The Senior Member Present of the General Board, Department of the Navy (Rodgers) to the Secretary of the Navy (Denby)

G.B. No. 438
(Serial No. 1151)

Subject: American Policy as to Freedom of Navigation of the Dardanelles.

Reference: (a) Secretary of the Navy’s confidential letter No. S.C.203–5 of November 9, 1922.

The General Board has considered the following question in accordance with instructions contained in reference (a):—

“Having in view the present and prospective Near East situation and the present and prospective interests of the United States in the Near East, what should be the American policy regarding the control and navigation of the Dardanelles? [”]

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2. The vicinity of the Dardanelles has always been one of international tension incident to the centering of ethnological conflicts and of highly important international trade routes—both land and sea. American interest in the Near East, as elsewhere, is closely allied with any arrangements that will promote world-peace. That solution of the Dardanelles question which will give the greatest prospect of lasting peace in the Near East is likely to accord best with American interests.

3. Certain features of the Dardanelles question change but little from decade to decade. The permanency of these features indicate them as the basis of arrangements concerning the Dardanelles. These features will be discussed briefly.

4. The Dardanelles is a great public highway provided by nature leading to a sea that washes the shores of Turkey, Russia, Roumania, Bulgaria, and some lesser states, and that receives the waters of five great navigable rivers. This sea in consequence does not belong to a single power as it once did, but belongs to all the world as a part of the highway of trade. Any and every attempt to block or impede the access of sea-borne commerce to this sea,—the Black Sea,—is subversive of world organization and contrary to world interests, as it will set up international pressures and tensions that will lead inevitably to renewed wars.

5. Russia, potentially one of the greatest of world powers, exports in normal times one-half of all her products via the Black Sea. Russia has no other sea outlet comparable in importance with that through the Dardanelles. The importance to Russia of this outlet will increase greatly with the growth of Russian population, and, especially, with the improvement of Russia’s means of internal transportation. No solution that imposes an artificial barrier between so great a power and the sea can contain within it the elements of permanency,—of stability.

6. A large part of the commerce of Austria, Czecho-Slovakia, Hungary, Jugo-Slavia, Roumania and Bulgaria finds its way to the high seas via the Danube and the Dardanelles. This commerce too requires freedom of exit. The necessity for equal freedom of transit in both directions needs no argument.

7. The considerations briefly outlined above have led to a general acceptance by the powers and by Turkey of the principle of freedom of passage through the straits for the merchant vessels of all nations. Experience in many places throughout the world has shown that the acceptance of a principle is not always sufficient to secure its impartial execution. The administration of affairs that follows, and is supposedly based upon, the acceptance of the principle is fully as important as the acceptance of the principle itself in determining [Page 895] the course of events. Until conditions in the Near East are stabilized equality of opportunity is best secured by equal participation in administration by the interested parties.

8. The granting of freedom of passage through the Dardanelles is not in itself sufficient to secure for American ships the same opportunities as may be enjoyed by the merchant ships of other powers. We must secure by agreement equality of rights and the same privileges as other foreign powers in all that relates to commercial and naval operations. With no attempt at enumeration we may mention the dependence of successful maritime commerce on radio, cable, fuel, wharfage, lighterage, pilotage, anchorage, towage, and inspection facilities. The insidious effect of discriminatory treatment in these respects may handicap our ships so badly as to drive them out of business.

9. Attention is particularly invited to the fact that, due to the present political and economic condition of all territories tributary to the Black Sea, the general situation is that of a new and as yet unorganized market of prodigious size offering the greatest opportunity to trade enterprise; and that steps taken and arrangements made now may influence profoundly our commercial life in the future. We can not claim special rights, but we can with full justice insist on equal rights.

10. The question of freedom of navigation of the Dardanelles for vessels of war is more complex and less capable of permanent settlement than the questions relating to merchant vessels. Whatever rights of navigation of the Straits are granted to other than Black Sea powers must of necessity be granted to the Black Sea powers themselves. When there are no naval powers bordering on the Black Sea that maintain fleets of importance in that sea it is to the interest of other powers, and especially to those powers that have political or economic ambitions in the Black Sea to have the navigation of the Dardanelles open to their vessels of war. They are thus able to use at least the show of force to further their interests. When there is a fleet of importance based within the Black Sea the interest of other powers regarding freedom of navigation of the Straits for vessels of war is reversed and they then desire that no force may issue from the Black Sea to interfere with or to be in a position to threaten their interests elsewhere. They are then willing to forego the advantages of access for themselves to gain the security that comes from a virtual internment of Black Sea fleets. The destruction of the Russian Black Sea fleet entirely changed the policy of Great Britain in relation to the Dardanelles. The General Board believes that the natural solution of the question, as well as the one most favorable to American interest and influence [Page 896] in world affairs is complete freedom of navigation of the Straits for all vessels of war.

11. There is no parallel between the necessary status of the Dardanelles and that of the Panama Canal. In the Dardanelles the history of instability, of conflicting interests, of discriminatory treatment, of sole access of powers to the sea and so forth, in addition to the fact that nature provided the Dardanelles while America provided the Panama Canal should separate very effectively the two questions in all their aspects.

12. The Straits are natural water ways that in equity belong not to one power but to all. Furthermore, every solution of their control so far attempted that has been based on the rights of one power as against other powers has been a provocative solution. The question has never been settled because all solutions have been partial to the power at the time dominant.

13. Regardless of the principles that may be adopted nothing but superiority of force, either on the spot or available, will be adequate to maintain, against the vital interest of a great power or against the vital interest of Turkey, freedom of navigation of the Straits in time of war. If the fortifications are razed, the potential control of the Straits in war will be shifted to the British fleet. The demilitarization of Mitylene, Lemnos, Imbros and Samothraki, if proposed, would be distinctly in line with the future control of the Straits by naval forces instead of by fixed fortifications. This would mean British control because at present the British fleet with its outlying bases is strongest of all fleets.

14. No law nor treaty is likely to prevent blockade in time of war if the blockading nation is sufficiently powerful on the sea.

15. Experience has shown that control of the Straits by Turkey has been neither impartial nor stable, and that Turkey is unavoidably susceptible to outside pressure. This fact indicates that, under present conditions, international control of the Straits is less open to objection than control by Turkey. No single foreign power could be expected to do otherwise than favor unduly its own commerce were it placed in control of the navigation of the Straits.


16. The General Board is of the opinion that American interests demand:

That if an international commission of control of the Straits is set up, the United States have representation on the international commission of control and in all positions subordinate to that commission, equal to that of any other foreign power.
That the Straits, including the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmora, and the Bosphorus, be open to the free navigation of the merchant ships of all flags without distinction or preference.
That the United States and its nationals have the same rights and privileges within and adjacent to the waters above mentioned as are possessed or may be granted to any other foreign power or to its nationals. These privileges to include all such matters as the erection and operation of radio stations, the establishment and operation of fuel depots and storehouses, the use of cables, pilotage, lighterage, wharfage, towage, inspection, clearance, etc., and the use without discrimination of public commercial facilities.
That the Straits including the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmora, and the Bosphorus, be open to the free navigation of the vessels of war of all flags.
That no belligerent right be exercised and no hostile act committed within the Straits including the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmora, and the Bosphorus.
That all fortifications commanding these waters be razed and that no new fortifications be erected.

W. L. Rodgers