Partial Test Ban Treaty

Sharon Kim
March 5, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1:President Kennedy ratifies PTBT. (Courtesy of the J. F. Kennedy Library)

In Moscow on August 5, 1963. the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) was signed by Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, US Secretary Dean Rusk, and British Foreign Secretary Lord Home. The treaty, also commonly known as the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), had three main aspects: (1) prohibiting nuclear weapons tests or other nuclear explosions under water, in the atmosphere, or in outer space, (2) allowing underground nuclear tests as long as no radioactive debris falls outside the boundaries of the nation conducting the test, (3) pledging signatories to work towards complete disarmament, an end to the armaments race, and an end to the contamination of the environment by radioactive substances. [1] Although fear of the excessive release of nuclear fallout into the planet's atmosphere existed, concerns became more pronounced with the United States successfully testing a hydrogen bomb and a thermonuclear device with the power of eight megatons of TNT in November 1952 and with the Soviet Union detonating a 60-megaton nuclear warhead in October 1961.

In 1954, India made the first proposal calling for an agreement to ban nuclear weapons tests. [2] Prior to the treaty, the United States and Soviet had attempted to put forth test ban proposals under the support of the United Nations Disarmament Commission, but it was only during 1958 during the Conference of the Discontinuance of Nuclear Tests in Geneva that the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union agreed to work on an agreement on nuclear disarmament. [2] However, differences in beliefs on what measures should be implemented caused a deadlock in the latter half of 1961. The problem that proved to be particularly troublesome was over methods to detect underground tests, which involved distinguishing tests from an earthquake. While the Soviet Union held that surveillance and seismic detection equipment operated from outside boundaries of any signatory was adequate to verify compliance, the United States and the United Kingdom insisted on intrusive, inspection- based control systems. [2] Domestically and internationally, there was increasing public pressure against nuclear testing, concerns stemming from a growing awareness of the implications for health, global security, the environment, and the escalating nuclear arms race.

In July of 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered a radio and television address to the American people on the passage of the treaty. He conveys that the treaty would strengthen national security, lessen the risk and fear of radioactive fallout, reduce world tension by encouraging further dialogue, and prevent acquisition of nuclear weapons by nations not currently possessing them. [3] Noteworthy were his comments on seeking a goal of complete disarmament of nuclear weapons and his vow that America would never start a war.


Nuclear weapon testing not only continued, albeit underground, but also increased greatly in number through the second half of the twentieth century. Therefore, the treaty did not have much practical effect on the development/proliferation of nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, the Partial Test Ban Treaty was a historic milestone in arms control and signified the first, real progress on a test ban between the great powers in the Cold War. Within a few months of signing by the three original parties, the treaty came to be signed by more than 100 other governments. [2] A few notable exceptions are France and China. The treaty also served as a stepping stone for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which would later be signed by 71 nations and prohibit all nuclear test explosions.

© Sharon Kim. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] J. Goldblat, Arms Control: The New Guide to Negotiations and Agreements with New CD-ROM Supplement (SAGE Publications Ltd., 2002), pp. 48-51.

[2] J. W Chambers, The Oxford Companion to American Military History (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 392, 512.

[3] J. R. Arnold and R. Wiener, Eds., Cold War: The Essential Reference Guide: The Essential Reference Guide (ABC-CLIO, 2012), pp. 173-174.