President Dwight D. Eisenhower presents his “Open Skies” plan at the 1955 Geneva summit meeting with representatives of France, Great Britain and the Soviet Union. 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.
Eisenhower met with Prime Minister Anthony Eden of Great Britain, Premier Edgar Faure of France, and Premier Nikolai Bulganin of the Soviet Union (acting for Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev) in Geneva in July 1955. The agenda for the summit included discussions on the future of Germany and arms control. As it became clear that no consensus could be reached on the issue of possible German reunification or the precise configuration of an arms control agreement, Eisenhower dramatically unveiled what came to be known as his “Open Skies” proposal. It called for the United States and the Soviet Union to exchange maps indicating the exact location of every military installation in their respective nations. With these maps in hand, each nation would then be allowed to conduct aerial surveillance of the installations in order to assure that the other nations were in compliance with any arms control agreements that might be reached. While the French and British expressed interest in the idea, the Soviets rejected any plan that would leave their nation subject to surveillance by a Western power. Khrushchev declared that Eisenhower’s “Open Skies” was nothing more than an “espionage plot.”
Indeed, “Open Skies” was much less than an “espionage plot.” Eisenhower himself was later quoted as saying that he knew the Soviets would never accept the plan, but thought that their rejection of the idea would make the Russians look like they were the major impediment to an arms control agreement. For the Soviets, the idea of U.S. planes conducting surveillance of their military bases was unthinkable. They did not want it known that the Soviet Union was far behind the United States in terms of its military capabilities. The United States soon found that out anyway—just a few months after the Soviet rejection of “Open Skies,” the Eisenhower administration approved the use of high-altitude spy planes (the famous U-2s) for spying on the Soviet Union. Thirty years later, President Reagan would use much the same rhetoric in his arms control dealings with the Soviet Union. Arms control, he declared, could only be effective if compliance with such agreements could be verified. “Trust, but verify,” became Reagan’s standard phrase.