The Secretary of State to the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs (Butler)

My Dear Senator Butler: Reference is made to your letter of January 28, 1953, receipt of which was acknowledged January 30, [Page 1670] 1953,1 transmitting for the comment of the Department of State S.J. Res. 13, “To confirm and establish the titles of the States to lands beneath navigable waters within State boundaries and to the natural resources within such lands and waters, and to provide for the use and control of said land and resources”.

The interest of the Department in the proposed legislation is limited to the bearing which it may have upon the international relations of the United States.

With respect to claims of states in the seas adjacent to their coasts, the general policy of the United States is to support the principle of freedom of the seas. Such freedom is essential to its national interests. It is a time-honored principle of its concept of defense that the greater the freedom and range of its warships and aircraft, the better protected are its security interests. It is axiomatic of its commercial interests that the maintenance of free lanes and air routes is vital to the preeminence of its shipping tonnage and air transport. And it is becoming evident that its fishing interests depend in part, and may come more so to depend in the future, upon fishing resources in seas adjacent to the coasts of foreign states.

Pursuant to its policy of freedom of the seas, this Government has always supported the concept that the sovereignty of coastal States in seas adjacent to their coasts (as well as the lands beneath such waters and the air space above them) was limited to a belt of waters of 3 miles width, and has vigorously objected to claims of other states to broader limits. In the circumstances, the Department is much concerned with the provisions of S.J. Res. 13 which would permit the extension of the seaward boundaries of certain states of the United States beyond the three-mile limit traditionally asserted by the United States in its international relations. Such an extension of boundaries would compel this Government, now committed to the defense of the three-mile limit in the interest of the nation as a whole, to modify this national policy in order to support the special claims of certain States of the Union, for obviously, the territorial claims of the States cannot exceed2 those of the Nation. Likewise, if this Government were to abandon its position on the three-mile limit it would perforce abandon any ground for protest against claims of foreign states to greater breadths of territorial waters. Such a result would be unfortunate at a time [Page 1671] when a substantial number of foreign states exhibit a clear propensity to break down the restraints imposed by the principle of freedom of the seas by seeking extensions of their sovereignty over considerable areas of their adjacent seas. A change of position regarding the three-mile limit on the part of this Government is very likely, as past experience in related fields establishes, to be seized upon by other states as justification or excuse for broader and even extravagant claims over their adjacent seas. Hence a realistic appraisal of the situation would seem to indicate that this Government should adhere to the three-mile limit until such time as it is determined that the interests of the nation as a whole would be better served by a change or modification of policy.

It should be noted, moreover, that the interest of the United States in resources in the high seas has in no wise been affected by its adherence to the three-mile limit of territorial waters. The claim of the United States in the President’s Proclamation of September 28, 1945 to jurisdiction and control of the natural resources of the subsoil and sea bed of the continental shelf beyond the limit of its territorial waters has not been questioned. These resources were thus secured without recourse to an extension of its territorial waters and as a result, navigation in the high seas off its coasts remains free and unimpeded as befits this country’s dedication to the principle of freedom of the seas and in sharp contrast to the actions of some foreign states which sought the same result by assertions of sovereignty over immense areas of the high seas.

It is the view of the Department, therefore, that the proposed legislation should not support claims of the States to seaward boundaries in excess of those traditionally claimed by the Nation, i.e., three miles from the low water mark on the coast. This is without reference to the question whether coastal States have, or should have, rights in the subsoil and sea bed beyond the limits of territorial waters.

In Section 2 of the S.J. Res. 13, page 3, lines 3 to 5, inland waters are defined as including “all estuaries, ports, harbors, bays, channels, straits, historic bays, and sounds, and all other bodies of water which join the open sea”. This definition appears to be too broad. With respect to bays and estuaries, the United States has traditionally taken the position that the waters of estuaries and bays are inland waters only if their opening is no more than 10 miles wide, or, where such opening exceeds 10 miles, at the first point where it does not exceed 10 miles. With respect to a strait which is only a channel of communication to an inland body of water, the United States has taken the position that the rules governing bays should apply. So far as concerns a strait connecting two seas having the character of high seas, whether the coasts of [Page 1672] the strait belong to a single State or to two or more States, the United States has always adhered to the well-established principle of international law that passage should be free in such a strait and hence has maintained that its waters, even though it be six miles wide or less, cannot be inland waters. With respect to both bays and straits, of course, the United States has excepted the cases where, by historical usage, such waters are shown to have been traditionally subjected to the exclusive authority of the coastal State.

The purpose of this Government in adopting such a definition of inland waters was to give effectiveness to its policy of freedom of the seas. The broader the definition of inland waters, the more the seaward limit of inland waters is brought forward from the coast. And since the seaward limit of inland waters is the base line whence the belt of territorial waters is measured, this by cumulative effect brings forward the outer limits of territorial waters. Of late, efforts have been made by some foreign states to broaden the definition of their inland waters and to gain control thereby of large areas of the seas adjacent to their coasts. This Government has opposed and continues to oppose such developments, but any indication on its part of a change of position, such as may be suggested by the broad definition of inland waters now present in the proposed legislation, may well encourage the growth of a dangerous trend. Hence, in the view of the Department, it would be advisable to amend Section 2 of the proposed legislation, page 3, lines 3 to 5, as follows:

“… limit of inland waters in estuaries, ports, harbors, bays, channels, straits, sounds and all other bodies of waters which join the open sea.”3

The Department has been informed by the Bureau of the Budget that there is no objection to the submission of this report.4

Sincerely yours,

For the Secretary of State:
Thruston B. Morton
Assistant Secretary [for Congressional Relations]
  1. The Senator’s letter and the Department’s acknowledgment are not printed. (711.022/1–2853) A similar letter was sent to Senator Henry M. Jackson (D.–Wash.) on Mar. 6. (711.022/2–1253)
  2. The words “are limited by” appeared at this point in the letter as originally drafted. An unidentified officer of the Department deleted the three words and replaced them with “cannot exceed”.
  3. Ellipsis in the source text.
  4. In further letters dated Mar. 4, 6, and 25, the Secretary of State informed Senator Butler that the Department’s position on S. 294, S. 1017, and S. 1252, respectively, had been expressed in its comments on S.J. Res. 13, or were identical with the position it had taken on that resolution. (711.022/1–2853, /2–2053, /3–1053) The Senate passed S.J. Res. 13 as amended and then voted to reconsider the measure. On May 5, 1953, it decided instead to take up the corresponding House bill, H.R. 4198, which was enacted as Public Law 31 on May 22, 1953; see footnote 4, p. 1687.