Disarmament Conferences: Ballets At The Brink

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Both Acheson and Lilienthal understandably believed this addition to their handiwork to be useless and stupid, for nothing would come of such an appeal to the United Nations, which at that time possessed no military forces at all and was unlikely to possess any of size until at least the twenty-first century. Moreover, the notion of swift and sure punishment was certain to raise the ire of the Russians and probably insure failure of the plan. Nevertheless, Baruch flamboyantly moved ahead and at last made his formal proposal to a meeting of the U.N. Atomic Energy Commission, beginning his speech with a brilliant sentence suggested by his idea man and speech writer, Herbert Bayard Swope (from the Bible, the “best of all possible sources,” said Swope): “We are here to make a choice between the quick and the dead.”

The Soviet delegation listened impassively to the American proposal and later made its own proposal, which essentially rejected international inspection of nuclear installations on their territory. After many months the issue was dropped. If there was a moment in 1946 when the avoidance of a nuclear arms race was possible, it had definitely passed.

The history of nuclear disarmament has continued erratically from then to the present day. There have been modest successes, such as the limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 between the U.S.S.R., Britain, and the U.S. (not acceded to, however, by the new members of the nuclear “club,” France and China), which forbids testing of nuclear bombs or devices above ground or under water. After the United Nations agreed to sponsor a nonproliferation treaty in 1968, the Soviet Union and the United States ratified it in 1969. The SALT talks themselves represent a victory for the advocates of coexistence between the world’s titans. On the other hand the size, the expense, and the dreadful potential of modern armaments has continued to escalate—witness the H-bomb, Polaris, ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile), and MIRV . All such recent developments are a long call from the discussions at The Hague in 1899 concerning “the throwing of projectiles or explosives of any kind from balloons” (forbidden by a convention of that conference), or from the ideas of Andrew Carnegie about eliminating armaments and insuring peace for a total cost of less than ten million dollars. Man has made war infinitely more terrifying—enough so, some believe, to frighten himself away from it entirely. And yet it is sobering to recall that well before the turn of the twentieth century Alfred Nobel wrote the Baroness Bertha von Suttner, the famous author of Die Waffen Nieder (Lay Down Your Arms), who had converted him to the cause of world peace, that “my factories may well put an end to war sooner than your Congresses. The day when two army corps can annihilate one another in one second, all civilized nations, it is to be hoped, will recoil from war and discharge their troops.”

MR. DOOLEY ON THE HAGUE CONFERENCE, 1907 AUTOMATIC LAUNDRY, 1877