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Eisenhower’s Open Skies to Reach 500th Flight

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It took longer than President Dwight Eisenhower had hoped, but his plan of unarmed peace planes patrolling the skies is about to reach its 500th flight. The Open Skies Treaty, signed in 1992, includes the United States, Russia and 32 other nations.

Each nation is allowed to fly inspection missions over other treaty members, collecting photographs of military installations. It is now quite routine for Russian planes to fly over the United States. During these missions the Russian officers are accompanied by U.S. military personnel. Similarly, U.S. planes fly over Russian territory. At any time Britain, Norway or any other member nation can do the same. The Open Skies Treaty is promoting openness and cooperation in the 21st century.
But "open skies" had its origins during the early years of the Cold War struggle. Back in the spring of 1955, President Eisenhower and his national security council (NSC) gathered to discuss the dangerous arms race with the Soviet Union.

Harold Stassen, the president’s disarmament advisor, made a presentation at the NSC meeting. Stassen described an arms buildup of "unprecedented peacetime proportions" and what it could mean in the next 10 years if left unchecked. The Soviet Union had already tested atomic and hydrogen weapons. According to Stassen’s report, the Soviets were just 5-10 years away from having "the power to destroy effectively the United States through a surprise attack." And Stassen warned that this capability would come even more quickly with the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile, which the Soviets did end up testing 2 years later.

What could be done? The Eisenhower administration was against starting a preventive war to eliminate the Soviet threat. Diplomacy was the strategy to contain the nuclear menace.

Stassen put forth an arms limitation plan to reduce the chance of surprise attack. It included steps toward more openness about military forces and an international armaments commission to "inspect by land, sea or air" these forces.

The aerial inspection concept to prevent a surprise attack received more and more attention from the Eisenhower administration in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, American citizens prepared for Operation Alert, a civil defense exercise that was practice for an actual nuclear war.

In July of 1955, Eisenhower, along with the British and French leaders, went to the Geneva Conference to meet with the Soviets. This was a much anticipated peace conference, one that had long been advocated by Winston Churchill, though Churchill had left office before it came to be.

It was at Geneva that Ike put forward an open skies for peace plan. Unarmed U.S. planes would fly over Soviet territory, and likewise Soviet planes over the United States. With this kind of openness neither side could easily prepare military forces to launch a surprise attack. The Soviets and the U.S. would exchange military information so each knew what the other had in the way of armaments. Open Skies had an immediate effect in helping to create the "Spirit of Geneva" which encouraged dialogue with the Soviets.

Eisenhower hoped open skies would pave the way for more agreements to reduce the dangers of the new age of nuclear weapons. This domino effect was an important aspect of Ike’s decision to pursue cooperation with the Soviets via the atoms for peace proposal, open skies, and later, the negotiations to ban nuclear weapons testing.
The Soviets did not go for Ike’s plan. Being a closed society with fears of their own, namely espionage, and an attack by the more powerful United States, the Soviets did not want inspection. The open skies plan would be grounded, but not forever.

In 1989 President George Bush revisited Ike’s plan in the hope it would help build a new relationship with Russia at the end of the Cold War. Canada and European nations were to be included. Bush noted that open skies could complement the more modern satellite surveillance that had been developed since the Eisenhower proposal, though having countries agree to aerial inspection flights promoted cooperation and trust that could not be obtained by satellite surveillance alone.

The following year, an Open Skies Conference was held in Ottawa, Canada to jumpstart negotiations on a potential treaty. Secretary of State James Baker spoke at the conference, stating open skies would "provide a tangible and powerful symbol of the emerging East-West cooperation that our publics could readily see and understand." Baker urged acceptance of Open Skies to create "a stable and predictable security environment that allows each nation to pursue its own destiny in peace, without fear of aggression or intimidation." The new open skies proposal did not differ from the old one in the sense that its aim was to make war less likely.

In 1992, the Open Skies Treaty was signed with the U.S., Russia, Canada and over twenty European nations joining. Hungary and Romania, which also signed the treaty, actually had their own bilateral agreement already in place.

Later this summer, the 500th flight under the treaty is expected to take place. The treaty can serve as an example for other nations. Open Skies could play a role in building peace between India and Pakistan, or between the Koreas or someday, in the Middle East. The experiences of the current Open Skies Treaty may help move such agreements along. To build upon current efforts to disarm North Korea’s nuclear program, a demonstration flight could be conducted for the North and the South. This would be another step toward peace and reunification on the peninsula. The United States could also explore an aerial inspection agreement with China.

It has been a long road from the time of Eisenhower’s proposal at Geneva to this summer’s 500th flight of the Open Skies Treaty. However, the story of open skies may just be beginning.

For more information about the 500th flight of the Open Skies Treaty visit the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

President Eisenhower discusses Open Skies at a press conference. The video also includes a sample open skies flights carried out during the 1950's.

President Bush revives Open Skies in 1989.

Video about the 1992 Open Skies Treaty.

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About William Lambers

William Lambers is the author of several books including Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World. This book features over 50 interviews with officials from the UN World Food Programme and other charities discussing school feeding programs that fight child hunger. He is also the author of Nuclear Weapons, The Road to Peace: From the Disarming of the Great Lakes to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Open Skies for Peace, The Spirit of the Marshall Plan: Taking Action Against World Hunger, School Lunches for Kids Around the World, The Roadmap to End Global Hunger, From War to Peace and the Battle of Britain. He is also a writer for the History News Service. His articles have been published by newspapers including the Cincinnati Enquirer, Des Moines Register, the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Buffalo News, San Diego Union Tribune, the Providence Journal, Free Lance-Star (VA), the Bakersfield Californian, the Washington Post, Miami Herald (FL), Chicago Sun-Times, the Patriot Ledger (MA), Charleston Sunday Gazette Mail (WV), the Cincinnati Post, Salt Lake Tribune (UT), North Adams Transcript (MA), Wichita Eagle (KS), Monterey Herald (CA), Athens Banner-Herald (GA) and the Duluth News Journal. His articles also appear on History News Network (HNN) and Think Africa Press. Mr. Lambers is a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Ohio with degrees in Liberal Arts (BA) and Organizational Leadership (MS). He is also a member of the Feeding America Blogger Council.
  • jamminsue

    William Lambers – Thank you for taking the time to present this information. I had forgotten about this. A timely reminder is appreciated!

  • bliffle

    Good article. Thanks.