Political Fallout
Nuclear Weapons Testing and the Making of a Global Environmental Crisis
Toshihiro Higuchi




ON AUGUST 5, 1963, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, and British Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home gathered in St. Catherine Hall, a great chamber of the Kremlin with marble columns and a vaulted ceiling. With United Nations Secretary General U Thant and seventy U.S., Soviet, and British officials looking on, the three foreign ministers signed a treaty that prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, in outer space, and underwater. In the preamble, the three governments proclaimed “as their principal aim the speediest possible achievement of an agreement on general and complete disarmament under strict international control.”1 The Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) came on the heels of one of the most dangerous moments of the Cold War. Just months earlier, in October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union had come within a hairbreadth of war over the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles on Cuba. The PTBT provided the anxious world with a much-needed respite from the threat of nuclear war. After the signing of this landmark arms control agreement, the dignitaries from the West and the Soviet Union exchanged firm handshakes, light-hearted jokes, and numerous toasts to “peace and friendship.” The New York Times quoted one diplomat as calling it a “unique day.” Another seconded, “Peace—it’s wonderful.”2

The joyful mood at the signing ceremony in the Kremlin, however, belied a deep sense of disappointment. Since Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru first called for a nuclear-test ban in 1954, the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union had unsuccessfully tried to negotiate the prohibition of all tests under international control. In their view, then, the PTBT was partial in every sense of the word. Indeed, it soon became clear that the treaty stopped neither the arms race between the superpowers nor the spread of nuclear weapons to more countries. The United States and the Soviet Union simply went on to test nuclear weapons underground, whereas France and China refused to sign the PTBT and continued to develop their nuclear capabilities. For this reason, historians have typically viewed the PTBT as a significant yet ultimately unsuccessful disarmament initiative. The existing literature on the test-ban negotiations tends to focus on issues related to arms control, including an irresolvable stalemate over the methods of verification, the growing threat of nuclear proliferation, the changing dynamic of alliance politics, and the significant impact of the nuclear disarmament movement.3

The Partial Test Ban Treaty, however, was much more than a missed opportunity to stop the nuclear arms race. Both in intention and effect, it was also one of the first multinational treaties concluded during the Cold War that directly addressed a truly global, human-induced environmental issue. From 1945 to 1963, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain conducted 435 nuclear weapons tests in the open environment. The total yield of these explosions was approximately 400 megatons of TNT, or over twenty-six thousand Hiroshima-size bombs (Figure 1). The release of this enormous energy set in motion a collateral and dangerous process. The fragments left after the splitting of uranium and plutonium nuclei, the unused portion of the fissile material, and chemical elements capturing neutrons from nuclear reactions all tended to be radioactive. Each radionuclide would spontaneously transmute into a more stable form by emitting high-energy helium nuclei (alpha particles), high-speed electrons (beta particles), and/or penetrating electromagnetic beams (gamma rays). This type of energy, called ionizing radiation, was biologically harmful, injuring or killing organisms by removing electrons from molecules in cells through which it passed.

Part of the radioactive debris blown up by a nuclear explosion would quickly settle (“fall out”) to the ground at the test site and not far downwind. The vast majority of the fine dust and gases dispersed widely, however, either thoroughly mixed with the world’s atmosphere and oceans or slowly deposited on parts of or even the whole planet.4 In the preamble of the PTBT, the three governments noted this fact, pledging to “put an end to the contamination of man’s environment by radioactive substances.”5 Ultimately, the treaty proved far more effective in its environmental objective than that of arms control. Although France and China continued to conduct atmospheric testing until 1974 and 1980, respectively, the release of radioactive fallout into the biosphere drastically declined after 1963 (see Figure 1). By concealing the public health and environmental costs of nuclear weapons testing deep underground, the PTBT ironically made the nuclear arms race between the superpowers environmentally “sustainable” for the rest of the Cold War.

FIGURE 1. Tests of Nuclear Weapons in the Atmosphere and Underground.
Source: UNSCEAR 2000 Report, Vol. 1, 160. Reprinted with permission.

Despite its limitations, the PTBT’s explicit reference to global radioactive contamination is nevertheless notable for three reasons. First, despite the growing scholarship showing the contrary, the era of unrestricted nuclear testing from 1945 to 1963 is still typically not remembered for environmental consciousness. The PTBT was concluded barely a year after Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, an immensely influential book often credited for the rise of modern environmentalism in the United States.6 Internationally as well, it was not until 1972 that the United Nations hosted its first global environmental summit, in Stockholm.7 Second, the agreement concerned the nuclear arms race. Unlike most other environmental issues, nuclear weapons were one of the most prominent national security issues that directly contributed to superpower hostility.8 Finally, the agreement came decades before the issue came to light of the suffering of military personnel and local residents exposed to radiation at much higher doses while present at or near the test sites or downwind than those farther away. Although many of them had long complained about their illnesses from the time of irradiation, it was not until the 1980s and early 1990s that U.S., British, and post-Soviet authorities finally acknowledged at least some of the reported health problems among the atomic veterans and downwinders.9 If so, then why did the radioactive debris of atmospheric nuclear testing scattered worldwide come to be widely viewed as an unacceptable hazard by as early as 1963? And to what extent, and how, did this shifting understanding of global radioactive contamination affect the course of the test-ban negotiations toward the PTBT?

The question of radioactive fallout and its foreign policy impact is crucial to understanding the entangled relationship between the Cold War and the global environment. The material world in which the international tension between the United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies unfolded was neither static nor immobile. Scientists have suggested that Earth has entered a new interval of geological time in which humans have become the dominant influence on the planet’s interlocking physical and biological processes. Dutch atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen has popularized the term Anthropocene to describe this era of human-driven global environmental change.10 Although there has been a divergence of views on the origins of the Anthropocene, a common view holds that the human footprint on the planet became unmistakable in the second half of the twentieth century. The exponential growth in food production, fossil fuel use, and other human enterprises during this period drove a wide range of global environmental trends upward, including the atmospheric concentrations of gases of biogeochemical importance, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, and biodiversity loss. The Cold War, spanning much of the late twentieth century, coincided with this latest phase of the Anthropocene, called the “Great Acceleration.”11

The Cold War and the Anthropocene were not merely contemporaneous but also deeply connected through various intersections.12 Some historians have explained how the global competition between capitalism and communism accelerated the proliferation of large-scale public health and development projects that powerfully reshaped the human environment around the world.13 Others have pointed out that at times the superpower rivalry also led to greater management of the trans-border environment through international cooperation and, in the case of the Korean peninsula, through the creation of the demilitarized zone.14

The Cold War, however, did much more for the Anthropocene than create a favorable geopolitical condition for global economic development and environmental management. The permanent state of military preparedness that characterized the Cold War also had a strong and direct relationship with the enhanced human impact on the planet and the concurrent rise of environmental consciousness. Jacob Darwin Hamblin has demonstrated how a massive research effort by the United States and its NATO allies for environmental warfare against the Soviet Union raised awareness about catastrophic consequences of human-induced environmental change.15 David Zierler has explained how the destructive use of defoliants by the United States during the Vietnam War sparked a movement to outlaw herbicide warfare.16

Of all Cold War military activities, atmospheric nuclear testing stood out for its truly global and long-term environmental impact. Driven by the rising tension between the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union over the post–World War II settlement, the nuclear arms race led to a staggering increase in the rate of fallout emissions in the atmosphere. If we take the annual yield of atmospheric tests as a proxy measure of radioactivity, it increased three thousand times from 1945 (57 kilotons) to the peak year of 1962 (170 megatons), even with a moratorium on all types of nuclear testing between November 1958 and August 1961.17 Each explosion scattered a massive amount of radioactive substances over large areas, slightly but steadily raising radiation levels around the world. In this sense, the Cold War radically differed from other conflicts: it was an Anthropocenic war. The fast-changing dynamic of the nuclear arms race not only pushed the whole world to the brink of nuclear war but also simultaneously altered the material conditions of Earth with potentially far-reaching implications for human health and the environment.

Indeed, an increasing number of scientists have recognized the geological utility of radioactive fallout deposited in Earth’s crust as a reliable marker to define Anthropocene strata.18 Nonetheless, many scholars still tend to discount the importance of fallout to understanding the enhanced human impact on the structure and functioning of our planet, noting that the average dose of radiation from the bomb debris scattered worldwide was no more than a fraction of that from natural background radiation.19 Radioactive fallout, however, offers an important clue for exploring the prefix Anthropos, that is, the human part of global environmental change.20 Indeed, in view of the depth of mutual distrust among the Cold War adversaries, it was far from certain that atmospheric nuclear testing would stop before its public health and environmental consequences became much more significant. While the evolving superpower relationship from confrontation to coexistence ultimately paved the way to the PTBT, this strategic shift alone does not fully account for the decision made by the negotiating parties to include an antipollution objective in the treaty. To understand the global environmental dimension of the landmark arms control agreement, it is crucial to scrutinize the relationship between science and politics under the conditions of the Anthropocene.


1. Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water, August 5, 1963, accessed October 1, 2019, http://disarmament.un.org/treaties/t/test_ban/text.

2. Henry Tanner, “Test Ban Treaty Signed in Moscow,” New York Times, August 6, 1963.

3. For U.S. test-ban policy, see Robert A. Divine, Blowing on the Wind: The Nuclear Test Ban Debate, 1954–1960 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978); Benjamin P. Greene, Eisenhower, Science Advice, and the Nuclear Test-Ban Debate, 1945–1963 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007); Gregg Herken, Cardinal Choices: Presidential Science Advising from the Atomic Bomb to SDI (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 101–126; Shane J. Maddock, Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the Present (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 92–216; Paul Rubinson, Redefining Science: Scientists, the National Security State, and Nuclear Weapons in Cold War America (Amherst; Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016), 93–116; and Martha Smith-Norris, “The Eisenhower Administration and the Nuclear Test Ban Talks, 1958–1960: Another Challenge to ‘Revisionism’,” Diplomatic History 27, no. 4 (2003): 503–541. For British policy, see Kendrick Oliver, Kennedy, Macmillan and the Nuclear Test-Ban Debate, 1961–63 (London: Macmillan, 1998); and John R. Walker, British Nuclear Weapons and the Test Ban, 1954–73: Britain, the United States, Weapons Policies and Nuclear Testing: Tensions and Contradictions (Farnham, UK; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010). For Soviet policy, see Matthew Evangelista, Unarmed Forces: The Transnational Movement to End the Cold War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), 45–89; and Vojtech Mastny, “The 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: A Missed Opportunity for Détente?” Journal of Cold War Studies 10, no. 1 (2008): 3–25. For the role of the nuclear disarmament movement in the nuclear-test ban debate, see Lawrence S. Wittner, The Struggle Against the Bomb, vol. 2: Resisting the Bomb: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1954–1970 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997).

4. UNSCEAR 2000 Report, Volume 1: Sources (New York: United Nations, 2000), 160–162, 213. The unofficial nuclear weapons states, namely Israel, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and North Korea, presumably have never conducted a weapon test above ground, with a possible exception of South Africa. While the debris of underground testing at times vented into the air, UNSCEAR believes that the contributions of underground tests to global radioactive contamination are essentially nil.

5. Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests.

6. For Rachel Carson and her role in the birth of modern environmentalism, see Mark H. Lytle, The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). For the recent scholarly effort to recover the movement’s earlier origins, see Chad Montrie, The Myth of Silent Spring: Rethinking the Origins of American Environmentalism (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018).

7. For the global development of environmentalism in the 1970s, see John R. McNeill, “The Environment, Environmentalism, and International Society in the Long 1970s,” in The Shock of the Global: The 1970s in Perspective, ed. Niall Ferguson, Charles S. Maier, Erez Manela, and Daniel J. Sargent, 263–278 (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010).

8. For the centrality of nuclear weapons in Cold War history, see David Holloway, “Nuclear Weapons and the Escalation of the Cold War, 1945–1962,” in The Cambridge History of the Cold War, vol. 1: Origins, ed. Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad, 376–397 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

9. For the U.S. case, see Howard Ball, Justice Downwind: America’s Atomic Testing Program in the 1950s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Holly M. Barker, Bravo for the Marshallese: Regaining Control in a Post-Nuclear, Post-Colonial World, 2nd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2013); Barton C. Hacker, Elements of Controversy: The Atomic Energy Commission and Radiation Safety in Nuclear Weapons Testing, 1947–1974 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); and Laura J. Harkewicz, “‘The Ghost of the Bomb’: The Bravo Medical Program, Scientific Uncertainty, and the Legacy of U.S. Cold War Science, 1954–2005” (PhD diss., University of California-San Diego, 2010). For the British case, see Lorna Arnold and Mark Smith, Britain, Australia and the Bomb: The Nuclear Tests and Their Aftermath (Basingstoke, UK; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); Roger Cross, “British Nuclear Tests and the Indigenous People of Australia,” in The British Nuclear Weapons Programme, 1952–2002, ed. Douglas Holdstock and Frank Barnaby, 75–88 (London: Frank Cass, 2003); and Sue Rabbitt Roff, “Long-Term Health Effects in UK Test Veterans,” in The British Nuclear Weapons Programme, 1952–2002, ed. Holdstock and Barnaby, 99–112. For the Soviet case, see Susanne Bauer, “Radiation Science After the Cold War: The Politics of Measurement, Risk, and Compensation in Kazakhstan,” in Health, Technologies, and Politics in Post-Soviet Settings: Navigating Uncertainties, ed. Olga Zvonareva, Evgeniya Popova, and Klasien Horstman, 225–249 (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017); Magdalena E. Stawkowski, “Radioactive Knowledge: State Control of Scientific Information in Post-Soviet Kazakhstan” (PhD diss., University of Colorado-Boulder, 2014); and Cynthia Werner and Kathleen Purvis-Roberts, “After the Cold War: International Politics, Domestic Policy and the Nuclear Legacy in Kazakhstan,” Central Asian Survey 25, no. 4 (2006): 461–480.

10. Paul J. Crutzen, “Geology of Mankind,” Nature 415, no. 6867 (2002): 23; and Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, “The ‘Anthropocene’,” IGBP Global Change Newsletter 41 (2000): 17–18.

11. John R. McNeill and Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene Since 1945 (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014).

12. John R. McNeill and Corinna R. Unger, “Introduction: The Big Picture,” in Environmental Histories of the Cold War, ed. McNeill and Unger, 1–18 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); and Simo Laakkonen, Viktor Pál, and Richard Tucker, “The Cold War and Environmental History: Complementary Fields,” Cold War History 16, no. 4 (2016): 377–394.

13. For example, see Nick Cullather, The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle Against Poverty in Asia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); Bob H. Reinhardt, The End of a Global Pox: America and the Eradication of Smallpox in the Cold War Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); and Richard Tucker, “Containing Communism by Impounding Rivers: American Strategic Interests and the Global Spread of High Dams in the Early Cold War,” in Environmental Histories of the Cold War, ed. McNeill and Unger, 139–163.

14. Lisa M. Brady, “Life in the DMZ: Turning a Diplomatic Failure into an Environmental Success,” Diplomatic History 32, no. 4 (2008): 585–611; Kai Hünemörder, “Environmental Crisis and Soft Politics: Détente and the Global Environment, 1968–1975,” in Environmental Histories of the Cold War, ed. McNeill and Unger, 257–276; and Tuomas Räsänen and Simo Laakkonen, “Cold War and the Environment: The Role of Finland in International Environmental Politics in the Baltic Sea Region,” Ambio 36, no. 2–3 (2007): 229–236.

15. Jacob Darwin Hamblin, Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

16. David Zierler, The Invention of Ecocide: Agent Orange, Vietnam, and the Scientists Who Changed the Way We Think about the Environment (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011). Also see Evelyn Frances Krache-Morris, “Into the Wind: The Kennedy Administration and the Use of Herbicides in South Vietnam” (PhD diss., Georgetown University, 2012).

17. UNSCEAR 2000 Report, Volume 1, 207.

18. Jan Zalasiewicz et al., “When Did the Anthropocene Begin? A Mid-Twentieth Century Boundary Level Is Stratigraphically Optimal,” Quaternary International 385 (2015): 196–203.

19. Jan Zalasiewicz, Will Steffen, Reinhold Leinfelder, Mark Williams, and Colin Waters, “Petrifying Earth Process: The Stratigraphic Imprint of Key Earth System Parameters in the Anthropocene,” Theory, Culture & Society 34, no. 2–3 (2017): 86.

20. For the critical view of the term Anthropos, see Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg, “The Geology of Mankind? A Critique of the Anthropocene Narrative,” The Anthropocene Review 1, no. 1 (2014): 62–69.