This Day In History: The Antarctic Is Declared A Military-Free Territory (1961)


On this day in history a dozen nations come together and sign the Antarctic Treaty. This is a unique treaty and a remarkable one given that it was signed at the height of the Cold War.  The Treaty bans all military activity on the icy continent. The testing of equipment and all forms of military activity is banned under the terms of the Treaty. It was the first arms control agreement that was signed between the Soviet Union and the western democracies.

Antarctica had  been claimed by several nations since the 19th century. Among the nations who claimed part of the Antarctic  were Britain, Australia, Chile, and Norway. At times there were diplomatic disputes between the competing nations and there were even several armed clashes. In 1948 some Argentine forces shot at some British service men, in the area. Then there was the growing rivalry between the Soviet Union and America. Many feared that the continent would be another theatre in the Cold War. The United States was very concerned about the future of the Antarctic and even proposed placing it under the rule of the United Nations. However, all the other nations wanted to possess some of continent even though it was uninhabited and desolate.  Washington was especially concerned that the Soviets would use it as a submarine base. During the 1950s some in the military establishment suggested that the Antarctic be used for nuclear tests. President Eisenhower did not want to exacerbate tensions with the Soviet Union and he proposed that a treaty be signed that would ban all military activity on the continent. There was to be no nuclear testing in the Antarctic. The continent would be opened up for scientific research and any scientist could work anywhere in the vast territory. The treaty did not resolve the territorial disputes but it ensured that any dispute in the future could not become violent and result in a war. This was very important during the tense times of the Cold War, when any conflict could have triggered a nuclear war. The treaty was a small but noteworthy step in arms control.  It was the first time that the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to limit their arms and to demilitarize a territory.

Amundsen-Scot Polar Station

The treaty came into effect in 1961 and it continues to provide the framework for the administration of the Antarctic.  From that date all the signatories have not placed military forces or assets on the continent; and their only presence on the continent are in the various scientific installations, dotted around the frozen continent. The Antarctic is the only continent that has never been the scene of a war in human history.