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This Day in History: Eisenhower on Disarmament and Open Skies

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It was on this day in history, July 21st, 1955, that President Dwight Eisenhower made a speech on disarmament at the Geneva Peace Conference with the Soviet Union.

Eisenhower unleashed his “open skies” plan which called for peace planes from each of the Cold War rivals to make observation flights and take photographs over the other’s territory. Military blueprints would be exchanged. The idea was to build trust and reduce fear of surprise attack.

The goal was to find some way out of a dangerous and costly arms race, a very challenging proposition at the time of the Cold War. The “open skies” idea was not accepted back in 1955 but it did create much-needed dialogue on arms control.


During his July 21st presentation, Eisenhower said a disarmament plan “would lighten the burdens upon the backs of the people. It would make it possible for every nation, great and small, developed and less developed, to advance the standards of living of its people, to attain better food, and clothing, and shelter, more of education and larger enjoyment of life.”

This is a timeless theme. For even though the Cold War is long over, high levels of spending on armaments are not. If you spend too much on weapons, you undermine your own security. Nuclear weapons are a good example.

The group Global Zero released a cost of nuclear weapons study which says at the current pace “the nuclear-armed states will spend, conservatively estimated, at least one trillion dollars on nuclear weapons and their direct support systems over the next decade. It will likely go significantly higher as numerous modernization programs underway are ramped up.”

The United States is planning to increase spending on nuclear arms as part of a modernization program. The U.S. has also not ratified key pacts, like the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Could a nuclear test be coming down the road which will mean even more expense?

The costs of nuclear arms worldwide should cause increasing alarm especially when you consider domestic and foreign policy priorities that are being robbed of key resources.

Take, for instance, the key to building peace today—feeding and educating all children in the world. Even if just $1 billion of nuclear weapons spending could be used for this cause, it would make a significant difference.

Think of the possibilities, such as diverting nuclear spending to underfunded child feeding programs in Afghanistan and Sudan. Ending malnutrition and boosting education for children would be the road to peace in these and other countries. So yes, there should be tight scrutiny and alarm over nuclear weapons spending and its impact.

Eisenhower’s open skies proposal did not get off the ground back in 1955. Cold War suspicions would not allow it. Open Skies did later become a treaty in 1992 and 34 nations including the U.S. and Russia now take part. It’s arms control cooperation, an example that hopefully will be followed by even more nations.

The 1955 peace conference also created a spirit of Geneva and at least a brief respite from the Cold War. But the timeless theme of reducing the burden of armaments can be the longer-lasting spirit of Geneva as it works today toward the goal of Global Zero.

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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.