5. Open Skies Treaty (1992)
This treaty, first proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955, lay dormant almost 40 years before finally being ratified in 1992 and put into effect in 2002. It allows observers from the United States, Russia and other countries to make surveillance flights over signatory countries. Whereas once an international incident erupted when the Soviet Union shot down an American U-2 spy plane in 1960, today Russian observers board U.S. aircraft and make leisurely inspection flights over America. It’s unusual in two respects: A) It was proposed at a time when there was no way the Soviet Union would agree to allow such flights; and B) By the time it took effect, it was largely irrelevant, due to advances in surveillance satellites. Also, the U.S. and former Soviet Union had entered into a new era of cooperation. Although its intentions are dated, the treaty has served a vital role in other respects. For example, Open Skies Aircraft and personnel helped document damage to the Gulf Coast region after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
4. Barbary Treaties (1795-1836)
These treaties are well known in U.S. history, especially considering they are more than 200 years old. What makes them unusual are the terms, conditions and wording of the treaties. Between 1795 and 1836, the U.S. signed seven different treaties with the North African city-states of Algeria, Tripoli, Tunis and Morocco. At issue were the privateers and pirates who plied the waters off the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of these nations, seizing U.S. merchant vessels. The first treaties specified for the U.S. to make payments to the nations in exchange for the release of prisoners, and to guarantee safe shipping through region. In effect, the U.S. had to pay protection money and blackmail to pirates. Today, when confronted with such a situation, the United States sends the U.S. Navy to deter the pirates (witness the Navy SEAL snipers who killed three Somali pirates in the MV Maersk Alabama incident in 2009). As the U.S. had no navy at the time, it was forced to pay substantial protection money. Finally, when the privateering nations demanded more money from the U.S., President Thomas Jefferson refused, sparking the first Barbary War in 1801. The most lasting legacy of the United States’ faceoff against the Barbary pirates is the United States Navy, which was formed in 1798 to combat the pirates.
The other unusual aspect of the Barbary Treaties surfaced in the 20th century, as constitutional scholars debating the issue of separation of church and state pointed to some language in a 1796 treaty with Tripoli as proof that the U.S. had not been founded as a Christian nation. The treaty read in part, “The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion — as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen…” (as Muslims were known at the time). Other scholars argue, however, that the wording was meant to appease the Muslim Barbary states, and not disavow the Christian heritage of the U.S.
3. Treaty of Fort Pitt (1778)
This is the first formal treaty signed between Native Americans and the brand-new U.S. government, and if you’re even vaguely familiar with the historic plight of Native Americans in the U.S., you can guess the end result: the U.S. did not honor the treaty. The treaty gave U.S. citizens free travel through Lenape Indian lands in what is now Ohio and called for the Lenape to ally with Americans against the British in the ongoing Revolutionary War. Incredibly, the treaty strongly suggested the Lenape and other Native Americans would be invited into the new nation as the 14th state. What’s noteworthy about this treaty is how quickly it fell apart. Within about a year, American settlers had killed the Lenape leader and the Lenape had joined forces with the British.
2. Migratory Bird Treaty (1976)
It’s comforting to know that, during the Cold War, as both the United States and the Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear warheads pointed at each other, the two longtime enemies could sit down to sign a treaty … protecting migratory birds. The treaty provided for the protection of species of birds that migrate between the United States and the Soviet Union or that occur in either country and “have common flyways, breeding, wintering, feeding or molting areas."
1. Treaty Ends World War II (1952)
So you learned in high school history class that World War II officially ended on Sept. 2, 1945, when Japanese and American leaders signed a treaty (see above photo) on the battleship USS Missouri, right? Not exactly. Although that sealed Japan’s surrender, and became known as V-J Day, the war’s official end came when Japan signed the Treaty of San Francisco six years later on Sept. 8, 1951. Signed by the U.S. and 47 other nations, the treaty went into effect in 1952. The treaty outlined numerous Japanese reparations and concessions, including the compensation of former prisoners of war, allowing the U.S. to maintain a military presence in Japan, and the transfer of several Pacific islands from Japanese to U.S. control.
If you think it’s unusual that the United States and Japan waited six years to sign such a treaty, consider this: the Soviet Union, which was miffed by several terms in the treaty, did not sign a pact with Japan until 1956. On a similar note, the final treaty outlining postwar conditions in Germany was not signed until September 1990.