Open Skies vs. Closed Doors

Oct. 1, 1956

Most Americans would define the future of airpower in terms of jet planes, missiles, space satellites, and interplanetary travel. They would be right—at least, half right. But if the United States has its way, airpower will soon be given an entirely new role in world history—an entirely new mission, not just new equipment with which to carry out the old mission. It will be given the job of banishing war from the face of the globe.

For ten years, airpower has been deterring war. This is not the same thing as banishing war; it is different in kind and in degree. The new mission is far tougher—indeed, it may be impossible. It has always been impossible before, throughout world history. But if it can be done, airpower will do it. And American airpower is offering to show the way.

The process of banishing war has traditionally been described as “disarmament.” This is still the word used, but it no longer has the same meaning. It no longer means simply scrapping planes and sinking battleships and tossing M-1 rifles into a scrap heap. In fact, it does not mean this at all, at least not in the first stance. American diplomats today think of disarmament as a result, not a cause. The word is used at the United Nations, in the State Department, and in Presidential Assistant Harold E. Stassen’s office to mean almost any course of action which increases national security by non-military means, and thus makes possible a reduction of arms and armed forces.

The reasoning is that if our homes, our families, and our country could be made safe—really safe—through an international treaty with provision for enforcement, then we would all be delighted not to have to spend money on so many expensive weapons. We would want to be positive we were not falling into a trap. But we would not wish to say in advance that there could never be a set of circumstances under which we would be satisfied with a smaller defense establishment. There have been some diplomats in the past who approached disarmament from this angle, but not many. The prevailing view has always been that you simply gave up your arms, and thereby automatically got more security. Even among those who favored security first, there was none who was ever able to devise a disarmament treaty (a) that would make the participants really safe, (b) that could be enforced, and (c) that would be politically acceptable to all the countries affected.

For what is almost certainly the first time in recorded history, diplomats now believe they have accomplished “a” and “b.” A treaty, or outline of a treaty, has been devised—largely in Washington but with important contributions by other countries—which would make the world as nearly safe from major atomic war as is reasonable and sensible to expect—so nearly safe that the chances of war on a big scale would probably be one in tens of thousands. This treaty could be enforced; airpower (alone of the armed services), science, and skilled manpower would be the principal tools for enforcement. What remains to be done is to make the scheme politically acceptable to all countries, and particularly to the Russians.

The ideas behind this treaty have been outlined bit by bit at the United Nations over the past year, but they are only now being put together into an understandable whole. The principal object of the treaty would be to remove surprise from modern warfare. Why? Because no aggressor in his right mind would launch atomic war unless he thought he could achieve surprise; surprise would be essential to knock out the enemy’s capability for retaliation. Even with surprise, he might not score a knockout. Without it, he would be a fool to try. Remove surprise, therefore, and you remove all rational motive for major war. So the thesis goes.

How to eliminate surprise? Station someone, or some instrument, in a position to watch every weapon and every weapon carrier which could be used in a massive surprise blow. That means watching planes, missiles, missile-launching platforms (if and when built) submarines, navy carriers, and every equivalent. That would be a formidable task; but with modern electronic equipment—radar, TV, sonar, etc.—plus aerial reconnaissance and an elaborate communications network it could be done. It could, that is, on two conditions: First, that all such weapons and weapon-delivery systems were identified and located at the outset; and second, that there were assurances that no new ones in significant numbers were going to be built in secret.

For this task, aerial photographs would be absolutely essential. It would not be enough by itself, but it would have to be included as part of the inspection process. How else, for example, to be sure no new airfields were being constructed? Or any new ICBM launching platforms being installed? How else to detect secret atomic factories easily and quickly? Radiation on photographic plates is a dead giveaway, and cannot be shielded well enough to escape detection from the air. How else, except by aerial photographs, to keep constant track of troop movements and mobile weapon installations? Air Force men are the first to acknowledge that aerial photography has its limitations, but they also know its extraordinary capabilities. And there are recurrent reports of remarkable new developments—for example, in the realm of X-ray photography from the air.

Aerial inspection being vital to any workable early-warning system, the United States somehow must sell the idea to the Russians. In the past, Moscow has thrown up its hands in horror at the idea. The plan has been presented to the Russians repeatedly since 1945; President Eisenhower by no means invented it. What the President has done is to play an intense world spotlight on it, and propose that it be used for a different purpose—for guarding against surprise attack, instead of for verifying weapon prohibitions and reductions.

The American purpose in focusing attention on aerial inspection is to bring maximum moral pressure on the Russians. This tactic has worked well in another highly important field, atoms for peace. In 1953 the President proposed an atomic pool under the aegis of the United Nations to assist underdeveloped countries. Moscow’s first reaction was violent and abusive; but the idea caught on so well throughout most of the world that the Russians eventually felt obliged to come around, and the atomic pool is now about to be established. The campaign took nearly three years, but it has worked.

Similarly President Eisenhower’s name and prestige were attached to the “open skies” plan. The President presented it in the most dramatic circumstances possible—directly to Marshal Nikolai Bulganin at the 1955 “summit” conference. The idea was given a world-wide publicity buildup such as few other ideas have ever had. Unfortunately, however, it has never really caught on. The Russians not only have shown no signs of being under pressure; they actually have become progressively more hostile as the months have gone by. At one point, in the beginning, they agreed to make aerial reconnaissance a part of the disarmament process, though a remote part; now they say it has nothing whatsoever to do with disarmament. Meanwhile our deep commitment to the idea has boomeranged on us; it has become a handicap in the process of negotiation. It has given Russians a valuable bargaining asset.

Here is how it happened. The “open skies” plan was presented to the Geneva “summit” conference on July 21, 1955. Marshal Bulganin indicated, he was favorably impressed by the President’s sincerity, but he said nothing in public about the idea itself until August 4, when he made a speech to the Supreme Soviet.

“The real effectiveness of such measures [exchange of military blueprints and aerial reconnaissance] would not be great,” he contended. “During unofficial talks with the leaders of the United States government, we straightforwardly declared that aerophotography cannot give the expected results, because both countries stretch over vast territories in which, if desired, one can conceal anything. One must also take into consideration the fact that the proposed plan touches only the territories belonging to the two countries, leaving out the armed forces and military constructions situated in the territories of other states.” This was a rejection, but in the language of diplomacy, it was not at all conclusive. The objections were not really basic. The argument that the territories involved were too big could be shown to be false (assuming that sufficient personnel was available to sort out and interpret the photographic negatives); and the objection that other countries would have to be added—an argument that was to some extent inconsistent with the first—could be met. It was in fact met later that month in the five-nation UN Disarmament Subcommittee, when the United States broadened the plan to cover all overseas bases of both the Soviet Union and the United States.

We have no way of reading the Russians’ mind, but we nevertheless do not have to look very far to find the real reason for their resistance to “open skies.” It would not be an equal bargain; we would stand to gain a lot more intelligence information about the Soviet Union than they would about the United States. Aerial photographs of ninety-nine percent of our territory can be taken, without too much risk, simply by hiring a private airplane—and we can be sure the Russians have long since done it. Our photography of the Soviet Union, however, has been spotty and incomplete. Reconnaissance planes cannot penetrate very far beyond the Soviet frontiers without being shot down, and “weather” balloons equipped with cameras depend too heavily on wind currents.

There also must have been a political reason why aerial photography was unattractive to the Russians. On the photographic plates would be detailed evidence of their slave-labor system which we could use with devastating effect if we chose. In the year that has followed the “summit” conference, there have been reports that the slave-labor camps were being broken up; but in 1955, at least, this must have been a powerful reason for rejecting the idea of “open skies.”

Such being the case, it is perhaps surprising that Marshal Bulganin was as mild as he was in rejecting the Eisenhower plan. As of mid-summer 1955 the Russians were acting like people who thought they might eventually have to come around, or at least, like people who were afraid to affront world opinion by appearing too rigid.

The basic idea of an early-warning system could not have been abhorrent to them. It was, in fact, their own; they had been the first to present it. For months their armed services newspapers had been printing stories about the danger of surprise attack in the atomic age. In May 1955 they had come forward with what they said was a way of eliminating the danger—station ground “control posts” at key rail, road, sea, and air junctions to watch for mobilization of men and conventional weapons in numbers sufficient to launch and follow up a surprise aerial assault. Bulganin repeated the idea at the “summit” on the same day President Eisenhower spoke. The main difficulty with the plan—it has come to be called the “Bulganin plan”—is that a saturation blow, by planes or missiles, or both, might come first, and mobilization of manpower follow. Also, the Russians never made clear whether the “control posts” would be mobile or not, and whether they would be equipped with adequate instruments and communications facilities. We have incorporated the idea of ground control posts, with instrumentation and mobility, into our early-warning system.

The first, comparatively mild Russian rejection of the “open skies” plan gradually hardened. Whereas in August it had been “ineffective,” in the fall and winter it came to be a “menace.” It would simply provide the Air Force with target identification, they said. The Russians appreciated the President’s “good intentions,” they said, but complained that his plan was not disarmament—it was just inspection. Link it to disarmament, declared the then Foreign Minister Vyacheslav M. Molotov in November (at the Foreign Ministers’ conference) and “with this proviso, the Soviet government is prepared to consider the abovementioned [Eisenhower] proposal favorably, taking into account that the question of aerial photographs, as one of the forms of control, will be considered in connection with the establishment of control over the implementation of the respective international agreement in the final stage of carrying out measures directed toward the reduction of armaments and the prohibition of atomic weapons.” This sentence must have been a mouthful, even for Molotov. It was, of course, a conditional acceptance; but the condition was so severe as to make it in fact a rejection. The “final stage” of disarmament, during which aerial inspection was to be “one of the forms of control,” was the stage in which atomic weapons theoretically were going to be eliminated. Actually, both the Soviet Union and the United States had admitted that no such step could be enforced, and it was perfectly clear that neither one had the slightest intention of ever doing it. Molotov’s “final stage” would never have arrived, and he knew it.

Why did the Russians now dare to toss monkey wrenches, whereas previously they had tiptoed? Because they had discovered that the idea was not as popular with world opinion as they had feared it might be. Unlike the atoms-far-peace plan, it had not caught on. Even among the United States’s allies, it had not gone over—in fact, it had caused a deep and serious split between them and Washington. So Moscow, relieved of pressure, could simply sit back and enjoy the fun.

The split between the United States and its allies first showed up in the UN Disarmament Subcommittee, which consists of Britain, France, and Canada in addition to Russia and the United States. After long, patient efforts in this subcommittee, Britain and France—particularly France—had narrowed the gap between East and West on old-style disarmament, that is, the kind of disarmament that would begin with the reduction of weapons, under inspection, and produce greater security, at least in theory, as a result. Here was the United States tossing and asking for security first. To be exact, the United States was asking for aerial inspection first, which we said would produce security, when combined with the Bulganin plan; and in the atmosphere of international confidence thus produced, we would negotiate arms reductions. These nations would be easy, we said, because the weapons would not be so badly needed. Thus the “open skies” plan was the “gateway to disarmament.” We “placed a reservation” on all other disarmament positions we had taken in the past—that is, we shelved them. For a while, in the subcommittee session of August-September 1955, Stassen practically refused to talk about anything but the Eisenhower plan. He dwelt on it so persistently he began to sound like a broken record.

The Russians accused us of wanting “control without disarmament.” They scoffed at our assurances that disarmament would follow. They wanted to see in black and white what “lay beyond the gateway.” These tactics hit home with our allies. It was very close to what they thought, but hesitated to say. They had to} convince their people that they were making progress toward actual arms reduction; disarmament is politically popular in Europe. No opposition party in the world, except the Democratic Party in the United States, is in a position to win votes by charging that the party in power is not spending enough on armament. The governments of Britain and France simply could not go along with the United States on anything that could be made to look like “inspection without disarmament.” In France, there was a real danger that the Communist Party, already able to poll 5,000,000 votes, would make hay with the issue.

The sensible thing for the United States to have done would have been to have spelled out what did lie beyond the gateway. But we ourselves did not know. The Pentagon, the State Department, and Stassen’s office could not agree on it; within the Pentagon, there were serious Air Force-Army differences. To what level would issue raised the whole, difficult problem of what kind of a war we wanted to be prepared to fight.

In 1952, when the Russians were married to a huge land army, we had confidently proposed a manpower ceiling of 1,000,000 to 1,500,000 men for the United States, the Soviet Union, and China, knowing—or thinking that we knew—the Communists never would agree. We could reap the benefit of being for disarmament without any danger of having to disarm, at a time and under circumstances when disarmament would have been folly.

But in May 1955 the Russians did agree. Apparently having gone through a military “new look,” and having down-graded the importance of manpower, they bought the 1,500,000 man force level. We gulped and took another look at the deal. For us to go through with it would have been to abandon, or skeletonize, our overseas bases, including NATO, before the world’s major political problems—such as the unification of Germany—had been solved. We would have had to cut even more drastically than Adm. Arthur W. Radford later proposed (i.e., to 2,000,000 men by 1960) with such pyrotechnic impact. No wonder we had to “place a reservation” on our previous positions, including the 1952 force level.

The Russians refused to negotiate on the early-warning system, including as a first step the “open skies” plan, until we settled upon a force level. This, it developed, was their price; if we wanted the intelligence advantages of aerial reconnaissance, we would have to give them the strategic advantage of a break-up, or skeltonization, of our overseas base system. There were other elements in the deal, but this was the heart of it.

It was a very high price tag which the Russians had put on aerial reconnaissance. But we ourselves were partly responsible for the fact that we were trapped. We had played up the “open skies” idea to huge proportions; we ourselves had placed great value on it. We had even committed the prestige of our President to it. We were in the position of a man who had gone to the only automobile dealer who had a certain sports car for sale, and had told him we absolutely bad to have the car; without it our wife would divorce us; our mother-in-law could not be taken to the hospital; our golf club would cancel our membership . . . and so on. Being an unprincipled dealer, the salesman bad doubled the price with every sentence we spoke—and there was little we could do about it. We could go to the Better Business Bureau, but they would tell us we did not need a sports car, that we could get along with a used sedan.

The United States did go to the international Better Business Bureau, the United Nations, and did complain about the exhorbitant Soviet price. We got a certain amount of satisfaction, but not enough to bring any effective moral pressure on Moscow. The UN’s verdict (in December 1955) was that “open skies” was a fine idea, but that it was also important to put into effect “all such measures of adequately safeguarded disarmament as are now feasible.” In other words, the United States should spell out what lay beyond the gateway, and commit itself to pass through. There were times in the UN General Assembly debate in 1955 when it seemed that as much moral pressure was being brought to bear on the United State as on the Soviet Union.

Moscow trimmed its sails to the prevailing wind. In a letter to President Eisenhower in February 1956, Bulganin dropped Molotov’s reference to the “final” stage of the disarmament process as the time when aerial reconnaissance could take place, and said instead that “appropriate [aerial] control, the methods of which could be agreed upon, would be justified and necessary.” When the Disarmament Subcommittee reconvened in March, the Russians put forward a plan which provided that “at a specified stage (which in fact they did not specify) of the executive of the general disarmament program, when confidence among states has been strengthened, the countries concerned shall consider the possibility of using aerial photographs as a method of control.”

The United States, too, made a bow in the direction of the UN resolution and of our allies’ feelings. We spelled out to some extent what would lie beyond the “gateway.” We offered a cut of about fourteen percent in our manpower, down to 2,500,000 men, along with other steps which would have curbed nuclear weapons. We persuaded the British and French (not without some difficulty) to drop the 1,500,000-man force level from their joint plan. When the Russians discovered this, they were furious, and the meetings became so fruitless that at one point the French delegate, Jules Mach, asked “Why?” when it was proposed that the group meet.

That was this spring. This summer, when the whole subject was debated in public at the UN, Russia’s Andrei Gromyko had so hardened his attitude on “open skies” as to refer to the idea as “notorious.” “Those notorious photo-reconnaissance flights,” he said, “have no relation whatever to the problem of disarmament or to control.” An extraordinary thing to say in the light of the Soviets’ own March plan, calling aerial photography “one of the methods of control”! And Gromyko added: “We do not consider that the consideration of this question in the Disarmament Commission will do any good to anybody or for the cause.” He seemed to be particularly incensed by the abandonment of the 1,500,000-man force level and by the fact that aerial reconnaissance was still a precondition, a first step on which all else in the disarmament process would depend.

At this, M. Moch, dismayed by the breakdown of the bargaining process, abandoned the public appearance of western unity, and belittled aerial reconnaissance, saying: “It is, in some cases, a convenient method of investigation; but in others, its value is slight.” It would not detect rocket-launching platforms, he said, once they had been “properly camouflaged.” Both he and Anthony Nutting of Britain also split openly with the United States on the 1,500,000-man force level, reaffirming that they were prepared, as in 1952 and 1954, to set that as the final goal.

In the face of this deterioration of the American position, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., had to act. He lowered the United States’s asking price for disarmament in two respects: he made aerial inspection an “integral part” of disarmament instead of a first step, a precondition; and he hinted broadly that we were willing to begin by photographing just a token portion of the Soviet Union, in return for a similar limited trial exercise in the United States. What he was saying, in effect, was that if we could get aerial reconnaissance eventually, that would be enough. It would no longer have to be the “gateway” to disarmament; it could accompany and even follow some steps in the disarmament process. Gromyko made no direct response.

Where does this leave the “open skies” plan today? If we had made this kind of concession six months ago, it would have put us very close to what the Russians were then saying; but since then, the Kremlin has backed away, and there is no assurance now that we can get even this much. Moreover, the Russians still want us to cut down to 1,500,000 men as the price of a full-scale disarmament agreement, and not everyone in Washington agrees that the kind of security we would get from an early-warning system and from nuclear curbs would be good enough to justify the abandonment or skeletonization of our overseas bases.

The Army, of course, is strongly opposed to any manpower reductions, arguing that present force levels are needed to stamp out “brush-fire” wars, the kind which (they say) airpower does not deter. Until this dispute is resolved, there cannot be any overall disarmament agreement with the Russians. We could have a reduction to 2,500,000 men, with ground inspection, if we wanted it; Gromyko offered to come that far to meet us last July. But that would create a roseate glow, an appearance of agreement, without providing the substance.

Not until airpower is harnessed to make atomic war impracticable—that is, not until the American early-warning system, including “open skies,” is sold to the Russians—will the basic problem of safety in the atomic age be on the way to solution.

William R. Frye has been the UN correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor since 1950. A 1940 graduate of Harvard, he has been a writer, lecturer, and radio and TV commentator for fifteen years. He has made an intensive ten-year study of the problem of disarmament, and is also a specialist on the diplomacy of atoms-for-peace. He is author of the booklet Disarmament: Atoms Into Ploughshares and co-author of The United States’ Stake in the UN: Problems of UN Charter Review. He received a certificate from the Overseas Press Club in 1955 for “Best reporting originating in the US or UN on world affairs.” When asked whether or not he was married, he answered, “definitely.”