Test Ban Treaty

By 1963, the Cold War had almost become hot. The world was on the brink of an unprecedented nuclear war! The United States and the Soviet Union were competing for supremacy in the Arms Race but the results were nearly devastating. The introduction of a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was essential.

Test Ban Treaty Test Ban Treaty

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Table of contents

    Why was the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 needed?

    To understand the necessity for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 we must first examine the climate for nuclear weapons testing which unfolded during the arms race. This took place after the Second World War between world superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union.

    The arms race: the United States vs the Soviet Union

    During the height of the Cold War, the arms race typified the fierce competition between the US and the Soviet Union. It began as an ideological war to prove the successes of communism and capitalism but ended on the precipice of nuclear destruction for mankind.

    Test ban treaty atomic cloud over Nagasaki StudySmarterFig. 1 - Atomic cloud over Nagasaki

    • 1945: The United States surprised the Soviet Union with their deployment of atomic nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. This ended the Second World War. The Soviets were aware that the Americans had the technology but didn't know about their plans to use it.
    • The first nuclear technology came from German V-2 ballistic missiles and captured Nazi scientists.
    • 1949: With no common enemy between them and the United States, the Soviets searched for nuclear parity and successfully tested their own atomic bomb in 1949.
    • 1952: The United States tested the nuclear ‘superbomb’ or hydrogen bomb which produced 10,000 kilotons of TNT as opposed to the 15 or 20 kilotons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
    • 1953: The Soviet Union tested their first hydrogen bomb.
    • 1957: The United States and the Soviet Union tested the nuclear Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) which would be able to travel thousands of miles to reach intended targets. By 1958 they had both conducted successful tests.

    In 1957 another race for superiority was developing between the two superpowers. Known as ‘the Space Race’, the Soviet Union launched a satellite called Sputnik into space in the same year. In the following years, the Soviet Yuri Gargarin became the first man to go to space. The Space Race effectively ended when the US landed on the moon in 1969.

    The Cuban missile crisis (1962)

    When we talk about the world on the brink of nuclear war, the event in question is the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Let's have a look at how things played out below.

    President John F Kennedy

    The youngest United States President in history, John F Kennedy (JFK) was elected in 1960 and came to power in 1961. He continued the anti-Soviet rhetoric of his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower. He also ardently believed in the Domino Theory which argued that if one government fell to communism, another nearby country could fall too.

    After the failure of the United States to align itself with Cuba, the Cuban Revolution gave birth to a communist regime led by Fidel Castro in 1959. The fall of a country to communism in such close proximity to the US disturbed Kennedy and he wanted to take swift action.

    The Bay of Pigs 1961

    Kennedy's first attempt to ‘roll back’ communism in Cuba was a dramatic failure. Through diplomacy, he initially imposed economic sanctions on the communist state. He virtually froze the cane sugar imports to the United States which largely propped up the Cuban economy. However, the Soviets stepped in and leader Khrushchev agreed to buy the sugar that the US refused.

    With Castro supported and standing firm, Kennedy decided to use military force. There had been a previous plan to use pro-capitalist Cuban guerrillas for a secret invasion; Kennedy had his doubts but proceeded with the idea. Unfortunately for him, Castro's troops were there, at the Bay of Pigs, to greet the guerrillas and his army halted the invasion, killing over 100 people and taking over 1000 prisoners in less than a day.


    A term used to describe organisations or groups of fighters who are outside the law, normally fighting against larger armies.

    The crisis

    To avoid a United States invasion, Khrushchev secretly placed Soviet nuclear missiles to be deployed against the United States as a deterrent to any possible invasion. On 14 October 1962, CIA intelligence found them. Deeply alarmed, Kennedy instructed the US Navy to organise a blockade around Cuba. The medium-range Soviet nuclear missiles were 90 miles from Florida and capable of hitting American cities. Khrushchev used the Bay of Pigs invasion as an excuse, as there were US nuclear weapons as far east as Turkey that could strike the Soviet Union.

    After an intense standoff, the world drew breath wondering if the nuclear war would become a reality. On 24 October, Soviet ships came face to face with the navy blocking off Cuba and on 27 October the Soviets shot down an American plane.

    A series of letters between Kennedy and Khrushchev led to the eventual end of the crisis. On October 28th, the US Navy withdrew and both countries agreed to dismantle their nuclear missiles in Cuba and Turkey respectively, although the latter was far less publicised.

    The risk of mutually assured destruction was far too great for both powers and the Cuban Missile Crisis sowed the seeds for the Limited Test Ban Treaty (1963) and greater dialogue between each side.


    A mostly political strategy that consists of pursuing a dangerous policy to the brink of active conflict to achieve an advantageous outcome before stopping.

    Indeed, the countries introduced a direct hotline between Moscow and Washington so this brinkmanship could never occur again.

    Britain's nuclear testing

    While the Arms Race was raging, Britain embarked on several nuclear weapon tests of its own. Between 1952 and 1957, the country conducted 12 tests on Australian territories. Operation Grapple in 1957 and 1958 stepped up its nuclear capabilities. The British tested both the atomic bomb and hydrogen bomb during this period.

    However, 30% of the servicemen involved in the testing had died by 1999. Most of them had done so before their 60th birthday due to exposure to radiation. The testing procedures have been severely criticised since, especially because they favoured secrecy over safety, not only for the British, Australian, and New Zealand workers but also for the Indigenous populations.

    Many of the Indigenous tribes did not understand the warning signs for tests that were written in English and suffered genetic trauma and increased cancer rates as their environment was contaminated and they had not been evacuated. The Ministry of Defence has since admitted that the workers were treated like ‘guinea pigs’.

    The 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty

    The frequency of nuclear weapon tests and the radiation that they produced were frightening. In 1962 alone, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the USA and the Soviet Union tested more than 160 missiles between them. In the 1950s, civilians in Japan suffered from the US and Soviet testing because of their position in the pacific. At the same time, British testing in the South Pacific was harming nearby countries too.

    There had been negotiations since the mid-1950s to curb these tests, but a formal Treaty was necessary. In August 1963, the world's three nuclear powers (the UK, the Soviet Union, and the US) finally reached a formal Treaty that would become known as the Limited Test Ban Treaty. Dean Rusk (US Secretary of State), Alec Douglas-Home (British Foreign Minister), and Andrei Gromyko (Soviet Foreign Minister) signed the Treaty.

    Summary of the Test Ban Treaty

    • The Treaty banned the testing of nuclear warheads underwater, in the atmosphere or in space.

    • Britain and the United States wanted the right to inspect nuclear sites but the Soviets had opposed this for a long time.

    • To appease the Soviets, the British and US diplomats made a concession: underground testing would be permitted and test sites no longer required inspections.

    Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

    While the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty was certainly a step in the right direction, it can be described as limited or partial in terms of the agreements it forced on participants.

    Accomplishments of the Test Ban Treaty

    The Treaty was a success in that it brought the countries to an agreement. Unfortunately, nuclear weapon testing largely moved underground and other countries had developed their own nuclear technology by this time. Some of these other countries (such as France and China), which had nuclear capabilities, did not sign the Treaty. Despite this, a total of 116 countries did sign the treaty.

    Test Ban Treaty Partial Test Ban Treaty participants StudySmarterFig. 2- Partial Test Ban Treaty participants as of July 2008 (with the last changes made in August 1994)

    Impact of the Limited Test Ban Treaty

    Despite the Limited Test Ban Treaty, nuclear testing remained high as shown by the above graph. It was not at the levels of 1962 but now other countries such as China, which had acquired Uranium-235 from the Soviet Union, were becoming nuclear powers.

    Test Ban Treaty Worldwide nuclear testing StudySmarterFig.

    China launched its first nuclear missile in 1964 at Lop Nur, Xinjiang with an atmospheric test that violated the Treaty and by 1967 they had created the hydrogen ‘superbomb’ too.

    Why was the treaty ‘limited’?

    In addition to China's emergence as a nuclear power, the number of nuclear weapons worldwide was less than 30,000 in 1962 but almost 38,000 in 1965, with the Soviet Union almost doubling their own arsenal to over 6000.1 It was clearly evident that this was a limited ban on nuclear weapons and further measures were needed to reduce the worldwide nuclear threat.


    After the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the US and Soviet leaders pursued the policy of détente meaning a cooling of relations and disarmament.

    The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) began in 1969 and in 1972 the first successful outcome took place. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty limited each country to two anti-ballistic missile sites and also froze the production of new ICBMs. This treaty came under the leadership of United States President Nixon and Soviet Premier Brezhnev. Another treaty, SALT II in 1979 went even further, reducing the chance of one nation having superiority over another.

    The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1996)

    The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) addressed the shortcomings of the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT). Under its terms, all nuclear tests are banned. 182 countries have now signed this treaty but only 153 have ratified it (made it official law). Nuclear powers such as France, the UK, and Russia have ratified the treaty but China, the United States, Pakistan, Israel, Egypt and the DPRK (North Korea) have not.

    Test Ban Treaty Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty participants StudySmarterFig. 4 - Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty participants as of October 2022

    Donald Trump and North Korea

    Ignoring the international community has long been the preferred political strategy of North Korea. The Kim family of dictators has used anti-American sentiments to unite their country against the West. Despite its poverty and famine, North Korea has carried out six nuclear tests to date, rallying against the CTBT. This infuriated US President Donald Trump, who threatened North Korea and embarked on failed diplomatic relations. The possibility remains that negotiation could replace aggressive rhetoric, as it did in Cuba.

    Test Ban Treaty - Key takeaways

    • The Nuclear Arms Race, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the environmental effect of nuclear testing meant that a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was vital for the world.
    • The Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) woke up the Soviet Union and the United States and along with the UK they compromised with the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963.
    • The Limited Test Ban Treaty banned most types of nuclear testing but allowed underground testing, meaning that nuclear testing and the development of nuclear weapon arsenals continued.
    • Britain had its own nuclear weapon campaign in the 1950s that had a dreadful human cost.
    • The LTBT paved the way for détente and SALT talks brought further constraints to nuclear weapon production.
    • The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (1996) remedied the shortcomings of the original Treaty. It banned all nuclear testing.
    • North Korea has defied this Treaty with six tests since 1996.


    1. Robbert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, 'Global nuclear weapons inventories, 1945–2010', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 66.4 (2010), pp. 77-83.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Test Ban Treaty

    What did the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty accomplish in 1963?

    The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty banned outer space, atmosphere, and underwater nuclear testing. However, under the terms of the Treaty, underground testing was still allowed.

    Who was the US President at the time of the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963?

    The US President in 1963 was President John F Kennedy. The Treaty was signed before his assassination in November of the same year.

    Why was the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963 needed?

    The Treaty took place in 1963 because of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. This spurred the United States and the Soviet Union to seek more diplomatic relations to avoid nuclear war.

    Is the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty still in effect?

    Yes. The Treaty became effective on 10 October 1963 and is of unlimited duration.

    How did the Test Ban Treaty affect the Cold War?

    The Limited Test Ban Treaty came after the world nearly faced nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Test Ban Treaty was important as the US and the USSR along with Britain established the need to limit testing, and it was the first step in the cooling of nuclear tensions, which continued at SALT I and II. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    In which year did the Soviet Union test their first atomic bomb?

    What was the attitude of President Kennedy towards communism?

    How far from Florida were the missiles that the Soviet Union were constructing in Cuba?


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