In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Arms Control and Disarmament

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Naval Arms Control in the Interwar Period
  • Interwar Period—General
  • Disarmament of the Axis Powers
  • Disarmament of Populations
  • Economics of Disarmament
  • Nuclear Testing
  • Verification
  • Popular Movements
  • Organizations
  • Chemical and Biological Weapons
  • Space
  • US Congress
  • Specific Agreements

Military History Arms Control and Disarmament
Mark Moyar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 February 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 06 February 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0002


Humans have wielded weapons since the beginning of recorded history, both against other humans and the beasts that threatened them or provided them sustenance. With the rise of the modern nation-state, every nation accumulated weapons for waging wars with other nations, or for deterring them. But not until the 20th century, with the proliferation of new ideas and extraordinarily destructive weapons, did nations seek to regulate the accumulation of armaments. In the aftermath of World War I, the victorious powers imposed stringent limitations on German armaments and agreed with one another to limit their naval weaponry in the hope of forestalling arms races and avoiding another major war. These efforts failed to prevent the rearmament of Germany and the revival of arms races among the great powers in the 1930s, which, in turn, led to World War II. In the aftermath of World War II, fear of nuclear holocaust led the great powers to concentrate on limitation of nuclear weapons, with results that remain hotly disputed among historians. Other forms of arms control have also proliferated since that time. Biological and chemical weapons have been the subject of numerous treaties. During and after some low-intensity insurgencies, foreign powers and indigenous governments have sought to remove small arms from the population as a means of reducing violence.

General Overviews

No historian has as yet produced a broad history of arms control and disarmament that can be described as comprehensive. Berkowitz 1987 and Burns 2009 purport to provide this range, but they are not derived from deep historical research and give short shrift to large swathes of history. Freedman 1986, Gray 1992, and Mueller 1989 deliver powerful arguments about the general nature of arms control and disarmament by invoking history, but the arguments take precedence over breadth. Croft 1996 and Towle 1997 address major facets of arms control in general terms, but they do not take on the entire subject.

  • Berkowitz, Bruce D. Calculated Risks: A Century of Arms Control, Why It Has Failed, and How It Can Be Made to Work. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

    The author, a political scientist, provides little that is new historically, but he does draw incisive general conclusions from the history of arms control in the 20th century. He argues that nearly all arms control efforts have been fruitless, in large part because they ignored the demand of countries for weapons.

  • Burns, Richard Dean. The Evolution of Arms Control: From Antiquity to the Nuclear Age. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Security International, 2009.

    Although the title suggests a chronological approach, the book is actually organized topically. In addition, the nuclear age receives a good deal more attention than Antiquity, or any other age. It is best suited for readers new to the topic.

  • Croft, Stuart. Strategies of Arms Control: A History and Typology. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1996.

    This book is, unfortunately, lighter on the history than on the typology. Although the author seeks to prove the value of arms agreements, he puts undue emphasis on the text of arms agreements and too little emphasis on the geopolitical context and the practical results of those agreements.

  • Freedman, Lawrence. Arms Control: Management or Reform? London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.

    This relatively brief book contends that arms control is more useful as a means of managing and stabilizing the world than as a means of imposing change on the world.

  • Gray, Colin S. House of Cards: Why Arms Control Must Fail. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.

    Drawing on the history of arms control through the 20th century, Gray makes the case that arms control agreements are useless, because hostile countries circumvent arms agreements and friendly countries do not need them. It remains one of the most provocative and important books on arms control.

  • Mueller, John. Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War. New York: Basic Books, 1989.

    Mueller contends that countries have become averse to war, and hence more amenable to arms control, because warfare has become intellectually and culturally unfashionable. The emphasis on broad intellectual and cultural transformation brings a fresh and valuable perspective on arms control.

  • Towle, Philip. Enforced Disarmament: From the Napoleonic Campaigns to the Gulf War. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.

    Towle examines ten cases in which victorious powers imposed disarmament on the defeated, offering valuable insights into the reasons why it resulted in lasting peace in certain cases and not in others.

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