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Antarctic Treaty at 50, a beacon for joint management of Earth

Fifty years ago representatives from twelve nations meeting in Washington signed the Antarctic Treaty “in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.” Now, on that anniversary, on December 1, an Antarctic Treaty Summit is being convened in Washington. Representatives of governments, nongovernmental organizations, commercial entities,...

Fifty years ago representatives from twelve nations meeting in Washington signed the Antarctic Treaty “in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

Antarctic Treaty Summit logo.jpg

Now, on that anniversary, on December 1, an Antarctic Treaty Summit is being convened in Washington.

Representatives of governments, nongovernmental organizations, commercial entities, academic institutions, and indigenous people’s organizations will review the treaty as a remarkable accomplishment of international cooperation.

And they will ponder how the Antarctic Treaty shows the way to international management of not only other international spaces, such as the deep seas and outer space, but also shared responsibilities for the atmosphere, fisheries, and similar transboundary resources.

The Antarctic Treaty Summit: Science-Policy Interactions in International Governance will be convened in Washington, D.C. from November 30-December 3, 2009. The organizers invite broad participation in the Summit, “which is being convened with the sprit of balanced international, interdisciplinary and inclusive engagement.”  Registration and other information can be found on the Antarctic Treaty Summit Web site. 

Forever Declaration

“We will use the Antarctic Treaty Summit to proclaim a ‘Forever Declaration,’ which everyone in the world can sign, elaborating on the concept of ‘forever’ from the preamble to the Antarctic Treaty,” says Paul Berkman, chair of the International Board for the Antarctic Treaty Summit.

“The Antarctic Treaty is as an example of how different nations can cooperate for peaceful purposes in ways that are equitable, balanced, continuous, and offer hope to the world.”

The Forever Declaration will be introduced on December 1, the 50th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty, and will be open for signature by anyone via the Internet.


Image of Antarctica courtesy NASA

“It is something which the entire world can make a shared statement about cooperation, using regions for peaceful purposes only, based on the notion of common interests,” Berkman says. “That is the hope and aspiration of the Forever Declaration.”

Berkman has a remarkable story to tell about the Antarctic Treaty, from its origins in the Cold War and the superpower race to acquire nuclear weaponry and dominate outer space, to the way the treaty was able to harness science as a framework for diplomacy.

In this three-part series, Berkman tells the story:

By Paul Berkman,
Special Contributor to NatGeo News Watch

Cold War origins of the Antarctic Treaty

The institutions that have emerged to manage regions beyond sovereign jurisdictions have emerged largely since World War II. The first region that was formally defined by an institution beyond sovereign jurisdictions was the High Seas.

The High Seas came about with the 1958 Convention on the High Seas. In 1959 was the Antarctic Treaty. In 1968 was the the Treaty on Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the Outer Space Treaty), and in 1982 was the Law of the Sea Treaty. These four regions have each been defined as beyond sovereign jurisdictions.

The system governing the four regions–the High Seas, Antarctica, Outer Space, and the Deep Sea–emerged after World War II. If you go back to that time, the generation that was actively involved during that period are the senior people in our world today. Most of us don’t have the memory of World War II, so we have to imagine going back to that time.

If we think about it, a decade after World War II, the major stresses in the world were Cold War stresses. There was the Korean War, there was the potential of nuclear weapons being delivered by ballistic missiles.

In the 1950s, missiles were still something that governments were thinking about, it hadn’t happened yet. Today we recognize this as something that’s a matter of fact. But in the 1950s the United States and the Soviet Union were thinking about the time when they would have ballistic missiles.


Photo of Eisenhower inauguration courtesy of U.S. Senate

One of the visionaries of this period was President Eisenhower. He had been one of the supreme Allied commanders during World War II and he had seen first-hand the horrors of war. He had to make terrible decisions that cost people their lives.

During his inauguration as President, in 1953, in the photo above, Eisenhower spoke about the Great Question. The question was, how do we develop peace on this planet? At the same time, as a former Supreme Allied Commander, he knew that you also have to work from strength. So there were discussions of peace, but there were also these developments of ballistic missiles.

So one path to the Antarctic Treaty had to do with ballistic missiles.

International Geophysical Year

AnotheIGY logo.jpgr path was the concept of the Third International Polar Year, which was originally proposed by scientists who were interested in looking at the Earth as a system.

One of the people involved in the concept of the Third International Polar year was Lloyd Berkner, a rocket scientist. Soon after the discussions started about the Third International Polar year it was decided to rename it the International Geophysical Year, the concept being to consider the planet as a whole, through the science of earth systems.

Growing interest in Antarctica

A third path to the treaty was Antarctica itself.

The United States was interested in the region. Byrd had gone down to fly over the Antarctic, for example, under specific instructions from Roosevelt to look for minerals.

There was a longstanding interest in Antarctica by the U.S., and countries like Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Norway, Argentina, and Chile had actually made claims to the continent itself. So there was a combination of national and international interests in the region.


Regions of Antarctica have been claimed by seven nations: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom. The only overlapping claims are between Argentina, Chile and the United Kingdom in the Antarctic Peninsula region. Other nations reserved the rights to make territorial claims, including the United States, which had expressed sovereign interests in the only unclaimed area of Antarctica in Marie Byrd Land. The polar projection shows the geographic location of Antarctica relative to the other continents. Adapted from: Berkman, P.A. 2002. Science into Policy: Global Lessons from Antarctica. Academic Press, San Diego.

Scientific Rockets

In 1954, at a meeting in Rome, the International Council for Science proposed that a component of the International Geophysical Year would be satellites. At that stage satellites were only envisioned. There weren’t any in orbit yet.

In 1955 President Eisenhower went to Geneva and proposed Open Skies, a strategy which would allow the U.S. and the Soviet Union to look at one another’s ballistic missile technologies, so that each would have a sense of what’s going on. The Premier of the Soviet Union, Bulganin, indicated that this was a passive attempt at spying and refused to participate in an Open Skies agreement.

The following week, in July 1955, the U.S. publicly released its very first Space policy, which was that in 1956, during the International Geophysical Year, the U.S. would launch a satellite with a scientific rocket system.

Three military agencies could potentially launch a scientific rocket. One was the Army, where Wernher von Braun, who was with the German V-2 missile program in the war, was in charge of the U.S. Army’s ballistic missile agency. The other agencies were the Navy and the Air Force.

It was decided that the Navy, being the least militaristic of the three agencies, would be the one to have the opportunity to launch the scientific ballistic rocket during the International Geophysical Year.


President Eisenhower, seen here with Wernher von Braun at the Marshall Space Flight Center in 1960.

Photo courtesy of NASA

In 1956 in Alabama, at the Army ballistic missile agency, Von Braun had developed what was called the Jupiter-C rocket. It had four stages and Von Braun had made a lot of progress with it. But during this period Von Braun had specific instructions from the White House not to launch a rocket into orbit under any circumstances.

In September 1956, a year before Sputnik, Von Braun launched a Jupiter-C rocket which had four stages, but he intentionally deactivated the fourth stage. The first three stages fired perfectly. If that fourth stage would have been activated the Jupiter-C rocket likely would have gone into orbit a year before Sputnik.


Photo of Jupiter-C rocket courtesy of NASA

This raises the question why the U.S. chose not to be the first in Space.

The answer is that the United States wanted Space to be open. It wanted the concept of freedom of Space. Space was not national space but international space and, like the high seas, the nations should have freedom to use Space.

If the U.S. had launched the Jupiter-C into orbit it would have sent a signal to the Soviets that this was a system being developed for ballistic missiles, which would have exacerbated the Cold War and defeated the concept of free and open Space.

It’s interesting going through the National Security Council minutes where they were discussing what would happen to the first nation to be in Space and these issues.

The following year, 1957, was when the International Geophysical Year began, and Sputnik was launched in October 1957. Sputnik was a product of the International Geophysical Year.


Photo of model of Sputnik courtesy of NASA

While Sputnik was considered in Russian-U.S. terms, the whole concept was to launch a scientific rocket during International Geophysical Year to highlight the relevance of science in international cooperation.

The following months the U.S. tried to launch their Navy satellites, but they all failed. Von Braun then stepped in three months later with a modified Jupiter-C, which became the first U.S. rocket into orbit.

So while it is well known that Sputnik was the first rocket into orbit, it is less well known that the U.S. had the capacity to launch a rocket into orbit a year beforehand, and chose not to.

Professor Paul Berkman is the head of the Arctic Ocean Geopolitics Programme at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, UK.

Special series on the 50th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty by Paul Berkman

Part One: Antarctic Treaty at 50, a beacon for joint management of Earth (this page)

Part Two: How Antarctica facilitated science as a tool of diplomacy

Part Three: Antarctic Treaty lessons have enduring value for humankind

For more information, please visit the Antarctic Treaty Summit Web site.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn