On this day in 1955, at a four-power summit in Geneva, President Dwight D. Eisenhower called on the United States and the Soviet Union to exchange maps showing the location of every military installation in their respective nations.
The presidential initiative became known as an “Open Skies” proposal since, with such maps in hand, both superpowers would conduct aerial surveillance of each other’s territory to ensure they had complied with any arms accord.
While the French and British expressed interest, the Soviets rejected it. In Moscow, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev branded Eisenhower’s Open Skies as an “espionage plot.” Khrushchev, in fact, did not even go to Geneva. Premier Nikolai Bulganin represented the Soviets.
Eisenhower later said that he knew that the Soviets would not accept his plan. But he believed the United States could nonetheless score a propaganda victory because the rejection would make it look like the Russians had no real interest in pursuing arms control.
Months later, Eisenhower approved the use of the U-2, a high-altitude plane, to spy on the Soviet Union. Though the president was told that the U-2 was impregnable to Soviet defenses, one was shot down in 1960, deep in Soviet territory, causing Khrushchev to cancel a scheduled summit with Eisenhower in Paris.
The plan, though never accepted, laid the foundation for President Ronald Reagan’s later policy of “trust, but verify” in relation to arms agreements with the Soviet Union.
President George H.W. Bush reintroduced the Open Skies concept in 1989, to help build mutual confidence. This time, negotiations proved successful: On March 24, 1992, an Open Skies Treaty was signed in Helsinki by Secretary of State James Baker and foreign ministers from 23 nations.
Source: “Open Skies Treaty Fact Sheet,” Bureau of Arms Control, U.S. Department of State (2005)