Memorandum by the Director of the Office of European Affairs (Matthews) to the Secretary of State

top secret

United States Security Interests in the North Atlantic

iceland, greenland, spitsbergen1


Iceland’s geographic position dominates the Northeastern approaches to the United States from Europe. In recognition of this fact the United States, by the Defense of Iceland Agreement of July 1941,2 assumed the protection of Iceland for the duration of the war. By a US-Icelandic Agreement of October 7, 1946,3 the 1941 Defense Agreement was terminated, and the United States secured the right of transit through Iceland and the use of the Keflavik airport for US military planes for a minimum period of six and a half years. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have on several occasions designated Iceland as a primary base area in which long-term military base rights by the United States and the denial of similar use to a hostile power are essential to the security of the United States. Formal proposals were made to Iceland on October 1, 1945, to secure these long-term rights by agreement, but we were prevented from securing them by a vigorous local opposition led by the Communists. Negotiations for long-term base rights have therefore had to be postponed, but the October 7, 1946, Agreement may serve as a point of departure from which a later solution to the long-term problem may be found.

State Department Action: Cooperation with War and Navy Departments in implementing October 7 Agreement.

[Page 709]


Similarly essential to the defense of this continent is an arrangement permitting the United States to maintain military forces and facilities in Greenland. This fact was recognized by the conclusion, on April 9, 1941, of the Defense of Greenland Agreement.4 The Agreement is still in effect. The termination clause of the Agreement was purposely phrased in a vague manner, but the Danish Government has been showing increasing interest in terminating the Agreement. In the meantime, the outcome of the negotiations with Iceland makes it even more essential to US security that we have long-term military rights in Greenland. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have stated that our first objective should be to acquire Greenland by outright purchase from Denmark; alternatively to acquire long-term military base rights.

In an exploratory conversation with Danish Foreign Minister Rasmussen on December 14, 1946, Mr. Byrnes5 emphasized the vital importance of Greenland to US security and suggested to him that our needs in regard to Greenland might be met by a new agreement giving the US long-term rights to construct and maintain military facilities in specified areas of Greenland or by a US-Danish treaty in which the US would undertake to defend Greenland from aggression and would secure the right to maintain such military installations there as would be necessary. Mr. Byrnes stated, however, that possibly the best solution, in the long run, both from the Danish and US points of view, would be outright US purchase of Greenland under an agreement concluded in accord with the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations. These several points were contained in more detail in a memorandum which Mr. Byrnes handed to Mr. Rasmussen at the close of the conversation. A copy of the memorandum is attached.6 The Minister’s first reaction was that he had not thought of anything so drastic but had in mind something along the lines of the US October 7 Agreement with Iceland. He agreed, however, to give Mr. Byrnes’ suggestions careful study. Mr. Byrnes indicated that we were willing to continue the status quo while a solution is being sought. Mr. Rasmussen has since agreed not to take the matter up with the Danish Parliamentary Committee until Soviet-Norwegian negotiations regarding Spitsbergen should materialize or be made public.

State Department Action: Await Danish reaction to December 14 conversation. If such reaction is delayed, consider course to be followed.

[Page 710]


More or less counterbalancing the US’ interest in Iceland and Greenland is the Soviet’s interest in the Norwegian Archipelago of Spitsbergen (Svalbard). The proximity of the islands to Soviet territory makes this a reasonable Soviet interest. However, the islands are also within five hundred miles of the Northeast corner of Greenland, and the US (together with thirty-three other countries, including the Soviet Union) is a party to the 1920 Treaty by which Norwegian sovereignty over Spitsbergen was recognized, with the proviso that Norway would not construct any fortifications in the territories, “which may never be used for war-like purposes”. Nevertheless, as the US Government has known secretly since July 1945, Mr. Molotov7 in November 1944 aproached the Norwegian Government with a proposal that the Soviet Union be granted outright possession of Bear Island and be permitted to maintain military facilities on the remaining islands of the Archipelago which would be under Soviet-Norwegian condominium. The Norwegians endeavored to counter these extreme proposals by advancing milder ones, and on April 9, 1945, they presented in Moscow a draft declaration of joint Soviet-Norwegian intention to abrogate the 1920 Treaty and work out defense arrangements for the area as a regional link within the framework of the international security organization. There has been no Soviet reply to this Norwegian proposal, although the Soviets have repeatedly indicated that they have not dropped their demands. In November 1946 Molotov indicated to the Norwegian Foreign Minister8 that he believed bilateral negotiations should begin soon. Probably they will take place in January or February.

The Norwegians have taken the line that since the status of Spitsbergen is regulated by multilateral treaty, no change in this status can be made without consultation with and approval of the signatory states. The US has informally made it clear to the Norwegians that it claims a right to be consulted before any change in the status of the islands, as regulated by the 1920 Treaty may be made. The Norwegians are now actively considering what action is incumbent upon them in view of the recent publicity and the Soviet pressure for early negotiations.

State Department Action: In a paper prepared in July 1945, before the termination of the war with Japan, the Joint Chiefs of Staff advocated our opposing the Soviet proposals.9 In case such opposition should prove unavailing, the JCS proposed that the US insist that the [Page 711] Soviets in return agree not to object to our obtaining exclusive base rights in Iceland and Greenland, that they withdraw entirely from Northern Norway, that they make no bid for Jan Mayen Island, and that Norwegian coal and economic rights in Spitsbergen be preserved. In view of the changed circumstances the JCS are preparing a revision of the 1945 paper.

The opinion of the British Joint Chiefs as expressed to us in July 1945 was that they saw no strategic objections to the Soviets’ establishing bases on these islands since the naval and air base facilities which could be constructed would be very limited and their use severely restricted by weather conditions.

When the revised JCS paper is received the Department will consider action to be taken in the light of the developing situation in Norway and Moscow.

H. Freeman Matthews


In a paper dated January 15, 1947,11 the Joint Chiefs of Staff concluded that Spitsbergen in Soviet hands would have a military potential against the US but not sufficient to warrant US military action to prevent a measure of Soviet control. The JCS favor preservation of Spitsbergen’s present treaty status; otherwise change should be allowed only by due and public process. They point out, however, that Soviet military facilities on the islands would render US long-range military rights in Greenland and Iceland more important than ever.

In parallel letters dated February 18 to the Secretaries of War and of the Navy the Secretary of State observed that if we now press ahead with negotiations for military rights in Greenland and Iceland we might stimulate positive Soviet action in Spitsbergen which might otherwise be avoided or at least postponed.12 The Secretary’s letter also brought out these points:

Now that Soviet objectives in Spitsbergen have become public, Denmark and Iceland are not likely to grant us long-term military rights if we at the same time oppose change in the status of Spitsbergen.
Maintenance of the status quo (which the JCS recommend as the preferable solution) would not preclude clandestine Soviet military activity on Spitsbergen under guise of development of now-existing Soviet coal mines.

[Page 712]

Foreign Minister Lange informed Molotov (ca. February 17) that, since circumstances have changed, Norway does not wish to open discussions of a military character with a single foreign power concerning a region under Norwegian sovereignty. However, because of Russia’s economic position in the Archipelago, Norway expressed willingness to discuss with the USSR economic aspects of the Spitsbergen Treaty with a view to proposing certain non-military changes.

[Washington,] February 27, 1947.

  1. For documentation on the attitude of the United States regarding reported demands by the Soviet Union on Norway with respect to Spitsbergen and Bear Island, see Vol. iii, pp. 1003 ff.
  2. Reference is to the Agreement for Defense of Iceland effected by exchange of letters between the Prime Minister of Iceland and the President of the United States, July 1, 1941; for texts of letters, see Department of State Executive Agreement Series No. 232. For documentation regarding this agreement, see Foreign Relations, 1941, Vol. ii, pp. 776 ff.
  3. For text of agreement between the United States and Iceland regarding the termination of the Defense Agreement of July 1, 1941, effected by exchange of notes on October 7, 1946, see Department of State Treaties and Other International Acts Series (TIAS) No. 1566, or 61 Stat. (pt. 3) 2426.
  4. For text, see Department of State Executive Agreement Series No. 204, or 55 Stat. (pt. 2) 1245; for pertinent documentation, see Foreign Relations, 1941, Vol. ii, pp. 35 ff.
  5. James F. Byrnes, Secretary of State, July 1945–January 1947.
  6. Not printed.
  7. Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union.
  8. Halvard M. Lange.
  9. See memorandum by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, July 23, 1945, in Foreign Relations, 1945, Vol. v, p. 96.
  10. This addendum is attached to the file copy of the preceding memorandum by Matthews, dated January 17.
  11. Not printed.
  12. For text, see Vol. iii, p. 1013.