Study Guide

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

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

Historical Context

The events directly surrounding the drafting of the PTBT are, honestly, not that exciting. It's the kind of dusty, dry bureaucratic stuff that always comes to mind when someone says they "work in government"—a bunch of old men grumbling about how they think the world should be run. The treaty itself, however, is one super exciting document.

Why, you ask?

Well, it kind of saved the world from all-out nuclear annihilation.

The events surrounding the officious but boring creation of this amazing treaty were pretty wild, and in order to fully grasp the crazy state of the world in the early 1960s, we're going to have to back up to the end of World War II.

A Lil' Bit of Background

In case you haven't heard, World War II was the deadliest and most widespread military conflict in modern history.

World War II in Europe began in 1939 when the German armed forces, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, invaded Poland as the first step in their plan of seizing control of Europe (and, eventually, the entire globe). This act of aggression triggered international responses of dismay from countries sympathetic to Poland, specifically Britain and France.

Despite the outrage, the Germans proceeded with their agenda. During the 1940s, Germany invaded and took control of the vast majority of Europe with its partner in fascism and stuffed noodle dishes, Italy.

Meanwhile, in the East, Japan (which was allied with Germany), started a campaign to rule all of Asia and, eventually, the world. In 1937, they invaded China as the first step in this process.

If we were to split the major nations involved in World War II into teams, they would be as follows:

  • Germany, Italy, and Japan are together referred to as the Axis powers of World War II.
  • On the other side of the conflict were the U.K. and France, who were fighting against the German takeover of their respective countries and those of their neighbors. The U.S. joined them after the bombing of the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces on December 7th, 1941.
  • The U.S., the U.K., and France are together referred to as the Allied powers of World War II. (Though France fell to Germany in the summer of 1940, it maintained a satellite government in resistance to Germany and is still considered an Allied power.)

At about the same time as the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent U.S. entry into the war, Germany decided to invade the USSR despite the existence of several nonaggression pacts between the two nations. This was bad for everybody because it brought the Soviet Union fully into the war—and they had no intention of being defeated.

Even though the Red Army was huge, the Soviets knew better than to take on the Germans by themselves. They hooked up with the U.K. so as to share the stockpile of weapons that the British had on hand. It's important to note that this abundance of war materials came from the U.S. and was made available to the U.K. at the beginning of World War II thanks to the Lend-Lease Act. It was through this arrangement that the Soviets joined the Allied forces in their fight against the Axis and were made collaborators with the United States.

Although a series of events led to the end of World War II in Europe, the Battle of Berlin was the most dramatic. Lasting from April 16th until May 2nd, 1945, the battle consisted of a triple-front attack by Soviet forces on the German capital city. In addition to the intense fighting both in and around the city, the battle resulted in the Soviet capture of the Reichstag, the suicide of Adolf Hitler and some of his closest cohorts, and the fall of Nazi Germany.

Three months later, the U.S. would end World War II in the so-called "Pacific Theater" (the conflict with Japanese forces in East and Southeast Asia) when it dropped atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945, and Nagasaki on August 9th, 1945. This was the first and only time nuclear weapons were used in warfare.

A Whole New (Messy) World

After World War II ended, things were pretty torn up. Japan was certainly in bad shape, and Europe was basically shredded to pieces. In the face of so much destruction and so much rebuilding, there were many questions about the future. One of those questions in particular was:

What was to be done with Germany?

At the time, Germany was occupied by the Allies. With Germany under their control, they decided to split its territory among themselves. Since the U.S., the U.K., and France were ideologically and economically aligned with capitalism, they grouped together and claimed the western portion of Germany. This eventually became the country of, you guessed it, West Germany, or the Federal Republic of Germany.

The Soviets, being fully invested in communism, claimed the other half of the country. This area became East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic.

Although the country had been divided into two, the Allies all still wanted a piece of Berlin—and no one was willing to give up their share. This brought about the division of the city into its own east-west split, with each Allied nation occupying its own respective sector. If you're having trouble visualizing the situation, check out this brightly colored map.

You can imagine that chopping a country in half and then further dividing its capital city into bits wasn't exactly ideal—especially when that capital city was located smack in the middle of territory held by a highly controlled and controlling government like the USSR.

Once again, the Soviets were none too happy about the situation with Germany. Border control was extremely important to them and having a portion of Berlin accessible to the world outside of their jurisdiction was very troubling—not to mention controlling the movement of people across the border within Berlin was just as difficult.

It wasn't long before the Soviets and the other Allies, especially the U.S., got tired of each other and began to feel threatened by the other's power. Finally, after the Berlin Crisis of 1961, the Soviets built a barrier around the western portion of Berlin. This barrier became the infamous Berlin Wall.

It didn't help that the tension of close quarters in Berlin, and the tension of the east/west German divide in general, was made worse by the ever-widening split between the capitalist U.S. and the communist USSR. They were like a couple who decides to break up on a road trip—all they want is to be left alone in their self-righteousness, but instead, they're stuck with each other for the long haul.

Don't forget, both of these nations were world powers at the time, and more than anything, they sought dominant influence on the world stage. They each had substantial international support. This backing took the shape of governmental and military alliances:

  • North America and a large portion of Western Europe banded together under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a.k.a. NATO.
  • The Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, a.k.a. the Warsaw Pact, was the equivalent for the USSR and its communist satellite states.
  • NATO and the Warsaw Pact took the conflict between the U.S. and the USSR and expanded it to a global scale, making the Cold War an issue that encompassed the majority of the northern hemisphere.

Bombs Away

The German situation was the greatest and arguably most impactful example of this political conflict between America and the Soviet Union, a conflict that is now called the Cold War. Another is the related armaments (or arms) race, which was a competition to see who could develop the biggest and baddest military technology first. The deadliest weapons were preferred, so it's no surprise that nuclear weapons were front and center

The military and scientists in the U.S. and the USSR embarked on extensive studies and testing of nuclear weapons. The enthusiasm for the atom bomb was based on this idea: whoever possessed the greatest number and the biggest bombs basically held the most power...and there were some insanely big bombs.

The two most famous examples of nuclear testing are Castle Bravo, carried out by the U.S., and the Soviet Tsar Bomba, which was the largest man-made explosion in history. Both of these testing incidents—which were extremely experimental and therefore extremely dangerous—were largely influential in the eventual creation of the PTBT.

For the duration of the Cold War, neither the Americans nor the Soviets wanted to kick the hornet's nest, so to speak, and engage in conflict. Each feared the other would immediately retaliate with atomic weapons and wipe out the population of the planet. Generally, this era was characterized by an edgy stalemate condition. However, there were a few exceptions, when tensions rose to a fever pitch—the most famous of these moments being the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

The crisis arose when the Soviets delivered nuclear ballistic missiles to the island nation (and communist ally) of Cuba. It was a retaliation maneuver that occurred because the U.S. had deployed a similar type of missile to Italy and Turkey, irking the USSR.

It may sound somewhat unremarkable now, but it was the closest the two nations ever came to military aggression and all-out nuclear warfare. Also, have you seen how close Cuba is to the U.S.? You can basically see it from Florida.

After everyone had a mojito and let the aggravation of the Cuban Missile Crisis settle down, continuing negotiations over the PTBT seemed like a pretty good idea. It took a long time, though. In the U.S., these talks spanned three presidencies, from Truman to Eisenhower to Kennedy, but the PTBT finally went into effect in 1963.

While Eisenhower had been super invested in achieving a resolution to the test ban issue, the question of the treaty was just too hot a topic for the Soviets, and a final compromise was not an easy thing to achieve. While the top officials debated, ever more test bombs were detonated. It wasn't until the world witnessed some of the most fearsome displays of power and experienced the most nerve-racking moments of the Cold War that the right concessions were made to finalize the PB&J...uh, PTBT.

Three decades later, in 1996, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty was accepted by the United Nations General Assembly. Although it has been signed by many nations, it hasn't been signed by many others (boo).

Furthermore, several of those nations who did sign have yet to ratify it—meaning the treaty can't go into full effect. That's like RSVPing "maybe" to a wedding.

Sadly, the power and influence of nuclear energy is still considered too great to relinquish, even in the name of peace.

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