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Letter to Chairman Khrushchev on Nuclear Testing.

January 20, 1963

[ Released January 20, 1963. Dated December 28, 1962 ]

Dear Mr. Chairman:

I was very glad to receive your letter of December 19, 1962, setting forth your views on nuclear tests. There appear to be no differences between your views and mine regarding the need for eliminating war in this nuclear age. Perhaps only those who have the responsibility for controlling these weapons fully realize the awful devastation their use would bring.

Having these considerations in mind and with respect to the issue of a test ban, I therefore sincerely hope that the suggestions that you have made in your letter will prove to be helpful in starting us down the road to an agreement. I am encouraged that you are prepared to accept the principle of onsite inspections. These seem to me to be essential not just because of the concern of our Congress but because they seem to us to go to the heart of a reliable agreement ending nuclear testing.

If we are to have peace between systems with far-reaching ideological differences, we must find ways for reducing or removing the recurring waves of fear and suspicion which feed on ignorance, misunderstanding or what appear to one side or the other as broken agreements. To me, the element of assurance is vital to the broader development of peaceful relationships.

With respect to the question of on-site inspections I would certainly agree that we could accept any reasonable provision which you had in mind to protect against your concern that the on-site inspectors might engage in espionage enroute to the area inspection. In a statement at the United Nations, Ambassador Stevenson suggested that the United States would accept any reasonable security provision while the inspectors were being taken to the site, so long as they had reasonable provision for satisfying themselves that they were actually at the intended location and had the freedom necessary to inspect the limited designated area.

With respect to the number of on-site inspections there appears to have been some misunderstanding. Your impression seems to be that Ambassador Dean told Deputy Minister Kuznetsov that the United States might be prepared to accept an annual number of on-site inspections between two and four. Ambassador Dean advises me that the only number which he mentioned in his discussions with Deputy Minister Kuznetsov was a number between eight and ten. This represented a substantial decrease in the request of the United States as we had previously been insisting upon a number between twelve and twenty. I had hoped that the Soviet Union would match this motion on the part of the United States by an equivalent motion in the figure of two or three on-site inspections which it had some time ago indicated it might allow.

I am aware that this matter of on-site inspections has given you considerable difficulty although I am not sure that I fully understand why this should be so. To me, an effective nuclear test ban treaty is of such importance that I would not permit such international arrangements to become mixed up with our or any other national desire to seek other types of information about the Soviet Union. I believe quite sincerely that arrangements would be worked out which would convince you and your colleagues that this is the case.

But in this connection, your implication that on-site inspections should be limited to seismic areas also gives us some difficulty. It is true that in the ordinary course we would have concern about events taking place in the seismic areas. However, an unidentified seismic event coming from an area in which there are not usually earthquakes would be a highly suspicious event. The United States would feel that in such a circumstance the U.S.S.R. would be entitled to an on-site inspection of such an event occurring in our area and feels that the United States should have the same rights within its annual quota of inspection.

Perhaps your comment would be that a seismic event in another area designated for inspection might coincide with a highly sensitive defense installation. I recognize this as a real problem but believe that some arrangement can be worked out which would prevent this unlikely contingency from erecting an insuperable obstacle.

Your suggestion as to the three locations in the Soviet Union in which there might be unmanned seismic stations is helpful but it does not seem to me to go far enough. These stations are all outside the areas of highest seismicity and therefore do not record all of the phenomena within those areas. These stations would be helpful in increasing the detection capability of the system but I doubt that they would have the same value in reducing the number of suspicious seismic events by identifying some as earthquakes. For this purpose unmanned seismic stations should be in the areas of highest seismicity, not outside them. To achieve this result there would be need for a number of stations in the vicinity of the Kamchatka area and a number in the Tashkent area. It might be possible, of course, to reduce somewhat the number actually in the Soviet Union by arranging stations in Hokkaido, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. If the stations on Soviet territory were sited in locations free from local disturbances and could be monitored periodically by competent United States or international observers who took in portable seismometers and placed them on the pedestals it would be very helpful in reducing the problem of identification.

You have referred to the discussion of the "black box" proposal at the Tenth Pugwash Conference in London in September of this year as a United Kingdom proposal to which the United States has agreed. I do not believe that this was the situation. This proposal was reported to me as a Soviet proposal which was discussed with some United States scientists. Of the United States scientists who signed the statement none represented the United States Government or had discussed the matter with responsible officials. All were speaking as individuals and none were seismologists. Their agreement does not signify anything other than that this was an area which justified further study. The United States Government has given it that study and the results have been the conclusions which I have indicated above.

Notwithstanding these problems, I am encouraged by your letter. I do not believe that any of the problems which I have raised are insoluble but they ought to be solved. I wonder how you think we might best proceed with these discussions which may require some technical development. It occurs to me that you might wish to have your representative meet with Mr. William C. Foster, the Director of our Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, at a mutually convenient place, such as New York or Geneva. I will be glad to have your suggestions. After talks have been held we will then be in a position to evaluate where we stand and continue our work together for an effective agreement ending all nuclear tests.


Note: In his letter of December 19 Chairman Kbrushchev suggested that the elimination of the Cuban crisis had made it possible to "solve a far simpler question--that of cessation of experimental explosions of nuclear weapons .... " He stated that the Soviet Union did not need war, which he described as thermonuclear catastrophe. "To prevent this," he added, "we must, on the basis of complete equality and with just regard for each other's interests, develop between ourselves peaceful relations and solve all issues through negotiations and mutual concessions." His specific proposals are outlined above in the President's letter.

On January 7 Mr. Khrushchev replied to the President's letter of December 28. He agreed to the relocation of two automatic seismic stations in deference to the President's wishes. But with respect to on-site inspections he stated: "We believed and we continue to believe now that, in general, inspection is not necessary and if we give our consent to an annual quota of a-3 inspections this is done solely for the purpose of removing the remaining differences for the sake of reaching agreement. As you see we have made a serious step in your direction."

The Chairman concluded by agreeing to send N. T. Fedorenko, Permanent Representative of the U.S.S.R. to the U.N., and S. K. Tsarapkin, Representative of the U.S.S.R. to the 18-nation disarmament committee, to meet with Mr. Foster in New York early in January.

The full text of Mr. Khrushchev's letters is published in the Department of State Bulletin (vol. 48, pp. 198, 201).

John F. Kennedy, Letter to Chairman Khrushchev on Nuclear Testing. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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