Under Article II of the UN Charter, the General Assembly is empowered to consider "principles governing disarmament and the regulation of armaments" and to recommend action to be taken by member states or the Security Council or both. The General Assembly has undertaken this kind of consideration at every one of its regular sessions since it first met in 1946. The General Assembly's very first resolution, adopted on 24 January 1946, addressed the question of disarmament. It sought the elimination of atomic weapons and other weapons of mass destruction and the assurance that, from then on, atomic energy would be used only for peaceful purposes, and it established the Atomic Energy Commission. In a resolution adopted in December 1946, the General Assembly recognized the connection between the questions of disarmament and of international peace and security.
In 1947, the Security Council set up the Commission for Conventional Armaments in order to regulate armaments and armed forces under an international system of control and inspection, and it called upon the two commissions to take immediate action.
Despite the urgency of the matter, the two commissions did not make much progress. In 1952, the General Assembly, in an attempt to break the impasse, consolidated them into a single 11-member Disarmament Commission, which was entrusted with the task of preparing proposals for the regulation, limitation, and balanced reduction of all armed forces and armaments, by stages, in a coordinated, comprehensive program.
The early debates in the Disarmament Commission ended inconclusively in October 1952. In November, the first hydrogen bomb, with a force that dwarfed that of the Hiroshima-type atomic bomb, was tested by the United States at Eniwetok (now Enewetak), in the Pacific. The following August, a hydrogen bomb was exploded by the USSR.
A subcommittee of the Disarmament Commission, set up by the General Assembly in 1953 and consisting of representatives of Canada, France, the USSR, the United Kingdom, and the US, held a number of meetings, but by the autumn of 1955, efforts aimed at drawing up a comprehensive disarmament plan ended in deadlock. The subcommittee's efforts to consider partial disarmament measures also came to a stalemate over the next two years. In 1957, the General Assembly enlarged the Disarmament Commission from 11 to 25 nations. It was again enlarged, in 1959, to comprise all members of the UN, but it convened only one further time, in 1965.
In 1959, the General Assembly unanimously adopted the first resolution ever to be sponsored by all member states. In it, the General Assembly declared that it was "striving to put an end completely and forever to the armaments race," and it stated that "the question of general and complete disarmament is the most important facing the world today." The resolution aimed at having all proposals and suggestions made during the General Assembly debate transmitted to the Disarmament Commission "for thorough consideration."
Substantive differences in the approach taken to disarmament by the Western powers and the USSR emerged during the subsequent period. A Ten-Nation Committee on Disarmament, based on equal East-West representation, was set up in 1960 outside the framework of the UN to discuss general and complete disarmament but became deadlocked on issues of partial or general measures. As a result, the UN began to pursue disarmament efforts in two ways. While the ultimate goal remained, as it has ever since, "general and complete disarmament under effective international control," measures that would bring about partial disarmament were viewed as integral to that goal and not as hindrances to its achievement. It was felt that devoting parallel, and at times even primary, attention to "collateral" measures designed to reduce tension and build confidence would facilitate the complex task of achieving general and complete disarmament. The immediate hopes and expectations of the majority of nations centered on two such measures: the discontinuance of nuclear-weapon tests and the prevention of the spread of nuclear weapons. By the mid-1960s, the elaboration of partial disarmament measures within the UN began to overshadow all-embracing, long-range efforts.
In 1961, John I. McCloy of the United States and Valerian A. Zorin of the USSR, representing their respective nations in formal disarmament talks, submitted to the General Assembly a Joint Statement of Agreed Principles of Disarmament Negotiations. These eight principles, which were unanimously endorsed by the General Assembly, dealt with: (1) the stated goal of negotiations—a program ensuring that disarmament was to be "general and complete" and was to be accompanied by reliable procedures for the maintenance of peace; (2) the reduction of non-nuclear weapons and facilities to such levels as might be agreed to be necessary for the maintenance of internal order and the provision of personnel for a UN peacekeeping force; (3) an agreed elaboration of the main elements of the disarmament program; (4) implementation of the program in agreed stages, which were to have specified time limits; (5) balance so that at no stage could any state or group maintain an advantage; (6) the need for international control under an international disarmament organization to be created within the framework of the UN; (7) the need during and after disarmament to strengthen institutions for maintaining world peace; and (8) the need to achieve and implement the widest possible agreement in the shortest possible time.
At the same time, the General Assembly also endorsed an agreement to set up, in place of the Ten-Nation Committee, an Eighteen-Nation Committee on Disarmament. When the committee first met in Geneva in early 1962, one member, France, decided not to participate, explaining that it hoped that it might be possible later for the disarmament problem to be discussed among the powers that could contribute effectively to its solution. At the outset, the committee decided to organize so as to permit simultaneous work on general and complete disarmament, confidence-building (collateral) measures, and the discontinuance of nuclear-weapon tests.
In 1969, the committee's membership was enlarged to 26, and its name changed to the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament (CCD). The General Assembly requested the CCD, as the multilateral negotiating body, to work out, while continuing its negotiations on collateral measures, a comprehensive program to deal with the cessation of the arms race and general and complete disarmament under effective international control. In 1975, the CCD was further enlarged, to 31 members, with France still declining to take its seat.
The scant results and continuing difficulties in disarmament negotiations, among other things, led, also in 1969, to the General Assembly's adoption of a resolution declaring the 1970s as a Disarmament Decade. The 1980s and 1990s were also later declared as disarmament decades.