438. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, Washington, March 20, 19581


  • Outer Space


  • Sir Leslie Munro, Ambassador, New Zealand
  • Mr. H. P. Jeffery, First Secretary, New Zealand Embassy
  • The Under Secretary
  • Mr. Walmsley, IO
  • Mr. Becker, L
  • Mr. Spiers, S/AE

Sir Leslie called at his request to discuss the problem of control of outer space. He noted that he had been making public statements on this subject which he did not believe were inconsistent with the position of the United States, referring in this connection particularly to the Secretary’s National Press Club speech and to President Eisenhower’s letter of January 12 to Bulganin.2 He felt, however, that if he was going to say anything more which would be useful on the matter in his capacity as President of the Twelfth General Assembly, he should understand the main lines of the US Government’s views on the subject.

The Under Secretary said that the subject of outer space control was in the forefront of our thinking at the moment. The subject was full of difficulties and uncertainties. Mr. Becker had, for example, been trying to develop a definition of “outer space” and had found nothing but disagreement among legal authorities. The USSR is using the term “cosmic space”. An early problem is to get a common understanding of what we are talking about.

Sir Leslie said that the approach taken by John Cooper3 that the area above the lowest altitude at which an object can be put into orbit should be subject to international control commended itself to him. Aside from the problem of control of missiles, there was a possibility of a measure of agreement issuing from this approach. He recalled that he had in January proposed the convening of an international conference to consider the matter. This suggestion might not appeal to the United States, but he believed that outer space would inevitably be a major subject of discussion at the next General Assembly. (He noted parenthetically that no one he had talked to wanted a special session [Page 832] of the Assembly for this purpose.) He felt that steps should be taken to ensure that the West has firm ideas before October. Too often we are unready with definite proposals, much to our disadvantage. He felt a personal responsibility to maintain a momentum and keep the issue active, and hoped to receive sympathetic support from the United States.

The Under Secretary reviewed the past US proposals for peaceful use of outer space, and affirmed that this was our continuing objective. The question of the relationship of outer space cooperation to control of missiles and the general problem of disarmament was a difficult one. The Soviets’ linking of this matter with withdrawal of US forces from bases abroad demonstrated that the issue of separability was a real one. He agreed with Sir Leslie’s observation that it was incumbent upon us to urge the USSR to separate these two aspects of their proposal.

Mr. Becker stated, as a personal view, that we should separate the problem of control of orbiting objects from the broader question of disarmament. He saw as a possibly useful precedent the approach developed by Ambassador Daniels in connection with the Antarctic. This problem was being handled outside the United Nations framework, away from the veto. Following this approach, the nations having a capability of launching an orbiting object could agree to forego military uses of these objects, holding the information gained from them in trust for the nations of the world.

Sir Leslie pointed out that an effort established on this basis could he related to the UN system without running into the veto problem, mentioning the IAEA as a successful example. An international organization or group could, he suggested, develop a system of advance notification and registration of orbiting flights.

The Under Secretary said that we were devoting considerable thought to a range of alternative ways of dealing with outer space control and cooperation. We were trying to get the best possible scientific advice available to us before we decided on a specific program.

Sir Leslie emphasized the need to treat the problem with urgency so that technical developments did not outdistance our capacity to deal with them politically. He hoped that he would be able to keep in touch with the Department so that his activities would be, insofar as possible, consistent with our views. He reiterated that the 13th General Assembly would be upon us before we knew it, and that we must soon know where we are going. If our proposal was to be a limited one—for example, dealing only with orbiting objects—it might be wise to consider convening an international conference before this next Assembly, where we would have less control over the direction the discussions might take.

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Mr. Becker observed that the problem of classification might make it difficult to deal meaningfully with outer space control at an unrestricted international conference. Private negotiations might allow more progress to be made.

Sir Leslie expressed his appreciation for this opportunity to canvass the subject. He stressed, in closing, that there was a great sense of confusion about what to do about this problem. People were groping for answers and ideas. The only certainty was that the issue would be debated in public with increasing vigor. The USSR had captured the initiative with its new proposal:4 its request for a new agenda item on outer space, together with the text of its proposal, had been circulated to every member of the United Nations as an official document. The Western powers must be prepared to move soon with new and specific ideas. He was ready to help in floating any suggestions which may merit attention, and would be prepared to discuss the matter with Mr. Herter before taking any independent action.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 701.022/3–2058. Confidential. Drafted and initialed by Spiers and approved by Herter.
  2. For texts of Dulles’ speech, January 16, and Eisenhower’s letter, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1958, pp. 713–730.
  3. Not further identified.
  4. For text of the Soviet memorandum to the U.N. Secretary-General, March 15, on cosmic space, see U.N. doc. A3818.