Originally published in Space News on January 11, 2010
In December, Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, only the third sitting U.S. president to win—and the fourth ever. The award was announced before Obama had finished eight months in office. Indeed, the February Feb. 1, 2009, nomination deadline passed just 13 days after his inauguration.
Was there something we missed in that brief span that could match Woodrow Wilson’s presiding over the settlement of World War I, or the founding of the League of Nations? Or Teddy Roosevelt’s opening of the International Court of Arbitration and ending Japan’s bloody 1905 war with Russia? Or Jimmy Carter’s three decades of peace-making and development work? Has Obama already done more to abolish nuclear weapons than President Ronald Reagan, whose anti-nuclear crusade and actual warhead reductions were never celebrated with a Peace Prize?
There is another president who should have received the Prize long ago for stabilizing a world teetering on the brink of nuclear war. After leading Allied forces to victory over Nazi Germany, Dwight D. Eisenhower negotiated a cease-fire to Harry Truman’s war in Korea, resisted calls for American intervention in Vietnam, and single-handedly defused the 1956 Suez Crisis. His warnings about the “military-industrial complex” did more to check the growth of the national security state than all past or future peace marches combined.
But only recently has Eisenhower’s greatest achievement become clear: ensuring the right to peaceful uses of outer space.
Just as maritime commerce has thrived on “freedom of the high seas” for centuries, “freedom of space” has allowed the development of a $200 billion satellite industry that has interconnected the globe in a web of voice, video and data, and provided critical weather and climate monitoring. By ensuring that nations cannot block access to space with territorial claims, international law has prevented governments from stifling the birth of a truly spacefaring civilization.
Ike’s Eisenhower’s “freedom of space” had even more profound implications for world peace: With the launch of the world’s first reconnaissance satellite in June 1959, war became far more difficult to wage, and weapons, almost impossible to hide.
Ike Eisenhower deserves credit for all this not merely because American satellite and launch technologies were developed under his watch. In The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, historian Walter McDougall explains that, even as projections of Soviet bomber and missile capabilities escalated, Eisenhower recognized that long-term American security, freedom and prosperity could not be protected in a crude industrial arms race. Instead, America needed greater visibility into Soviet movement of troops, tanks and missiles. This required not only technological ingenuity but also the legal framework that would let spy satellites do what spy planes could not: freely cross any nation’s territory.
The Soviets beat us into space by launching Sputnik in October 1957 because Eisenhower let them. A less canny or more opportunistic president might have given in to earlier pressure to “Beat the Russians” by putting Wernher von Braun’s team of German rocket engineers on a “crash course” to launch a satellite with their ballistic missile ASAP. But Eisenhower, the former five-star general, insisted that America’s first satellite would be purely scientific and launched on a less obviously military rocket—although he knew this approach might not beat the Russians. If it had, America could have asserted the “right of overflight” around the globe with a peaceful satellite—and perhaps the Russians would have acceded. But if the Russians launched their military satellite first, they effectively would establish this vital principle themselves. This is precisely what happened after Sputnik: The Soviet Union quickly reversed its previous assertion of “unlimited vertical sovereignty” to embrace Eisenhower’s freedom of space—and international law changed forever.
Sputnik’s blow to American prestige was heavy, clouding Eisenhower’s legacy for decades and costing his vice president, Richard Nixon, the 1960 election. Yet Eisenhower kept quiet about his cunning manipulation of the Soviets, just as he endured fierce partisan attacks in that election for allowing a nonexistent “missile gap”—lest he expose the full extent of U.S. reconnaissance of the Soviet Union from air and space.
We now know that Eisenhower was a strategic genius who risked his political fortunes and those of his party in service of world peace.
Satellite photos of Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities should remind us just how different the world would be if such facilities could be hidden from the prying eyes of satellites. The “freedom of space” Ike Eisenhower cleverly achieved brought an end to the days when armies could mass on another country’s border undetected. Today, remote sensing isn’t just the province of governments, but something Internet users everywhere can access through mapping tools offered by Google, Microsoft, and others, powered by commercial providers such as GeoEye and DigitalGlobe.
If the Nobel Peace Prize could be awarded posthumously, no one would better deserve it than Eisenhower for building lasting peace through transparency.