the disposal there of radioactive waste material. Read more on the Antarctic Treaty in Famous Anniversaries.

1961: Prospects for an atmospheric test ban

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev initiated the Tsar Bomba project on 10 July 1961.

Disagreement between the Soviet Union and the United States continued in 1961 over the number and nature of on-site inspections. The Soviet Union wanted fewer inspections than the number proposed by the United States and the United Kingdom. The procedural specifications of inspections also remained highly contentious. Stating that France’s nuclear test and growing international tensions had fundamentally altered the global security environment, the Soviet Union resumed nuclear testing on 1 September 1961. Disagreement over an atmospheric test ban continued and two weeks after the test the United States once again began underground nuclear testing.

President Kennedy in a Cabinet Room during the Cuban Missile Crisis

On 31 October 1961 in the atmosphere over Novaya Zemlya, the Soviet Union tested the largest, most powerful nuclear weapon (Tsar Bomba) ever detonated, having a yield of about fifty megatons (50Mt). In response, the United States and the United Kingdom proposed an atmospheric test ban that required no on-site inspections. The Soviet Union provided its own draft in which only after signature of the treaty verification procedures could be decided, but the United States and the United Kingdom found this plan unacceptable.

The Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 again raised international concern over proliferation and threat of nuclear weapons.

1962: United Nations Eighteen Nation Committee
on Disarmament (ENDC)

Reconnaissance photograph of Cuba, 8 October 1962

In early 1962, the trilateral discussions (the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union) on disarmament adjourned indefinitely and the stage was moved to the United Nations Eighteen Nation Committee on Disarmament (ENDC) in Geneva. The United Kingdom and the United States submitted two drafts of a comprehensive test ban treaty in August. The UK draft called for seismic monitoring and on-site inspections. The US draft proposed a ban on atmospheric and underwater testing without OSI. The Soviet Union objected to the OSI in the UK draft, and to the permissibility of further nuclear weapons development underground in the US draft. 

1962: The Cuban Missile Crisis

The United Nations General Assembly, November 1962

The Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 again raised international concern over proliferation and threat of nuclear weapons. The United Nations General Assembly passed resolutions calling for a halt of nuclear testing and for negotiations towards a comprehensive test ban treaty. 


Next chapter: 1963-77: Limits on nuclear testing