In the summer of 1955, there was great anticipation as President Dwight Eisenhower traveled to meet Soviet leaders at the Geneva Peace Conference. This was a time of Cold War tensions and a dramatic increase in weapons technology. The technological advances in weaponry during World War II were shocking enough; but the post-war years brought nuclear weapons that were more powerful than all the munitions of World War II combined.
The world needed a break from fear!
The Geneva Conference was highlighted by President Eisenhower’s Open Skies proposal. This was a plan for the U.S. and the Soviet Union to fly peace planes over each other's territory. The planes would take photographs of military installations. Both countries would thereby be assured of no preparations for a surprise attack. The Open Skies plan would be a potential springboard for disarmament agreements.
Open Skies helped build the Spirit of Geneva, which offered a ray of hope for peace and a step away from nuclear war. However, the Open Skies plan was never accepted by the Soviets. There would be no break from the arms race.
In his memoirs, Eisenhower said that the Spirit of Geneva never faded entirely. He was more right than he realized, for the Open Skies concept was brought back in 1989 by President George H. Bush. This time, it became a treaty with Russia, Canada and a number of European nations.
Today, 34 nations are members of the treaty. So it is now quite routine for Russian and American planes to have inspection missions over each other's territory. All member nations can fly over each other's territory.
But Open Skies serves many different purposes. Right after the earthquake struck in Haiti in January, the U.S. Air Force and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) sent Open Skies planes to collect images in order to assess the damage. The photos were processed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and made available to relief agencies to help plan their operations.
Photo from Open Skies flight over Haiti (U.S. Air Force/DTRA photo)
Open Skies is also a part of the new Russian-U.S. START Treaty aimed at reducing nuclear weapons. In the protocol to the treaty, Open Skies flights are listed as part of the process of helping to transport inspectors who will verify the treaty. It’s not clear if Open Skies imagery will play a role in verifying this new treaty. However, it has been used in the past to help verify compliance with nuclear arms treaties, such as the original START Treaty of 1991.
Clearly, the inspection routines developed by Russia and the U.S. through Open Skies and other treaties are helpful in building trust between former adversaries. Ike’s Open Skies has come a long way since its inception as mere words at Geneva. When he first presented the plan, he wanted more than just Russia and the U.S. to join and this was something discussed during subsequent negotiations led by his disarmament advisor Harold Stassen.
While 34 nations are members of the treaty, many more are not. Open Skies could prove beneficial in helping to improve relations in many other corners of the globe, such as in India and Pakistan or maybe in Asia and on the Korean Peninsula. One thing is certain. Open Skies is resilient enough that it may just accomplish all its goals.