1960s >> 1963 >> no-709-september-1963

Behind the Test Ban Treaty

One swallow, said Lord Home, does not make a summer, but without any swallows there will be no summer (or words to that effect). He was talking, of course, about the Test Ban Treaty which was signed last month amid so much flourish and back-slapping in Moscow.


Lord Home was not the only statesman to offer a somewhat muted welcome for the Treaty. On the other side, there were plenty of commentators to assure us that this was something to sing about, and that the agreement was a step towards a better, safer, more peaceful world.


Now we have heard this song before and we have come to accept it for what it is worth. So it is fair to ask one or two questions about this latest venture into the field of agreements which are supposed to be going to make the world a fit place for humans to live in.


The first thing about the Treaty to give us a qualm is the suspicious ease with which it was discussed and signed. Talks on banning bomb tests have been going on for years, each one getting bogged down in apparently futile arguments over the details of administering a ban. Only a simple soul, of course, could have believed that these were genuine difficulties. The reason for the succession of breakdowns was that the talks were not serious. No nuclear power has ever really intended to give up the right to test its weapons.


Then suddenly, in contrast to the years of shilly-shallying, the new talks opened and the diplomats went willingly to Moscow (no bargaining, for a change, over where the talks were to be held) all in the assumption that this time they would bring it off. And they did. The experts at dipping their pens in the ink without signing, as Moscow radio called them, all at once made their marks on the paper and the deed was done. Why the sudden change of heart?


We can gorge ourselves on any amount of speculation. A popular theory was that the great powers gave themselves an awful fright over Cuba and that, stricken by a ruinous vision of the consequences of what might have been last October, they will now go to any lengths rather than to the brink again. This theory fits in with the widespread conception of international politicians as men who can apply everyday, humane standards of judgment to their work.


But the obvious question here is, why did they not apply these standards before Cuba? That affair was, after all, something of a calculated gamble by the Soviet Union. Is it possible that last year’s belligerent Mr. Khrushchev, the man who only a few months ago secreted nuclear rockets onto the United State’s doorstep, can change into this year’s paragon of peace and virtue? This is the sort of unanswerable question which the theory about the influence of peaceful or bellicose leaders has to satisfy.


Another explanation for the Treaty was that the nuclear powers are finding the cost of their weapons too high and now think it sensible to call a halt. There is some evidence to support this point of view. Hydrogen bombs are expensive and so is the associated hardware—the rockets and the guiding systems and the race for space—which is so essential a part of them. Probably even more expensive—and this is something which the last series of big American and Russian tests may have uncovered — is the chain of anti-missile defences which must be almost the next step in the nuclear arms race.


Perhaps, then, the nuclear powers need a breathing space to sort out the delivery problems, so that they can develop a production method for missiles as smooth and as cheap as that for conventional bombers. The big fault with this argument is that it ignores the fact that, if the interests of a capitalist power demand it, that power will produce its weapons regardless of the cost. In the last war, this country was spending £14 million each day on the war effort. For a long time the British capitalist class have had their doubts about the economy of keeping up their own nuclear weaponry. Yet they have kept it up. Armaments do not provide the best ground for a logical, orderly assessment of priorities.


And when we have considered all these arguments—and perhaps given them their due—we are still left with our original question.


Why the sudden change of heart?


One of the most striking—and potentially the most frightening-aspects of the Treaty is that it divides the world into those countries which have the Bomb and those which, with the exception of France, have not got it. (There will now probably be pressure upon de Gaulle—perhaps an American promise of nuclear know-how—to get him into the new alliance.)


What is more, the nuclear powers are now sworn to try to prevent the spread of the weapons; in other words, to maintain their own supremacy. This is what de Gaulle meant when he referred to the ” . . . terrible threat which the nuclear armaments of the two rivals hold over the world and, above all, over the peoples that have not got them.” And it is what the chairman of the China Peace Committee meant when he promised a Chinese nuclear bomb in these words:


It will not be long now before the attempt to control the destiny of peoples made by a small number of countries with their monopoly of nuclear weapons will be thwarted.


It is when we consider that the breach between Moscow and Peking, which has been opening up for the past few years, has now burst wide open that the Test Ban Treaty takes on what could be its true significance. The breakdown of the recent talks between the Russian and the Chinese leaders could indicate that recent Russian policy towards China is openly a failure and that henceforth the clashing economic and strategic interests of these two countries can no longer be papered over by a mutual hostility towards the USA. This in turn would mean that the Russian government will be as anxious as any other to stop the Chinese having the Bomb— or that, if they have got it, to deter them from flaunting it by a massive display of nuclear counter-strength.


If this is so, we may be sure that the effect of the Treaty will be to make the nuclear have-nots intensify their efforts to get the Bomb. From this it may follow that the nuclear haves will try to do a deal, as we have seen they may try with France, to restrict or to control the spread of nuclear knowledge. Or, perhaps, on this issue, they will find themselves fighting a war.


Are we, then, witnessing a new alignment in the disputes and the opposing forces of world capitalism? Do we stand now at the threshold of another great division? Said The Economist on August 3rd:


Moscow’s split with Peking . . .  may perhaps stand out bold and clear as an event that forced us to . . .  think up a fresh set of rules of action to face a new outlook in world politics.


Which would be nothing new. It is the basic nature of capitalism which causes modern war and so gives rise to the weapons with which wars are fought. This same basic nature throws up a mass of complex interests and counter interests which at one time coincide and at another clash. Capitalism’s allies are never, can never, be permanent. Its treaties and agreements can never be worth more than the paper they are written on.


The Moscow agreement is not excluded from this. It has the customary gaping loophole through which, on a plea of “national interests,” any of its signatories can forget that they ever signed it. It excludes the currently awkward powers—China and France—and this is no coincidence because the present interests of these countries put them outside the Treaty. No pact, after all, has ever been able to get over the conflicting interests of capitalism’s disputing nations.


None of this, as we might have guessed, prevented the politicians from taking credit for the Treaty. With the ink on the signatures hardly dry, they were anxiously identifying themselves with the Test Ban and pointing out what clever, humane men they are to stop doing something which, by any humane reasoning, they should never have started. They told us how good it is for us, now that the tests have stopped. When Lord Home could take time off from musing on the swallows he said:


Don’t let us run away with the idea that this test ban, if it is signed by the United States, Russia, and ourselves, is of no value. It stops fall-out, which greatly concerns the medical profession and every parent in every western country.


We may be sure that Lord Home has not forgotten that he is a member of a government which, as long as they wanted to test their bomb, blandly assured us that the danger from fall-out was negligible. A government which told us that the best medical brains were on their side in this matter and that only a morbid, hypochondriacal parent would worry about fall-out. Do the facts change, now that a treaty has been signed? Is Strontium-90 dangerous, after all? Did all those children really die of leukaemia?


The cynicism of capitalism is one of its worst features. Yet cynicism is the quality—if that is the right word—which the politicians and the diplomats must develop if they are to run the system. They must all learn to sign on the dotted line with their tongues in their cheeks and a ready smile for the cameramen. And how much, do you think, does that make their signature worth?


And will the Test Ban Treaty, do you think, really work?


The fact is that it is very much on the cards that the nuclear powers will one day start their tests again. And if the Moscow Treaty does go into the waste paper basket it will find itself nestling alongside any number of equally ballyhooed predecessors.