Recordings: Kennedy saw nuclear test ban as Cold War thaw

President John F. Kennedy expresses a desire to thaw U.S.-Soviet relatations, on newly released recordings.
Former President John F. Kennedy saw a proposed ban on aboveground nuclear tests as a way to thaw U.S.-Soviet relations after the Cuban Missile Crisis, according to recordings released Thursday.

“If it does represent a possibility of avoiding the kind of collision that we had last fall in Cuba, which was quite close, and Berlin in 1961, we should seize the chance,” Kennedy said in a July 1963 meeting with top government scientists. He signed a treaty with the Soviets and the British the following month that banned nuclear tests in the atmosphere, underwater or in space. Kennedy’s presidential library in Boston, Massachusetts, released the four-minute recording of the meeting, held just four months before his assassination. The scientists taking part included John Foster and Norris Bradbury, the directors of two of the top U.S. nuclear laboratories; Glenn Seaborg, then head of the Atomic Energy Commission; and a member of the commission, John Palfrey. Kennedy expressed hope that the treaty could produce “the possibility of a detente” between Washington and Moscow, “which may not come to anything but which quite possibly could come to something.”

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The meeting took place just nine months after the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba brought the world’s major nuclear powers to the brink of war. Kennedy said the Soviets were having “domestic, internal economic problems” and he was worried about the rise of China after a major diplomatic split in 1960. “I don’t think anybody can say with any precision, but there isn’t any doubt that the dispute with China is certainly a factor,” Kennedy said, adding, “They want to avoid a nuclear struggle or … they want to lessen the chances of conflict with us.” But he said the rising nuclear ambitions of China, which would conduct its first tests the following year, could force the United States to resume its own tests. “It may be that the Chinese test in the next year, 18 months, 2 years, and we would then make the judgment to see if we should go back to testing,” he said.