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Danger remains without Test Ban Treaty

In a radio address to the American people from the deck of the battleship Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945, Gen. Douglas MacArthur warned, in the wake of victory over Japan, that in the modern era the “utter destructiveness of war” was the greatest argument against the use of war to settle differences.

“We have had our last chance,” he said, less than a month after the dropping of the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “If we do not devise some greater and more equitable system, Armageddon will be at our door. The problem basically is theological and involves a spiritual recrudescence … ”

MacArthur was concerned for nothing less than “the survival of civilization.”

We have survived until now, sometimes narrowly, and with increasing awareness of the enormity of the destruction awaiting us should the nuclear option ever be used again. Yet, as we near century’s end, it appears our politics have become so cramped and venal that Congress cannot imagine a way to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The United States was the first of 152 nations to sign the treaty, which has been ratified by 41 others, including nuclear weapons states France and England.

The United States is the only country ever to use nuclear weapons and certainly it is the one country whose approval would give the kind of credibility essential to the global effort envisioned by the treaty. However, any possibility for ratification, which requires a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate, has been mired in petty partisan wrangling.

MacArthur’s warning came in the infancy of the nuclear age. There had been others before him, those of the scientists who developed the first generation of weapons, not widely heard.

More warnings have been issued since, not only from the religious and peace communities, but also from military authorities and presidents, almost always at the end of a career or the end of a term in office.

Now comes a new warning, this time from 32 Nobel laureates in physics, urging the United States to ratify the treaty. The plea comes via the American Physical Society, an organization of the world’s top physicists, a discipline that dominates the development of nuclear weapons. The unanimity among the signers, some of whom have helped design nuclear weapons, was called unprecedented by Dr. Robert L. Park, a physicist at the University of Maryland and director of the group’s Washington office.

The scientists petitioning for ratification of the treaty represent the full range from hawks to doves, agreeing on the essential point: The treaty, they say, is “central to future efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.”

Opponents claim the treaty would tie the hands of the United States while allowing non-compliant nations to go on developing weapons in secret, even though the treaty outlines elaborate verification procedures. Without a widely ratified treaty, however, the world would certainly be in grave danger of both clandestine and open development of newer weapons, a scenario that would perpetuate and expand the nuclear club and place the globe in greater jeopardy.

It is clear, given nuclear weapons developments in places like India and Pakistan, not to mention China’s progress thanks to stolen U.S. secrets, that we have not moved very far back from the brink.

To fail now to muster a simple show of will would send a dangerous message to the rest of the world and mark an inexcusable failure to come to terms with one of the greatest evils confronting the human race at the end of the 20th century.

National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 1999