Second of a series: OUR MAN IN GENEVA

Terence Robertson December 1 1965


Second of a series: OUR MAN IN GENEVA

Terence Robertson December 1 1965


Second of a series: OUR MAN IN GENEVA

Terence Robertson

TWENTY YEARS AGO, when the United States was the only nuclear power, a handful of world leaders (including Baruch, Churchill and Spaak) predicted that there would he no rest or peace for anyone on earth if nuclear weapons were allowed to proliferate among nations with the means to make them.

On November 15. 1945, Prime Ministers Mackenzie King and Clement Attlee, and President Truman issued a joint declaration asking the fledgling United Nations to initiate, as a matter of highest priority, negotiations for an international treaty eliminating atomic weapons, confining atomic power to peaceful uses, and establishing a system of safeguards against cheating.

Today there is no treaty, the number of nuclear powers has risen to five, and at least twelve more nations (some estimates range up to twenty) possess the means to produce nuclear weapons of their own within one to five years.

Though some statesmen, appalled by the gathering pace of proliferation and hy the tragic consequences that might flow from failure to act quickly and effectively to halt it, have warned of the inherent risks, the UN has been unable to meet the twenty-year-old obligation imposed upon it by the three-power declaration, and meanwhile the growing number of nuclear powers has increased the UN's difficulties. It is no longer a question of resolving U.S. - Soviet differences. The national interests of Britain and France have been diverging from those of the U.S. ever since the dark decades of the cold war, and Red China remains an enigmatic menace whose future actions are unpredictable.

This was the position in the summer when a slightly built, affable, tough-speaking

Canadian, who feels that so much time has been wasted that there isn’t much left, collaborated with External Affairs at home to spell out the dangers with stark clarity in a draft treaty approved by Ottawa, and then circulated among Canada’s allies. It was his way of challenging them to make a concerted attempt to break the East-West deadlock and thus spare the world a fresh flood of fear of nuclear war.

That Canadian is our man in Geneva, a sixty-eight-year-old soldier-turned-diplomat from Montreal named Eedson Louis Millard Burns, who is our voice in the brittle EastWest confrontations on disarmament. These confrontations match those of the UN Security C ouncil for incidents of high drama, and bouts of bitter recrimination. They are not confined to the conflicts that Communist and Western spokesmen thrash out across the conference table. The British and the Americans sometimes clash in private, and on these occasions it is sometimes Burns who must soothe away the friction in quiet, corridor diplomacy.

KNOWN AS “Tommy” ever since the boxing champion Tommy Burns became a household name in the early 1900s, Lieutenant-General Burns (holder of the DSO, OBE, MC; author of Manpower In The Canadian Army 1939-1945 and Between Arab And Israeli) was the first of a new breed of international troubleshooters who now try to halt the escalators of war by policing cease-fires — the Canadian peacekeepers.

In the mid-fifties Burns headed the UN Truce Supervision Organization in Israel (where ill feeling between himself and the Israelis was mutual because of their raids into Egypt in violation of the truce), and later became commander of the original international police force, the UN Emergency Force in the

Gaza Strip (he was reluctantly appointed by Dag Hammarskjöld, who feared Israeli objections might stall precarious cease-fire arrangements at Suez).

Burns is today the Canadian delegate to the disarmament discussions in New York when the General Assembly is in session, and to the special Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) which meets in regular session here in Geneva during the rest of the year.

His JOB is among the most difficult and important in international diplomacy, vital to the safety and security of our children and their children, demanding of precise understanding of the vast computation of militarypolitical-scientific power throughout the world, and requiring the patience and ability to transform a dream into reality, to build now, brick by brick, the stable, enduring peace that man has never before achieved.

The eighteen-nation conference was set up in 1962 as a continuing committee charged with negotiating specific steps toward disarmament, and the handling of detailed drafting of international agreements or treaties which are then submitted for approval by the UN General Assembly.

It is a highly specialized group of nations — five Communist, five Western and eight nonaligned — in which Burns is personally regarded as a sort of elder statesman, a respected disarmament technician who usually provokes positive discussion. The Western camp is reduced to four by the absence of France, which has not appointed a disarmament delegate since General de Gaulle decided to build his own force de frappe.

The committee’s co-chairmen are the United States and Russia and, because there are no clearly defined / continued on pape 39

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Again and again, Tommy Burns goes to the conference table with the single-minded persistence of an attacking commando. His immediate aim: to halt the spread of nuclear arms. His long-range objective: to bring about a general disarmament that would make soldiers like himself obsolete

“Disarmament is the hinge of peace and, at least, East and West are talking”


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terms of reference, they decide the agenda by setting down alternately the subjects they want discussed. Inevitably, this method has led to the Soviet Union introducing subjects that embarrass the United States, while the U. S. is often reluctantly driven to avoid those on which there is not complete Western agreement.

The Soviet Union frequently raises the issue of non-proliferation in conjunction with proposals to ban the bomb and to prohibit the use of all nuclear weapons, a position which the U. S. cannot accept because to do so would leave NATO vulnerable to the overwhelming superiority of the Communists in manpower and conventional weapons.

The U.S. replies by raising what it considers an issue of primary importance — expansion of the nuclear test-ban treaty (signed in 1963) to include underground testing. This is embarrassing to the Russians because it requires on-site inspection to ensure that subterranean nuclear explosions are not passed off as earthquakes. The Soviet Union is implacably opposed to having foreign inspection teams on Russian territory.

“There’s a lot of futility in all these discussions, and this leads to frustrations as well,” Burns told me over dinner here one evening. “But disarmament is the hinge of peace, and at least we have East and West here at a conference table talking about it. Can anything be quite so important for our future, for the future of the unborn?”

As Canada's leading authority on disarmament (and. indeed, a world authority) he now has horizons that are broader, more distant, than at any other time in his career as soldier, peacekeeper and diplomat, and he is not certain that the world fully realizes how little time there is in which to reach the durable peace it so desperately seeks.

War. far from being outlawed (as promised in the resounding “war to end war” speeches of 1914 and again in 1939) has been practised as an instrument of national policies on thirty occasions since the UN was created twenty years ago, and is still being refined in the j' nglcs of Malaysia, the plains of Kashmir, and the deltas of Vietna m.

“There are so many flash points in the world now,” said Burns, "that we’ve reached the critical point at which some of today's non-nuclear nations might soon decide to become the nuclear nations of tomorrow.”

He described the relationship of the increase in the number of nuclear powers to the increase in the ni mber ol outbreaks of local hostilities in terms of two converging lines. When they meet, a regional conflict would be fought with primitive, independently produced nuclear weapons, but the great powers might not be able to remain aloof. Such a war could be the final, fatal one, the one which none of the peacekeepers could contain.

While Burns' ultimate objective

is general and complete disarmament (GCD, in diplomatic jargon), it is this desolate prospect that makes the spread of nuclear weapons his most immediate problem.

“I probably won’t be alive to see the world of GCD,” Burns said, "but I’d sure like to see us a damn sight closer to it than we are right now.

We need a cast-iron treaty to forestall any scattering of nuclear weapons before they fall into the hands of political demagogues or reckless military leaders. And we need it as quickly as we can get it.”

The elusive goal — general and complete disarmament — seems so far off that the way toward it has been

called “the journey of a thousand miles.” Burns believes we will make this journey slowly, painfully, while praying that there won't be any accidents along the way. The most recent, significant steps were taken at the eighteen-nation meetings here in 1963 when the nuclear test-ban treaty was drafted and approved, agreement was

reached on the installation of the teleprinter hot line between Washington and Moscow (which reduces the risk of either side pulling the trigger by miscalculation), and the U.S. and Russia undertook not to orbit weapons of mass destruction in space.

“These steps were stimulated suddenly by the Cuban confrontation,” said Burns. “We haven’t moved far since then. The more time we waste, the more urgent the next steps become — and none of these is so urgent as a non-proliferation treaty.”

Burns is not dismayed by the lack of agreement between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, nor by the occasional disagreements between Britain and the U.S. On the contrary, when all sides have reached positions of stand-off, and vital issues have been blurred by desultory discussion and propaganda speechmaking, the soldier in him emerges, crying for action.

At these times he often uses his excellent personal relations with the colorful, volatile Soviet delegate, Semyon Tsarapkin, to sound him out for even the most insignificant-seeming details on which he might be prepared to compromise. Then Burns will take similar soundings in the Allied camp, and seize upon anything they may have in common to activate discussions toward positive goals.

“If we can continue to agree on small things, even formalities, such as a daily agenda, then we are gradually creating the right climate for dealing with the big problems,” he said.

Before taking action. Burns invariably works his staff (three as against

twenty Americans, and at least twelve British) around the clock for days on end. drafting and redrafting proposals, reporting to Ottawa and seeking instructions, and producing estimates of Communist reactions.

One of these flurries of activity in 1961 stemmed from External Affairs and brought about the first Canadian achievement in the field of postwar disarmament. It was then that Burns steered a Canadian resolution calling for the adoption of a foolproof worldwide system of measuring atomic radiation in the earth’s atmosphere through the UN Disarmament Commission to the floor of the General Assembly where it received overwhelming approval.

While Burns obviously enjoys close friendly relations with his American and British colleagues, he is also on excellent terms with Tsarapkin, whose formidable personality dominates the disarmament scene. Tsarapkin virtually excludes the committee when he speaks, addressing himself by look and by voice to the U.S. delegate, William Foster. The Russian’s terse language and hard, contemptuous intonation make him a relentless opponent whose savage attacks on the U.S. are regarded here as virtuoso performances.

“He’s tough all right,” said Burns, “but the fact that he's here is enough for us. It means that the Russians are still interested in disarmament.”

During one of our many conversa-

tions in this lazy Alpine city, Burns explained that it was perhaps understandable for the Americans and the Russians to threaten to exterminate each other while the means of delivering bombs were manned bombers. “Each side felt it could knock out enough of the other’s strike force to make the risk worthwhile,” he said.

The advent of Sputnik One changed all that by introducing the intercontinental missile as an unstoppable delivery system. “They stopped threatening so much after that,” he continued. “I think that when they added up the total effect of bombs delivered in missile warheads they became a little frightened by the enormous power they possessed.”

It is known, he said, that both nations have since taken extreme care to ensure that the risk of accidental nuclear war is remote and minimal. The Cuban confrontation had demonstrated fairly conclusively that the Soviet Union is prepared to back off from a doubtful military adventure if it involves an invitation to war.

“This is comforting only up to a point,” said Burns. “We must always keep in mind that they are both playing a desperately dangerous game of power politics wherever their interests clash — which happens to be just about everywhere. While they’re the only two playing, we can be pretty sure that neither is likely to behave irrationally or act too hastily. But what if additional players enter the game, each with the independent power to start a nuclear war?

“You know, all an irrational com-

mander needs is a bomber or two capable of reaching cities in a neighboring enemy state, and he might be tempted to recklessly start a nuclear exchange which would be hound to escalate.”

Burns is so convinced that “once these things are scattered about the world there'll be no disarmament'' that he took the initiative early this year in placing EN DC in a position to act — and by doing so placed himself in the position of having to not only act as advocate for the Canadian position. hut also having to reconcile clashing U.S. and British views.

Draft to break a deadlock

Burns and his staff worked from January to May on the wording of a draft non - proliferation treaty. The wording had to reconcile various opposing interests by setting out generally accepted objectives — the clear need proclaimed by all nations for some means of stopping the nuclear spread which would at the same time give NATO allies a greater share in strategic nuclear planning.

The deadlocking issue was really Soviet dislike of the U.S.-conceived multilateral nuclear fleet, consisting of about twenty-five surface ships armed with Polaris missiles and manned by mixed NATO crews, which the Russians regarded as a device for bringing West Germany into the nuclear club without it having to pay the membership fees.

The Americans insisted that as any NATO force would be equipped with U.S.and British-controlled weapons there was no question of West Germany or any other nation acquiring control of them.

Burns and his teams believed the problem stood a better chance of being resolved if it were reduced to basic principles already widely accepted by the opposing camps and by most nonaligned countries.

These had been simply stated in an Irish resolution adopted unanimously by the General Assembly in 1961, an event , since regarded as a landmark in the tangled history of unilateral attempts to halt the nuclear scatter.

They became, in effect, the heart of the Canadian draft treaty which said that nuclear powers should undertake not to relinquish control of nuclear weapons, or assist in their manufacture, while other countries should undertake not to acquire these weapons. These obligations were to he assumed by national governments which would also pledge that individuals or associations under their jurisdiction would also be bound by them.

By coincidence the draft was circulated to NATO allies for their information in May at the same time as the British produced a draft of their own which differed from the Burns' wording only slightly. It said that the nuclear powers undertook not to transfer control of nuclear weapons to any non-nuclear state or association of states.

The day after the opening meeting on July 27, the Western delegates met privately to discuss the Canadian and British draft treaties.

The Americans felt that whereas

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both drafts had shortcomings, the British in particular failed to make adequate provision for the demands of some NATO allies for a responsible share in common defense arrangements. If the British draft were to be adopted as an international treaty they would almost certainly be forced to abandon the multilateral fleet, a concept they had been trying to promote ever since President Kennedy visited Ottawa in 1961 and told the Canadian parliament that “we look forward to establishing a NATO sea-borne lorce which would be truly multilateral ...” The U. S. is actually a victim of the inescapable dualism in its defense policy. On the one hand it is anxious that the European allies should build up their strength: on the other, it is constantly having to reassure the Soviet Union that no provocation is intended.

A protracted wrangle developed, continuing for three weeks on two levels — the delegates meeting at frequent intervals, and their assistants constituting a working group which

met daily in an intensive effort to thrash out a compromise.

On August 11, the working group produced a draft incorporating something Canadian, something British, and a loophole allowing the Americans to pursue the multilateral-fleet scheme or any substitute for it that might be proposed in the future to meet West German demands.

“We (External Affairs) agreed to it right away,” said Burns. "1 had by then achieved what 1 had set out to

do — stimulate discussion of specifics and get a piece of paper onto the conference table.”

Next day the British gave up their struggle. However, they had reservations about the compromise having any chance of success because it omitted all reference to “association of states,” and they flatly refused to sign it as a co-sponsor with Canada and the U.S. When Burns insisted that a draft treat) must reach the conference table, the delegates agreed that in the

interests of unity it should be tabled by the Americans as their own. This was done on August 17.

Tsarapkin waited for two more weeks before responding. “We have no common basis for negotiation on this matter,” he declared.

“There are indications that the Americans may have already concluded that the multilateral fleet is creating more problems for us all than it was designed to resolve. If they should decide to scrap the idea, then they

“If we don’t stop the nuclear spread,” said Burns, “we’ll all die with it”

may come with a brand-new proposal.

“In this event, there will probably be a better chance of having the draft treaty form the basis of something acceptable to East and West. Then the way will be clear for putting the brake on the nuclear spread.”

When the UN General Assembly is in session, as it is now'. Burns moves

to New York to represent Canada in the full disarmament commission to which EN DC reports. In these negotiations non-proliferation is usually approached from other directions, including setting up nuclear-free zones around the world.

The Western powers have already rejected the idea of a nuclear-

free zone in central Europe because it would give the Communists an advantage through their superior conventional forces. And there’s only feeble hope of establishing Latin America and continental Africa as nuclear-free zones.

A special commission, comprising all the Latin-American countries ex-

cept Cuba, has been meeting in Mexico City recently to work out a treaty binding all Latin-American nations to overall rejection of nuclear weapons. Cuba is being difficult by refusing to join any nuclear-free zone while the U.S. has bases in the Caribbean.

In Africa, the newly independent states have proposed that the continent become a nuclear-free zone. The principal obstacles are the United Arab Republic’s fear that Israel may soon go nuclear, and the fears of other African states that South Africa might some day turn itself into a nucleararmed citadel of white supremacy.

“If we can get a non-proliferation treaty through EN DC there will be immense pressure for Israel, the UAR, Cuba and South Africa to sign it,” said Burns. “Once they do, at least one of the objections to Latin America and Africa becoming nuclear-free zones will be eliminated.”

Burns’ primary concern in all his constant negotiating is the prospect of smaller nations around the world getting weary of waiting for the five nuclear powers to reduce their nuclear arsenals. He is afraid that they may come to feel, sooner than people imagine, that as nuclear weapons are increasing instead of decreasing, the French attitude is right — if you want to be heard in high international places you must possess your own independent nuclear authority.

“Some experts,” said Burns, “comment that as a nuclear spread is inevitable we should learn to live with it. The reverse is actually true. If we don’t stop the nuclear spread, we’ll all die with it.”

When I asked where he thought Canada stood on the list of potential nuclear nations, he said, “We’re already integrated into the North American defense system, which gives twenty million Canadians the same protection as two hundred million Americans. That makes Canada the most overprotected country in the world already.” ★