Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Goes into Effect Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A treaty on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons negotiated in 1968 went into effect in 1970 after being signed by ninety-seven countries.

Summary of Event

Anxiety about the proliferation of nuclear weapons was the focus of a speech given by President John F. Kennedy Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;Cold War in 1963 in which he said, Nuclear weapons;proliferation Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (1970) Cold War;nuclear proliferation [kw]Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Goes into Effect (Mar. 5, 1970) [kw]Nonproliferation Treaty Goes into Effect, Nuclear (Mar. 5, 1970) [kw]Treaty Goes into Effect, Nuclear Nonproliferation (Mar. 5, 1970) Nuclear weapons;proliferation Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (1970) Cold War;nuclear proliferation [g]World;Mar. 5, 1970: Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Goes into Effect[10730] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Mar. 5, 1970: Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Goes into Effect[10730] [c]Cold War;Mar. 5, 1970: Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Goes into Effect[10730] [c]Science and technology;Mar. 5, 1970: Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Goes into Effect[10730]

I ask you to stop and think for a moment what it would mean to have nuclear weapons in many hands, in the hands of countries large and small, stable and unstable, responsible and irresponsible, scattered throughout the world. There would be no rest for anyone then, no stability, no real security, and no chance of effective disarmament.

Thirty years later, in 1993, President Bill Clinton Clinton, Bill addressed the United Nations with a similar appeal.

We simply have got to find ways to control these weapons and to reduce the number of states that possess them by supporting and strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency. . . . I have made nonproliferation one of our nation’s highest priorities.

The atomic bomb was developed by the United States during World War II. Enriched uranium was separated at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, plutonium was produced at Hanford, Washington, and the bomb detonation mechanism was designed at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The first successful test explosion was carried out in July, 1945, in the desert of New Mexico. Less than one month later, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic bombs, causing tens of thousands of casualties but also ending the war.

In 1954, the United States detonated a hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific. Its enormous explosive power was two hundred times greater than that of the Hiroshima A-bomb. A Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon, Lucky Dragon (ship) was contaminated by radioactive fallout Nuclear fallout Radioactive contamination when the wind shifted unexpectedly. The twenty-three sailors aboard suffered radiation poisoning, leading to worldwide protests against further testing. A group of Nobel Prize recipients, including Albert Einstein and Albert Schweitzer, wrote an appeal to the United Nations asking all countries to halt their bomb tests. Large antinuclear rallies mobilized public opinion against the escalating arms race.

Although the initial exploitation of nuclear energy was focused on producing weapons, there were found to be many nonmilitary applications for medicine, agriculture, industrial processes, and electric-power production. President Dwight D. Eisenhower Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;nuclear technology launched an Atoms for Peace program Atoms for Peace program in 1953 through the United Nations to publicize and advance peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The International Atomic Energy Agency International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was created by the United Nations in 1957 with the dual mission of promoting civilian nuclear technology while restraining the arms race.

In 1958, Eisenhower and Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev Khrushchev, Nikita S. [p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;Cold War agreed to a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere. It lasted for almost three years. Renewed tension between the two superpowers arose in 1960 when an American U2 spy plane was shot down while flying over the Soviet Union. The Berlin crisis of 1961 further worsened political relations, and both countries resumed nuclear testing. The most powerful bomb in history was a fifty-eight-megaton device detonated by the Soviet Union in October, 1961.

The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. The aftermath of this confrontation was the mutual realization that the nuclear arms race could escalate into annihilation for all sides. Subsequent negotiations between the superpowers led to a diplomatic breakthrough with the signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which prohibited nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, in the ocean, and in outer space. The 1963 treaty, however, still permitted underground explosions.

Further negotiations among the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union resulted in another major diplomatic accomplishment in 1968, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT stated that signatory countries possessing nuclear weapons would not transfer technology or materials to any other nation, while nonnuclear signatories pledged to refrain from trying to acquire nuclear weapons. When the treaty went into effect on March 5, 1970, ninety-seven countries had signed it.

Many smaller countries accepted the NPT because it was in their national self-interest to do so. They were spared the financial burden of acquiring a nuclear arsenal and could avoid the environmental hazards of testing. Furthermore, they hoped to reduce the danger that a regional border dispute might escalate from conventional to nuclear weapons. Countries that refused to accept the NPT in 1970 included France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa, Argentina, and Brazil. They objected to the treaty allowing the five nuclear states to continue building up their arsenals without limit, while nonnuclear states were permanently excluded from joining the nuclear fraternity.

Signing the NPT was a voluntary commitment and could be revoked at will. By 2005, there were 189 signatories, including France and China, and only North Korea had withdrawn from the treaty, although a number of states, such as Israel, India, and Pakistan, remained outside the treaty as possessors of nuclear weapons, while Iran, which was a signatory, in 2005-2006 appeared determined to flirt with violating its obligations under the treaty. The treaty was extended without conditions in 1995.


The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty made a sharp distinction between military and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. To provide an incentive for nonnuclear countries to support the NPT, the nuclear countries offered to share information about peaceful applications, including the technology of nuclear power plants. In return, the countries that received such aid agreed to allow on-site inspections of their facilities by the IAEA to verify that no weapons development was being done.

Many nonnuclear weapons states considered the IAEA inspection process an infringement of their national sovereignty. According to the 1970 treaty, states that already had nuclear weapons were not required to undergo inspections. Therefore, the original treaty was viewed as discriminatory, favoring those who had the weapons over those who did not. It was hoped that a broadened inspection policy, acceptable to both nuclear and nonnuclear states, would be negotiated in 1995.

Nuclear proliferation normally is defined in terms of nonnuclear nations acquiring nuclear weapons. There is another side to this issue. From the perspective of nonnuclear countries, the United States and the Soviet Union had engaged in a world-threatening proliferation for forty years. Although the NPT in 1970 had called for “cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date . . . under strict and effective international control,” this did not happen.

A comprehensive test-ban agreement by the nuclear states—an extension of the 1963 treaty to apply the ban on nuclear explosions to underground explosions as well—would greatly have strengthened international support for the continuation of the NPT. By the mid-1990’s, the United States had conducted more than seven hundred underground tests and the Soviet Union about five hundred. A voluntary moratorium on underground explosions went into effect in 1992, although it was quickly broken by China. It was hoped that a comprehensive test-ban treaty would eventually be agreed upon that would symbolize a formal end to the nuclear arms race.

The mass production of nuclear weapons left a legacy of radioactive contamination of the environment. Tanks of radioactive liquid and residual radioactivity required costly cleanup. In the mid-1990’s, the U.S. Congress began to address the problem of compensation for armed forces veterans who had been exposed to excessive radiation. Similar situations existed in the Soviet Union and France. The disposition and safe storage of plutonium recovered from dismantled warheads also presented a difficult technical problem. An ongoing danger was the possibility that plutonium could fall into the hands of a dictator or of terrorists through theft. The best defense against the spread of nuclear weapons continued to be a community of nations strongly committed to nuclear disarmament. Nuclear weapons;proliferation Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (1970) Cold War;nuclear proliferation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barrillot, Bruno. “French Finesse Nuclear Future.” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (September, 1992): 23-36. A brief history of the French nuclear weapons program and discussion of the change of policy when France in 1991 agreed to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and declared a moratorium on test explosions in the South Pacific.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blix, Hans. “The A-Bomb Squad.” World Monitor, November, 1991, 18-21. Recommendations for tightening up the inspection process of nuclear facilities by the then director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, after evidence of secret weapons work in Iraq had raised concern about the effectiveness of safeguards verification.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boskey, Bennett, and Mason Willrich, eds. Nuclear Proliferation: Prospects for Control. New York: Dunellen, 1970. A collection of eleven essays on the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty. Major concerns at the time were the military potential of nuclear power plants, on-site inspections, and safeguards against theft or terrorism. Full text of the treaty in an appendix.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dhanapala, Jayantha, with Randy Rydell. Multilateral Diplomacy and the NPT: An Insider’s Account. Geneva: United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, 2005. Foreword by U.N. secretary-general Kofi A. Annan. An assessment of international policy and nuclear nonproliferation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Epstein, William. “The Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.” Scientific American, April, 1975, 18-33. An evaluation and informative discussion of the Non-Proliferation Treaty shortly after India became the sixth country in the world to explode a nuclear bomb.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gray, Peter. Briefing Book on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Washington, D.C.: Council for a Livable World, 1993. A concise, informative pamphlet providing factual background and analysis of key issues relating to the renewal of the NPT in 1995. Suggests changes in U.S. policy to achieve a strengthened treaty. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hymans, Jacques E. C. The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation: Identity, Emotions, and Foreign Policy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. A unique examination of the links between foreign policy decisions, namely the choice to develop or not develop a nuclear weapons program, and leadership’s understanding of a nation’s feelings and beliefs about nuclear weaponry. Makes clear that the decision to go nuclear—or not—is made not by some abstract policy-making entity but by “individual hearts.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rathjens, George W., and Marvin M. Miller. “Nuclear Proliferation After the Cold War.” Technology Review (August-September, 1991): 25-32. Evaluation of several ways to deter proliferation by two authors who served frequently as governmental advisers on nuclear-weapons issues. Excellent overview.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Derek D. Deterring America: Rogue States and the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. An analysis of the new meanings of deterrence in the light of twenty-first century terrorism and those nations without any binding ties to nonproliferation treaties or other such agreements. A reassessment of global security strategies in a world of “WMD’s.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spector, Leonard S. Nuclear Proliferation Today. New York: Random House, 1984. A well-documented evaluation of the potential for nuclear bomb production in eight emergent nuclear-weapons states: Argentina, Brazil, India, Pakistan, Israel, Libya, Iraq, and South Africa. Describes the role of the International Atomic Energy Commission.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United Nations Treaty Collection. Treaty Handbook. Available at An excellent resource on the international treaty process. An online handbook provided by the Treaty Section of the U.N. Office of Legal Affairs.

Teller and Ulam Develop the First Hydrogen Bomb

Atomic Energy Act

Price-Anderson Act Limits Nuclear Liability

Cuban Missile Crisis

Hotline Is Adopted Between the United States and the Soviet Union

Nuclear Powers Sign the Limited Test Ban Treaty

Outer Space Treaty Takes Effect

Categories: History Content