Department of State Policy Statement1


Polar Regions

i. arctic region

U.S. Interest

Aside from our immediate interest in the Arctic, resulting from possession of Alaska, the U.S. is deeply concerned with the strategic significance of the lands surrounding the Arctic basin, in part at least because of the proximity of Canada, Greenland, and Iceland along Arctic or sub-Arctic invasion routes from the Soviet Union. It is vital to the safety of the United States and the Western Hemisphere that international planning for Arctic defense continue. Planning for Arctic defense as part of the defense of the U.S., and in accordance with existing treaty obligations, should therefore be pursued in conjunction with other interested nations and through international organizations as appropriate. In many cases the NATO affords an excellent framework within which to deal with defense requirements.

U.S. interest in the Arctic goes beyond considerations of defense, however. Even in normal times, the areas where the great circle routes cross the Arctic and sub-Arctic between the great Northern Hemisphere population centers are important to air and sea travel and radio communications. Magnetic and ionospheric data from the Arctic are needed in connection with these and other communications. Weather information from a network of stations within the area is essential for purposes of commercial and military aviation and shipping, as well as for weather forecasting in the Temperate Zone. Radio navigation systems in the area provide added safety for air and sea travel. In some Arctic localities, in addition to Alaska, exploitation of minerals may have some significance.

Policy Objectives

U.S. policy in the Arctic aims (1) to safeguard our strategic interests in the area, (2) to facilitate the establishment and maintenance in the area of installations required for commercial transportation, communications and weather services, and (3) to avoid, so far as possible, any action tending to support the so-called “sector principle” in the Arctic.

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The United States seeks to maintain adequate base and communications facilities in the Arctic area to complement facilities established on U.S. territory. In cooperation with other countries, particularly Denmark, Iceland and Canada, it seeks to maintain and improve the network of Arctic weather and communications facilities. Specific problems in United States relations with each area bordering the Arctic are discussed in the appropriate country policy statements (Canada,2 Iceland,3 Denmark,4 Norway,5 USSR).6 These statements should also be consulted for policy evaluations concerning Arctic problems.


The purchase of Alaska in 1867, and the activities of U.S. citizens who carried on explorations and made new discoveries in the Arctic region, gave the United States a prominent place in the development of the area. This U.S. position has never been used to assert formal claim to any of the new territories explored or discovered. On the other hand, the U.S. Government does not recognize the sector claims of the Soviet Union and Canada in the areas north of their accepted territorial limits.

The Soviet sector claim was announced in a Soviet decree of April 15, 1926.7 The Soviet Union had earlier (in a telegram of November 12, 1924 to Secretary Hughes)8 complained of U.S. and other violations of Soviet territory in the region of the northern coast of Siberia. It was alleged that the United States, in the Convention of 1867 by which [Page 1724] Russia ceded Alaska to the United States,9 forfeited any rights to claim territory west of the Treaty boundary dividing Russian and Alaskan territory. On this question the Department has taken the position that the Treaty boundary merely marked the territory ceded to the U.S. which was “then possessed” by Russia and in no way restricted the U.S. from participation in further exploration and discoveries west of that boundary.

The U.S. has not recognized Canadian claims based on sector delimitation alone.10 However, we have not been inclined to challenge Canadian claims to jurisdiction over those areas in which the Canadian Government is exercising control. Thus, we have not challenged Canadian control over certain islands, in connection with the Joint Canadian-U.S. Weather Station Program.11

Interest and activity by both the Canadian and Soviet Governments within their respective Arctic sectors have increased significantly in recent years. This would place them in a strong position, in the event rival claims were advanced, to support their claims to superior title by concrete evidence of acts of possession and control exercised without challenge over a considerable period. An international court might therefore uphold the validity of their claims to certain areas, even without reference to the so-called “sector principle.”

The question of title to lands which might be discovered within the claimed sectors in the future is an entirely different matter. Our main objection to application of the sector principle in the Arctic results from the implication that claims can be defined in terms of areas which may include land not yet discovered, much less occupied, by the claimant countries. Thus, we would not acquiesce in a claim to lands merely on the basis of the sector principle. Nor could the Arctic seas, in our view, be made subject to “territorial” sovereignty of any state even though they might contain ice areas having some characteristics of land. The United States position is that the Arctic seas and the air spaces above them, insofar as they are outside of accepted territorial limits, are open to commerce and navigation in the same degree as other open seas.

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Norway’s sovereignty over Spitsbergen, Bear Island, and Jan Mayen, and Danish sovereignty over Greenland, have been recognized by the U.S. No occasion has arisen requiring U.S. decision on the Norwegian reservation of rights in Fridtjof Nansen Land (formerly called Franz Josef Land) within the sector claimed by the USSR. Since neither Norway nor Denmark have propounded any “sector” claim in the Arctic it is assumed that the acquisition of new territories which might be discovered to the north of the Spitsbergen–Greenland zone would 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 was 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. This interest has been stated by the Joint, Chiefs of Staff to be a long-range interest. The U.S. therefore continues, under the NAT and other arrangements, to try to strengthen the defenses of the area, in cooperation with the governments most directly concerned (Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and U.K.).12

ii. antarctic region

U.S. Interest

From the beginning of discovery in the Antarctic, and particularly in the past two decades, U.S. explorers and scientific expeditions have made outstanding contributions to knowledge of the area. Aside from the emotional response evoked by memories of these activities, our first immediate interest in the Antarctic is in the acquisition of meteorological and other scientific data unavailable elsewhere in the world. Another interest, of less importance, arises from the utility of the area for cold-weather training of military personnel and the testing of Arctic equipment.

Information now available does not support the view that the Antarctic will acquire significance in the foreseeable future as a commercially important source of minerals, a communications link, or a decisive factor in the military control of the adjacent sea route around South America. As a matter of ordinary prudence, however, the U.S. seeks to safeguard its interests in the area and, as a strategic precaution, would oppose participation in the control of Antarctica by potentially unfriendly powers. Also, the importance in the public mind of the potential value of the continent requires that popular opinion be given close attention in the implementation of policy relating to the area.

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Policy Objectives

The U.S., while protecting and promoting its essential interests in the Antarctic, seeks to eliminate international friction and to achieve a solution of the problem of claims which will facilitate development of a systematic, scientific investigation of the region. Defense considerations require that any solution of the territorial problem should:

Deny to our most probable enemies participation in the control of all or any part of Antarctica,
Insure that such control would be exercised by friendly powers, and
Not constitute a precedent adversely affecting U.S. interests in the Arctic.

The U.S. is attempting to accomplish its aims by means of a modus vivendi freezing the current status of Antarctic claims for a specified period. This would be a limited advance toward our original objective of internationalization but, like that project, the proposal may meet such resistance from other countries that it will have to be subordinated to more important aspects of our foreign relations.

Current Situation

Our 1948 suggestion for discussion of internationalization of the Antarctic was unsuccessful in that it was unfavorably received by most of the seven countries to which it was presented (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, the U.K.). It did, however, prompt a counter-proposal from Chile which has since been the subject of an exchange of views with the Chileans, and occasional informal consultation between the U.S. and the U.K. The draft modus vivendi, as most recently modified by us,13 would declare:

That the eight signatories, desiring to avoid any cause for international difference, are engaged in talks looking toward a solution of the problem of Antarctica;
That any activities carried out in the area during the life of the declaration will not prejudice such rights as the signatories now possess, nor be invoked thereafter against other signatories as bases for territorial claims;
That any of the signatories may conduct exploration and scientific research in any part of the area;
That the signatories will exchange scientific information relating to the Antarctic;
That the signatories will create a consultative committee for coordination of plans and exchange of information concerning the Antarctic;
That the signatories agree not to assent to any expedition of a non-signatory except on condition that such activity will not be invoked as a basis for territorial claims;
That in case events threaten the maintenance of the status quo the signatories will communicate to agree on counter measures;
That the declaration shall remain in force eight years, prior to the end of which time the signatories will consult concerning the advantage of meeting in an Antarctic conference.

Efforts to broaden the proposed modus vivendi to imply the possibility of a future solution of the “territorial” problem, or to permit the committee any but consultative powers, have been resisted by the Chileans. Thus, if approved by the claimant countries, the declaration would have no direct effect on the future of national claims to Antarctic territory, but it would tend to relieve tension and to encourage investigation of the area as a whole.

Provided that Chile approves a draft declaration reasonably satisfactory to us, we would be willing to consider the desirability of participating with the Chileans in the circulation of the draft to the other six claimant countries listed above. Such U.S. participation would overcome physical limitations arising out of the lack of Chilean representation at certain capitals and would be calculated to lend increased weight to the proposal. It has been planned that the U.S. would announce an official claim as soon as there is prospect of agreement on a modus vivendi. This would give us status comparable to the prospective signatories, all of which have official Antarctic claims. Although all of these countries received a copy of the original Chilean proposal in 1948, we are not aware of the attitude of any of the prospective signatories other than the United Kingdom. However, the extremely nationalistic approach of Argentina to Antarctic matters makes her acceptance of this project doubtful.

Countries other than the present claimants which have shown some degree of interest in the Antarctic include the Union of South Africa, Belgium, Sweden, the USSR, Germany, and Japan. Of these, the last two might have better grounds than the others for advancing territorial claims, but the peace settlements with them would afford an opportunity for renunciation of such rights.14

The interest of the Soviet Union in the Antarctic has increased since World War II. Prior to our 1948 suggestion for internationalization, this interest was apparently limited to exploitation of the whaling resources of the area. Early in 1949, however, the All Union Geographical Society of the USSR adopted a resolution asserting the right of the Soviet Union to take part in any solution of Antarctic problems.15 The first official statement of this view came in June 1950, [Page 1728] when the Soviet Union handed memoranda to the United States and six other countries with Antarctic interests (excepting Chile, with which it had no relations). These communications again asserted the Soviet right to participate in discussions of the type proposed by the United States in 1948, and warned that the USSR would not recognize as valid any solution of the territorial problem in which it did not take part.

The memorandum attempted to justify Soviet interest on the basis of a Russian naval voyage of 1819–21 and on the scientific and economic significance of the area. The voyage was the circumnavigation of the Antarctic Continent by Bellingshausen and Lazarev. While they sighted no part of the mainland the Russians can be said to be the first to have discovered land south of the Antarctic Circle (Peter I and Alexander I Islands, in the area opposite South America). The Russians were unable to land on these islands and the area has since been extensively explored and charted by nations of other countries. Illustrative of the scientific and economic interests of the USSR, the memorandum noted Soviet Antarctic whaling activities since 1946, and the significance for the Northern Hemisphere of Antarctic meteorological observations. The tone of the memorandum was conciliatory, in contrast to the increased volume of semi-official statements on the subject appearing in the Soviet Union following delivery of the memorandum.

Only Argentina (and Chile, by means of a public statement) has replied to the Soviet memorandum.16 In parallel statements the two countries categorically rejected any right of the Soviet Union to claim territory or participate in the discussion of Antarctic problems and reaffirmed the validity of their own territorial claims. The Department has seen no advantage in replying to the Soviet memorandum and it is understood that the other claimant countries have no plans for early replies. The British have told us informally that their most effective reply would be to point out the absence of official Soviet claims in the Antarctic.17 The fact that such a statement would, as they recognize, place the United States and the Soviet Union in the same category may have been calculated to encourage us to announce an official claim, a step which the British have favored.

The failure thus far of the U.S. to announce an official claim and our refusal to recognize the Antarctic claims of other countries rest on the traditional and orthodox view that discovery and exploration of new territories, which are not followed by effective control or occupation, [Page 1729] do not give valid title. Discovery alone is said to give merely an inchoate title which must later be perfected by occupation. Because of the impossibility of occupying certain polar regions, however, it may in the future be generally recognized that title to such regions may be acquired by some form of control short of actual settlement. Meanwhile, an official assertion and notification of claim on the part of the United States would, at the least, serve as evidence of its intention to preserve such title as it may have.

Among existing claims, those of Argentina, Chile, and the U.K. all overlap in the area of Palmer Peninsula. In addition, the U.S. claim which we would be prepared to define would comprise all areas first explored and mapped by U.S. nationals and would conflict with all existing claims. Wishing to avoid as much as possible any aggravation of tension, we prefer that announcement of a U.S. claim be related to the process of arriving at an international settlement of the territorial question. Announcement of a U.S. claim would permit our participation in the proposed modus vivendi on a basis of equality with other claimants, or, if an agreement of this type proved impossible, it would lay the foundation for perfection of U.S. title at some future date.

Having its basis in U.S. activities, the claim would deliberately ignore the sector lines along which other Antarctic claims, excepting possibly Norway’s are drawn. To the extent that conditions in the Antarctic and the Arctic regions are comparable, this would reflect our non-acceptance of application of the “sector principle” in the North Polar area (see Section I). Actually it is possible, and may be necessary, for the U.S. to distinguish between (1) efforts to apply the sector principle in the Arctic to extension of sovereignty from a coastline out over undiscovered land and possibly over water and (2) use in the Antarctic of the “hinterland” principle, recognized elsewhere, to delimit Antarctic claims between meridians of longitude and pole-ward from a coastal strip claimed on the basis of right.

Policy Evaluation

Appraisal of our Antarctic policy involves measuring the chances of success offered by alternative courses of action, against the objectives of protecting essential U.S. interests, avoiding international friction and division, and achieving scientific progress in the area. The courses immediately open to us are few: either we maintain our traditional opposition to partition of the area into national territories at this time, or we admit the appropriateness of such partition and announce an official U.S. claim. Combined with either of these courses we might attempt to increase our activities in the areas of U.S. interest or to seek some kind of international settlement of the territorial problem.

Ignoring for the moment the factor of overt Soviet interest in the territorial problem, it is plain that maintenance of our traditional [Page 1730] attitude regarding claims exerts no positive influence in favor of essential U.S. interests in Antarctica, although certain interests may for the present be adequately safeguarded by continuing to reserve our rights. Neither does our traditional position help to relieve existing international tensions or to promote scientific progress in the area.

The other possible course—asserting an official claim—would tend to protect our national interests by formalizing our rights based on activities in the area and might spur the Soviet Union to similar action. By itself, however, such action would tend to increase tensions between the U.S. and other claimants. It is also safe to assume that isolated announcement of a U.S. claim, in addition to having no favorable effect on the existing atmosphere for scientific investigation, would be likely to increase limitations on the freedom of expeditions to enter any part of the area.

Combining an increase in U.S. activities in the Antarctic with either of the foregoing courses could have the effect of strengthening and extending U.S. rights and possibly of promoting scientific progress, but it would tend also to aggravate international tension over conflicting claims, present or potential. On the other hand, an agreement among the claimants concerning the territorial problem should have the effect of relieving rivalries resulting from uncertainty as to the strengths of their respective claims and from the efforts of each nation to enhance its own position. It could also improve conditions for scientific investigation, while preserving each nation’s rights and interests as they currently exist.

These, in fact, are the aims of our present policy of working toward a modus vivendi such as Chile proposes. The policy involves maintenance of our traditional position as to claims until such time as there appears a good prospect for making the announcement of U.S. claims part of an international arrangement. The danger in this policy is that it may let pass the opportunity for announcing claims at the time discussion of a modus vivendi is begun, regardless of the outlook for its success. However, it balances this possible shortcoming by avoiding announcement of national claims at a moment when it might interfere with favorable consideration of such a proposal by other countries.

Our failure to invite Soviet participation in discussion of Antarctic problems may have to be defended, not only on legal grounds, but also before international public opinion. While the exclusion of Soviet Union was dictated on grounds of national interest, it was justified primarily by our estimate of the relatively minor and remote contribution of Russia to knowledge of the Antarctic. This estimate also applied to the other countries which were not invited to participate in discussion of our 1948 proposal. In considering the question of a reply to the Soviet memorandum of June 1950, however, it was apparent that whatever arguments we might use to reject the Soviet claims to participation, [Page 1731] those arguments could be taken by the Soviet Union as the criteria it should set about to satisfy in order to qualify for participation in an Antarctic solution. It therefore appears preferable to continue trying to reach agreement on a modus vivendi among the countries having the preponderant right to decide the future of Antarctica. When concluded, an arrangement of this type should place the signatories as a group in a stronger position, at least as regards public opinion, than is possible under present conditions of unregulated rivalry.

  1. Department of State Policy Statements summarized current U.S. policy and related problems and issues concerning particular countries or regions; they were intended for the information and guidance of officers in missions abroad. They were generally prepared by ad hoc working groups in the responsible geographic offices of the Department of State, were referred to the appropriate diplomatic missions abroad for comment and criticism, and were periodically revised.
  2. Department of State Policy Statement, Canada, March 19, not printed. Documentation on political and military relations between the United States and Canada may be found in vol. ii, pp. 870 ff.
  3. The most recent policy statement concerning Iceland, dated May 15, 1950, is printed in Foreign Relations, 1950, vol. iii, p. 1459. Documentation regarding U.S. relations with Iceland in 1951 may be found in volume iv.
  4. The most recent policy statement regarding Denmark, dated October 1, 1949, is printed in Foreign Relations, 1949, vol. iv, p. 618.
  5. The most recent policy statement concerning Norway, dated September 15, 1950, is printed ibid., 1950, vol. iii, p. 1530. For documentation regarding U.S. relations with Norway in 1951, see volume iv .
  6. Reference is apparently to a draft policy statement, undated but filed with a covering memorandum of January 16, printed in part in volume iv in documentation on efforts to negotiate a lend-lease settlement with the Soviet Union.
  7. In a Department of State Policy and Information Statement, January 27, 1947, the Soviet decree under reference 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°49'35" longitude east of Greenwich. . . . and the meridian of 168°49'30" of longitude west of Greenwich. . .” [Ellipses in source text.] The 1947 Policy and Information Statement is printed in part in Foreign Relations, 1947, vol. i, pp. 10431062.
  8. 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, volume VII (Moscow, 1963), p. 531.
  9. For the text of the Convention, signed at Washington on March 30, 1867, see Foreign Relations, 1867, Part I, pp. 388–390, and William M. Malloy, ed., Treaties, Conventions, International Acts, Protocols and Agreements Between the United States of America and Other Powers (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1910), vol. II, pp. 1521–1524.
  10. According to the Policy and Information Statement of January 27, 1947, cited in footnote 7 above, 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. The portion of the Statement concerning Canadian claims is not printed; see Foreign Relations, 1947, vol. i, p. 1044, footnote 6.
  11. For information concerning arrangements between the United States and Canada regarding the Joint Canadian-U.S. Arctic Weather Stations, see ibid., vol. iii, p. 135.
  12. Documentation concerning U.S. relations with the United Kingdom is presented in volume iv.
  13. The draft modus vivendi, undated, not printed, was given to the Minister Counselor of the Chilean Embassy on February 28; see Hulley’s memorandum of conversation, March 1, p. 1715.
  14. In the Treaty of Peace with Japan, signed at San Francisco on September 8, Japan renounced all claims to any rights or interest regarding the Antarctic. For the text of the treaty, see 3 UST 3169. For documentation concerning the drafting of the treaty, see vol. vi, Part 1, pp. 777 ff.
  15. For information concerning this resolution, adopted at a meeting of the All Union Geographic Society of the USSR on February 10, 1949, see footnote 1, Foreign Relations, 1949, vol. i, p. 794.
  16. The Argentine note of August 25, 1950, and the Chilean statement of September 12, 1950, are summarized in footnotes 3 and 4, Foreign Relations, 1950, vol. i, p. 917.
  17. J. Gordon Boyd, First Secretary, British Embassy, informed Hulley in a letter of November 16, 1950, not printed, that the British Government had decided to make no reply to the Soviet memorandum, chiefly because of the difficulty of finding a principle which excluded the Soviet Government without also excluding the U.S. Government (702.022/11–1650).