389. Memorandum From the Executive Secretary of the Department of State (Read) to the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow)1


  • Negotiation of an Outer Space Treaty

Background—On May 7, President Johnson asked Ambassador Goldberg to undertake the negotiation of a treaty governing the uses of celestial bodies. After some initial private conversations, and a letter from Gromyko to U Thant which indicated that the USSR was interested in [Page 847] such a treaty, both the U.S. and the USSR tabled drafts. Ambassador Goldberg proposed a meeting on July 12 of the Legal Subcommittee of the UN’s Outer Space Committee, and the USSR agreed. The meeting took place in Geneva between July 12 and August 4.

Negotiations—We agreed at an early stage to expand the scope of a treaty from celestial bodies to outer space generally. The Soviet draft Treaty had proposed this broader scope with which we were prepared to go along, as the Soviet text was drawn in large part from UN resolutions which we had taken the leadership in obtaining. We held a number of private bilateral discussions with the USSR in which points of agreement and disagreement were defined. The proceedings of the Legal Subcommittee reflected the results of these discussions.

Results—Agreement was reached on thirteen substantive points (Tab A).2 The most significant of these are (a) the translation into a treaty obligation of the UN resolution banning the placing of weapons of mass destruction in orbit, outer space or on celestial bodies; (b) an unconditional commitment to assist and return astronauts who land in another state and to publish discoveries relating to astronaut safety, and (c) the proscription of claims of sovereignty over and national appropriation of celestial bodies.

There are two principal issues which divide us at the moment:

Access—We insist that the principle of free access to all installations and vehicles on celestial bodies be reflected in a treaty, subject only to reasonable safety precautions. The USSR has sought to qualify the right of access with such concepts as “reciprocity” and agreement as to the timing of visits.
Reporting—Our treaty article as tabled provides for compulsory reporting to the Secretary-General on the nature and location of activities on celestial bodies and publication of information on the results of these activities for the benefit of the public and the international scientific community. The USSR insists that the reporting obligation should be voluntary.

There are two other differences which should not prove as difficult. One relates to the types of military structures to be prohibited on celestial bodies and the nature of the equipment to be permitted. We are substantially in agreement with the USSR on permitted and prohibited structures and equipment, but have not been able to reflect this in treaty language. The other difference involves a USSR proposal which would require a state hosting a tracking installation to grant similar facilities to other space powers. We suspect that the USSR tabled such a provocative proposal to serve as a barrier to the conclusion of a treaty until they are ready for one.

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We received generally strong support from members of the subcommittee for our position on the disagreed provisions. Tab B contains a chart of agreed and disagreed principles.

Next Step—The results of the subcommittee’s work will be reported to the Outer Space Committee. The subcommittee also decided to hold further negotiations before or during the 21st General Assembly. We will be pressing for early talks but recognize that the USSR has the capacity to delay negotiations and agreement.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Agency File, United Nations, Vol. 4. Confidential.
  2. Neither tab was attached.