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Posted 12/6/2006 Printable Fact Sheet

On July 21, 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed the "Open Skies" Treaty at a summit conference held in Geneva, Switzerland. Since the early 1950s, the United States had tried to gain as much reconnaissance information as possible about the Soviet development of offensive weapons systems. Although most surveillance flights were carried out in international airspace off the coasts of Russia, a few flights were flown over Soviet territory in violation of international law.

Because the Soviet Union was a closed society, gathering reliable intelligence information was very difficult. President Eisenhower reasoned that getting permission to over fly Soviet military facilities while granting permission for the Soviets to over fly U.S. military installations would greatly ease tensions between the two superpowers.

Unfortunately, the Soviets immediately rejected the "Open Skies" Treaty proposal fearing the United States intended to trick the USSR into a disadvantageous position. As a result, the United States was very apprehensive about Soviet development of long-range bombers and more advanced nuclear weapons. The supposed "Bomber Gap" led President Eisenhower to authorize the continued reconnaissance flights (including the over flights) because the Soviet threat was judged to be more important than the international incident that would result if a U.S. plane was shot down over Soviet territory.

On May 1, 1960, the international incident the United States dreaded happened when a CIA U-2 piloted by Frances Gary Powers was shot down over Soviet territory near Sverdlovsk. Just two months later, a USAF RB-47 was shot down in international airspace resulting in the deaths of four crewmen and the capture of two more. These two men were held in Lubyanka Prison, Moscow, for seven months before being released.

In August 1960 the first CORONA reconnaissance satellite was launched thus ending the need for reconnaissance over flights for nearly three decades; however, in 1989 the "Open Skies" proposal was revived as a multinational plan to allow countries without satellites to gain reliable information about military development in other countries via unarmed planes equipped with cameras and signal detection sensors.

(For more information on the current status of the Open Skies Treaty visit the Defense Threat Reduction web site at

Below is a section of the Senate "Open Skies" executive report concerning the treaty background:

103d Congress, 1st Session - Executive Report 103-5
II. Background

President Eisenhower proposed the first "Open Skies" initiative in 1955, before reconnaissance satellites were available. The purpose of Eisenhower's "Open Skies" was to allow for wide ranging aerial inspections with optical cameras between the superpowers. These aerial inspections would have allowed each side to examine some military facilities in order to give early warning on military build-ups. These inspections would probably have had a deterrent effect, could have reduced "worst-case analysis" assumptions about the other party, and could have established a mutual confidence building measure. First Secretary of the Communist Party Nikita Krushchev strongly rejected Eisenhower's proposal because the Soviets feared that it was a way for Westerners to spy on the closed Soviet society.

With the advent of high quality satellite reconnaissance in the early 1960s, the idea of "Open Skies" was overtaken by technological progress.

Click here to return to the Cold War Reconnaissance index.

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