EISENHOWER thought that the event which followed
his presentation of the Open Skies proposal at the Geneva summit on July 21, 1955, had been a suitably dramatic--if foreboding--coup de th,e.atre: "Without warning, and simultaneous with my closing words, the loudest clap of thunder I have ever heard roared into the room, and the conference was plunged into Stygian darkness." Ike's proposal had been a diplomatic thunderbolt all its own--a plan whereby the United States and the Soviet Union would exchange blueprints of their military establishments and allow reciprocal overflights of their territory in order to reduce the fear of surprise attack and facilitate further steps toward disarmament. Eisenhower had even departed from his prepared text to make the remarkable proposal, adding an assurance that it "would be but a beginning." The Russians were perhaps understandably relieved when, immediately thereafter, the lights had gone out. W.W. Rostow, one of the originators and promoters of Open Skies, correctly points out in his new book that it was the most important and ambitious arms-control proposal offered by the United States to the Soviets since the ill-starred 1946 Baruch plan for the international control of atomic energy. Like that early and doomed effort to banish the bomb, Open Skies represents another tantalizing might- have-been in the dismal history of strategic weaponry.
The latest in the Ideas and Action series written by Rostow for the University of Texas Press, Open Skies follows the pattern of three earlier studies in that it analyzes a decision in which Rostow himself played a part, and is supplemented by relevant documents. In this case, barely a hundred pages of text are followed by no fewer than 13 appendices, containing recently declassified documents from the Eisenhower Library as well as material from Rostow's own files. The Open Skies story is of more than academic interest, however, because of what the book reveals about its subjects, whose individual "temperament," Rostow notes in his Introduction, add "a special wild card to the way history unfolds." (The book also provides--unintentionally, I think--a period piece of early Cold War attitudes by what it reveals about the author's temperament. Throughout Rostow dismisses Soviet proposals at Geneva as necessarily disingenuous, while representing the U.S. initiative as earnest and sincerely intended; but the latter is a contention that the evidence of the book does much to contradict.) The true wild card of the story at Geneva is the dominant temperament of Dwight Eisenhower. While the originators of the Open Skies proposal envision and defend it either as a way to penetrate the Iron Curtain or a weapon to turn back the latest Soviet peace offensive, Eisenhower apparently confounds all his aides and advisers by taking the idea seriously.
The Open Skies proposal grew out of a recommendation from a top-secret government panel convened at Quantico to identify Russian vulnerabilities that might be exploited during the upcoming summit meeting at Geneva. The "Quantico Vulnerabilities Panel," headed by Nelson Rockefeller, quickly perceived that one such vulnerability was the Soviets' mania about preserving a closed society. The success with which the Russians had sequestered their military secrets from Western intelligence was also thought to be the cause of a particular American vulnerability in the Cold War: the uncertainty as to whether the Russians might be planning a surprise atomic attack. The United States had occasionally violad Soviet airspace with deliberate overflights along Russia's borders beginning in the late '40s, but those operations--as recently revealed--had proven both costly and ineffective.
The fact that the ultrasecret U-2 program was then only a year away from its first mission over Russia almost scotched the Open Skies idea at the outset. Critics thus suggested that there seemed no reason to allow the Russians a free ride in an area where the United States would soon have a unilateral advantage; an Air Force representative on the panel, for example, urged "that this proposal be examined with particular skepticism by the Department of Defense." Rostow's book makes clear that what finally sold the Open Skies idea in the administration was the plain fact that the United States stood to benefit from the offer whether or not the Russians accepted it. If, as most expected, the Soviets turned it down at Geneva they would attract international censure for blocking an apparent effort at easing Cod War tensions; and at the same time provide a domestic rationale for the dramatic increase in defense spending that Rostow and others on the panel thought the times demanded, but Eisenhower had been resisting. In the unlikely event that the Russians acceded to the plan the United States would still gain disproportionately, since American society was already an open book. (In a footnote, Rostow describes the moment during Rockefeller's briefing on the proposal when the light finally dawned for Admiral Arthur W. Radford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as to the real intent of Open Skies: "I see what you fellows are doing--you are trying to open up the Soviet Union.")
Open Skies was still almost shot down by Eisenhower's secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, who resented the panel's (and Rockefeller's) encroachment upon his foreign policy domain. "He's got them down at Quantico, and nobody knows what they're doing," Dulles once fumed suspiciously about Rockefeller and his panel of experts. Dulles also worried about what might happen at Geneva to his hard-line policy toward the Soviets. He confided to a friend that Eisenhower "is so inclined to be humanly generous, to accept a superficial tactical smile as evidence of inner warmth, that he might in a personal moment with the Russians accept a promise or a proposition at face value and upset the apple cart." However, Dulles too was ultimately persuaded to support the plan in the expectation that it would almost certainly be rejected by the Russians.
All but lost sight of in this cynical drama was the prospect that Eisenhower himself might embrace Open Skies as a promising step toward arms control--what would later be termed a "confidence-building measure" --and a way of defusing the dangerous tensions in Soviet-American relations. Yet the president was "deadly serious" about Open Skies, Rostow argues, believing that it might "open a tiny gate in the disarmament fence." Dulles even mused that he might have to resign as secretary of state if the Russians accepted Eisenhower's offer; he dreaded, Dulles told his confidant, that he "may have to be the Devil at Geneva." To Dulles' relief --and that of apparently everyone else in the American delegation, save Eisenhower--the Russians preempted the devil's role at the summit. According to the account in Eisenhower's memoirs, which Rostow cites, Khrushchev dismissed the proposal outright, characterizing it as "nothing more than a bald espionage plot against the U.S.S.R." Eisenhower was reluctantly forced to conclude that "Khrushchev's own purpose was evident--at all costs to keep the U.S.S.R. a closed society." Both poignant and revealing of Eisenhower's commitment to Open Skies, however, is Rostow's disclosure that, following the formal adjournment of the summit, the president and his interpreter "rushed down the corridors of the Palais des Nations to the Soviet delegation offices for one more try." Unfortunately, the Russians had already left.
In retrospect, the fate of the Open Skies proposal seems as sadly prefigured as that of the Baruch plan, which had also contained a mix of noble and cynical motives, and which the Russians had likewise dismissed-- with some cause--as an espionage ploy. There can be little disagreement a generation later, however, with Eisenhower's assessment of the time that the Russians' rejection of Open Skies had been "short-sighted." We now know that the president was right about Khrushchev's purpose, and that the latter was able to use the secrecy and deception possible in a closed society to foster the myth of Soviet strategic superiority. Unlike Eisenhower, the members of the Quantico panel and their successors proved all too willing to believe the myth of the missile gap when the U-2 program was unable to open up the Soviet Union to the degree expected. It was not until late 1960 that the aptly named Discoverer satellite confirmed the Russians had only a fraction of the intercontinental-range missiles they boasted of, and we credited them with.
The long-term effect of Khrushchev's short-term success in deceiving us was to be the unprecedented strategic buildup of the Kennedy administration, which temporarily put the Russians themselves on the wrong end of a real missile gap. Had the Soviets chosen only to accept the overflight provisions of the Open Skies proposal, subsequent American fears of the missile gap-- and the resulting acceleration of the nuclear arms race-- might conceivably have been avoided. Indeed, the crowning irony of this ironic story occurred when what was to have been Eisenhower's final effort at improving relations with Russia, the planned summit at Paris in May of 1960, was aborted because of an incident that Open Skies would have prevented--the shooting down of an American spy plane over the Soviet Union.