Pressure to Resume Testing

President Kennedy's political and military advisors feared that the Soviet Union had continued secret underground testing and made gains in nuclear technology. They pressured Kennedy to resume testing. And, according to a Gallup poll in July 1961, the public approved of testing by a margin of two-to-one. In August 1961, the Soviet Union announced its intention to resume atmospheric testing, and over the next three months it conducted 31 nuclear tests. It exploded the largest nuclear bomb in history—58 megatons—4,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Discouraged and dismayed by the Soviet tests, President Kennedy pursued diplomatic efforts before allowing renewed testing by the United States. In his address to the United Nations on September 25, 1961, he challenged the Soviet Union "not to an arms race, but to a peace race." President Kennedy was unsuccessful in his efforts to reach a diplomatic agreement and reluctantly announced the resumption of atmospheric testing. American testing resumed on April 25, 1962.

Lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis

After the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev realized that they had come dangerously close to nuclear war. Both leaders sought to reduce tensions between their two nations.

As Khrushchev described it, "The two most powerful nations had been squared off against each other, each with its finger on the button." JFK shared this concern, once remarking at a White House meeting, "It is insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization." In a series of private letters, Khrushchev and Kennedy reopened a dialogue on banning nuclear testing.

In his commencement address at American University on June 10, 1963, Kennedy announced a new round of high-level arms negotiations with the Russians. He boldly called for an end to the Cold War. "If we cannot end our differences," he said, "at least we can help make the world a safe place for diversity." The Soviet government broadcast a translation of the entire speech, and allowed it to be reprinted in the controlled Soviet press.

Success in Moscow

President Kennedy selected Averell Harriman, an experienced diplomat known and respected by Khrushchev, to resume negotiations in Moscow. An agreement to limit the scope of the test ban paved the way for a treaty. By excluding underground tests from the pact, negotiators eliminated the need for the on-site inspections that worried the Kremlin.

On July 25, 1963, after only 12 days of negotiations, the two nations agreed to ban testing in the atmosphere, in space, and underwater. The next day, in a television address announcing the agreement, Kennedy claimed that a limited test ban" is safer by far for the United States than an unlimited nuclear arms race."