First and Last Steps to Snuff Out Nuclear Tests

"A journey of a thousand miles," said President John F. Kennedy more than 33 years ago, invoking an ancient Chinese proverb, "must begin with a single step.... [L]et history record that we ... took the first step." He was urging public and Senate approval of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty concluded the previous day with the Soviet Union and Britain, the first arms limitation of the nuclear era.

On Sept. 24, President Clinton took virtually the last step on the journey. His was the first signature on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty overwhelmingly approved by the United Nations General Assembly.

More steps, including US Senate ratification, are required before international law officially prohibits the testing of nuclear weapons underground (which the limited test ban still permitted), as well as underwater, in the atmosphere, and in outer space. But very soon, no nation unwilling to become an international pariah will dare conduct a nuclear explosion to help acquire, prove, or improve a nuclear arsenal. The long nightmarish descent into a world of ever more powerful nuclear weapons has been substantially slowed, if not stopped.

Banning nuclear tests was first proposed by Adlai Stevenson in 1956, back in the days when election campaigns actually produced bold new ideas. It was endorsed as a bipartisan goal by President Eisenhower in 1959.

Last month's step would not have been possible without the UN, too often and too easily disdained by American politicians but indispensable here in creating the global consensus necessary to revive this previously stymied treaty. Nor would it have been possible to circumvent India's delays and objections without persistent leadership by Australia, a nation unwilling to tolerate further risk of fallout from nuclear testing in the Pacific, and by the major nuclear powers urged on by the US and Mr. Clinton.

Clinton's leadership in thus reducing the threat of America's destruction by hostile strategic arms stands in stark contrast to the recent actions of his rival nominee, Bob Dole. The latter's personal intervention prevented Senate ratification of the treaty carefully negotiated by Reagan and Bush banning the manufacture and use of poison gas and other chemical weapons, the non-nuclear nations' most accessible instruments of mass destruction.

The US, which has already renounced use of these weapons and ordered its arsenal destroyed, can only gain from this ban's universal application. Except for Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Qaddafi, no world leaders to my knowledge have opposed it. No doubt this treaty will become effective without our signature or leadership. No doubt a future Democratic Senate will approve it. But the treaty's becoming operational without our participation will deny us a voice in its implementation and standing to persuade the Russians to ratify.

Because this year's Republican platform opposes the nuclear test-ban treaty, its ratification by two-thirds of the current Senate is also in doubt, despite its long bipartisan history. Republican opposition would be a mistake politically as well as substantively.

Kennedy faced Republican opposition to the limited test-ban treaty. The House GOP leader called it "far more tragic than no agreement at all." GOP senators, attacking JFK's "fuzzy-thinking disarmament advisers," promised to attach potentially fatal reservations. Important Senate Democrats and some of Kennedy's own military chiefs of staff were also skeptical, and an earlier poll found fewer than 50 percent of the public giving "unqualified" approval.

But the president - and the treaty - prevailed. Prior to the Senate vote, a presidential speaking tour through the West, a White House mobilization of leading private citizens, and an address on peace at the UN engendered strong bipartisan backing. Despite negative testimony from the usual military-industrial suspects, grass-roots support assured Senate approval of the limited test ban by a wide margin. That same source of support assures Senate approval of this nearly final step.

*Theodore C. Sorensen, who served as special counsel to President Kennedy, practices international law in New York.

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