Trump’s Nuclear Test Would Risk Everything to Gain Nothing


The Trump administration has exited three major nuclear agreements: the Iran nuclear deal, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, and the Open Skies Treaty. All three decisions were controversial. Former Director of National Intelligence Michael Hayden has called the most recent move — America’s withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty, a useful confidence-building measure between Russia and the West — “insane.” The landmark New START Treaty, which caps nuclear warheads and launchers between Moscow and Washington, is on deck for renewal next. Washington’s stance on arms control, Russia’s announcement of several new weapons systems, breakneck investments in hypersonics, and Washington’s increasing confrontation with Beijing signal that a fresh nuclear arms race is within the realm of possibility. As Jeffrey Lewis writes, “Obama’s dream of a nuclear-free world is becoming a nightmare.”

For supporters of arms control, things may be about to get much worse. The Washington Post broke a story in May that the U.S. government has been in an “ongoing conversation” about whether to conduct nuclear weapons testing for the first time since 1992. Presidential candidate Joe Biden called discussions about resuming a test program “reckless” and “dangerous.”



Nuclear testing, even at very low yields, would jeopardize the hard-fought Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits its signatories from testing nuclear weapons in any environment. The treaty was arguably one of the most difficult packages the United States has ever negotiated, and though it has floundered in the Senate since the 1990s, it remains a cornerstone of U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy. President Bill Clinton, who signed the comprehensive test ban in 1996, described it as the “longest sought, hardest fought prize in the history of arms control.” More than 160 countries have ratified the treaty — not including the United States and China who are among the few to have signed but not yet ratified it — but the treaty has yet to enter into force. Some have questioned whether the Trump administration has plans to unsign the treaty. Moreover, renewed nuclear testing could unravel all past efforts to generate worldwide buy-in.

The Trump administration’s main justification for nuclear testing is ostensibly based on concerns that China and Russia may be conducting low-yield tests of their own — which both countries have, of course, denied. Those opposed to such testing contend that the United States stands to gain very little from it unless the nation plans to embark on a new and expensive weapons design program; computer simulations are sufficient to ensure that U.S. nuclear capabilities are safeguarded; and U.S. nuclear tests would lead other nuclear powers to do the same.

While the possibility that competitor countries might surpass the United States by cheating on the test ban is concerning, this situation is not altogether new.

In the course of ongoing research, I came across declassified executive agency documents that explain why the White House pursued the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 — the precursor the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty — despite high confidence that the Soviet Union would violate it and concerns that those violations could go undetected. The documents demonstrate that Kennedy administration officials recognized that a test ban would be advantageous for the United States even if the Soviet Union found a way to cheat. In particular, they concluded that a test ban could freeze technological progress by U.S. adversaries in the most important classes of weapons. This, in their view, would be worth the risk of losing ground on other technological dimensions. In light of unsubstantiated protestations that China and Russia are now flaunting the norm against nuclear testing, Cold War-era debates are relevant to certain debates today.

Nuclear Testing and the First Test Ban Treaty

Though it may now seem like ancient history, nuclear testing was once widespread. The United States conducted 1,054 nuclear tests from 1945 to 1992, prior to the finalization of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. For decades, many Americans believed that nuclear war could really happen. Early attempts to restrict or ban nuclear weapons, beginning with the Baruch Plan in 1946, ran into resistance because a nuclear deterrent was considered essential to America’s Cold War defense doctrine. Since the weapons could not be banned, the next best option for arms control advocates was to outlaw testing, since only through testing can new and better bombs be developed. But a test ban was controversial in Washington.

In the 1950s, nuclear testing was ramping up on both sides of the Cold War. Under President Dwight Eisenhower, the United States was faced with an uncomfortable trade-off. The United States at that time led the world in nuclear testing, with the Soviet Union close behind. According to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization’s Preparatory Commission, the United States was detonating nearly three bombs for every Soviet bomb. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union continued to narrow the gap. Nuclear explosions were tried in every conceivable environment — land, air, and sea. Popular backlash began to mount as it became clear that fallout from these tests was causing public health issues and environmental damage. By 1955, the international community was calling on the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom (at that time, the only other nuclear power) to negotiate a ban. Supporters of continued testing countered that American allies depended on a strong deterrent, a strong deterrent depended on new and better weapons, and the only way to achieve such weapons was through further testing. Most importantly, if the United States did agree to such restrictions, the Soviets still couldn’t be trusted not to secretly cheat. Since developing new weapons was considered essential for national security, they argued, a test ban would make the free world less safe.

Eisenhower was personally sympathetic to a test ban. In fact, in 1958, he and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to a voluntary two-way moratorium just four days after Khrushchev came to power. The advent and improvement of underground testing methods had by then relieved some of the pressure to test above ground or in the atmosphere. The main question was whether underground tests could convey the same military-scientific advantages as above-ground ones. After President John F. Kennedy entered office and Moscow and Washington drifted further apart over the 1961 Berlin Crisis, the Soviet Union suddenly abandoned the moratorium and resumed testing, sparking fears that American reluctance to test too would lead to qualitative inferiority.

Kennedy appealed to Khrushchev to resume the moratorium and make it legally binding. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought both countries to the brink of nuclear war, Moscow and Washington restarted formal talks on a test ban. Their efforts over 12 days of negotiations in July 1963 culminated in the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), which banned all testing under water, in the atmosphere, or in outer space. Although this treaty was eventually ratified with bipartisan support, it faced consistent opposition from skeptics. Critics of the Limited Test Ban Treaty were particularly concerned about the possibility that the Soviets would clandestinely violate the test ban. The Soviet track record didn’t look promising. One prominent talking point of skeptics was that the Soviet Union had abrogated 62 out of 64 treaties since its formation. If the Soviet Union cheated, it was feared, it could then engage in breakout development that would render a compliant United States technologically inferior and strategically vulnerable — mirroring arguments made by the Trump administration in recent months about similar ambitions on the part of Beijing.

Ensuring Soviet compliance was an obvious concern for test ban treaty negotiators. After all, deterrence theory has long been premised on the prisoner’s dilemma, a paradox in which two parties who can gain from cooperation choose non-cooperative options that leave them both worse off than before due to a lack of trust. The ability to monitor compliance by other parties is crucial, but mid-century verification technology was primitive compared to that of today. The United States had yet to fully deploy constellations of advanced seismological equipment and spy satellites that could detect small, low-yield explosions. For other critics, the prism of confrontation was enough. Future President Gerald Ford, at that time still a member of the House of Representatives, lamented to a constituent that “Russia’s mere eagerness for [a test ban treaty] arouses serious doubts” about their intentions. After all, why should the United States bind itself to an agreement that its counterparts can’t be trusted to honor?

Debates Within the Kennedy Administration on a Test Ban

Inside the Kennedy administration, the landscape of the nuclear testing debate between top officials was spelled out in a report jointly commissioned — available in the archives at the Ford Presidential Library —  by the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), headed at the time by William C. Foster, and the Director of Defense Research and Engineering, Harold Brown, who would later go on to become secretary of defense. There are compelling parallels with the present day. The report concludes that even if Soviet cheating was assumed with certainty, a test ban would still be in the U.S. national interest. Kennedy concurred.

Nuclear weapons are commonly divided into two categories: strategic and tactical. Strategic weapons, which tend to have the largest yields, are useful for deterrence and would hopefully never need to be used. Tactical weapons, conversely, tend to have smaller yields and have more niche uses that theoretically make them suitable for the battlefield. According to the report, the Defense Department “believe[d] (without being certain) that [the United States was] ahead of the Soviets in the quality of [its] tactical nuclear weapons.” Moreover, among top defense officials, there was a “consensus, [although] not necessarily unanimous,” that cheating with low-yield testing would lead to substantial improvements in Soviet tactical nuclear weapons technology. Kennedy had already campaigned on a perceived “missile gap.” The Arms Control and Disarmament Agency admitted that only tests above a 20-kiloton threshold — about the size of the first nuclear test in 1945 — would be detectable. Though this threshold was about an order of magnitude smaller than most nuclear warheads of the day, by 1961 technology had advanced to the point where small-scale tests could yield significant data. If Moscow were to secretly cheat by testing under 20 kilotons while Washington complied with a ban, it was thought, American nuclear superiority in an entire class of weapons could be jeopardized.

Why would American leaders ever have considered surrendering a technological lead to a country whose leader had only a few years prior threatened to “bury” Western democracy? Discussions between Brown, Foster, and others are illuminating. For them, the question was not whether the United States would be put at any disadvantage, but rather if these disadvantages could be traded for enhanced security in areas where it mattered most — strategic capabilities. As the Brown-Foster report points out, “When both sides have [tactical nuclear weapons], differences in quality appear to make very much less difference [since] either side can so easily escalate the size [of the weapon].” Under a test ban regime, the Soviet Union might have secretly been able to improve its tactical capabilities while the United States lagged behind. But, under no test ban at all, it might have only been a matter of time until the Soviets reached parity in strategic weapons. For proponents of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, potential cheating was a non-issue: Locking in America’s qualitative superiority in the types of weapons that mattered most was far more pressing than watching its short-lived edge across all types be eroded.

Nuclear Testing and Cheating Today

Old debates about the Limited Test Ban Treaty are once again relevant today. Administration officials have accused Russia and China of “probably” violating the test ban, though no evidence has been provided. But, if the United States resumed nuclear testing after nearly 30 years of restraint it would become an international pariah without significantly adding to its own security. An American decision to test again would fulfill its own prophecy, impelling U.S. adversaries to resume their own test programs if they have not done so already.

Even low-yield nuclear tests conducted underground in order to minimize environmental damage would be calamitous for the United States’ reputation as a responsible, reasonable, and trustworthy member of the international community. It would join the ranks of North Korea — the only other country since 1998 to test a nuclear device — and would lose its ability to criticize rogue nuclear aspirants with a straight face. It would also seriously imperil the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the United States has relied on to keep nuclear weapons from proliferating. In particular, Washington has supported and benefited from the global monitoring system — consisting of 337 facilities in 89 countries around the world — run by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization. This system complements U.S. national technical means to detect nuclear blasts and is key to engaging the international community in efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation, but could never be sustained if parties began withdrawing in response to American tests.

There are also many unilateral reasons not to resume nuclear testing. Although nuclear modernization has some arguable merits for deterrence, testing is not required for a robust modernization program. Even if the White House is determined to expand the nuclear arsenal by acquiring new warheads, the Defense Department has no doctrine to justify nuclear testing. In a world where the United States has more than enough advanced nuclear weapons to fulfill its strategic deterrence objectives, testing has become an activity that only fledgling nuclear aspirants who are desperate to bolster their budding capabilities need to engage in. Finally, other states — both allies and non-aligned countries — have long looked to the United States for leadership on nonproliferation matters, something past American administrations were fully cognizant of as they combatted the diffusion of nuclear weapons throughout the 20th century.

The challenges the country faces are much different than they were in 1960, but history still has important lessons. Compared to the first decades of the Cold War, the world is no longer under a nuclear “sword of Damocles.” Nuclear testing by the United States would destabilize the international system and undermine American national interests. By unraveling the tapestry of arms control that previous generations fought hard to achieve, the United States risks creating more problems for itself than it solves. If American leaders could rally to forge a test ban with the Soviet Union — whose propensity to cheat was considered inevitable — during the darkest years of the Cold War, their successors should be able to uphold a test ban now.



Justin Key Canfil is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University. He is also a U.S.-Asia Grand Strategy fellow at the University of Southern California and a non-resident fellow with the Cyber Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center. His research investigates past and present debates over the international law and politics of emerging technologies. You can find him on Twitter @jcanfil.

Image: U.S. Department of Energy