The spot where the Soviet Union blew up its first atomic bomb is an expansive, gently rolling part of the steppe in northeastern Kazakhstan. Between 1949 and 1989, the Soviet Union conducted more than 450 nuclear tests, over 100 of which were atmospheric, meaning the device was detonated on the ground or in the air.
When I visited in August with a group of journalists, I was struck by the beauty of the place, as a patch of purple flowers caught the late afternoon light. The site is accessed by a rough and isolated dirt road, and filled with windblown grasses and scrubby, sage-like bushes. It is called the “experimental field,” and, not surprisingly, parts are still radioactive. At the most radioactive spot we visited, we wore thin blue plastic booties to keep the radioactive dust out of the treads of our shoes and light masks to keep any dust particles out of our mouths and noses.
To visit this breathtakingly beautiful part of Central Asia is to be reminded of a very different era: It was 13 years after that first test that the Cold War had its most dangerous moment: the Cuban Missile Crisis. As the United States marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, it’s an apt time to look at one of his administration’s biggest foreign policy accomplishments: the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, in which the U.S. and U.S.S.R. (and Great Britain) agreed to stop conducting nuclear tests in the atmosphere, under water, and in space.
That treaty was “really a fundamental turning point” in the Cold War, says economist Jeffrey Sachs, whose latest book is To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace. “Partly because in and of itself it was important – to stop the testing and even more to lead the way to the non-proliferation treaty a few years later – but I think even more fundamentally, it showed that it was possible to reach a substantive agreement between the two sides, have it honored and, basically by talking, not blow each other up. And so 1963 marked the end of the dire confrontation between the two sides that had culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
The treaty was, Sachs says, “an act of greatness” by Kennedy.
It brought “an end to the most dangerous period of the Cold War,” says Francis Gavin, a historian and professor of international affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. It “was a way for the Americans and Soviets to signal to each other that they respected each other’s status quo.”
The experimental field in Kazakhstan is just a 300-square-kilometer portion of an enormous area called the Semipalatinsk Test Site, which is bigger than Connecticut. Our group stood at ground zero, the site not only of the first test but of three other ground tests, one of which involved a massive 400-kiloton thermonuclear device. At one point, our guide held in his bare hands a few small, roughly spherical pieces of earth that had been fused into a stone-like solid from one of the explosions. (He promised to later wash his hands.)
That first test, on August 29, 1949, involved the detonation of a 22.4-kiloton bomb atop a tower. The Soviets wanted to know what kind of effect the blast would have on both civil and military equipment, so the site was divided into sectors filled with different structures: airplanes, vehicles, and the like. Tall concrete structures – monitoring stations colloquially called “geese” – radiate in two lines out from the epicenter, and today are still visible, marching across the landscape like the stone heads of Easter Island. As human proxies, they put dogs, pigs, and sheep in the blast zone. In a museum at the edge of the test site, there are photographs of some of those animals after the explosion – as well as glass containers with some of their preserved remains.
The treaty of 1963 was symbolic and “just the tip of the iceberg,” says Marc Trachtenberg, a professor of international relations at UCLA. “That whole period of the late ’40s, ’50s, and early ’60s, this was really serious stuff,” he says. “You could really have gotten a nuclear war during that period. But after ’63, it’s a totally different sort of international system. The Cold War continued, but in a much more lame sort of way.”
It’s not as if the treaty ended the Cold War, of course. The arms race continued, and U.S. and Soviet nuclear testing moved underground, which is better for the environment because the blast is contained. “The treaty is often underappreciated as a stimulus, you might say, to the environmental movement,” says Thomas Schwartz, a professor of history and political science at Vanderbilt University. It represented “an acknowledgement that we had a common interest” in the global environment “as opposed to a simple national interest in continuing to push for our advantage.”
Newsweek reported at the time that the “treaty was greeted thunderously around the world,” and that “Japan, which suffered the first atomic bomb, hailed it as 'a great joy.'"
Rob Verger reported from Kazakhstan on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project.