373. Memorandum From the Chief of the Political Research and Analysis Division, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (Gathright) to the Deputy Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (Fisher)1


  • Evolution of and Reflections on the U.S. Approach to Political Aspects of the Reconnaissance Satellite Program

I do not wish to burden a busy official with more reading matter. However, I thought you might find it at least of historical interest to review the attached papers,2 which relate to certain past stages in the development by the U.S. of its approach to political aspects of the reconnaissance satellite program. In this connection, I have summarized below, largely from memory, some of the principal developments in this regard and have offered some personal reflections on the matter.

Historical background

Technical consideration of the potentialities of satellites for reconnaissance purposes dates back at least to 1946. However, in what may not unfairly be called a classic example of the lag of political planning behind technological developments, it was not until late 1958 and early 1959 that the Department of State began examining in some depth political aspects of the problem. By that time certain developments had already taken place which had set the framework which has affected the flexibility of political movement ever since.

As was the case with other space programs, the reconnaissance satellite program had derived substantial impetus from the successful demonstration by Sputnik I of the feasibility of placing satellites in orbit about the earth. What had previously been a single program was divided into three projects: Discoverer, Samos, and Midas. Treatment of Discoverer as an entirely developmental effort was probably helpful. However, a developmental effort involving over 30 launchings has not passed unnoticed, and Discoverer as well as Samos and Midas has been identified in the public press and by foreign propagandists as a “spy in the sky” program. This identification, particularly in the case of Samos, found support in public statements by military spokesmen and in official releases (see Tab A as an example of one of the least ostentatious of [Page 836] these public pronouncements). Finally, the program was oriented entirely to intelligence purposes rather than to a logical extension of space observation capabilities.

The first major political effort led to consideration within the government of a position calling for prohibition of “weapons” in orbit combined with “no weapons aboard” inspection and with affirmation of the right of transit of other types of space vehicles (including reconnaissance satellites). The position was rapidly rejected although it was later to emerge in modified form in the “no bombs in orbit” proposal of 1960.

During the summer of 1959, meetings of the UN Ad Hoc Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space provided an opportunity to advance to a degree the concepts that the passage of satellites does not violate national sovereignty and that outer space is free for exploration and use. Both arguments became standard features of U.S. contingency position papers on the reconnaissance satellite program. A defensive approach was gradually elaborated including such features as argumentation that observation from space is permissible and desirable, noting a linkage between observation satellites and arms control and disarmament (see Tab B), drawing on “precedents” (such as Tiros and, subsequently, Titov’s amateur photography) as they occurred, and contrasting the urgency of prohibiting the placing of weapons of mass destruction in orbit with the undesirability of attempting to prohibit observation of the earth from space. The foregoing represented essentially a collection of debating points rather than an attempt to meet basic issues.

The U–2 affair lent the then impending launch of the first experimental Samos a fearsome prospect, and an especially agonizing reappraisal of the U.S. approach to political aspects of the reconnaissance satellite program was conducted during the summer and early fall of 1960. The paper attached under Tab C was prepared by State Department staff and circulated for simultaneous consideration by higher officials within the Department and by other interested agencies. The position recommended by the paper (one of “responsible openness”) was in due course rejected by the Department as well as other agencies. However, in my view, the issues outlined by the paper remain substantially the same today as two years ago except for the fact that an additional period of procrastination in facing up to basic issues has made the problem more difficult to resolve on a timely basis.

The approach finally adopted in 1960 is presented in the paper attached under Tab D. The central feature of the approach was to be an attempt to handle Samos “in extremely low key with minimum disclosure.” The experimental character of the program was to be emphasized (as it had been with a degree of success in the case of the Discoverer program) and achievement of an operational capability was [Page 837] to be presented as a distant possibility rather than an imminent reality. Only limited public statements were to be made, but these were to be factual in character in order to avoid replaying at least part of the U–2 scenario. The product of the program was to be in the hands of the intelligence community absent specific contrary decision by the Secretaries of State and Defense and the Director of CIA. The approach was inaugurated upon the first attempted Samos launching (see Tab E). As it turned out, the first attempt failed, and the schedule slipped to the extent the new administration found itself confronted with a Samos launching during its first weeks of office.

From the outset, the present administration clearly believed that too much had been said about the program by military spokesmen (which was correct) and initiated a trend toward even less disclosure than that contemplated under the 1960 approach. This trend ultimately led not to an approach of remaining silent about launchings but of refusing to identify what object had been launched. It is not clear why it was believed that such an approach would be politically advantageous. In any case, as you know, this approach ran head on into the simultaneous U.S. effort at the UN to inaugurate a procedure for registering space vehicles.

It will be clear that the foregoing account is necessarily limited by the extent of my involvement in staff level consideration of this problem. However, I believe the main trends are accurately identified.

Some reflections on political aspects

Under the continuing impact of the U–2 affair, political handling of the reconnaissance satellite program has to date reflected primarily the desire to avoid in the short-term precipitating a similar direct clash with the Soviet Union. The goal is an understandable but not necessarily an attainable one. In view of the basic conflict of interests involved, it has always been questionable how long a clash could be postponed. However, the approach taken by the U.S. can be said to have bought time but possibly at the expense of placing the program on a sounder long-term footing.

The Soviet Union appears to have faced up to the issue sooner than the U.S. and to have embarked on a political offensive against reconnaissance satellites. At the time of this writing, it remains to be seen whether (or perhaps more accurately when) this offensive will be carried to the point of a major clash. Although we have no interest in hastening such a clash, it would be illogical for us to continue to refrain from taking steps to place the program in a more defensible position if such steps can be developed and implemented in a manner calculated to place the least strain on our relations with the Soviet Union.

If the reconnaissance satellite program could have been conducted entirely in secret, that might have been the safest approach. The steps [Page 838] that would be required to achieve complete secrecy now would be difficult, if not impossible, to carry out with credibility. In the long-term, steps in this direction would be headed for collision with arms control and disarmament arrangements affecting outer space and involving the inspection of space vehicles.

Even if apparently practical steps toward increased secrecy could be devised, they would involve certain hazards. We would be fighting on the Soviet Union’s terms rather than our own by acting as if we accepted their view that the activities involved were not legitimate. Moreover, we are always embarrassed when we are “caught in the act”, a handicap the Soviet Union does not share. Our conscience plagues us, and we are likely to border on incoherence or actually to become incoherent, as in the U–2 affair. If we need to undertake certain types of activities, we ought to conduct them, where possible, in the manner we feel most comfortable about. We are generally somewhat ill at ease with excessive secrecy. It may be a flaw in our national character, but it is there nonetheless.

In the long-term conflict with the Soviet Union, “openness” would seem as a general matter to be advantageous to the United States. Obviously, we cannot conduct all activities openly, but where we can (or where we can approach “openness”), we relieve ourselves of some of the burdens outlined above, act more consistently with our political and social philosophy, and provide an effective contrast with the Soviet way of doing things. Moreover, although we are not likely to pry the Soviet Union away from its philosophy of secrecy, it would seem in our interest to do what we can to convince it that the trend is in the direction of “openness”. As long as we remain on the defensive in the reconnaissance satellite field, we cannot play what might in time prove to be one of our best cards in this game, and the Soviet Union can feel warm, if not completely safe, in its cocoon. We do not want to arouse fear, but it might be helpful if the tenant of the cocoon were to become gradually aware that its hiding place is exposed to the sun.

The problem, of course, would be to develop in considerable detail (sufficient for fair assessment) an operational approach which might enable us to move, in low-key, toward gradually increasing openness in the conduct of “observation” satellite programs. Under such an approach, observation from space would be emphasized. Military intelligence would not be curtailed but would be derivative rather than paramount. The unfolding of capabilities would take place at a deliberate pace. The issues confronting us today in both forums in Geneva we will have to deal with as best we can. But I hope the present review will provide an opportunity to consider possibly more constructive alternatives for the future.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 383, ACDA/DD Files: Lot 69 D 396, Outer Space. Secret.
  2. The attachments were not found.