Now, thanks to George W. Bush, our chances of keeping the nuclear genie safely in the bottle have markedly decreased.
Until the Bush administration came to power, it looked as if the nuclear threat was receding. The end of the Cold War and the network of arms control agreements built up since the 1960s had eased tensions somewhat.
At the height of the Cold War, there were 65,000 nuclear weapons. Now, there are about 27,000. In the 1960s, there were 23 nations with nuclear weapons programs. Most of those have since ended. Until North Korea's apparent test of a nuclear weapon last week, none had been tested by any nation for eight years - the longest break since the Atomic Age began. And most nations have come to the conclusion that nuclear weapons have limited military utility, even as deterrents to attack.
President Carter got the Soviets to sign the second installment of SALT in 1979. Even President Reagan, who oversaw a major arms buildup in the 1980s, achieved an nuclear arms reduction agreement with the Soviets in 1987. And President Clinton oversaw both a decrease in both the Russian and American nuclear arsenals and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1993 and 1996, respectively.
Of all these treaties, the NPT has been perhaps the most successful and most important. The terms were simple. The major nuclear powers would eventually give up their weapons in exchange for a pledge from the non-nuclear states not to acquire them.
Only four countries have not signed the NPT - India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan. All four now have nuclear weapons, joining the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France and China as members of the nuclear club.
The nuclear club may get even bigger in the coming decades, and we have President Bush to thank for that.
The Bush administration saw nuclear arms agreements as limitations to American power. So Bush scuttled the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, signed in 1972 during the Nixon administration. Bush walked away from the test ban agreement that the Clinton administration secured. Bush backed efforts to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal - now about 10,000 weapons strong - and his representatives managed to block any meaningful progress during the most recent review of the NPT in 2005.
Worst of all, the United States has revised its stated military strategy regarding the use of nuclear weapons. For decades, the official policy was "no first use." In 2002, the United States decided it has the right to use nuclear weapons whenever necessary and named seven countries - including Iran and North Korea - as possible targets for a pre-emptive nuclear strike.
The Bush administration clings to the belief that military might, not diplomacy, will protect the United States. It abandoned diplomatic efforts to keep North Korea from building nuclear weapons and has refused to realistically engage Iran in serious talks about its nuclear ambitions.
With a nuclear North Korea on their doorsteps, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea may reconsider their options. All three countries are capable of building nuclear weapons, especially Japan, which has all of the components and a plentiful supply of plutonium.
Although Israel has never officially acknowledged its nuclear arsenal, it's believed that it may have up to 600 weapons and is the only country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons. If Iran, a Shiite state, gets the bomb, Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt may want their own bombs.