Memorandum by the Secretary of State of a Conversation with the Japanese Ambassador (Hanihara), June 12, 1923


Liquor on Merchant Ships.—The Ambassador called at the Secretary’s request. The Secretary said that he desired to take up the question of liquor on merchant ships as the case stood under the regulations promulgated by the Treasury Department.16a The Secretary reviewed the enactment of the Volstead Act and its interpretation by the Supreme Court. He said that he fully appreciated the inconvenience which the legislation had caused, but that questions of convenience and comity lay within the discretion of Congress so far as the bringing of liquor within the territorial waters of the United States was concerned. The Secretary emphasized the fact that the question did not lie within the Executive’s discretion. He said that the matter would undoubtedly be brought before Congress when it convened, but that the issue was doubtful. … The Secretary said that he had been giving close consideration to the question and had concluded that the best way of meeting the situation was by the negotiation of a treaty. Such a treaty, however, would necessarily have to have reciprocal advantages. The Maritime Powers were complaining of the inconvenience of the legislation of [Page 157] Congress, but in the view of the United States this Government was exercising its undoubted right within its territorial boundaries. The Maritime Powers were desirous that the exercise of this right should be limited in the interest of their convenience. On the other hand, the United States was suffering from the smuggling of liquors and the abuse of foreign flags extending their protection to ships hovering off our coasts and facilitating a vast smuggling trade. Objection had been made to seizures outside the three-mile limit upon the ground that ships had the right to ply the waters outside these limits without interference from the American authorities although it was freely admitted that the hovering off our coasts for the purpose stated was an abuse of the foreign flag. The Secretary felt that without attempting to extend the territorial jurisdiction this formed a proper subject for an agreement and therefore suggested that there should be an international agreement to the effect that liquor in sealed stores or cargoes of liquor not destined for American ports might be brought within our territorial waters on foreign merchant ships and the United States in turn would have the right of search of foreign ships lying off our coasts up to a limit of twelve geographical miles. The Secretary pointed out that this would not interfere with any legitimate trade of foreign vessels; that if foreign vessels were bound for our ports in legitimate trade they would come not only within twelve miles but within three miles and would, of course, be subject to search and our present rules would be enforced. Vessels that were not bound for our ports would not normally come within twelve miles, but if bona fide vessels should happen to do so they would suffer a minimum of inconvenience from the search while the rum runners would be put out of business. The Secretary felt that if in this way foreign Governments were willing to aid the United States with respect to their claim of technical right outside the three-mile limit and up to twelve geographical miles, the United States, on the other hand, could forego its right within its territorial waters in the interest of the convenience of foreign ships. This the Secretary believed might make an appeal to the American public and he believed that the Senate would give its assent to such a treaty. It would do no harm to other nations and it would give a desired assurance of protection to the United States. The Secretary also said that it was perfectly plain that if such an agreement would not receive the assent of the Senate certainly without any such reciprocal arrangement it would be idle to hope that Congress would relieve the stringency of the present law. Further, the Secretary said that if the American people gained the idea that foreign Powers were unwilling to aid the United States in preventing this illicit introduction of liquor through rum runners [Page 158] off our coasts they would not be disposed in favor of such Powers to grant a relief from the present situation.

The Secretary read to the Ambassador articles 1 and 2 of the proposed treaty and gave the Ambassador a copy. The Ambassador asked what other countries had been approached and the Secretary said Great Britain, France, Italy and Spain. The Secretary said he had no objection to dealing with the other Powers but supposed they would be naturally interested in knowing what the great Powers were inclined to do. The Ambassador said he would at once communicate with his Government.17

  1. Printed in Treasury Decisions, Internal Revenue, vol. 25, p. 144.
  2. The remainder of the memorandum deals with other matters. No further communications were received from the Japanese Embassy in regard to a liquor treaty until 1928.