Imagine living along Lake Ontario in the British colony of Canada. The year is 1813 and Great Britain and the United States are at war. It is a cool April morning. You peer out across the Lake to watch the sunrise. The waters are calm, the surrounding countryside quiet. You gaze up and down the Lake for American warships. There are none in sight…..but where are they?
Little do you know that a fleet of American warships is readying for battle. At Sackets Harbor in the eastern end of Lake Ontario, American soldiers are boarding warships. Crewmen prepare the rows of cannons that will be unleashing fury on Canadian forts and towns. Within hours, the American fleet will set out, heading west on Lake Ontario. Word reaches quickly up the Lake that the warships are coming. You notice a figure upon a distant hilltop, giving signals that warn of the impending attack. Soldiers prepare themselves for the coming fight and everyone else wisely heads for cover. Your heart pounding, you run to warn your family.
During the War of 1812, the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain were the scene of such terror with fierce naval battles and coastal assaults. The war ended in 1814 and if you lived upon the Lakes you probably would hope never to see a warship again. You would soon be granted your wish.
When President James Monroe prepared his first annual message to Congress in 1817, he had some good news. He announced an agreement between the U.S. and Great Britain that disarmed the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain. Now, with the Rush-Bagot agreement, naval warships would virtually disappear from the Lakes.
Monroe stated “By this arrangement useless expense on both sides and, what is of still greater importance, the danger of collision between armed vessels in those inland waters, which was great, is prevented.”
President Monroe knew the Rush-Bagot agreement would spare the U.S. and Britain from a dangerous naval arms race. That objective was accomplished and went a long way toward improving British-American relations. But the story does not end there. The lessons of the Rush-Bagot agreement would also be applied during the nuclear arms race of the Cold War.
It was 1963, just one year removed from the Cuban Missile Crisis which brought the Soviet Union and the United States to the brink of nuclear war. The near holocaust placed an increased urgency on controlling the nuclear arms race. Focus shifted to achieving a treaty which would ban nuclear weapons testing, an effort started during the Eisenhower administration and carried over to his successor, John F. Kennedy. Such a treaty could improve relations between the two adversaries and place some restriction on armaments development. In July 1963, the Soviet and American negotiations produced the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which banned nuclear tests in the atmosphere, underwater and in outer space. President Kennedy viewed it as “a step towards peace- a step towards reason- a step away from war. “
Yet, although the Limited Test Ban Treaty was signed, it still needed to be ratified by the U.S. Senate to take effect. Not everyone agreed the treaty was a step in the right direction. Some believed it would weaken America’s national security by limiting development of nuclear armaments. Back in 1817, the same argument could have been made against the Rush-Bagot agreement since it did deprive the U.S. of naval forces on the Lakes, which proved so vital to its successes during the War of 1812.
Before the Senate would vote on the Limited Test Ban, it held hearings to listen to testimony from key experts. Among those called to testify was Harold Stassen, former disarmament advisor to President Eisenhower. Stassen would invoke the lessons of the Rush-Bagot agreement to support ratification of the Limited Test Ban. Why? Stassen did so because of the Rush-Bagot agreement’s effectiveness as an arms control measure makes its lessons timeless.
The Rush-Bagot agreement also set a precedent for including a termination clause in an arms control treaty. This would allow either nation to legally withdraw from the treaty should its national security become threatened. A termination clause was seen as vital in the case of the Limited Test Ban Treaty due to the unpredictability of the nuclear arms race.
When asked by Senator Frank Carlson about the termination clause of the Limited Test Ban Treaty. Stassen replied, “I don’t think it is generally recalled that we have the right in relation to the old Rush-Bagot Treaty over the arms limitation of the Great Lakes with Canada which was in 1817, still in force, and it is the forerunner of the peaceful border with Canada. It came after the War of 1812 and there was great difficulty and fighting. President Monroe took the leadership and the military of that day, many of them sincerely had misgivings and said, how can we defend the United States if we can’t arm the Great Lakes, and President Monroe said, let’s do it but let’s put on a 6-month termination clause…it is a right within a treaty, in other words, within the terms of the contract, under which you can bring the contract to a close, and I think the Joint Chiefs are right in this kind of a world situation to have a safeguard of that kind…”
The example of the Rush-Bagot agreement supported arguments for a limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Stassen was among those whose testimony helped achieve the treaty’s passage in the Senate, thereby providing a respite from the Cold War and a dramatic turnaround from the Cuban Missile Crisis.
President Reagan’s arms control director, Eugene Rostow, speaking before the Senate in 1981, used the example of Rush-Bagot as inspiration that arms control could be achieved with the Soviet Union.
Rostow stated that the Rush-Bagot Treaty was “rather dull.” But he was actually praising the agreement saying the very fact it was dull “is the most convincing evidence of its success.” Rostow added “it was by no means self-evident in 1817 that the Agreement would work. The passions of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 survived and rankled. There was great tension between the United States and Great Britain over Canada on several occasions during the nineteenth century. In these periods, the Rush-Bagot agreement was a genuine influence for restraint….where there is a general political understanding about the limits of rivalry, arms control agreements can help to prevent friction and conflict from degenerating into war.” The Reagan administration achieved the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with the Soviet Union in 1987. The INF Treaty eliminated both countries’ medium and shorter-range nuclear missiles which had been dangerously deployed in Europe.
Today, the Rush-Bagot concept of avoiding a dangerous and expensive arms competition will be very appealing for President Obama as he forges his foreign policy. The staggering costs of nuclear weaponry, as much as 52 billion annually according to a 2008 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report, make disarmament even more desirable. Obama is likely to start by trying to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) which would ban all test explosions including underground.
When one visits Rush-Bagot memorials such as the one at Fort Niagara, NY they will learn about a key turning point in British-American relations. But it goes even deeper than that. The Rush-Bagot agreement is a pillar in the history of arms control and its lessons can be applied to the international crises of today.
Arms control and disarmament can play a role in establishing peace among nations. As John Quincy Adams said about the idea of an arms race on the Great Lakes, “the moral and political tendency of such a system must be to war and not to peace.” The Rush-Bagot agreement and its timeless lessons can help in the never-ending struggle to achieve peace among nations.
published on History News Network March 9, 2009