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Controlling the Bomb

When it comes to nuclear weapons, the United States' 60-year policy of monopoly and exclusion will no longer work.

| Tue Apr. 4, 2006 3:00 AM EDT

This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy in Focus

The United States was the first country to build an atomic bomb. It is the only one to have used them in war. Recognizing the enormous power of nuclear weapons, it considered how to protect its nuclear monopoly even before it had built the bomb. Leslie Groves, who was in charge of the bomb project, proposed in 1943 that the United States try to acquire total control of all the known uranium supplies in the world, to stop anyone else having access even to the basic material from which nuclear weapons are made.

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Having built and used the atomic bomb, the United States adopted a policy of monopoly and exclusion, to keep what was called its "winning weapon." It refused initially to cooperate with its closest wartime ally, the UK, to help it acquire nuclear weapons. Britain went ahead and built one anyway.

The first "proliferation" fear was the Soviet Union—which also had been a U.S. ally in the war. There was a debate in the United States in 1947 about whether to pre-emptively attack the Soviet Union, including with nuclear weapons, both to check its rise and to stop it acquiring its own nuclear forces. U.S. war planners proposed that the policy should be that “The mere manufacture of nuclear weapons by another power, or even the procurement of fissile materials, might constitute grounds for action.” The United States did not help France with its nuclear weapons program, but did not block its ally either when in the early 1950s it decided to go nuclear. But it was a different story when it came to China 10 years later.

The United States considered attacking China when it looked like China might be about to acquire nuclear weapons. In April 1963, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff made plans that ranged from conventional air attacks to a tactical nuclear attack on Chinese nuclear weapons facilities. There was a similar study by the U.S. State Department in 1964. Among the other options proposed were sanctions, infiltration, subversion and sabotage, and invasion.

Logic of Non-Proliferation

The thinking behind these policies was captured in one of the early U.S. studies about the consequences of nuclear weapons for international politics. It argued, in 1956, that the problem was not only that “regular rivals on the same level” might acquire these "absolute weapons" but that "possibly some of the nations lower down in the power scale might get hold of atomic weapons and change the whole relationship of great and small states." It was to prevent such a possibility that the United States turned its mind to preventing proliferation.

Peter Clausen, a historian of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has noted that for the United States the timing of this initiative was linked to the pursuit of its interventionist policies and global interests. He writes, "It was no accident that the period of the treaty negotiations corresponded to the high water mark of America's postwar global activism … the spread of nuclear weapons in a region of vital interest to the United States could increase the risks of containment, and threaten American access to the region."

The Soviet Union had its own interest in non-proliferation. This stemmed from concerns about possible U.S. sharing of nuclear weapons with its NATO allies—in particular West Germany, the emergence of a nuclear China, and (as with the United States) the need to limit possible threats in regions where it may choose to intervene. These concerns were well founded. During the late 1960s, the United States had deployed thousands of nuclear weapons and their components to other countries, including Canada, Cuba, Greenland, Iceland, Japan, Morocco, Philippines, Puerto Rico, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, Belgium, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey, UK, and West Germany.

In exchange for other states promising never to build nuclear weapons, the nuclear weapons states at that time promised to pursue negotiations in good faith on nuclear disarmament. But, it was a cynical promise, at best. One American negotiator observed that pursuing negotiations did not mean achieving any disarmament agreement, "since it is obviously impossible to predict the exact nature and results of such negotiations." Bill Epstein, a veteran United Nations official in the area of arms control and disarmament, records one of the American negotiators conceding privately that the NPT was "one of the greatest con games of modern times."

Thirty-five years later, the prospect of nuclear disarmament looks bleak. The United States is in fact setting out to modernize its entire nuclear arsenal and the infrastructure for making these weapons. The other nuclear weapons states will no doubt follow. But all insist that others comply with the NPT. India and Pakistan, while outside the treaty, now follow the same nuclear logic: we have and shall keep, you cannot.

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