On August 2, 1957, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles made a dramatic proposal at the U.N Disarmament Subcommittee conference in London. Negotiations over U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower’s Open Skies plan, first proposed at the July 1955 Geneva summit between leaders of the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union, were bogging down over and hopes for a nuclear disarmament agreement were fading.
The original Open Skies plan included two stipulations intended to slow the arms race. First, the Western powers (primarily the U.S.) and the Soviets would exchange maps indicating the exact locations of each of their military installations. Next, each nation would be allowed to conduct aerial surveillance of those installations to verify compliance with any agreements on nuclear weapons stockpiles.
Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev rejected the proposal, refusing to allow Western surveillance of his country in what he termed an “espionage plot”. Eisenhower wasn’t surprised. He had never expected the Soviets to agree to the plan. By their non-cooperation, he hoped to paint the Soviet Union as the aggressor in the Cold War conflict. In truth, the Soviets didn’t want the West to find out how far behind they were in nuclear weapon development.
Negotiations continued and stalled. Then, at the U.N. conference in London, Secretary of State Dulles made a startling offer sweetening the deal. The Daily News-Telegram of Sulphur Springs, Texas ran the following from the Associated Press wire:
“Secretary of State Dulles has submitted a new and far-reaching proposal in an attempt to break the East-West deadlock at the London disarmament conference.
“Dulles proposed in London today that all of the United Stated, all of Russia, and most of Europe be open to aerial and ground inspection against a sneak nuclear attack.
“Under the Western – and basically, American – plan, Russian planes would be permitted to fly over the U.S. and Western territory. Russian ground inspectors would be permitted to check U.S. seaports, rail junctions, main highways, and air fields.
“The Western powers would have similar rights throughout the Soviet Union.”
Khrushchev also rejected this new proposal for inspections on the ground. An Open Skies plan would remain up in the air until March of 1992, when a revived proposal spearheaded by President George H. W. Bush was approved by members of NATO and the Warsaw pact. The Open Skies Treaty took effect in 2002, with currently 34 nation-states participating in, as former President Ronald Reagan phrased it, a process to “trust, but verify”.
Image Credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration