The Deputy Legal Adviser (Tate) to T. Orchard Lisle1

My Dear Mr. Lisle: Reference is made to your letter of March 4, 1953, and enclosure,2 concerning the three-mile limit and related questions, and my testimony on this subject before the Senate Committee on Insular and Interior Affairs.3

The United States claims, as it has traditionally claimed since 1793, sovereignty over a belt of three miles of territorial waters off its coasts. Sovereignty is an all-inclusive concept and indicates therefore that the claim extends not only to these waters, but also to the airspace above these waters and the subsoil beneath them, including of course the mineral resources therein.

Beyond the three-mile limit, the United States claims an exclusive right of jurisdiction and control, as against other nations, to the resources of the continental shelf beneath the high seas off its coasts. The United States does not claim sovereignty of the waters of the high seas above the shelf or of the airspace above such waters.

No question of international law arises if claims to the mineral resources of this sea bed are settled as between the States and the Federal Government without extending the boundaries of this nation. The United States, traditionally devoted to the principle of freedom of the seas since it is a naval and maritime power, opposes the claims of foreign nations to sovereignty beyond a three-mile limit. Saudi Arabia for example since 1949 has claimed sovereignty over a belt of territorial waters six miles wide. Other nations claim—not jurisdiction in the resources of the continental shelf as does the United States—but sovereignty over the high seas above the shelf up to distances of 200 miles from shore. If we made similar claims we could not object to extensions of sovereignty beyond the three-mile limit by other nations. Hence the point of my testimony was that disposition of the mineral resources of the sea bed off our coasts should be accomplished within the framework of our traditional position.

Your reference to a 12-mile limit is to United States legislation, enacted as early as 1790, providing for the exercise of jurisdiction within 12 miles from the coast for purposes of customs control. Like the claim to jurisdiction over mineral resources in the continental shelf, it is an example of the compatibility between the [Page 1674] United States position on the three-mile limit and the protection of its interests beyond such limit. Such interests can be protected without claiming sovereignty over areas of the high seas and thus sacrificing the principle of freedom of the seas.

So far as concerns the drawing of the base line whence the belt of territorial waters is measured, there would be little significance in limiting the territorial waters of coastal states to a narrow belt if the breadth of such belt were to be calculated from a base-line drawn far out at sea. To join, as you suggest, the Florida keys to a point near Brownsville, Texas, would be to deny to foreign vessels rights of navigation and other rights in the Gulf of Mexico. General adoption of this approach would deny similar rights to our vessels and aircraft in other, and often, strategic parts of the world. It is for this reason that the United States has traditionally adhered to the position that this base-line of territorial waters follows the indentations or sinuosities of the coast, and is not drawn from headland to headland, subject to certain exceptions such as bays no wider than ten miles where the line is a straight line drawn across the opening.

Sincerely yours,

Jack B. Tate
  1. Editor and publisher of The Oil Forum, New York City.
  2. Neither printed. (700.022/3–453)
  3. On Mar. 3, 1953; for text, see Department of State Bulletin, Mar. 30, 1953, p. 486.