Study Guide

Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) or Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT)

By the governments of the United States of America, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) or Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) Introduction

If you've never run into it before, the Partial Test Ban Treaty initially sounds like a sort of noncommittal plan to maybe get rid of something, somewhere, at some point...if the mood is right.

The lack of title specifics makes the treaty seem like it's wishy-washy by name, wishy-washy by nature, and not very treaty-like. Well, this (thankfully) couldn't be further from the truth. Partial Test Ban Treaty—or PTBT—is just a nickname.

In more formal settings (like Sunday dinner, funerals, and prom), the PTBT is known by its official name: Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water.

We know, it's not the catchiest title, but it's not "Rumpelstiltskin," either. When you're dealing with nuclear weapons, cool poetic titles tend to be low on the list of priorities.

The lowdown on the PTBT is this: it's an international agreement that was ratified in 1963—after years and years of revisions, demands, and disagreements—between the United States of America, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (For all of our sakes, we'll be referring to these countries as the U.S., the U.K., and the USSR from now on).

The PTBT developed out of the desire to put the kibosh on nuclear testing worldwide. Although it might seem like a no-brainer to halt the willy-nilly detonation of atomic explosions, during the mid-20th century, the issue was a lot more complicated. Given what we know now about how scary nuclear power can be, you might be wondering why nuclear testing was ever an option at all.

For one thing, scientists in the 1950s and 1960s (supposedly) didn't know as much about the detrimental effects of nuclear radiation as they do today. Some of them thought nuclear fallout was no big deal. (It is.) Others were extremely concerned about it. Without conclusive and unanimous evidence against it, both sides of the issue could be considered. Where there is a shadow of a doubt, there is opportunity.

So nuclear testing continued.

The purpose of nuclear testing was to advance the development of nuclear weapons. Nations desired to possess nuclear weapons to ensure a state of security against other nations (who might also possess nuclear weapons). Whoever had the biggest, baddest, most-nuclear bomb held the most power. This created a situation known as MAD, or Mutual Assured Destruction, a condition that typified the Cold War era and specifically refers to the diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and the USSR.

To understand how things got to this dire point, we have to look back to the end of World War II (which we'll do in the "Historical Context" section). Just for now, though, know that after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, everybody freaked out.

Then, everybody wanted nuclear weapons, too...not because the A-bomb is cool, but because it's terrifying.

This was especially true for the USSR. Although the Soviets were allies with the U.S. during World War II, world politics had blasted into a new era. The U.S./Soviet divide quickly widened due to the ideological differences between capitalism and communism. Allies became rivals.

By the mid 1950s, atomic weapons were intensifying, and in a couple of instances on both the U.S. and Soviet sides, experiments had gotten out of hand. As a result, political pressure from the world scientific community and the United Nations urged the USSR and the U.S. (along with its longtime ally, the U.K.) to agree on universal rules concerning nuclear testing.

The diplomatic proceedings lasted nearly 10 years, but from them the PTBT was born. As its fancy title indicates, the treaty prohibits the testing of nuclear weapons in the air, in space, and underwater (even though they make for one heck of a Jacuzzi).

Lest you think that the U.S., the U.K., and the USSR have their own test-ban clubhouse clique, note that the treaty allows for any nation to join at any time. Today, 136 nations support the PTBT.

(Psssst: in case manuals on nuclear physics haven't yet made it on your summer reading list, you might want to give this article about how atomic weapons work a quick once-over before we proceed. Or just be surprised by all of the explosions. We recommend the former.)

  

What is Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) or Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) About and Why Should I Care?

Uh, if ever there were a time to answer a question with a question, it would be now.

Why should you care? We're talking about, oh, one of the scariest things imaginable. So, let's take it down a notch...and not in a Chris Isaak "Wicked Game" and rose petals on your duvet kind of way.

We're going to be serious for a moment. We're talking about nuclear weapons, which are the most destructive man-made forces on the planet.

We hear a lot about the atomic bomb in history classes and even in pop culture—sci-fi movies and war movies, in particular. In recent years, discussion of nuclear weapons has again entered the news circuit as nations like North Korea (which, not surprisingly, has not signed the PTBT) allegedly pursue atomic weapons programs. The Trump administration in the U.S. and the Putin presidency in Russia have also triggered renewed awareness of Cold War anxieties.

The history surrounding nuclear weapons is well-documented, but it can sometimes be difficult to imagine just how destructive these bombs truly are. To help you get a better sense of their immense power, check out this short video that animates a timeline of significant nuclear explosions. (While you're watching, try to ignore the fact that the narrator sometimes says "nuculur" instead of "nuclear.")

Test incidents like Castle Bravo, which obliterated the small island of Bikini Atoll (much to everyone's surprise), and the ungodly monster that was Tsar Bomba set the bar of atomic might. Without the restrictions of the PTBT, who knows what kinds of weapons would have been created to establish a new atomic record.

Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) or Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) Resources

Websites

Countdown to Doomsday
It's the end of the world as we know it, and, frankly, no one feels fine. Just ask the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which keeps track of the time on the Doomsday Clock—a clock face that symbolically represents how close the planet is to a nuclear holocaust. In January 2017, the clock was moved 30 seconds closer to midnight, i.e., the end of the world. That puts us at two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. Oh, good.

Fallout—the Gift That Keeps on Giving
The Atomic Heritage Foundation is an organization that is all about the history and memory of the Manhattan Project and the Atomic Age.

Within Disarms Reach
The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs isn't about offering support to politicians who cheat on their spouses. It works toward controlling and eliminating weapons of military aggression worldwide. The group takes special interest in the disarmament and discontinuation of weapons of mass destruction (which, in some cases, could be used to describe certain marriages).

Movie or TV Productions

Love a Strange Flick?
Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick's 1964 black comedy about Cold War hysteria and the obsession with the nuclear bomb makes for an unsettling bit of entertainment. This bizarre and disturbing film features an outstanding cast, including an incredibly versatile performance by Peter Sellers, who plays three different characters.

Not for the Faint of Heart...
Or anyone, really. Threads is a 1984 British made-for-TV movie that does its best to accurately depict the circumstances of a nuclear attack. It's considered one of the grimmest films ever made, so watch with care. Just think—this was on regular television.

Down for the Count
No, we're not talking about the Doomsday Clock this time, we're actually talking about Rocky IV. This might seem like a strange choice here, but not all Cold War-era films about the Cold War were chock-full of espionage and atomic anxiety. In this epic boxing flick, we see American boxer Rocky Balboa compete against the aptly and simply named Soviet boxer Drago. It's a thinly veiled allegory about world politics at the time.

Articles and Interviews

The Beat
The year 2017 brought a lot of interesting changes to the world, especially regarding the political situation in the United States. There's a lot of speculation about what might or might not happen. Here's just one take on current affairs as they pertain to nuclear energy in the 21st century.

What's Up?
Twenty-five years into the treaty, and we were still trying to get up that great big hill of hope. Check out this opinion article in The New York Times reflecting on the successes and failures of the PTBT—a quarter century after its ratification.

Speaking of Anniversaries
The Guardian provides an assessment of the lasting impact of the Castle Bravo nuclear test on Bikini Atoll 60 years after its detonation.

Video

Horribly Hypnotic
In the spring of 2017, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory declassified more than 200 films documenting atmospheric nuclear tests. Now, you can watch them all from the comfort of your own fallout shelter.

Up Close and Personal
In this lengthy interview, Spurgeon Keeny (yes, his name is Spurgeon), senior fellow at the National Academy of Sciences and former president and director of the Arms Control Association, talks about the PTBT on the 40th anniversary of its ratification. Grab a bowl of popcorn, folks. Edge of your seat entertainment here.

That Pretty Face Could Read the Phone Book
In this bit of historical footage, we see JFK addressing the nation on the PTBT a few days before it was signed in Moscow.

Audio

That Pretty Voice Could Read the Phone Book
Just in case your video player or whatever isn't working, the JFK presidential library has kindly provided some historical radio records of the 35th prez addressing the nation on the PTBT a few days before it was signed in Moscow.

Negotiations About the Negotiations
The White House is one well-equipped facility that documents nearly everything—because you never know when something historic is going to happen. This means that a lot of historical events have been collected, including conversations between presidents and their advisors. This is one example, of JFK talking with Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs McGeorge Bundy and Deputy Special Assistant to the President Walt Rostow about meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, French President Charles de Gaulle, and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan about the PTBT.

Images

Oh, the Body Language
No doubt one of the more awkward images in the JFK library's archive, here we have John F. Kennedy meeting with Nikita Khrushchev and maybe having a moment…but probably not.

Check out That Window Treatment
A beautiful, full-color photograph of JFK signing the PTBT, complete with a crowd of solemn-looking old men and some brocade curtains à la Scarlett O'Hara.

Stop Showing Off
That's one mean missile you've got there. If there is one thing the Soviet Union never quite got, it was subtlety.