320.22/6–2554: Circular airgram

The Secretary of State to the Legation in Iceland1


CA–7677. Subject: Continental shelf and fisheries.

The Department is circulating an instruction in an attempt to elicit the general feeling and support for a possible move in the General Assembly this fall to reconsider last year’s decision to postpone indefinitely further discussion of the International Law Commission draft re the continental shelf and fisheries. It is desired to have a full discussion of both subjects; there is a good possibility of adoption of the ILC shelf articles, although little likelihood of the adoption of any fisheries articles. A recent Inter-American decision to hold a conference on these subjects in 1955 makes it doubly important to discuss them in the UN this fall where we will have the support of a number of powerful states with common objectives. Although the circular instruction is being air pouched now, our Embassies are instructed not to implement it until receiving telegraphed instructions from the Department. Since the Department [Page 1702] did not wish Iceland to hear of our soundings from some other source, you should make this move known to the Foreign Office immediately upon being notified by the Department that the circular instruction is being acted upon in other capitals.

The following points should be made in presenting the proposition:

We have a number of large interests (high seas fishing, commercial, and naval) in preservation of the freedom of the seas as a living workable doctrine; we believe that other nations have similar interests in maintaining such freedom. However, we fully realize that some of our interests and those of Iceland are different in these matters. Therefore, we seek through UN discussion to develop acceptable methods of handling the problem so that the differences will be minimized. Our attitude is in no sense “anti-Iceland”; it runs counter to attitudes and interests of a number of states and parallel to a number of others; basically it is an attempt to uphold our own vital American interests.
The United States has so far refrained, for political reasons, from formally protesting Iceland’s past claims to extensions of sovereignty. In addition, despite very strong interests and domestic pressures, we have so far refrained from increasing tariffs on Icelandic fish. Iceland would appear to want to be able to mark off large areas of high seas for their exclusive fishing use and at the same time want us to refrain from marking off areas of our domestic market for domestic fishermen. It is not reasonable for them to expect us to take this lying down. We have refrained in tariff matters (a matter within our domestic competence), but cannot forbear in the overall problem of extension of jurisdiction over the high seas contrary to international law and to U.S. interests because of our large fishing, commercial and naval interests.
At your discretion, and if you find it opportune, you might use an additional argument as follows:

The doctrine of freedom of the seas is being threatened by extreme claims in a number of quarters. If the process is allowed to accelerate and the doctrine should die, the seas would be controlled by a few powerful nations. Fishing rights notwithstanding, Iceland as a state dependent on maritime commerce might find itself in a very disadvantageous position if the waters all around the island were in the control of other powers rather than being free for the use of all. It is the hope of the United States that United Nations discussion will result in a solution which generally upholds the freedom of the seas as recommended by the ILC and at the same time achieves a solution of fishing problems in such a way as to take care of the most pressing national interests.

  1. Repeated for information to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.