Jeffrey LewisTest Ban Fiasco

A fellow UMD alum reminds me that Mac Destler — a member of my dissertation committee — wrote a wonderful summary of the test ban fiasco in a book chapter entitlted The Reasonable Public
and the Polarized Policy Process

I am always amazed how effortlessly Mac writes about arcane subjects that deaden the prose of less gifted scholars (like me, for instance):

Test Ban Fiasco

The CTBT was the international issue where partisan conflict surfaced in rawest form. Substantively, the treaty was a centerpiece in the administration’s policy against proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the president personally signed it in 1996, making the United States the first country to do so. More than 150 other countries followed (though only about one-third had ratified it by fall 1999). It was sent to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1997, where Chairman Jesse Helms bottled it up, refusing to hold hearings until the administration submitted and the full Senate voted on (and presumably rejected) amendments to the ABM Treaty negotiated in 1997 and the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. The CTBT was also viewed with skepticism, however, by former officials in Republican administrations not associated with the far right—Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger, for example.

The United States had not conducted nuclear tests since 1992, and in mid-1999 the administration was pressing India to sign and preparing for a special international conference on the treaty in early October. To the White House and the State Department, ratification was overwhelmingly in the U.S. interest. But Republicans controlled the Senate 55–45; to have any chance at all of winning the 67 votes required, Clinton would need the support of Republican centrists like Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, senior Foreign Relations member Richard Lugar, and rising internationalist Chuck Hagel—and the cooperation, at the very least, of Majority Leader Trent Lott. Rather than undertake the hard, slogging work of building a bipartisan majority, however, the president worked with Senate Democrats in a public campaign to embarrass and put heat on the Senate Republicans, to make the issue a political winner if not a legislative winner. On July 20, Clinton called for Foreign Relations Commitee hearings in a Rose Garden statement, while Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) released a letter on the same day urging such hearings signed by all forty-five Senate Democrats. Dorgan also released a poll, conducted jointly by a Democratic and a Republican polling firm, which found 82 percent of Americans (84 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of Republicans) believing that the United States should ratify the CTBT.20

Senator Dorgan upped the ante on September 8, telling his colleagues that until Lott allowed consideration of the CTBT, “I intend to plant myself on the floor like a potted plant” and block any routine business. Other Democrats joined in, including ranking Foreign Relations Democrat Joseph Biden, and explained their strategy two weeks later to presidential national security adviser Samuel Berger. Unknown to them, however, hard-line Senate treaty opponent John Kyl had been working quietly with Helms for months to solidify Republican votes against the CTBT, and had commitments from well over the necessary thirty-four. Lott then called the Democrats’ bluff. He reversed himself on September 30 and offered to take up the treaty, with a vote in two weeks. Democrats, thinking they had a shot at persuading enough Republicans, quickly agreed.21 They learned within a week that they had no chance of winning, and suddenly became alarmed about the global impact of a Senate rejection. (The Senate had not voted down an important treaty since the Treaty of Versailles in 1920.)

By early October the White House and Minority Leader Tom Daschle had taken an 180-degree turn and were negotiating with Lott to avoid having a vote. Sixty-two senators, including twenty-four Republicans, signed a letter initiated by Warner and Democrat Pat Moynihan urging that the matter be put off until 2001, and the president formally requested to Lott that he “postpone consideration.” But this now required either unanimous consent in the Senate or an extraordinary procedural vote. Hard-line Republicans, wanting to sink the treaty once and for all, blocked the first way out. Lott was unwilling to call for, or acquiesce in, the second. So on October 13, the Senate voted 48–51 against ratifying the treaty, with only 4 Republicans in favor.22 “Never before,” declared the president, “has a serious treaty involving nuclear weapons been handled in such a reckless and ultimately partisan way.” He did not state that his own party bore its full share of the blame.23 Nor did his national security adviser help matters when he gave an impassioned speech eight days later attacking “the isolationist right in the Congress” for the treaty’s defeat.24

20. Craig Cerniello, “White House, Key Senators Intensify Push for CTBT,” Arms Control Today, July–August 1999.

21. John M. Broder, “The Tactics: Quietly, Dextrously, Senate Republicans Set a Trap,” New York Times, October 14, 1999.

22. Eric Schmitt, “Senate Kills Test Ban Treaty in Crushing Loss for Clinton,” New York Times, October 14, 1999.

23. Dave Boyer, “Senate Rejects Treaty on Nuke Testing,” The Washington Times, October 14, 1999.

24. Samuel R. Berger, “American Power: Hegemony, Isolationism, or Engagement,” Address to Council on Foreign Relations, October 21, 1999 (available on White House website). The assistant also attacked the “new isolationists” for “devastating cuts to our foreign affairs budget.”

McCain didn’t cover himself in glory during the lead up to the vote, but nor would it be correct to paint him as a great villain in the drama. McCain, for example, was among the 62 Senators who signed the Moynihan-Warner letter seeking a delay in the vote.


  1. J (History)

    For the many in this town who tend to go overboard praising the wise, statesman-like ways of Senators Lugar and Hagel, please note that they fully abetted and voted for a partisan rejection of a critical international treaty.

  2. anonymous

    As someone who was deeply involved in the issue at the time, I don’t think one should underestimate the impact of the Monica Lewinsky saga on the CTBT. Much of the White House and president’s time was spent on damage control for this crisis, which limited the opportunity to act effectively on the CTBT.