Atom-Free Antarctica: Its Origins and Lessons for the Arctic

Mr Ryan Musto1

1The George Washington University, Washington, United States

The 1959 Antarctic Treaty made Antarctica the first “atom-free zone” in the world. My presentation explores the origins of that arrangement. It argues that the United States only agreed to regional denuclearization after Antarctica’s neighboring nations, and especially Argentina, pressured the United States to forego the right to “peaceful nuclear explosions” in the continent. I reveal that domestic politics played a large role in the Argentine posture, as did broader southern hemispheric concern over nuclear testing. Meanwhile, Western nations looked warily upon the volatile behavior of the Soviet Union on the matter. As the last issue to be resolved, the contentious nuclear question threatened the existence of the draft Antarctic Treaty. Looking to reap numerous Cold War benefits from an international agreement over Antarctica, the United States reversed course and rallied nations to support Antarctic denuclearization.

In looking at the origins of Antarctica’s atom-free zone, my presentation also seeks to understand the lessons that could be applied to Antarctica’s polar opposite: The Arctic. This question is particularly important as geostrategic competition over the high north heats up. While I will highlight the enormous differences between the two regions, I will also identify constructive similarities that could emerge.


I am currently a sixth year PhD candidate in history at The George Washington University. During the 2019-2020 academic year, I will be a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I hold master’s degrees in international and world history from Columbia University and the London School of Economics, and a BA (hons.) in history from New York University (NYU). My work has been published by Diplomatic History, Diplomacy & Statecraft, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Americas Quarterly, and more.

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