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Nukes on the Loose: What Can Be Done?

A"secret and sudden" attack with nuclear weapons is the most horrific threat facing the United States today.  But nuclear fears are nothing new. They have been with us since World War II. A former Massachusetts Institute of Technology president, Dr. James Killian, became a key part of the fight to control nuclear weapons during the Cold War. His work holds much relevance to today's struggle against nuclear proliferation. 

Dr. Killian became Dwight Eisenhower's science advisor in 1957. Eisenhower considered Killian"an able and trusted advisor of top rank" according to former aide General Andrew Goodpaster. Killian's leadership was vital in formulating arms control policies to limit nuclear weapons.

In the late 1950's, nuclear fears were even greater than today.  The Soviet Union and the United States were engaged in a massive arms race. The United States"Net Evaluation Subcommittee" conducted studies to see how much damage Soviet atomic bombs could inflict on the United States. The results were ghastly.   There was also the fear of nuclear weapons spreading to more nations, a danger also ever-present in today's world. 

In a report to President Eisenhower, Dr. Killian wrote"trends in military technology emphasize the urgent importance of arms limitations." Chief among these arms control efforts was a nuclear test ban treaty. A treaty eliminating all nuclear tests was seen as a potential springboard to further agreements related to disarmament. But a test ban treaty was also seen as risky to national security.  It was feared the Soviets could" cheat" the treaty and conduct secret test explosions.

When the Eisenhower administration examined ways to achieve a test ban treaty, it was Dr. Killian who took a leadership role.  In 1958 Killian, along with the science advisory committee, recommended an in-depth study of nuclear test detection capabilities.  Eisenhower gave the green light and Killian helped assemble a group of elite scientists to conduct further research into detecting nuclear explosions. 

Killian and the scientists greatly increased the knowledge vital to any hopes of a test ban treaty.  Their groundwork helped set the stage for what became the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. This treaty, signed in 1963 during the Kennedy administration, banned atmospheric, underwater and outer space nuclear explosions. Underground nuclear tests were allowed to continue under the treaty.  General Goodpaster says,"James Killian's was a role of foremost importanceā€¦" in achieving the Limited Test Ban Treaty. The treaty provided a key respite from the Cold War.

But Eisenhower, Kennedy and others had their sights set on a comprehensive test ban treaty banning all nuclear tests. A comprehensive test ban treaty has long been regarded as a major stepping stone toward nuclear disarmament worldwide. Today, such a treaty has not come to fruition. In its absence, the fear of new nuclear weapons and test explosions remain.

In 1959, Dr. Killian wrote of the dangers of developing new armaments. Increasing nuclear weapons technology"will steadily complicate our defense [and] augment instability." Killian furthered warned the" chances for errorā€¦and the consequences of [accidental war] become enormous."  Today, the United States is researching new nuclear weapons and may resume testing. Imagine the shockwave should the United States resume nuclear testing!  No international norm would exist against the testing and development of these weapons. New nuclear testing will encourage Russia and others to do the same. Failure to limit and lower nuclear stockpiles worldwide also increases the chances of terrorist theft of these weapons. The U.S. government might be wise to heed some of Dr. Killian's warnings of over forty years ago and pursue further arms limitations.

Dr. Killian was one of the unsung heroes of the Cold War. His efforts helped increase  nuclear security at a dangerous period in American history.  The country is now in another turbulent time, under the threat of nuclear weapons. We can only hope that officials like Killian are taking leadership on policies that will enhance nuclear security.  The people of the United States and the world are counting on it.