Department of State Policy and Information Statement2


Polar Regions

i. arctic region

A. Current US Policy

1. General Political and Territorial. The United States has had for a long time an interest in the territorial and political situation in the Arctic. The purchase of Alaska in 18673 and the interest of the then Secretary of State, Mr. Seward, in the acquisition of Greenland and Iceland marked the high point of US territorial interest in that region during the nineteenth century. The activities of US citizens who carried on extensive explorations and made new discoveries in the Arctic region, particularly to the north of Canada and of European Russia and Siberia, were not followed up by formal US claim to any of the territories explored or discovered. Although it is known that an American was the first to land on Wrangel Island off the northeast coast of Siberia, and that Americans also were among the first to visit Herald Island in the same vicinity, the US Government has never advanced a claim to those islands. On the other hand, the US Government has not recognized the Czarist, and later Soviet, claim to the [Page 1044] islands, nor has it admitted the validity of the so-called Russian “sector” as set forth in the Soviet decree of April 15, 1926.4 In a telegram sent from Moscow direct to Secretary Hughes on November 12, 1924 the Soviet Foreign Minister complained of US and other violations of the territorial rights of the Soviet Union in the region of the northern coast of Siberia, and alleged in effect that by Article I of the Treaty of March 18/30, 1867 by which Russia ceded Alaska to the United States the United States was estopped from making territorial claims west of the boundary set forth in that Treaty as the dividing line between Russia on the west and Alaska on the east,5 Since the United States had no diplomatic relations with the USSR at that time, no reply was made to this communication, but the Department has taken the position that Article I of the Treaty of 1867 marked the extent of territory ceded to the United States “then possessed” by Russia, and in no way restricted the United States from participation in any future discoveries which might be made by it beyond the boundary indicated in the Treaty.

Although the United States has not formally recognized Canadian claims within any alleged “sector,”6 or recognized Canadian title to specific islands within the Canadian Arctic zone, there has been no evident inclination to challenge Canadian claims to jurisdiction over those areas in which the Canadian Government is exercising control. It is significant, in this connection, that both the Canadian and Soviet Governments in recent years have shown increased interest and activity within their respective Arctic zones and that if rival claims should be asserted by the United States or other governments the Soviet and Canadian Governments would be in a position to support their claims to superior title by concrete evidence of acts of possession and control exercised without challenge for a considerable period. It may be, therefore, that an international court would, in the face of such evidence, consider that those governments have a valid title, even without reference [Page 1045] to so-called “sector principles.” The question of title to lands within the claimed sectors which might be discovered in the future is an entirely different matter. It is assumed that the United States would not acquiesce in a claim to such lands by any State merely on the basis of the application of a “sector principle.” The US Government also assumes that the Arctic seas and the air spaces above them, being outside of normal territorial limits, are not subject to exclusive territorial control of any State and are, therefore, open to commerce and navigation in the same degree as other open seas.

The claims of Norway to Spitsbergen and Bear Island,7 as well as to Jan Mayen, and the Danish claim to Greenland have, as noted below, been recognized by the United States. Since neither Norway nor Denmark have propounded any “sector” claim in the Arctic it is assumed that the acquisition of new territories which may be discovered to the north of the Spitsbergen-Greenland zone will be treated in accordance with general principles governing acquisition of terra nullius.

The security interest of the United States in the Arctic region, particularly in the zone Alaska-Canada-Greenland-Iceland, has been indicated in a concrete manner by military measures taken by the United-States during the war on its own territory in Alaska and in conjunction with the local governments in Canada, Greenland and Iceland.8 This interest has been stated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to be a long-range interest, and efforts are, therefore, being made to secure the necessary cooperation and rights from the governments controlling those areas (Canada, Denmark, Iceland).9

2. Economic. In connection with future Arctic development, particularly in the field of aviation, the interest of the US Government [Page 1046] was indicated by the creation in 1945 of a standing sub-committee on the Arctic by the Air Coordinating Committee. The ACC is composed of representatives of the State, War, Navy, Commerce, and Post Office Departments, CAB, and Bureau of the Budget. On the recommendation of the sub-committee the ACC approved a program of Arctic development, with particular emphasis on the establishment of a network of Arctic aviation facilities, including weather, magnetic, and ionospheric stations, air navigational aids, communications, and airfields. Initial emphasis is being placed on the establishment and maintenance of primary weather stations in northern Canada and Greenland. As part of the program a primary weather station, operated jointly with Denmark, was established at Thule, Greenland by the US in the summer of 1946. The cooperation of the Canadian Government is being sought in order to carry out the desired program. Consideration is also being given to the feasibility of establishing weather stations under the Arctic pack ice by the employment of submersible vessels.

US economic interest in the Arctic is also manifest in connection with mineral resources, particularly rare minerals, which are known to exist or which may be discovered in that area.

[Here follows a more detailed examination of the aviation, meteorological, strategic, and territorial problems and issues relating to the Arctic region.]

ii. antarctic region10

A. Current US Policy. For more than a century US explorers have been making visits to the Antarctic region, as a result of which important discoveries have been made regarding the geography, resources, and other characteristics of the area and of the Antarctic continent in particular.

In 1819–1820 Captain Nathaniel D. Palmer proceeded south of the Shetland Islands practically to 65° south latitude and discovered new islands, named “Palmer Land” by the United States Geographic Board on November 6, 1912.

In an expedition authorized by Act of Congress of May 18, 1836, and proceeding under orders of the Navy Department dated August 11, 1838, the US exploring expedition under the command of Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, United States Navy, proceeded south from Sydney, Australia on December 26, 1839 and in January and February 1840 discovered and charted the coastline of the Antarctic continent between 160° and 100° east. The exact geographic extent of the exploration has not been defined. It is frequently asserted that Lt. Wilkes was the [Page 1047] real discoverer of the Antarctic continent. The portion of the coastline explored by him was in 1933 included by the British in the Australian Antarctic territory.

During the present century extensive explorations in the Antarctic have been carried on by private and official expeditions. Of greatest scope have been the explorations of Admiral Byrd and Lincoln Ellsworth during the seasons 1928–1929, 1933–1934, 1935, and 1939–41. The United States Antarctic Service Expedition, 1939–1941 was officially sponsored by the State, Navy, and Interior Departments and financed by Congressional appropriation. The Byrd and Ellsworth Expeditions have explored vast areas of the coastline and interior of the Antarctic continent, particularly between meridians 150° west and 68° west. Although Admiral Byrd’s West Base was stationed near “Little America” at approximately 164° west, the Department of State, in response to inquiries concerning sovereignty over “Little America,” pointed out that Admiral Byrd had claimed for the United States all the territory explored by him east of longitude 150° west but that “Little America” is situated to the west of longitude 150° west and, therefore, would not be included in the territory which he had claimed for the United States. However, the United States has not recognized that any claim to continental Antarctic territory thus far advanced by or on behalf of foreign governments serve to bar claims on behalf of the United States to any part of that continent. This Government is not obliged to assert US sovereignty over areas thus claimed for it but has reserved its right to do so. Thus in January 1939 Mr. Ellsworth flew over and claimed for the United States “the area south of latitude 70° and a distance of 150 miles east and 150 miles west of my line of flight and to a distance of 150 miles south of latitude 72° longitude 79° east . . . . .”11 It will be observed that this area is within the so-called Australian sector claimed by the British in 1933.

The United States Antarctic Service Expedition, 1939–1941, was of outstanding importance in connection with possible US territorial claims on the Antarctic continent. The Expedition was organized for the specific purpose of establishing and strengthening US claims within the sector previously explored by Admiral Byrd and by Lincoln Ellsworth to the east of “Little America.” Other governments, including the British, Norwegian, Australian, Japanese, and German, were showing intensified interest in Antarctica and it was felt that the time had come when the United States should either assert its claims or at least develop the basis for claims. The Expedition was noteworthy in that bases were established on the continent and maintained for a period of approximately two years. Large areas were actually explored and important information about them gathered by the Expedition. [Page 1048] The Expedition returned home when Congress refused to appropriate additional funds for its continued stay.

A US Naval Task Force on an expedition, known as “US Naval Antarctic Developments Project, 1947,” arrived in Antarctic waters in December, 1946, and is currently engaged in discovery, exploration, and survey of large areas of the Antarctic. A small private scientific expedition sponsored by the American Antarctic Association, Inc., is also planning to establish a base at Marguerite Bay, Palmer Land, during the Antarctic summer of 1947.

Although Americans, acting privately or under official auspices, have laid claim to large portions of the Antarctic Continent, particularly in the sectors 100° east to 160° east and 50° west to 150° west, the US Government has never officially asserted a claim to territory in Antarctica. On the other hand, it has not recognized the validity of any claims on the continent asserted by other governments. In several instances the United States has responded to official notifications of such foreign claims by a statement that it reserves all rights which the US or its citizens might have in the particular case. In response to some of these notifications by foreign governments the United States has stated that it could not admit that sovereignty accrues from mere discovery (i.e. in its note of May 16, 1939 to the French Government regarding Adélie Land.12 In a note to the British Ambassador on November 14, 1934 the Department of State asserted that “it could not admit that sovereignty accrues from mere discovery unaccompanied by occupancy and use.”13

In view of the above, the US policy up to 1939 was primarily one of refusal to recognize the claims asserted by other governments; to emphasize the absence of acts of occupation or use of the territory to the extent considered necessary for the perfecting of a valid claim; and to reserve all rights which the US or its citizens might have in Antarctic areas. Without abandoning the previous policy, the US Antarctic Service Expedition of 1939–41 was planned as the beginning of a positive policy to establish a formal basis for eventual US territorial claims in the Antarctic. This policy, the execution of which was interrupted during the war, is being revived as a definite policy of exploration and use of those Antarctic areas considered desirable for acquisition by the US, including those Antarctic areas to which we already have a reasonable basis for claim to inchoate title by virtue of prior discovery and use, in order that we may be in a position to advance territorial claims to those areas at such time or times as it appears we have sufficient basis of sustained interest and use to substantiate [Page 1049] claims under international law. A definite US policy has not yet been formulated respecting the manner in which an eventual settlement of conflicting territorial claims in the Antarctic shall be reached. An official statement was made on January 7, 1947 that this Government did not consider it essential to call immediately an international conference on Antarctic questions which are not of major world importance.14 It may be recalled that President Roosevelt in 1939 attempted without success to secure the adoption of a common inter-American policy with reference to the Antarctic. It may also be recalled that President Monroe in enunciating his famous Doctrine stated that the United States should “Consider any attempt on their part (Europe) to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.” The question may be considered whether a portion of the Antarctic Continent and adjacent islands lie within “this hemisphere” thus providing a basis for considering that the Monroe Doctrine applies to them. Thus far the United States has taken no official action on such a premise. It has been noted above that Argentina and Chile also have territorial interests within the Western Hemisphere sector of Antarctica.

The United States has not, thus far, recognized the validity of the “sector” method of delineating Antarctic claims. It may be observed that the “sector principle” in the form announced by the Soviet Union in the Arctic has no parallel application in the Antarctic, since there are no “contiguous” territories extending into this area which could supply a base line from which to project southward to the Pole meridians bounding large sectors of the Antarctic mainland. It must be assumed, therefore, that the “sector” method of definition has been used in the Antarctic merely as a convenient method of defining boundaries on a continent which has largely remained unexplored. Although it may be admitted that normal rules of international law regarding acquisition of territory by discovery and effective occupation cannot reasonably be applied to the Antarctic Continent, there is objection to recognizing national claims based merely on “discovery” or on superficial exploration of parts of the coastline or ice barrier. In view of the numerous conflicting claims, none of which can be supported by recourse to established principles of international law governing acquisition of terra nullius in temperate regions, and in view of the possibility that troublesome rivalry may, therefore, ensue, it is probably desirable that the territorial problem in the Antarctic should eventually be settled by international action and agreement. Pending such international action, however, the United States is interested in reserving all its rights and in taking the steps necessary to support claims which it may wish to advance on its own behalf.

[Page 1050]

[Here follows a more detailed examination of some problems and issues of the Antarctic region including territorial rights, resources and possible economic development, and other possible values of Antarctica.]

  1. The Department of State’s Policy and Information Statements were concise documents summarizing the current United States policy toward a country or region, the relations of that country or region with the principal powers, and the issues and trends in that country or region. These Statements, which were begun in the spring of 1946, were generally prepared by ad hoc working groups in the responsible geographic offices of the Department of State and were referred to appropriate diplomatic posts abroad for comment and criticism. The Statements were periodically revised.
  2. For the text of the treaty between the United States and Russia regarding the cession of Alaska to the United States, signed in Washington on March 30, 1867, see Foreign Relations, 1867, Part i, p. 388; and William M. Malloy (ed.), Treaties, Conventions, etc., Between the United States of America and Other Powers, 1116–1909 (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1910), vol. ii, p. 1521. For documentation regarding the negotiation and ratification of the treaty, see Foreign Relations, 1867, Part i, pp. 388407.
  3. In a portion of the Policy and Information Statement not here printed, the Soviet decree under reference here was quoted as follows:

    “Proclaimed as territory of the Soviet Union are all, discovered or yet to be discovered, lands and islands, not forming at the moment of publication of the present decree, territory recognized by the Government of the Soviet Union as belonging to any other States, and situated in the Northern Arctic Ocean to the north of the littoral of the Soviet Union up to the North Pole within the limits between the meridian of 32°4’35” longitude east of Greenwich, . . . . . and the meridian of 168°49'30" of longitude west of Greenwich. . . . .” [Ellipses in source text.]

  4. The text of the message sent by telegram to Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes on November 24, 1924, is printed in Ministerstvo inostrannykh del SSSR, Dokumenty vneshnei politiki SSSR, vol. vii (Moscow, 1963), p. 531.
  5. According to a portion of the Policy and Information Statement not here printed, the Canadian Government had made clear its claim to all islands lying to the north of continental Canada within the sector bounded on the east by the 60th meridian and on the west by the 141st meridian, with the exception of that portion of Greenland which lay within that sector.
  6. For documentation on the attitude of the United States regarding the reported demands by the Soviet Union on Norway with respect to Spitsbergen and Bear Island, see Foreign Relations, 1945, vol. v, pp. 91 ff. and Foreign Relations, 1946, vol. vi, pp. 673 ff., passim.
  7. The topics under reference here are dealt with authoritatively in the following volumes in the series United States Army in World War II: Stanley W. Dziuban, Military Relations Between the United States and Canada 1939–1945 (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1959); Stetson Conn and Byron Fairchild, The Framework of Hemisphere Defense (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1960); Stetson Conn, Rose C. Engelman, and Byron Fairchild, Guarding the United States and Its Outposts (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1964). See also the documentation regarding the agreement for the defense of Greenland, April 9, 1941, in Foreign Relations, 1941, vol. ii, pp. 35 ff. and the documentation on the participation of the United States in the defense of Iceland in Ibid., pp. 776 ff. and Ibid., 1942, vol. iii, pp. 1 ff.
  8. For documentation on the United States-Canadian discussions in 1946 relating to joint defense measures, see Foreign Relations, 1946, vol. v, pp. 53 ff. For documentation regarding the operation of weather stations in Greenland and discussions with Denmark concerning the role of Greenland in the defense of the Western Hemisphere, see Ibid., 1945, vol. iv, pp. 574 ff., and Ibid., 1946, vol. v, pp. 398 ff. Regarding the efforts of the United States to obtain postwar leases for military bases in Iceland, see Ibid., 1945, vol. iv, p. 953, and Ibid., 1946, vol. v, pp. 824 ff.
  9. The extract on the Antarctic Region printed here, which comprised pages 79 of the source text, was subsequently included as an attachment to a memorandum sent by the Acting Secretary of State to the Secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Interior on December 11; and to the Secretaries of the Air Force and Commerce on December 16; see p. 1055.
  10. Omission indicated in the source text.
  11. For the text of the note under reference, see Instruction 1487, May 16, 1989, to Paris, Foreign Relations, 1939, vol. ii, p. 5.
  12. For the text of the note quoted here, see Foreign Relations, 1934, vol. i, p. 1012.
  13. Regarding the statement referred to here, see telegram 490 to London, January 30, infra.