Memorandum by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (Bonbright) to the Deputy Under Secretary of State (Matthews)1

  • Subject:
  • Department’s Preliminary Position on Proposed Antarctic Expedition
[Page 1734]


To determine the Department’s position concerning the request of February 25 from Mr. Finn Ronne2 (Commander, USNR, and leader of a private expedition 1947–48) for the Department’s support for his proposed Antarctic expedition. The question divides into (1) whether it should favor the proposed project, and (2) if so, whether it would be advantageous to give it official sponsorship. A third question of a tactical nature concerns how the Department’s position should be expressed.


Any American expedition would convey certain benefits through its strengthening of United States rights in the area as a whole and its acquisition of scientific data unavailable anywhere else. Against these factors must be weighed the potential cost to the Government and the fact that any expedition would increase tension with other interested powers. All of these factors would become more important in the event that the expedition should be officially sponsored.

Because of the commendable record of Mr. Ronne and the location of the area in which he plans to operate, the favorable factors appear at this time to greatly outweigh possible objections. In any event, strong political grounds for objecting to the expedition do not exist and it is very likely that Mr. Ronne could organize the expedition without the support of the Department. Until the views of other Government agencies, including the Defense Department, become known, the question of possible official sponsorship is difficult to decide. Even thereafter it will be important for the Department not to become involved in inter-service or personal rivalries concerning the expedition.

A fuller discussion of these considerations is attached.


It is recommended that for the present Mr. Ronne be informed that the Department has no objections on political grounds to his proposed expedition and that he will wish to sound out other departments, particularly Defense.

[Page 1735]


Paper Prepared in the Bureau of European Affairs3


Discussion of Considerations Affecting the Department’s Attitude Toward the Proposed Expedition

The benefits to be gained from a U.S. Antarctic expedition relate primarily to the maintenance and strengthening of the bases for possible U.S. claims, which inevitably would result from additional U.S. activities in the area. Official sponsorship would tend to enhance this effect, if only because it would imply continued official interest in preserving U.S. rights.

In addition, a general advantage resulting from further expeditions in the Antarctic, particularly in the unexplored area, would be the acquisition of scientific knowledge unobtainable anywhere else In such fields as meteorology, long-range communications, cosmic ray studies, et cetera, the data available in the Antarctic has immediate significance even in the temperate zones. The Ronne expedition will be directed at the satisfaction of the most urgent scientific needs as outlined in the 1948 study prepared for the Department by a Special Committee of the National Academy of Sciences. Moreover, Ronne has a commendable record of accomplishment on previous expeditions and, consequently, a solid reputation both here and abroad.

There are several arguments against encouraging any Antarctic expedition from the United States. Two factors which exist more or less independently of time and circumstances are (a) the likelihood that any U.S. activity in the Antarctic would produce or increase international tension with either the present or the potential claimants to territory there and Ob) a certain unavoidable expense to the Government, whether the expedition is official or private. Since the cost to the Government in the present project presumably would come from existing funds or special appropriations for other Government agencies, this potential obstacle need not be given special weight in the Department’s preliminary decision.

As regards the risk of increased international tension, the area selected for the Ronne expedition is one of the two or three in the whole Antarctic in which activity by the United States would be least likely to arouse unfavorable reaction abroad. This results [Page 1736] from the fact that the areas in which Ronne proposes to locate his base and carry on explorations both are almost wholly unexplored and, on the basis of past experience, are regarded as highly inaccessible from the sea. Moreover, the base area, although within the eastern boundaries of the conflicting British and Argentine sector claims, is not known to be an area of great interest for them. Explorations would be made in the hinterlands of these and the Norwegian and Australian claims.

The inaccessibility of the specific areas selected for the expedition may, however, raise certain other objections. Because of hazardous ice conditions, any expedition to the Weddell Sea area must reckon with the possibility of complete failure or at least the chance of miscalculation requiring rescue operations. On the other hand, overcoming such dangers could bring correspondingly greater credit for achievement to a U.S. expedition.

All of the foregoing objections to an expedition tend to have increased weight if the expedition is official.

Since the area selected for exploration is presently little known and away from the area of earlier U.S. explorations, further expeditions there would tend also to expand the bases for any future U.S. claims. Such a result might be preferred by those who foresee an eventual U.S. claim taking in the larger part of the Antarctic Continent and who tend to minimize even the claims of our allies.

On the other hand, some indirect benefit would accrue even though we might never claim the areas Ronne plans to explore. Whatever U.S. activity is undertaken in the Antarctic ought to be planned with a view to reinforcing the bases for the type of claim we intend to make, i.e., intensive or extensive, but this issue is not yet fully resolved between State and Defense.

Antarctic expeditions in the past have sometimes been the subject of personal rivalries among certain of the experts in this field. While this is probably insufficient reason for opposing any expedition, it is a factor requiring careful attention in any effort to avert personal or inter-service clashes, which in public would seriously damage the U.S. reputation and even in private would impair the ability of the Government to act according to the merits of the matter.

The question of the Department’s opposing the Ronne expedition can be considered largely academic, in view of the likelihood that Ronne would be able to obtain sufficient material support for his expedition both within the Government and from private sources even if the Department should oppose it. In any case, our only grounds for possible strong opposition—political considerations—are not compelling in this instance. The remaining factors outlined above, taken together, weigh heavily on the side of at least permitting [Page 1737] the expedition to proceed and perhaps even giving it our wholehearted support. The decisive factor in choosing between the latter alternatives should be the seriousness of our intention to maintain and strengthen the bases for U.S. claims in the future.

On the basis of recent correspondence, the Defense Department appears to favor action to strengthen and possibly extend the bases for claims. While the Department of State last year reached a decision favoring an early announcement of an official claim, it is questioned whether the United States should aim to acquire, in competition with friendly powers, control over the major portion of the Antarctic. However, since the proposed expedition would add, even if indirectly, to the strength of existing U.S. rights in the Antarctic, it is not considered advisable to allow differences of emphasis between this Department and Defense to interfere with Ronne’s plans.

The question of official sponsorship of the expedition may depend to a large extent on the actual or potential availability of funds to finance the entire project. It is therefore not a matter upon which the Department can make a final decision before it knows the positions of the other agencies involved. Until the time is ripe to consult the other agencies, it would be particularly unwise to reveal a strong attitude of approval which might not be shared by all the services concerned. In the consideration of our eventual position on the question of official sponsorship, however, attention should be given to the advantage of being able, through official sponsorship, to direct the activities of the expedition in accordance with policy objectives and, conversely, the risks inherent in permitting a private expedition, even under a responsible leader like Ronne, to proceed without effective official control.

  1. Drafted by Grant G. Hilliker of the Office of British Commonwealth and Northern European Affairs. A covering memorandum to Deputy Assistant Secretary Bonbright from Frederick E. Nolting, Special Assistant to the Deputy Under Secretary of State reads: “Mr. Matthews concurs in the recommendation of the attached memorandum. He has asked me to follow up on any action with Defense that you may wish this office to undertake.”
  2. A copy of the memorandum of conversation between Finn Ronne and members of the Department of State on Feb. 25, 1953, is in Department of State file 031.1102/2–2553. Ronne was a leading Antarctic explorer of the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s. He served in the Second Byrd Expedition of 1933–1935, headed his own private expedition to Antarctica in the winter of 1947–1948, and led that portion of the Operation Deepfreeze II expedition of 1956–1957 that established Ellsworth Station in the Wedell Sea area of the Antarctic.
  3. Drafted by Hilliker, with the concurrence of the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs, the Assistant Legal Adviser for Inter-American Affairs (Whiteman), and the Office of the Special Adviser on Geography, Bureau of Intelligence and Research.