JFK’s Nuclear Proliferation Warnings: Up to 25 Countries With Nuclear Weapons

Authored by Lt. General (USA, Ret.) Robert G. Gard, Jr.

On 21 March 1963, at what was then called a “news conference,” President Kennedy said that he was “haunted by the feeling that by 1970 … there may be ten nuclear powers instead of four, and by 1975 fifteen or twenty;” and in a subsequent response, he extended the estimate: “I can see the possibility in the 1970s … of a world in which 15 or 20 or 25 nations may have these [nuclear] weapons. I regard that as the greatest possible danger and hazard.”

These comments were made in the context of President Kennedy’s support for a ban on the testing of nuclear weapons. In addition to his concern over the dangers of radioactive fallout, Kennedy believed that such a ban would prevent other countries from obtaining nuclear weapons. He had advocated a cessation of nuclear weapons testing since 1956, and had taken a strong stand on the issue during the 1960 presidential campaign; and following his election, he had pledged that the U.S. would not resume nuclear testing in the atmosphere.

Following more than eight years of sporadic negotiations, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States on 5 August 1963 signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, in space and under water. In deference to the Soviet Union’s adamant opposition to on-site inspections, underground testing was permitted so long as fallout would be confined to the geographic limits of the country conducting the test. The Senate approved the Treaty 80-19 on 23 September, and President Kennedy signed the ratification on 7 October, the month before he was assassinated on 22 November 1963.

It was not until almost a year later, on 1 November 1964, that President Johnson took action to address the issue of the prospective expansion of the number of states with nuclear weapons by announcing the appointment of a Committee on Nuclear Proliferation. Its members included prominent statesmen – Roswell Gilpatrick, as chairman, John McCloy, Allen Dulles and General Alfred Gruenther – and prestigious scientists, Herbert York and George Kistiakowsky.

It took the Committee less than three months to reach consensus, and it issued its report on 21 January 1965. The report warned that the world was fast approaching a point of no return in prospects for controlling the proliferation of nuclear weapon states; and it concluded that the U.S. government must accord non-proliferation “far greater weight and support” in a “concerted and intensified effort.” This laid the basis for U.S. leadership in negotiating the landmark Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed in 1968; by then, China’s acquisition of a nuclear capability had increased the
number of nuclear weapons states to five.

Today, there are nine states with nuclear explosive devices, with the addition of the three non-members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Israel, India and Pakistan; and the one country that has withdrawn from the Treaty, North Korea. This is a far lower number than the 25 states that President Kennedy feared would possess nuclear weapons as early as the 1970s. Yet globalization of information and technology has resulted in a situation similar to that confronted by President Kennedy, with the potential for many nations to reach a “breakout” capability to produce nuclear weapons on very short notice. We have come full cycle, with the need once again for “concerted and intensified efforts” to strengthen the non-proliferation regime.

———

Lt. General Robert Gard (USA, Ret.) is currently the Senior Military Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, DC where he works on nuclear arms control and nuclear non-proliferation issues.  He retired after a distinguished 31-year career in the US Army.  Having served in Korea and Vietnam, Gen. Gard held distinguished posts during his military career, including as an executive assistant to then-Secretary of Defense McNamara, as the first Director of Human Resources Development, Commander General of the US Army Personnel Center, Commanding General of Ft. Ord, CA and the 7th Infantry Division and as President of the National Defense University.