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date: 27 March 2017

Nuclear Arms Control in U.S. Foreign Policy

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.

Nuclear arms control has existed as long as the armaments themselves. American plans to limit or eliminate these weapons of mass destruction were put forward, even as the United States and nine other countries—the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan, and North Korea—amassed stockpiles of explosives that harnessed the energies generated by the fission or fusion of atomic nuclei. Since 1945, the United States has sought to reduce its arsenal conjointly with the Soviet Union and (after 1991) Russia. Efforts have been made to inhibit new states from acquiring nuclear weapons, discourage their military use, and perhaps even allow for their eventual abolition.

Scholars disagree as to why the United States has engaged in nuclear arms control since World War II. The history of nuclear weapons encompasses intellectual theories and cultural attitudes as much as material or strategic developments. The overarching debate is one of structure versus agency: whether the weapons’ sheer power, or the attitudes of historical powers toward them, has driven arms control. Among those who stress agency, there are two further disagreements: (a) the influence of domestic culture, protest, and politics; and (b) whether nuclear arms control is an end in itself, or merely a means to end, namely the entrenchment of American power throughout the world.

The intensity of arms control efforts tends to rise and fall with the apparent likelihood of nuclear war. Faith in the country’s nuclear monopoly encouraged Harry Truman to sabotage early efforts at control, while Dwight Eisenhower’s faith in nuclear deterrence led to a similar destination. Mounting fears of a U.S.-Soviet thermonuclear exchange, in the late 1950s, stirred protest movements and diplomatic efforts in the direction of control. The spread of nuclear weapons to new states impelled presidential administrations from John F. Kennedy to Jimmy Carter to work against the expansion of nuclear arms, culminating in the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Richard Nixon proved the exception to these trends. Not only did he downplay proliferation, but his pursuit of the 1974 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty was motivated by a cynical goal: improvement of America’s strategic position after the Vietnam War via détente with the Soviet Union. Rising fear of nuclear war under Ronald Reagan produced two more landmark U.S.-Soviet agreements: the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Since the end of the Cold War, the attention of the United States has swung away from bilateral arms control treaties or nuclear disarmament, to the spread of nuclear weapons as the unipolar moment. The mounting prominence of regional conflicts, failed states, and non-state actors has stolen attention away from efforts to put the atomic genie back in the bottle.