Julian Zelizer: Why Controlling Nukes is Good Politics

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. His new book is"Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security: From World War II to the War on Terrorism," published by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely about current events.]

In the week leading up to the meeting of world leaders in Washington, President Obama has been demonstrating a strong commitment to nuclear arms control.

Last week, he signed the first major agreement with the Russians since 2002, which reduces the number of nuclear warheads and long-range missiles.

Obama released the Nuclear Posture Review, saying the United States would not use nuclear weapons against countries that complied with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, even if they attacked with conventional weapons. At the same time, the president said the countries that refused to abide by the treaty could be subject to nuclear reprisal....

The president must remind fellow Democrats, as well as Republicans, that historically the public has tended to strongly support nuclear weapons treaties, and the presidents who pursue them.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, President Kennedy proposed the Limited Test Ban Treaty. Proponents of a ban on atmospheric and underwater testing of nuclear weapons had unsuccessfully pushed for some kind of ban since the early 1950s. There were many powerful opponents of a treaty, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the Republican right. In 1963, they warned that a treaty would threaten America's military strength.

But Kennedy was determined to obtain a treaty. He had seen the possibility of nuclear war firsthand when the Soviets and the U.S. went eye-to-eye over missiles in Cuba. Kennedy also worried the Chinese were dangerously close to exploding their first nuclear bomb, something that also gave the Soviets an incentive to work toward some kind of treaty.

Negotiations over a limited test ban took place from March to May. Conservatives warned that verification would be impossible. On June 10, in an effort to move the process forward, Kennedy made a dramatic speech at American University in which he said, "I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war -- and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task."

On August 5, 1963, the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union reached an agreement on the Limited Test Ban Treaty that prohibited atmospheric, space and underwater testing. The administration remained nervous about whether Republicans would be able to block its ratification. But by limiting the test ban rather than agreeing to a total moratorium, Kennedy undercut the opposition.

The Senate ratified the treaty 80-19. Polls showed that Americans overwhelmingly approved of the treaty. The following year, President Johnson used Sen. Barry Goldwater's opposition to the treaty as a central theme in the fall presidential campaign....

During the Cold War, presidents from both parties learned that the American public tends to prefer politicians who are willing to take risks to reduce nuclear stockpiles rather than those who beat the drums of war.

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