32. Intelligence Note From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Hughes) to Acting Secretary of State Ball1


  • Khrushchev on Reconnaissance Satellites

Twice in two weeks Khrushchev has raised the subject of satellite reconnaissance in conversations with Americans—Drew Pearson and Senator Benton. The Soviet Premier probably has two things in mind. First and most immediate, to maximize pressure on the US to cease overflights of Cuba; second, over time to gain acceptance for the idea that satellite reconnaissance obviates the need for extensive disarmament controls.

Cuban Overflights. In both the Pearson and Benton conversations Khrushchev raised the subject of satellite reconnaissance in the context of threatening to shoot down a U–2. As Khrushchev described them, the flights were not only increasingly dangerous but unnecessary, a point similar to Castro’s May Day argument that the U–2 flights were unnecessary because the US had reconnaissance satellites.

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Argument Against Disarmament Controls. Although the current emphasis is on Cuba, the idea that satellites obviate the need for disarmament controls appears to have been in Khrushchev’s mind longer. On July 8, 1963 Khrushchev raised the subject in a conversation with Belgian Foreign Minister Spaak, arguing that satellites made aerial inspection unnecessary for a European arms control system. Since then the argument has been taken up by lower-ranking Soviet officials, for example by Viktor Karpov of the Soviet Embassy here.

Legitimacy of Satellite Reconnaissance. Like Khrushchev’s May 1960 suggestion in Paris that he would not have objected to US use of a satellite instead of a U–2, Khrushchev’s statements to Spaak, Pearson, and Benton all suggest that Moscow is seeking to legitimize satellite reconnaissance.

The degree of Soviet acceptance to date of satellite reconnaissance should not be overstressed, however. For example, in the UN Outer Space Committee the Soviets have been willing to forego discussion of the subject but they have not made explicit statements accepting the practice. Moreover, the Soviet media have not published Khrushchev’s remarks, Adzhubei’s boast in Helsinki last September about Soviet pictures of New York and Castro’s May Day statement. Moscow is also apparently reluctant to suggest to the home audience that the Soviet Union is vulnerable to American surveillance.

Next Moves. Khrushchev’s semi-public references to reconnaissance satellites could reflect his intention to pursue more formal discussions in this field. He could formally put to the US the proposition on Cuba he has put informally to Pearson and Benton. More broadly, he could seek to inject new momentum into old disarmament debates by formally proposing use of satellites instead of traditional forms of inspection.

For the moment, however, we would expect Khrushchev to continue his semi-public remarks to foreigners: they avoid formally accepting US satellite programs as legitimate while showing Khrushchev as seeking a way out of a crisis over Cuba. At the same time they permit him to make threats about the Cuban overflights without putting them formally on the record. He may be calculating that he can with his present tactics maneuver the US into a position where it must choose between three relatively awkward alternative responses: (1) it could remain silent and appear adamant in face of his “reasonable” suggestion; (2) it could agree with his arguments and stop the U–2s; or (3) it could counter his simple proposition with a complex technical, and possibly revealing, argument about the limitations of satellite photography.

If Khrushchev finds that his tactics backfire—i.e. that the US welcomes his acceptance of the legitimacy of satellite photography but continues flying the U–2s—it would become more likely that he would make a formal, high-level approach to us to get us to substitute satellites for U–2s.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Charles E. Johnson Files, Reconnaissance Satellites. Secret.