The Ambassador in Turkey (Skinner) to the Secretary of State

No. 279

Sir: A good deal has been said of late about Turkey’s intention to seek some modification of the Straits régime at Geneva during the recent attendance of the Foreign Minister, Tevfik Rüştü Bey, at the session of the League of Nations, but the Minister has now returned to Turkey and no formal steps of any kind appear to have been taken with [Page 972] regard to the Dardanelles. On the contrary, as he passed through Bulgaria he took occasion to say that Turkey had not raised the issue “because she was in a position to defend the Straits.” Again: “Even if some restrictions exist, we are capable of defending the passage. Moreover, we need the permission of nobody to do it.”

Technically, the Foreign Minister was right. The Straits Convention,82 Article 4, declares that the shores of the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus shall be demilitarized, and that within the demilitarized zones no fortifications shall be set up, but Turkey retains the right to send her armed forces through the demilitarized zones and the Turkish fleet has the right to anchor in territorial waters. In fact, in these days of long distance guns and other weapons, the treaty provisions place small restraint upon Turkey in this matter. It is safe to say that the people of this country are far less concerned over the demilitarization of the Straits area than they are over the continued existence of the Straits Commission, which is a thorn in the flesh that they would gladly have removed.

In a brief historical review the Deputy, Ahmet Sükrü, in his La Turquie, traces the main facts up to today. Until Russia reached the Black Sea, that body of water was practically an Ottoman lake, the entrance to which was opened and closed by the Sultans according to their pleasure. The Sultans set up a rule that the Straits should be closed to war vessels and obtained acceptance of this rule by all of the States with which the Porte carried on relations. Thus matters continued until 1833 when the Sultan Mahmud signed a treaty83 which guaranteed the opening of the Straits in favor of the Russians in order that he might have the aid of Tsar Nicholas against Mehmet Ali of Egypt. The British Government, disturbed by this treaty, brought about an international engagement eight years later84 under which the Straits were closed to ships of war. In this way the opening or closing of the Straits ceased to be a purely Turkish matter and in 1841 became international. Then came the demilitarization of the Black Sea in 1856,85 followed in 1871 by the abrogation of the clauses concerning the demilitarization of that Sea.86 Furthermore the Sultanate obtained the right to open the Straits whenever it desired “to ships of war of friendly States.” This régime continued until the beginning of the Great War in 1914.

Respectfully yours,

Robert P. Skinner
  1. Signed at Lausanne, July 24, 1923, League of Nations Treaty Series, vol. xxviii, p. 115.
  2. British and Foreign State Papers, vol. xx, p. 1176.
  3. Ibid., vol. xxix, p. 703.
  4. Ibid., vol. xlvi, p. 22.
  5. Ibid., vol. lxi, p. 7.