With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

How Ike Can Help Obama’s No Nukes Quest

Just over half-way into his presidency, Barack Obama has already seen North Korea detonate a nuclear bomb and continue its missile testing. But Obama is not the first president to receive nuclear shocks so soon after taking office.

Early into President Dwight Eisenhower’s first term, the Soviet Union set off a hydrogen bomb--one far more powerful than the atomic bomb. Ike sought diplomatic initiatives as a way of controlling the new nuclear threat and reducing the chance of war.

In May, 1955 President Eisenhower and his national security team assembled for a critical meeting about the Cold War arms race with the Soviet Union.

Harold Stassen, the president’s new disarmament advisor, reported that within several years the Soviets could have “the power to destroy effectively the United States through a surprise attack."

Eisenhower’s reaction at this meeting? Doodling. Yes, that’s right -- doodling. But according to Stassen, this meant he had the president’s attention.

That summer at the Geneva Conference, Eisenhower would unveil his “open skies for peace” plan to the Soviets. U.S. planes would be allowed to fly over the Soviet Union and in return Soviet planes could undertake missions over American soil.

The idea was to promote openness by assuring the other country that no surprise attack preparations were taking place. Key agreements on disarmament would hopefully follow. As Ike said, “what I propose, I assure you, would be but a beginning.”

A Cincinnati Post editorial called open skies a potential “bridge to peace.” This was a far cheerier headline than one the Post had printed weeks before about a civil defense drill for nuclear attack. Harold Stassen, at the UN on October 7, 1955, even talked about extending Ike’s plan to include more nations.

The open skies proposal helped bring about a “spirit of Geneva” that offered at least a slight break from Cold War tensions. However, the plan was not accepted by the Soviet Union and that seemed the end of it.

In 1989 President George H. Bush brought back Ike’s initiative and within 3 years the Open Skies Treaty was signed that today includes 34 nations.

Remember Sarah Palin in the 2008 presidential campaign talking about Russian planes flying into U.S. airspace? Well, it’s true under the Open Skies Treaty, although in a peaceful way. It is now quite routine for Russian planes to fly over the U.S. and vice versa.

Today, President Obama should try to expand the “open skies” concept to areas with nuclear tensions, including the India-Pakistan border and on the Korean peninsula. This type of confidence building step can help set the stage for nuclear disarmament.

India and Pakistan are two neighbors armed with nuclear weapons and who share a history of conflict and tensions. In 2001, two retired air marshals, Mohammed Arshad Chaudhry (Pakistan) and K.C. Cariappa (India), called for a step-by step approach to develop “open skies” inspections between the two nuclear-armed rivals. They recommended “an experimental flight in a selected sector.”

The two air marshals also warned of the danger that exists between India and Pakistan where, “even a minor confrontation could get out of hand and engulf the region, and perhaps even the world in a nuclear holocaust.”

For North and South Korea, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the Center for Security Studies have advocated a trial open skies flight. This can be a step toward enhancing military cooperation between the Koreas and establishing inspections routines needed for nuclear disarmament.

Another initiative started by Ike, a treaty ending nuclear weapons testing, will also prove valuable to Obama’s no nukes quest. But the U.S. and eight other nations have still not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The U.S. Senate voted against the treaty in 1999.

The CTBT relies on its global monitoring system to detect nuclear explosions. This is critical because a nation could try to cheat the treaty and conduct nuclear explosions in secret. The detection of nuclear tests has been so thoroughly studied that it has included, of all things, nuclear bombs being set off in Mississipi during the 1960s. These were two underground nuclear blasts near the town of Hattiesburg as part of Project Vela, which was set in motion by the Eisenhower administration. The purpose of the Mississippi blasts and others in Vela was to increase the U.S. capability of detecting underground nuclear tests.

Dr. James Killian, Eisenhower’s science advisor, wrote in his 1977 memoir that Project Vela “has made the detection of underground nuclear tests and earthquakes more powerful… The Vela program led to the establishment of many high quality seismic stations in friendly countries around the world.”

Another key point made by Killian and others with regard to evasive nuclear tests is the lengths a country would have to go to carry it out. Burying an underground nuclear test is extremely expensive and challenging. The test ban treaty is critical for realigning foreign policy priorities away from expensive nuclear weapons spending. It would be foolish to waste vital resources on new nuclear weapons and testing when it could be better spent on initiatives to fight hunger and build peace in the developing world.

Ike believed that nuclear weapons were the only thing that could destroy the United States. His open skies and test ban initiatives were to put brakes on the arms race and pave the way toward nuclear disarmament. President Obama is now the leader facing the nuclear menace. He can wisely build upon Ike’s effforts in seeking to control the nuclear threat that looms over the world.