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

No. 22

Sir: I have the honor to enclose herewith, in reference to the Turkish request for revision of the Straits Convention of 1923 (as reported in my despatch No. 20 of April 14), a memorandum of a conversation on that subject which I had yesterday with Dr. Tevfik Rüstü Aras, Minister for Foreign Affairs. I also enclose copies14 of memoranda of recent conversations with the Japanese Ambassador,15 the Counselor [Page 513] of the German Embassy,16 and the British Ambassador,17 touching on various aspects of the same question.

The Government of the United States has, as I understand the matter, no treaty right, direct or indirect, with respect to the Straits Convention; nor has it any concern with the military and political aspects of that Convention; its sole practical interest in the matter is the maintenance (or perhaps the amelioration) of the régime of freedom of commercial navigation through the Straits. There is every reason to believe that it is the intention of the Turkish Government to maintain that régime satisfactorily and without discrimination for the benefit of maritime traffic, even in the event of the termination of Turkey’s present conventional obligations in that regard. And in view particularly of the disposition of the Turkish Government, because of the “favorable balance of trade” with the United States, to give American commerce the most favorable treatment, I am confident that we need feel no anxiety about the continued enjoyment by our shipping of the benefits of the régime.

There are, indeed, certain minor points in which improvements might be suggested. On the basis of its contacts with the American Export Line (the sole American shipping company affected) the Consulate-General informs me that this line, in common with the British and other shipping interests concerned, considers that the quarantine charge of four piastres (say $0,032) per net registered ton on vessels navigating these waters in either direction (and even when not stopping in transit), and the same charge for the maintenance of life-saving service, levied upon each voyage into the Black Sea, are unduly high and, in the case of vessels merely passing through the Straits, unwarranted. Although it does not appear that, even under the existing Convention, there is any basis for demanding as of right that these charges be abated, there may possibly develop, in connection with the proposed reconsideration of the Convention, some favorable opportunity to suggest to the Turkish Government the reduction of these charges. The Embassy would of course take advantage of any such occasion, either acting alone or cooperating with the representatives of other maritime nations.

Inasmuch as our interest in the question of the Straits is confined to matters in which we can in any case expect the most favorable treatment of our shipping, I venture to suggest that no useful purpose would be served by our being represented by observers in any conference which may be held for the reconsideration of the Convention. On the contrary, in view of the fact that the Turks are even yet manifestly somewhat sensitive about the fact that “as a matter of historical [Page 514] survival” (to quote Dr. Aras) the régime of commercial navigation in these Turkish waters has been treated as a question for regulation by international agreement rather than by domestic action, I am sure they would feel it to be the more friendly and gracious on our part, and would predispose them to entertain the more sympathetically any ameliorative suggestions which we might find occasion to offer, if we were to refrain from any assertion of interest in the Convention such as would be implied in our sending observers to the prospective conference on the subject. I have accordingly to request that, if the Department shares this view, I may be authorized to let the Turkish authorities know, in whatever manner may seem most appropriate, that our Government, while fully appreciative of the importance of the question of the Straits and interested in keeping informed as to the progress of the negotiations, particularly as they affect the commercial navigation of the Straits, has no intention of participating in that conference.

Respectfully yours,

J. V. A. MacMurray

Memorandum by the American Ambassador (MacMurray) of a Conversation With the Turkish Minister for Foreign Affairs (Aras)

Not having previously had the opportunity of meeting Dr. Aras, I called on him at his house, by appointment, at 4:00 o’clock this afternoon.

The conversation shortly turned to the present troubled state of Europe; and in response to a question, he avowed himself optimist enough to believe that war is not actually imminent, but pessimist enough to feel sure that the present gâchis will go on indefinitely—that things are likely to get worse before they get better—and that, meanwhile, none of the problems now vexing Europe will be solved. I asked whether an exception might not be expected in the case of Turkey’s démarche with regard to the problem of the Straits. He assented with obvious satisfaction; and he then proceeded to observe that, whereas most of Europe is troubled and alarmed, the situation is quite different in two of its extremities, the Scandinavian and the Balkan areas, which have relatively no international problems or apprehensions, and no external entanglements or commitments other than those derived from the League Covenant. For his own part (and throughout the conversation he used the first-person pronoun in referring to the activities or the views of the Turkish Government) he had for fifteen years done his utmost to bring about appeasement [Page 515] and understanding among the Balkan countries, and could now affirm that there are no appreciable difficulties among them.

Reverting then to the particular question of the Straits, he said that although he had not yet received formal replies from all the Governments concerned, he nevertheless had reason to believe that within a few days all the interested Powers would have given favorable responses: as for the guaranteeing Powers, Great Britain had already consented to negotiate in the sense requested; France would probably do so shortly; Italy might be expected to make only the same reservation that she has hitherto made as to entering into agreements with countries applying sanctions against her; and he anticipated that Japan would only stipulate that the negotiations must take place outside the League of Nations. Of the nations of the Balkan Entente, Yugoslavia and Greece had already indicated a favorable disposition—Greece the more readily, of course, because two of her islands would by the same act be freed from the present restrictions upon their fortification. Upon my inquiring as to Bulgaria, he first remarked that she had no reason to object, and that she had been the beneficiary of a very friendly and helpful policy on the part of Turkey; and that if Bulgaria were to take an unsympathetic attitude, there was no reason why he should continue to befriend her. Having made these comments with some appearance of asperity, he went on to say that Bulgaria had in fact indicated that she would not oppose the Turkish démarche.

As to the procedure by which effect would be given to Turkey’s request for a revision of the Straits Convention, Dr. Aras did not seem yet to be clear. He said that he would discuss the matter with the representatives of the interested Powers on the occasion of the meeting of the League Council in May. He added, in that connection, that he would of course keep Mr. Hugh Wilson18 informed of the progress of such discussions, as well as any Japanese official in Geneva whom the Japanese Ambassador may designate to him for that purpose. He contemplated that the interested Governments would wish to consider the question of the Straits at a conference called for the purpose. He trusted that there would be no demand to have the question considered by the League, both because it is not properly a League question, and because such treatment of it would raise an unnecessary difficulty as regards Japan. There was something to be said, however, for holding the conference at Geneva, outside the League, but with the advantage of the facilities the League affords. On the other hand, the Turkish Government would be very glad to have the conference meet on its own territory—either at Ankara or at Istanbul.

[Page 516]

He said it was not yet evident just what form the revision of the Straits Convention should take; there would doubtless be a multilateral convention, but it might also prove necessary to conclude one or more bilateral conventions dealing with the particular interests of, say, the Black Sea States, and specially of Russia (which has never ratified the Straits Convention).

In its substantive aspect, the revision would deal with three general subjects—1) the commercial navigation of the Straits, 2) the remilitarization of the zone, and 3) the passage of naval vessels. The first two of these subjects could be disposed of in half an hour, as they present no issue at all.

As to the first, Turkey is ready to agree out-of-hand to continue the present régime of free commercial navigation, and to consider any improvements which may be suggested in that regime, for the impartial benefit of all nations, whether or not they are signatories of the Convention (and he added that the fact of certain nations being signatory to provisions of that sort was a mere historical survival, and that the only differentiation between signatories and non-signatories would prove to be that the former would now be put to the necessity of negotiating on the subject). Turkey was prepared to assume the appropriate obligations as a matter of voluntary declaration. I understood him to imply (although I missed the opportunity to get him to clear up the point) that he contemplates Turkey’s substituting such a unilateral declaration for the existing multilateral provisions of the Convention.

With regard to the remilitarization of the Straits, he said that the indications already received warranted the assumption that the interested Powers are prepared to recognize the abolition of the demilitarized zone.

The sole subject as to which the negotiations may be expected to involve any difficulties is that of the terms on which naval vessels and aircraft (other than Turkish) shall be allowed to pass through the Straits. Great Britain and Italy may be expected to insist upon a minimum of restriction, and Russia upon a maximum, on the movements of naval vessels or airships. Between these two extremes of political viewpoint, Turkey considers that it should be possible to find a technically sound system of controlling the transit of such craft through the Straits so as to obviate dangers and surprises, either to Turkey herself or to other Powers in the Black Sea or in the Mediterranean. For the protection of Turkey, it might perhaps be provided that such craft would be allowed to pass through only one by one: and to avoid possible surprises to others, there might be provision for [Page 517] advance notification to the Turkish Government, which would thereupon publish or notify the fact to all other Governments concerned. He remarked, however, that these were merely suggestions which might be considered in the course of efforts to find a system of control satisfactory to all the nations affected.

Dr. Aras took occasion to say, early in the course of his comments on the revision of the Convention, and to elaborate at a later point in the conversation, that if there were to be any great delay in effecting the revision as regards the demilitarized zone along the Straits, Turkey would request the approval of the signatory Powers for her taking necessary provisional measures, subject to eventual agreement on a permanent basis. He pointed out that there is at least a theoretical danger of Turkey’s becoming involved in hostilities: for one thing, she is among the countries applying the League sanctions which Italy regards as an abnormality in international relations, and resents as unfriendly; and another aspect of the same fundamental situation is that Italy’s especial animosity towards Great Britain might lead to war between Italy and Germany on the one side, and England, France, and Russia on the other—a situation in which either group, while having no intrinsic quarrel with Turkey, might feel impelled for military reasons to attempt control of the Straits. While hoping and even believing that such contingencies were merely hypothetical, Turkey could not ignore possibilities so vitally endangering her security, and would feel justified, even under the terms of the existing Convention, in taking necessary measures of precaution; but she preferred to act with the acquiescence of the other signatories rather than to proceed solely upon her own construction of her obligations. He further gave me to understand that he had no reason to apprehend that the negotiations for revision would be protracted, save for the possibility that the procedural requirements might take some time in the case of Great Britain (primarily because of the necessity of consulting the Dominions) and possibly of France and Italy.

The impressions I derived from the rather discursive comments made by Dr. Aras may be roughly summarized as follows:—

Turkey is reasonably confident that through negotiations with the Powers party to the Straits Convention she can arrive at a complete abrogation of that instrument, and has somewhat vaguely in mind substituting for it:

A declaration, ex proprio motu, assuring equally to all nations unimpeded commercial navigation of the Straits, in terms substantially identical with those set up by the Convention, although perhaps taking account of ameliorative suggestions from the maritime nations; and
A treaty or convention, among those Powers having naval interests in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, establishing some system of control over the transit through Turkish territory of warships and [Page 518] aircraft—this multilateral treaty possibly being supplemented by bilateral agreements between Turkey and certain of the Powers more particularly concerned:

and that, in the event that the negotiations for the abolition of the demilitarized zone along the Straits are unduly protracted, Turkey will request (or in effect demand) the right to refortify the zone pending the result of the negotiations.

J. V. A. MacMurray
  1. Not printed.
  2. Iyemasa Tokugawa.
  3. Wilhelm Fabricius.
  4. Sir Percy Loraine.
  5. Minister to Switzerland.