Paper Prepared by the Policy Planning Staff 1



Problem: To establish the policy of the Department regarding the recognition of new governments


1. The problem of recognition of governments has been placed on the agenda of the forthcoming 9th International Conference of American States at the initiative of the Ecuadoran Government in proposing a convention to eliminate recognition of de facto governments, and of the Guatemalan Government in proposing an agreement not to recognize “anti-democratic” regimes. This question is under study in the Department, and the time is opportune to establish our recognition policy on a worldwide basis.

2. A study of United States policy in the recognition of new governments prepared in the Department last year by RE2 states that what is referred to as our traditional policy of recognition of new governments on the de facto principle has been subject to a wide variation of interpretation during the past century and a half. The de facto principle, first enunciated by Secretary of State Jefferson stated “It accords with our principles to acknowledge any government to be rightful which is formed by the will of the nation, substantially declared.… The will of the nation is the only thing essential to be regarded.” A Department instruction in 1900 expressed an extreme and simplified interpretation of the de facto principle in stating that United States policy was “to base the recognition of a foreign government solely on its de facto ability to hold the reins of administrative power”. Ability and willingness of the de facto government to discharge international obligations has been one of the principles upon which U.S. recognition has been based for many years. At some periods such as those of our own Civil War and during the Wilson Administration a requirement of “constitutionality” was a factor; which gave rise to the problem of moral censure or the use of non-recognition as a political weapon. According to the RE memorandum, the consensus is that non-recognition has not proved very effective as a political weapon.

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3. The Ecuadoran proposal which is to be considered in the Bogotá Conference recommends that the custom of recognizing de facto governments in the system of reciprocal relations of the American Republics be abolished, and that the establishment of a de facto government in any one of them shall not affect the normality or the continuity of pre-existing diplomatic relations between the State in which the change of regime has occurred and the other States. This proposal is in effect a restatement of the Estrada Doctrine of Mexico. The Mexican Government in 1930 instructed its diplomatic representatives that it was issuing no declarations in the sense of grants of recognition; and that the Government of Mexico would confine itself to the maintenance or withdrawal, as it might deem advisable, of its diplomatic agents, and to the continued acceptance, also when it might deem advisable, of such similar accredited diplomatic agents as the respective nations may have in Mexico.

The Guatemalan proposal recommends that the American Republics refrain from granting recognition to and maintaining relations with anti-democratic regimes which, in the future, may establish themselves in any of the countries of the continent, in particular with regimes which may result from coup d’etat against legitimately established governments of a democratic character; and, as a specific rule for characterizing such regimes, the extent to which the popular will-in the particular country may have contributed to their establishment, according to the free judgment of each State. The Inter-American Juridical Committee studied the Guatemalan proposal and expressed, the opinion, with the member of the United States dissenting, that the proposal is not to be recommended for approval.

4. The Bogotá Policy Committee has studied the questions of recognition and establishment and maintenance of diplomatic relations. It has recommended that the United States should support or present for adoption by the Conference a resolution stating that the continuity of diplomatic relations among the American States is desirable and that the establishment or maintenance of diplomatic relations with a given government does not imply approval of the internal policy of that government. The Bogotá Policy Committee also recommends that the United States should oppose any action by the Conference looking toward the formulation of a convention on recognition and, specifically, should oppose the Ecuadoran proposal that the practice of recognizing de facto governments be abolished by convention. In its studies of the question, the Bogotá Policy Committee considered the following principal criteria which might apply in deciding whether to establish relations with a government of another American States established by force: [Page 19]

the effective control by the regime of the national territory and of the administration of the State, and
the ability of the regime to discharge the international obligations of the State.

Arguments in favor of such a position are that it would eliminate many of the interruptions in diplomatic relations, particularly at times when the presence of a diplomatic mission is highly useful and desirable; that it would amount to a frank admission that attempts to force a de facto government to follow desirable internal policies by withholding recognition have generally failed; that by discouraging refusal to recognize a government it would emphasize the importance of developing and relying upon satisfactory multilateral procedure (including the breaking of diplomatic relations) when the community of States felt it necessary and justifiable to enforce any given rule of law; that it would clarify U.S. policy by placing on a firm basis a practice which has at times been expressed and followed by this Government (for example recently with respect to Eastern European countries) but from which it has frequently deviated in the Western Hemisphere; and that it would be welcomed by many of the Latin American countries as tending in the general direction of the Estrada Doctrine and so eliminate the basis for charges that U.S. recognition practice frequently constitutes intervention.

Arguments against the position are that it would constitute a complete retreat from the position which this Government has at various: times taken in requiring an indication of popular support for de facto governments before recognition, and would be interpreted as a weakening of our support for democratic principles; that it would encourage revolutions even by anti-democratic and undesirable groups, in the knowledge that recognition would be automatic upon their effective-seizure of control; that the right of individual moral suasion by refusal of recognition should be preserved; and that it would be undesirable for the United States to assume even an implied commitment to act in conformity with any set formula.

Whether and when recognition will be accorded is a matter within the discretion of the recognizing State. (Digest of International Law—Hackworth) Recognition has occasionally been extended through joint action by a number of governments, but it has been the usual practice of the United States to refrain from participating in such joint action. (Digest of International Law—Hackworth)

President Truman stated in his Navy Day Address in 1945: “We shall refuse to recognize any government imposed upon any nation by the force of any foreign power. In some cases it may be impossible to prevent forceful imposition of such a government. But the United: States will not recognize any such government.”

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Among the reasons for our non-recognition of the Soviet regime, Secretary of State Colby included:

that the regime represented only a small minority of the Russian people and retained control by oppressive means;
that it was based upon the negation of principles of honor and good faith and of the usages of international law;
that there could be no basis for free relations with the agents of a regime which engaged in intrigue and propaganda to bring about the overthrow of peaceful governments.

Secretary of State Hughes emphasized that non-recognition of the Soviet Union was based not on “legitimist” arguments but primarily on the demonstrated unwillingness of the Soviet Government to honor its international obligations.

In connection with the recognition of governments in the last few years, stress has been placed upon the holding of free and unfettered elections, the participation of representatives of various parties in the government, assurances of the granting of freedom of the press, speech, religion, association, etc. (See the report of the Crimean Conference of February 11, 1945; the Potsdam Communiqué of August 2, 1945; and the Communiqué on the Moscow Conference of December 27, 1945.3)

Recognition of a government also has legal consequences of great importance, which affect the protection of citizens and interests of the recognizing government and which have a direct bearing on procedures that flow from international relationships.


6. The Department should establish a recognition policy on a worldwide basis. The fundamental interests of the United States should be the primary consideration in formulating the policy; and the policy should be flexible enough to meet changing conditions and to permit of adjustment in application to a given country at a given time.

7. Non-recognition as a political weapon should not be a principal determinant of our policy with respect to the recognition of a new government, but we should act in given cases so as to best serve U.S. interests by seeking to promote international order and stability. There are clear advantages in the withholding of recognition when a regime has been imposed by force from without or clearly cannot be assumed to have the support of the people of the country, or has refused to live up to its international obligations including intentional disregard of U.S. rights and interests, or would clearly constitute an international [Page 21] menace because of its intent to upset the governments of free countries or to adopt similar policies. The benefit of the doubt could be given to regimes which give evidence of de facto control and of popular support, if such regimes are friendly to the United States or at least not hostile to it and if they show signs of being able to survive.

8. The question of breaking diplomatic relations is a separate one, although closely related to recognition policy.


9. The recognition policy of the Department should be based upon the three following factors, any or all of which would be applied in a given case according to U.S. national interests:

de facto control of the territory and the administrative machinery of State, including the maintenance of public order;
the ability and willingness of a government to discharge its international obligations;
general acquiescence of the people of a country in the government in power.

The foregoing three factors should not preclude the recognition by the United States of governments in exile, which recognition should be based almost exclusively on political considerations and the national interest.

10. Recognition of a government by the United States should imply neither approval nor disapproval of the policies of that government with respect to strictly domestic affairs.

11. Recognition should not be withheld as a political weapon or to express moral censure except in extreme cases when U.S. national interests would be served thereby.

12. The legal consequences of recognition, particularly as they affect the protection of United States citizens and interests, should be considered in connection with decisions about the recognition of any government by the United States.

13. The Department should express willingness to consult in the inter-American system or in the United Nations regarding questions of recognition, but should retain freedom of decision and should not bind itself to act in accordance with any joint formula.

14. Any resolution regarding recognition to be presented by the United States Delegation at the Bogotá Conference, and any position taken by the Delegation, should not be at variance with the foregoing conclusions and recommendations.

  1. Approved by the Secretary of State. Copy transmitted in a circular instruction to diplomatic representatives in the American Republics (not printed), June 8, 1948 which noted that “a Resolution on the ‘Exercise of the Right to Continuity of Diplomatic Relations’ was approved as Article XXXIII of the Final Act of the Ninth International Conference of American States held recently in Bogotá. This Resolution is in harmony with the policy set forth in the Policy Planning Staff paper.”
  2. Not printed.
  3. Foreign Relations, 1945, The Conferences at Malta and Yalta, p. 968; Foreign Relations, 1945, The Conference of Berlin (The Potsdam Conference), vol. ii, p. 1499; and Foreign Relations, 1945, vol. ii, p. 815.