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The urgency of a halt in nuclear testing

By Claiborne Pell / October 29, 1985

BOTH the Soviet leadership and the Reagan administration are showing a new and welcome restraint in their public rhetoric as next month's summit approaches. The moderation shown in Washington as Mikhail Gorbachev lofted his latest arms control proposals may well be an early sign that the administration is prepared to talk seriously with the Soviets about major arms reductions. If Mr. Gorbachev is willing to be realistic and reasonable about striking a deal on offensive and defensive weapons which wor ks for both sides, the current impasse on arms control could be broken. However, one key arms control goal for well over two decades remains curiously absent from current discussions. That is a comprehensive ban on nuclear explosions. An end to nuclear explosions could be an invaluable underpinning in efforts both to reduce nuclear arms and to deal with space weapons -- the goals at the current negotiations. In fact, the survival of any agreement resulting from those negotiations may depend on a test ban, since vigorous programs of new weapons development could place an int olerable strain on either side's willingness to live with constraints on existing arms.

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The test-ban issue received a boost last summer when Mr. Gorbachev announced that the Soviets would observe a unilateral moratorium from early August through December. The Soviet leader also invited the United States to join in a bilateral moratorium to extend past December. The President seemed initially attracted to the idea, although the White House later seemed much more dubious. Nonetheless, the President indicated a willingness to engage in a mutual moratorium after our ``necessary'' testing is co mpleted.

Early last month, I and other members of a Senate delegation had an opportunity to discuss the Soviet offer with Mr. Gorbachev. The Soviet leader argued strongly for his proposal, maintaining that a joint moratorium would permit a return to the negotiating table to set the terms of a comprehensive ban. Moreover, he said, a halt in testing would stop the creation of new weapons and existing arsenals would become obsolete as they aged.

Mr. Gorbachev has a point, and we ought to test his seriousness. Specifically, we need to establish what verification provisions would apply; and we need to be assured that, despite Gorbachev's words, a moratorium would not substitute for a formal agreement. A nonbinding pause of uncertain duration is no substitute for a detailed set of long-term agreed commitments with effective provisions for verification.

A moratorium of a finite duration, however -- such as one year -- would open the way to a resumption of the negotiations on a formal agreement conducted by the Carter administration. Considerable progress on verification matters had been made in these negotiations. The sides had agreed to allow seismic monitoring stations on their territory, and details on inspections on demand to look into suspicious seismic activity were being worked out. Thus, the two sides would not be starting from scratch. A finit e duration to a moratorium would give the sides reason to conclude their work expeditiously, although, if success were in sight, there would be nothing wrong with a brief extension of the moratorium.

Critics argue that a moratorium should be avoided, because the Soviets might break out of it, as they did the moratorium that preceded the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963. That concern is based on an erroneous recalling of the record. From 1958 until August of 1961, both sides observed a testing moratorium, although President Eisenhower announced in 1959 the US would no longer be bound, thus opening the way to a similar Soviet decision. The Soviets had said they would not remain bound if any Western pow ers tested. After four French tests the Soviets resumed testing, and the United States followed suit. I conclude that this record should give us heart to try a moratorium, rather than the reverse.