This day in history, December 1, 1959, Antarctica is made a military-free continent.
Twelve nations, including the United States and the Soviet Union, signed the Antarctica Treaty, which bans military activity and weapons testing on that continent. It was the first arms control agreement signed in the Cold War period.
Since the 1800’s, a number of nations, including Great Britain, Australia, Chile, and Norway, laid claim to parts of Antarctica. These competing claims led to diplomatic disputes an armed clashes. In 1948, Argentine military forces fired on British troops in an area claimed by both nations. Incidents of that sort, together with evidence that the Soviet Union was becoming more interested in Antarctica, spurred the United States to propose that the continent be made a trustee of the United Nations. This idea was rejected when none of the other nations with interests on the continent would agree to cede their claims of sovereignty to an international organization.
By the 1950’s, some officials in the United States began to press for a more active U.S. role in Antarctica, believing that the continent might have military potential as an area for nuclear tests. President Dwight D. Eisenhower took a different approach. U.S. diplomats, working with their Soviet counterparts, worked out a treaty that set aside Antarctica as a military-free zone and postponed settling territorial claims for future debate. There could be no military presence on the continent, and no testing of weapons of any sort, including nuclear weapons. Scientific ventures were allowed, and scientists would not be prohibited from traveling through any of the areas claimed by various nations.
A dozen nations with territorial claims to the continent signed the document since the treaty did not directly tamper with issues of territorial sovereignty in Antarctica. The treaty marked a small but significant first step toward U.S.-Soviet arms control and political cooperation. The treaty went into effect in June 1961, and set the standard for the basic policies that continue to govern Antarctica.