Conference Files: Lot 59 D 95: CF57

Policy Review Paper Prepared in the Bureau of Near Eastern, South Asian, and African Affairs1

RPTD D–5/1a

Turkish Straits


Position of US in event that the USSR raises the question of revision of the 1936 Convention regarding the Regime of the Straits.2

[Page 1102]


The control of the Straits is an old and persistent historical issue. The modern phase of the “Straits question” began in 1774 when, according to the provisions of the Treaty of Kutchuk Kainardji, Russia won passage rights through the Straits for its merchant vessels. From then until 1917 there were innumerable diplomatic interchanges, agreements, and treaties defining and re-defining the rights of foreign merchantmen and warships to pass through that waterway. Although it has been Russia’s primary objective to secure full political control of the Straits, in general the Ottoman Empire controlled the region of the Straits from 1453 to its collapse at the end of World War I. From 1923 until 1936 the status of the Straits was defined by the Lausanne Convention which demilitarized those waters and placed them under the supervision of an international Commission.3

The present convention regulating the use of the Turkish Straits (the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus) was signed at Montreux on July 20, 1936, by Bulgaria, France, Great Britain, Greece, Japan, Rumania, Turkey, Yugoslavia and the USSR, and came into force on November 9 of that year. By that Convention the International “Straits Commission”, which had been set up under the terms of the Lausanne Convention (1923), was abolished, and Turkey gained full control of the Straits with the right to fortify that waterway. At the final session of the Montreux Conference, the Soviet Foreign Minister4 acknowledged the progress which had been made but pointed out that the conference had recognized “although in an insufficient way, the special rights of the riverain states of the Black Sea in the Black Sea in connection with the passage of the Straits, as well as the special geographical situation of the Black Sea in which the general conceptions of the absolute freedom of the seas could not be entirely applied.”

In the years following the entry into force of the above Convention, the new regime of the Straits appeared to work well and in the interest of all parties concerned, but it was clear by 1929 and during the course of World War II that the Soviet Government was not satisfied with it. The USSR raised the problem of the Straits with the Germans both in August 1939 and in November 1940, indicating that “real” guarantees, in the form of air and naval bases in the Straits were vital to Soviet security in place of the mere .”paper” guarantees of the Montreux Convention.

The question of a revision of the Montreux Straits Convention was discussed at Yalta in 1945 where it was agreed that at their next [Page 1103] meeting the Foreign Ministers should consider proposals which the Soviet Government would put forward on this question and would report to their Governments as well as to Turkey.5

Shortly thereafter, on March 19, 1945—less than one month after Turkey’s entry into the war—the USSR denounced the Soviet-Turkish Treaty of Friendship and Neutrality of 1925 and subsequently demanded that any substitute agreement must provide special privileges for the USSR in the Straits as well as territorial concessions in North-eastern Turkey (the Kars-Ardahan district)—conditions which Turkey was unwilling to accept.6

It was officially recognized at Potsdam in 1945 that the Montreux Convention required revision, but no agreement could be reached with respect to the principles on which the revision should be based. President Truman proposed a regime of freedom for the Straits, approved and guaranteed by the Three powers within the framework of the United Nations. Although the President was strongly supported by Churchill, Marshal Stalin again demanded bases on the Straits, declaring that they were essential for the security of the USSR and stating that passage rights for Black Sea Powers should be backed by force, just as the right for American and British ships to pass through the Panama and Suez Canals is backed by force.7 The English text of the agreed protocol of that conference, dated August 1, 1945, states:

“The three governments recognize that the Convention concluded at Montreux should be revised as failing to meet present day conditions. It was agreed that, as the next step, the matter should be the subject of direct conversations between each of the three governments and the Turkish Government.”8

However, the Soviet version of the last sentence of that portion of the protocol, as set forth in a note to the Turkish Government on August 7, 1946,9 reads as follows (underscoring ours):

“The three governments agreed that as the proper course the said question would be the subject of direct negotiations between each of the three powers and the Turkish Government.”10

It is apparent from Soviet actions that the Soviet Government regards the phraseology “direct negotiations” as implying negotiations leading to a bilateral arrangement between the Soviet Union and the Turkish Government rather than merely an exchange of views prior to the calling of an international conference for revision of the Montreux Convention, as indicated by the English phraseology.

[Page 1104]

On the basis of the Potsdam Protocol the United States, on November 2, 1945, sent a note to the Turkish Government which suggested the following principles as a basis for negotiating a revision of the Straits Convention:

the Straits should be open at all times to merchant vessels of all nations;
the Straits should be open at all times to warships of Black Sea Powers;
the Straits should be closed to warships of non-Black Sea Powers, within limitations to be agreed upon;
other changes to modernize the Convention, such as the substitution of the UN system for that of the League of Nations and the elimination of Japan as a signatory.11

Both the British and Turkish Governments indicated their agreement to the above U.S. proposals, Turkey adding that it would participate in an international conference on the Dardanelles and accept any decisions reached there, provided “Turkey’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity are not infringed.”12

The substantial exchange of views concerning a new regime for the Straits began on August 7, 1946, when the Soviet Government presented a detailed note to the Turkish Government. The note asserted that the regime established at Montreux “does not meet the interests of the Black Sea Powers and does not ensure conditions under which the use of these Straits for purposes inimical to the Black Sea Powers would be prevented.” The note contained a list of alleged wartime incidents “when the Axis Powers directed their warships and auxiliary craft through the Straits into the Black Sea and out of the Black Sea”. The note then proposed a “new regime” for the Straits on the basis of five principles, the first three of which were in general agreement with the first three principles of the U.S. note of November 2. In addition, however, it advanced proposals for a regime of the Straits under the competence of Turkey and the other Black Sea Powers exclusively and for a joint Turco-Soviet defense system of the Straits.13 It is of interest to note that these proposals are almost identical to those made by the Soviet Government in the Hitler–Molotov talks of November 1940.

In its reply of August 22 the Turkish Government defended its wartime position in allowing passage of certain small and unarmed Axis vessels. Although expressing willingness to negotiate revision on an international basis of the Montreux Convention, the Turkish Government rejected the two new principles advanced in the Soviet note on the grounds that the first ignored the interests of other powers and [Page 1105] that the latter was “not compatible with the inalienable rights of the sovereignty of Turkey.”14

The US and UK Governments on various occasions also expressed disagreement with the suggestion that the Straits regime should be established exclusively by the Black Sea Powers and defended Turkey’s contention that that country should remain primarily responsible for defense of the Straits. The US stated that if the region of the Straits became subject to threat or attack, the situation should be dealt with by the United Nations Security Council and asserted that the Potsdam agreement, by its very nature, envisaged the participation of Great Britain and the US along with other Powers in the creation of a new regime for the Straits.

The exchange of views continued until late 1946. On October 9 of that year the British expressed its view that direct discussions contemplated at Potsdam had been completed and suggested that an international conference should take place.15 On October 26 the USSR stated that the conversations should not be regarded as completed and expressed its view that it was premature to consider the question of calling a conference to establish a new Straits regime.16 Since that time the question has been more or less dormant.

The US is not a signatory of the Montreux Convention, nor has it been a party to any of the earlier treaties dealing with the Straits. However, our political, military and economic interest in the area has steadily increased since World War II and today we have a vital interest in the regime of the Straits. The US should, therefore, play an active role in any conference which may be called with respect thereto. Recognition of our right to do so is implicit in the Potsdam Protocol.


According to the terms of the Montreux Straits Convention, any revision thereof must be negotiated among all High Contracting Parties, either through diplomatic channels or at a conference called for the specific purpose and must, in effect, receive the approval of Turkey, which is, of course, one of the signatories. The Big Four could not, therefore, go farther than to agree to the principles on which, in their view, a revision of the Convention should be based and to cause such views to be notified to the signatories in the manner stipulated in the Convention.

It is not considered desirable for the US to raise the question of a revision of the Montreux Straits Convention at this time, and there [Page 1106] is no indication that the British or French will do so. It is possible, however, that the USSR may raise the question, particularly since, under the terms of the Convention, revision will be precluded until 1956 unless a request for revision, supported by the required number of signatories, is notified to all signatory Powers before August 9, 1951.

Any recommendations advanced by the USSR would, without doubt, embody renewed demands for a new Straits regime under the competence of the Black Sea Powers and for joint Turco-Soviet defense of the Straits. The US could not, of course, accept such proposals which would mean acceptance of the thesis that the regime of the Straits is the exclusive concern of Turkey, the USSR and other Black Sea Powers and which would, in effect, mean Soviet domination of Turkey. Such proposals were rejected by the US, UK, and Turkey in 1946 and would be rejected today. Moreover, the French Government gave oral assurances to Turkey in 1946 that it would take no action in connection with this question which would be contrary to Turkey’s interests.

If the issue of the Straits is raised by the USSR and the abovementioned demands are not reiterated, the following alternative would be open to the US (unless some more acceptable recommendations should be advanced by one of the other Powers):

1) Oppose any suggestion that discussion of the question be resumed at this time and support a continuation, for the time being, of the present regime on the basis of the 1936 Convention, even though its references to the League, Japan, etc., are outmoded.

Comment: It is clear from the following comparison that the Convention now in force provides a somewhat better safeguard to the interests of the Western Powers and of Turkey than would any new Convention negotiated on the basis of the principles set forth by the US in 1945:17

> Principles enunciated by U.S. in 1945 > Rights prevailing under Montreux Convention
>Straits to be open at all times to merchant vessels of all nations. >Freedom of passage in peace time unless Turkey under threat of war, in which case freedom of passage by day only and by route specified by Turks. If Turkey a belligerent freedom of passage for countries not at war with Turkey by day only and by route specified by Turks.
>Straits to be open at all times to warships of Black Sea Powers [Page 1107] Straits to be closed to warships of non-Black Sea Powers, within certain limitations >Restricted passage for warships of both Black Sea and non-littoral powers in time of peace and war. In latter case, Turkey being a belligerent, passage at discretion of Turkish Government. If Turkey under threat of war, passage at discretion of Turkish Government, subject to review of League of Nations.

In supporting a continuation of the present regime the US should explain that, although we consider the principles enunciated in 1945 as a sound and suitable basis for discussion if there is any genuine hope for a peaceful settlement with the USSR, it would now be necessary, in view of international tensions, to reconsider them in the light of progress which may be made on other outstanding issues between the USSR and the Western Powers. It is believed that British, French and Turkish support could be obtained.

2) Stand on the basis of the principles enunciated by us in 1945 which were accepted, in essence, by the UK and Turkey.

Comment: President Truman proposed at Potsdam that any new regime of the Straits be placed within the framework of the United Nations. If we at this time reiterate our willingness to negotiate on the basis of the principles which we set forth in 1945, we should insist, as we did in 1946 (Department’s note of August 19, 1946 to Soviet Charge at Washington), that “the regime of the Straits should be brought into appropriate relationship with the United Nations and should function in a manner entirely consistent with the principles and aims of the United Nations.”18 Specifically, any new Convention should deny the right of transit to warships of any nation which may take action contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations charter. UK and French support would doubtless be forthcoming. Although there is no indication that the Turkish Government, which accepted the principles enunciated by the US in 1945,19 would now object to them, the US should not fail to make clear its recognition of Turkey’s paramount interest in the question.

In either of the above cases, the US should inform the Turkish Government, on a Top Secret basis, of its position and keep it currently informed of developments.


That the US not initiate any discussion of the question of a revision of the Straits Convention and that it endeavor to secure British and French agreement not to raise the issue. However, if the Russians should raise the question the US should:

Point out that, under the terms of the present Convention, all High Contracting Parties have a voice in any revision thereof and that Turkey has, in effect, a controlling voice since any revision must be approved by that country. Any discussion of the question at a quadripartite meeting must, therefore, be limited to an exchange of views [Page 1108] as to the principles on which each of the four countries believes a revision of the Convention should be based.
Reject any Soviet proposals relating to a new regime for the Straits under the sole competence of the Black Sea Powers and/or joint Soviet-Turkish defense of that waterway.
(a) Favor a continuation of the present regime of the Straits pending some reconciliation of the East-West conflict; or
(b) As a somewhat less desirable alternative, stand on the principles enunciated by the US in 1945 on the understanding that any new convention drafted on that basis would be placed within the framework of the Charter of the United Nations in such a way that passage of the Straits would, in fact, be denied to the warships of any nation which might take action contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter.
If there is substantial identity of views on 3(b), recommend that the Turkish Government, in recognition of its paramount interest in the question, be informed thereof.20

  1. Attached to the source text was a cover sheet which indicated that this policy review paper had been drafted by Lucille Snyder, GTI, and by Harry N. Howard, United Nations Adviser, NEA. The cover sheet also indicated that this document had been revised in accordance with the suggestions of the ETS Steering Group advanced on January 20, 1951.

    It should also be noted that this policy review paper had been prepared for the Four-Power Exploratory Talks in Paris (Conference at the Palais Marble Rose), March–June 1951. For documentation regarding these talks, see vol. iii, pt. 1, pp. 1086 ff.

  2. The Montreux Convention. For its text, see League of Nations Treaty Series, vol. clxxiii, p. 213; also British Cmd. 5551, Treaty Series No. 30 (1937): Convention regarding the Regime of the Straits [With Protocol,] Montreux, July 20, 1936.
  3. Signed July 24, 1923; League of Nations Treaty Series, vol. xxviii, p. 115; also British Cmd. 1929, Treaty Series No. 16 (1923): Convention Relating to the Regime of the Straits.
  4. Maksim Maksimovich Litvinov, Soviet Peopled Commissar for Foreign Affairs, 1929–1939.
  5. See Foreign Relations, The Conferences at Malta and Yalta, 1945, pp. 903 ff.
  6. For documentation, see ibid., 1945, vol. viii, pp. 1219 ff.
  7. See ibid., The Conference of Berlin (The Potsdam Conference), 1945, 2 volumes.
  8. Ibid., vol. ii, pp. 14961497.
  9. Ibid., 1946, vol. vii, pp. 827829.
  10. Ibid., p. 827.
  11. Foreign Relations, 1945, vol. viii, pp. 12651266.
  12. For documentation, see ibid., pp. 1266 ff.
  13. Ibid., 1946, vol. vii, pp. 827829.
  14. Foreign Relations, 1946, vol. vii, pp. 852855; the full text of the note is published in Department of State, Near East Series No. 5: The Problem of the Turkish Straits (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1947), p. 50.
  15. Foreign Relations, 1946, vol. vii, p. 876.
  16. Ibid., p.897.
  17. Presumably the principles of 1945 listed here are those presented to the Turkish Government on November 2, 1945. See Foreign Relations, 1945, vol. viii, pp. 12651266.
  18. Foreign Relations, 1946, vol. vii, pp. 847848.
  19. Ibid., 1945, vol. viii, p. 1269.
  20. For JCS comments on this paper, see Marshall’s letter, June 1, p. 1166.