Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1 July 1968)

Treaty signed by Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union on 1 July 1968, entered into force on 1 March 1970, to prevent the sale or proliferation of nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) divided the signatories in two categories: the nuclear nations (the United States, Soviet Union, France, Britain, and the People's Republic of China) and the nonnuclear nations. The nuclear states pledged not to provide nuclear weapons to nonnuclear states (Article I) and to pursue nuclear disarmament (Article IV). The nonnuclear states pledged not to acquire or develop nuclear weapons of their own (Article II).

The treaty marked a watershed in the history of arms control and paved the road to détente between the superpowers. Although the idea of the NPT had been discussed as early as 1961, it was only in 1965, after the first Chinese nuclear test caught the attention of President Lyndon Johnson's administration, that it was seriously debated in Geneva by the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Conference (EDC), a committee created in 1962 by the United Nations (UN) to promote general disarmament.

The main stumbling block to the conclusion of the treaty had been the U.S. pledge to share its nuclear arsenal with its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, particularly those that had no nuclear weapons of their own, such as the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) and Italy. This commitment had been established via the NATO Multilateral Force (MLF). The Soviets regarded the MLF as a step toward proliferation and blocked the Geneva negotiations as long as the Americans refused to abandon the MLF. Eventually the Johnson administration gave up the idea behind the MLF and decided to share with its allies only the plans about the use of its atomic arsenal, in particular the targeting of ballistic missiles.

By late 1966, the U.S.-Soviet rapprochement had gone so far that the two superpowers tabled a joint NPT draft to write a new one. Some NATO allies, however, were not particularly pleased by this turn of events and criticized the new draft, which clearly prohibited the MLF. Draft modifications concerning inspections and the duration of the treaty partly deflected this criticism, however, and the treaty was concluded by early summer of 1968. The August 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia delayed its ratification, but the necessary number of signatures was gathered by March 1970, when the treaty came into effect.

With 188 signatories, the NPT has the widest scope of any arms control agreement. Yet India, Israel, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea), and Pakistan—all now either confirmed or suspected nuclear powers—remain outside the treaty, so doubts about the NPT's efficacy have increased since the 1990s.

Leopoldo Nuti and David Tal


Further Reading
Haftendorn, Helga. NATO and the Nuclear Revolution: A Crisis of Credibility, 1966–1967. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.; Seaborg, Glenn. Stemming the Tide: Arms Control in the Johnson Years. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1987.
 

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