Truman Papers

No. 1370
The Chairman of the President’s War Relief Control Board ( Dairies ) to the President

My Dear Mr. President: Here is the memorandum on the Straits problem which is on the Agenda for tomorrow. The resume and conclusion give you the picture and the last three pages1 give the various dates.

I think you will find it interesting reading; it illumines the constant conflict of interest between the British and the Russians and other European powers for control of the Dardanelles.

Britain and Russia have been on both sides of the question at different times.

The facts herein are amply sustained by authority.

With great respect [etc.]

Joseph E Davies

[The Straits Question]

résumé of the straits

The degree of control or access to the Straits which Russia had, varied from time to time, according to the fortunes of war. The same is true with reference to Russia’s control over the Danubian provinces (the Balkans).

Apparently the period of greatest Russian influence was in the years 1833 to 1840. During that period Russia had complete access in and out of the Straits and the right to pass its war ships through the Straits, denied to other European powers. It also had the right to land troops there if necessary for Russian protection.

In 1840 Russia relinquished these rights in order to cooperate with Britain. After the Crimean War in 1856 Russia was compelled to relinquish all rights over the Danubian Provinces and, while the Black Sea was open to commerce of all, ships of war were [Page 1429] excluded except for a few small Turkish and Russian vessels. Fifteen years later Russia repudiated these restrictions in part. With the exception, however, that the Straits could not be used by war ships. Thirteen years later Russia secured an agreement with Germany which would prevent Britain from using its warships, with a secret provision that Russia might occupy the Straits if necessary. This lasted only for six years. In 1890, the Germans refused to re-execute this treaty. Four years later (1894) England served notice that any attempt to change the status of the Straits settlement to enable Russia to pass her warships would be regarded as a casus belli. However, in 1898, Austria and Russia entered into an agreement whereby the Straits and Bulgaria were the Russian sphere of influence. Bulgaria secured its independence, for which Russia paid Turkey for recognizing this independence 20 million pounds by cancelation of Turkey’s debt to Russia. In the World War Britain agreed in 1915 that the Straits were to be open to Russian war ships. Necessity drove. It was a complete reversal of the classic British policy. The irony of the situation was that in 1923, 8 years later, that which was desired by Russia was opposed now by the Bolsheviks in fear of the outside aid of the Allies to the White Russians and Kolshak who were fighting the Bolshevik Government. Despite the objections of the Bolsheviks to open up the Straits to war ships, the Straits Settlement at the Lausanne Conference legislated this right but did not permit Turkey to fortify the Straits. Thirteen years later at the Montreux Conference this was amended to permit Turkey to fortify the Straits, but left the Straits Convention otherwise unchanged.

In the spring of 1945, the USSR served notice upon Turkey that it required a revision of its relations with Turkey because of changed conditions which recognition of the facts required.

Greece occupies a strategic position in the protection of the Suez Canal (completed in 1869) which, being in the British sphere of influence, would probably be available for protection against Soviet warships. The British probably would offer no serious objection to giving the Russians free access to the “exit gate” of the Straits. The press has contained some suggestions that the Russians are seeking access across the Danubian provinces to a port on the Mediterranean.

Obviously the USSR is protecting itself against any possible attack through the Dardanelles and also is making secure its outlet to the warm water of the Mediterranean. Turkey is probably more concerned with the fear that Russia will require territorial concessions than she is concerned over free passage through the Straits.

[Page 1430]

Lausanne Straits Settlement

In 1923 the Straits Settlement, guaranteed by the Big Three and Japan, was based on freedom of the air and of the sea as to the Straits. As to merchant ships, all had free passage except when Turkey was at war. Under such conditions Turkey had the right to attack enemy merchant ships and exert the right of contraband on neutral merchant vessels. As to war ships, each party to the agreement, the Big Powers, could send up to three ships up to 10,000 tons each into the Black Sea. Also, other neutrals, when Turkey was not at war, had the same right. An exception, however, as to the Russian status was provided. All belligerent ships could pass freely into the Black Sea except when Turkey herself was at war. Both shores of the Straits were demilitarized. Turkey, however, had the right to maintain a garrison of 12,000 men and a naval base in Constantinople.

The Montreux Conference

In 1936 the Straits Settlement was revised. International control was ended. When threatened with war, Turkey was granted the right to close the Straits to warships. Black Sea powers could send war ships through the Straits, but in single file. Outside powers were limited in the amount of tonnage which they could ship into the Black Sea. Nonriparian war ships’ stay in the Black Sea was limited to twenty-one days.


From the foregoing it is apparent that Russia has been continuously concerned for the past 150 years with the Dardanelles and the Straits, both as affording an outlet to the warm water of the Mediterranean, and also as an inlet passage for attack by warships upon its back door through the Black Sea.

From the time of Napoleon’s attempt to attack England, through a threat to India, by way of Egypt, Russia has been on one side or the other, involved in the protection of its interest in the Straits. Vital, therefore, have been the so-called Danubian Provinces (the Balkans). At different times she has been compelled to be allied with the British against the French, with France against England, for herself as against both France and England, with Germany against Britain, with Britain against the Germans. For her protection, Russia, at different times, has had to advocate that the Straits be opened to warships including her own and at times that the Straits be closed to all warships including her own. Britain’s policy has similarly changed according to her necessities and needs. At one time Britain asserted that a change in the Straits settlement would mean war. At another time it enforced the exact opposite against Russia’s demands. All manner and kinds of reasons have been assigned [Page 1431] for wars which were fought around the Straits: the aspirations of Greece for independence, and the protection of Christians in Turkey, the Holy Alliance, the British route to India, etc. So far as Russia is concerned, it appears clear that two dominant purposes have controlled: first, the desire for access out to warm water, and second the desire to prevent naval attack from the outside by stopping access into the Black Sea through the Straits. She has constantly sought to maintain her control over her vital interests in the Balkans connected with the Danubian Provinces (Rumania and Bulgaria).

It is apparent that Britain’s purposes have been two fold. One, to protect her life-line to India; the other, to maintain the balance of power in Europe.

The interests involved on both sides in the present day cannot be assessed except with full consideration for these basic and existing realities.

memorandum as to the dardanelles and the straits

[Page 1433][Page 1434]
1768–1791 Beginning of Russian Interest
Russia obtained access to the Black Sea by the conquest of the Crimea and territory adjacent to the Black Sea and Rumania by defeating the Turkish armies.
1798–1802 Russian Control of the Danubian Provinces (The Balkans)
The Straits, the Dardanelles, and Turkey were menaced by Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in the French attack against the British directed against India. Russia and Turkey joined up with the British and Nelson destroyed the French fleet at the Battle of Aboukir; Russia and Turkey took the Ionian Islands. In 1802 the control of the Straits resided in Turkey and Russia. The latter was granted control over the Danubian Provinces which, on the European side, were vital to the use of the Straits.
1802–1812 Napoleonic Wars
Needled by the French, the Turkish position on the Straits threatened British interests and the British fleet forced the Dardanelles, demanding the expulsion of the French Ambassador.2 The British fleet was forced to retire. Russia in the meantime, also concerned, claimed that the agreements as to the Danubian Provinces were being violated by the Turks. Turkey declared war on Russia which was composed [Page 1432] by the Treaty of Bucharest (1812).3 Napoleon aided Russia to procure concessions from Turkey which opened the Straits to Russian ships.
1812–1826 Period of the Congress of Vienna and Holy Alliance
This was the period of the “Sick Man of Europe” and of the war for Greek Independence with constant trouble in the Danubian Provinces. Russia served an ultimatum on Turkey demanding its old control over the Danubian Provinces and rights in the Straits. This time, on the advice of Austria and France, Turkey yielded. By the Convention of Ackermann in 18264 the Black Sea was open to Russian ships and control by Russia over the Danubian Provinces was reaffirmed. (Territory now Rumania).
1829 In connection with the war for Greek independence, Russia, France, and Turkey [Great Britain], defeated the Turkish [Fleet] at the naval Battle of Navarino. The Russian status as to the Straits was not disturbed.
1833 Turkey was attacked by Egypt and asked for Russian aid. This resulted in an agreement whereby Russian ships of war were granted the right to pass through the Straits and Russia was also granted the right to land troops there if necessary. All other war ships were excluded from the Straits.5
For the period of the next 7 years Russia had the exclusive right of war ship access to the Straits and the greatest influence in this region.
1840 Due to Russia’s desire to split the alliance between England and France Russia agreed with Britain at the Conference of London to relinquish these rights and consented to the closing of the Black Sea and the Straits to all warships including Russian warships.6
1853 Russia attacked the Danubian Provinces upon religious pretext and Turkey declared war on Russia. France and England joined Turkey and the Crimean War ensued. British and French warships passed through the Straits and attacked Sevastopol.
1856 The Treaty of Paris 7 provided that Russia should relinquish all rights over the Danubian Provinces and the Black Sea was opened to the commerce of all countries and closed to all ships of war except a few small Turkish and Russian war vessels.
1871 Taking advantage of the Franco-Prussian war Russia repudiated the restrictions of the Treaty of Paris which forbade the construction of Naval Arsenals in the Black Sea. London recognized this repudiation with the exception that the Straits could not be used for warships.8
1884 [1887] A treaty9 was entered into between Russia and Germany (Bismarck) which insured Russia against the use of the Straits by British warships, and by a secret protocol provided Russia the right to occupy the Straits if necessary.
1890 Russia tried to renew this treaty with Germany. The latter, then courting Britain, refused.
1894 England served notice that any attempt to change the Straits settlement which would permit the passing of war ships would be a casus belli.
1908 Austria and Russia agreed upon a partition of Turkey. The Straits were to be in the Russian zone and Bulgaria to be in the sphere of Russian influence. Austria annexed Hercegovina. Bulgaria declared its independence for which Russia released Turkey of a debt of 20 million pounds.
1915 World War. Britain agreed to open the Straits to Russian war ships, a reversal of the classic British policy.10
1923 Despite Bolshevik objection this was done by the Straits Convention drawn up at the Lausanne Conference11 and Turkey was not permitted to fortify the Straits.
1936 The Montreux Conference12 permitted Turkey to fortify the Straits and international control was ended. When threatened with war, Turkey was granted the right to close the Straits to warships.13
  1. Beginning with the heading, “Memorandum as to the Dardanelles and the Straits”, post, p. 1431.
  2. General of Division Horace-François-Bastien Sébastiani.
  3. Text in British and Foreign State Papers, vol. xiii, p. 908.
  4. Text printed ibid., p. 899.
  5. Under the Treaty of Unkiar Eskelessi. Text of the pertinent provisions in Howard, The Problem of the Turkish Straits, p. 16.
  6. Under the Convention of London, signed July 15, 1840; text of the pertinent provisions printed ibid., p. 16. Cf. the pertinent provisions of the Convention pf London of July 13, 1841, printed ibid., p. 17.
  7. Text of the provisions concerning the Black Sea and the Straits in Howard, The Problem of the Turkish Straits, pp. 17, 18.
  8. See ibid., p. 18.
  9. The so-called Reinsurance Treaty, signed at Berlin, June 18, 1887. Text in Heinrich Triepel, ed., Nouveau recueil général de traités et autres actes relatifs aux rapports de droit international, 3d series (Leipzig and Greifswald, 1908–1944), vol. x, p. 37.
  10. See Foreign Relations, 1917, supp. 2, vol. i, pp. 494497. Cf. E. L. Woodward and Rohan Butler, eds., Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919–1939 (London, 1946– ), 1st series, vol. iv, pp. 635–638; J. C. Hurewitz, Diplomacy in the Near and Middle East: A Documentary Record (Princeton, 1956), vol. ii, pp. 7–11.
  11. Text of the substantive provisions in Howard, The Problem of the Turkish Straits, p. 21; full text in League of Nations Treaty Series, vol. xxviii, p. 115.
  12. Text of the substantive provisions of the Montreux Convention in Howard, The Problem of the Turkish Straits, p. 25; full text in League of Nations Treaty Series, vol. clxxiii, p. 213.
  13. For a more detailed memorandum by Davies on the same subject, see vol. i, document No. 697.