US and Russia Should Join the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty

President John F. Kennedy signs the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963. (Photo: National Archives/John F. Kennedy Library/Wikimedia Commons)

Near the end of his life, in fear of nuclear war erupting and engulfing the planet, President John F. Kennedy reportedly told friends: “I keep thinking of the children — not my kids or yours, but the children all over the world.”

Having been shaken and awakened by the Cuban Missile Crisis and just how close they had gotten to destroying the world, Kennedy and the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev negotiated the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963. It took only 12 days for them to come to agreement on what the treaty should entail.

Kennedy’s wisdom was supplemented by genuine care. Speaking about banning atmospheric nuclear tests, JFK said, “This treaty is for all of us. It is particularly for our children and our grandchildren, and they have no lobby here in Washington.” He went on to discuss consequences of nuclear testing, mentioning “children and grandchildren with cancer in their bones, with leukemia in their blood, or with poison in their lungs,” and noting that “malformation of even one baby — who may be born long after we are gone — should be of concern to us all.”

When Kennedy set off to make the treaty a reality, it looked like an impossible task. The Washington establishment was not interested in ending nuclear tests in the atmosphere. It was only through public pressure that U.S. senators started changing their minds, one by one. Following a two-month, nationwide campaign that drew widespread public support, the treaty was ratified by the Senate with an 80-19 vote.

Both publicly and behind the scenes, Pope John XXIII encouraged Kennedy and Khruschev in their efforts. Having helped them to avoid nuclear war in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the pope also supported their working together toward the treaty, and peace more generally. All three of them understood that ending atmospheric nuclear testing was a step toward ending the Cold War itself.

Today, the D.C. establishment is not interested in another treaty: the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). This treaty prohibits any and all activities having to do with nuclear weapons, including threats to use them. Although in force, with 68 states as parties and 92 signatory states, the U.S. and other nuclear states have rejected the treaty, raising doubt about whether it can achieve its objective of truly eliminating nuclear weapons.

What we need are leaders in charge of nuclear arsenals who will think about the children. We need them to think about all of the children who would be incinerated in a nuclear war. We need them to think about all of the children who might survive the initial blast, only to die painful deaths days or weeks later from radiation. And we need them to think about the children far from any sites of nuclear explosions who would experience nuclear winter — dramatic worldwide cooling — leading to lack of food globally. We need leaders of nuclear states to think about starving children everywhere. And we need them to care, rather than shrug their shoulders and state that the mission of getting rid of nuclear arsenals is impossible.

One person could help. Pope Francis has been a staunch supporter of the TPNW and has called the mere possession of nuclear weapons immoral. Today, the pope should use his immeasurable clout to call for negotiations between the U.S. and Russia, who together have over 90 percent of the world’s nearly 13,000 nuclear warheads, to join the TPNW. His efforts could be supported by another champion of the TPNW, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. Next, multilateral negotiations with other countries that possess or rely on nuclear weapons could begin. Individual states could sign the treaty immediately, signaling their seriousness in addressing this issue and opening the door for negotiations towards nuclear zero.

All of the countries that possess nuclear weapons should give up their arsenals, redirect the enormous sums of money needed to maintain them (not to mention modernize them) to domestic programs of various kinds, and renew a commitment to genuine peace around the planet, borne out of cooperation and competition on the world stage, not 20th-century warfare and threats of annihilation. This would be good for their own people and for all of humanity.

With Russia’s war in Ukraine, the escalating risk of war between the U.S. and China, and the challenges humankind faces from climate change, environmental degradation, pandemics and more, we need leaders who can lead us out of the nuclear mess. We need a widespread movement for peace everywhere — and for supporting the TPNW. We owe making this treaty a reality to the children of the world and to the memory of JFK.

This article first appeared in The Hill

Ivana Nikolić Hughes, Ph.D., is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and senior lecturer in chemistry at Columbia University. She is a member of the Scientific Advisory Group on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.