SWNCC File32

Memorandum by the Acting Chairman, State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee (Hickerson)33


Soviet Demands with Respect to Bear Island and the Spitsbergen Archipelago

the problem

1. Soviet demand for outright cession of Bear Island, the establishment of Soviet-Norwegian condominium over Spitsbergen and denunciation by Norway of 1920 multilateral treaty recognizing its sovereignty over the Spitsbergen Archipelago.

facts bearing on the problem

2. There are attached a paraphrase of top secret telegram no. 204, dated July 5, from the American Ambassador to Norway (Appendix “A”),33a and a paper prepared by the State Department describing the status of Spitsbergen (Appendix “B”),34


3. The interest of the Soviet Union in acquiring military bases in the Spitsbergen Archipelago is natural in view of the experiences gained in the war respecting the safeguarding of convoys to Murmansk. [Page 93] So far as Norway is concerned, it would be loath to modify in any way its sovereignty over Spitsbergen. However, should it develop that the Soviet Government is adamant in demanding either bases in Spitsbergen or on the Norwegian mainland, the Norwegian Government would obviously prefer the former alternative, particularly if it could be accomplished, as suggested by the Norwegian Foreign Minister, by the establishment of a joint Soviet-Norwegian defense under, the United Nations Security Council.

4. Anything affecting the status quo in the North Atlantic and the approaches thereto is of direct interest to the United States. Accordingly, before determining what policy should be adopted by this Government should the Soviets reiterate their demands respecting the Spitsbergen Archipelago, the views of the Secretaries of War, and Navy and the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff on the military aspects of the matter should be obtained. The question is therefore being submitted to the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee for transmission to the Secretaries of War and Navy and the Joint Chiefs.

5. From a political standpoint, it is considered that, as a general principle, the United States should not acquiesce in any action taken in contravention of the terms of a multilateral convention to which the United States is a party. In the case in question, Norwegian sovereignty over the Spitsbergen Archipelago was recognized in the 1920 Treaty “subject to the stipulations of the present treaty” which included its demilitarization. Other powers waived in favor of Norway any claims which they may have had to this hitherto terra nullius on the express stipulation that these conditions were met by the Norwegian Government. Should it fail to do so, the Signatory Powers would theoretically have the right to withdraw their recognition of Norwegian sovereignty. Accordingly, it would seem apparent that Norway, even should it desire to do so, could not change the status of the Spitsbergen Archipelago by unilateral action.


6. The Department of State assumes that anything affecting the status quo in the North Atlantic and approaches thereto is of direct interest to the United States from a military as well as political standpoint. It therefore desires to receive the views of the Secretaries of War and Navy and of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the strategic aspects of the proposal of the Soviet Government to acquire bases on the Spitsbergen Archipelago for use in determining what the policy of the United States should be toward the Soviet demand on Norway.

[Page 94]


7. The Department of State recommends that the views of the Secretaries of War and Navy and of the Joint Chiefs of Staff be transmitted to it on an urgent basis in view of the possibility that the status of the Spitsbergen Archipelago may be discussed at the forthcoming meeting35 of the President, Mr. Churchill36 and Marshal Stalin.37 In considering this matter it will be necessary to bear in mind the relationship of the possible Soviet acquisition of bases in the Spitsbergen Archipelago, Bornholm and Jan Mayen Island, where a radio sonde station is now being operated by the United States38 with the consent of the Norwegian Government, to the possible acquisition of United States bases in Iceland39 and Greenland.40

John Hickerson
  1. State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee.
  2. This memorandum was circulated for the consideration of the Committee, and a copy was forwarded to the Joint Chiefs of Staff for comment from a military point of view. According to document SWNCC 159/4, dated 27 July 1945 (not printed), on July 26 the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee panel at Potsdam approved SWNCC 159.
  3. Supra.
  4. Not printed.
  5. For documentation regarding the Conference of Berlin (Potsdam Conference), July 16 to August 2, 1945, see Foreign Relations, The Conference of Berlin (The Potsdam Conference), 1945, 2 volumes. The status of Spitsbergen was not discussed at this Conference.
  6. Winston S. Churchill, British Prime Minister until July 27, 1945, when he was succeeded by Clement R. Attlee.
  7. Marshal of the Soviet Union Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Soviet Union.
  8. For documentation concerning arrangements for the withdrawal of United States Navy personnel from Jan Mayen Island, see pp. 100 ff.
  9. For bracketed note concerning efforts by the United States to obtain postwar leases for military bases in Iceland, see vol. iv, p. 953.
  10. For documentation concerning the United States agreement with Denmark regarding the defense of Greenland, see ibid., pp. 574 ff.