352. Letter From the Chief of Naval Operations (Burke) to the Secretary of State1

Dear Mr. Secretary: I am writing to express my deep concern over the recent reports of further British vacillations with respect to the three-mile limit as specifically expressed in the British Aide-Mémoire of 21 March 1958.2 Rear Admiral Chester Ward, Judge Advocate General [Page 671] of the Navy, has discussed this matter with Mr. Loftus Becker of your department and I have been asked to comment on the security implications of the British six-mile proposal.

As you know, three weeks ago during the early stages of the Law of the Sea Conference, the British delegation in Geneva wavered in its support of the three-mile limit of territorial seas. In fact, they were reported to be actively promoting a six-mile limit. The position of this Government at that time, communicated to London in the form of an urgent request for reconsideration, was in substance as follows:

That any retreat from the three-mile limit by either the United States or the United Kingdom would have a serious and unacceptable effect upon the security position of the free world.
That U.S. military authorities feel strongly on point 1. in view of the burden U.S. naval and military forces bear in the defense of the free world. (In this connection, General Twining and I addressed personal messages to Marshal Dickson3 and Lord Mountbatten,4 respectively, urging that they persuade their political officials to hold the Tine on the three-mile limit.)
That a British compromise proposal for a six-mile limit would not relieve the fishing pressures from many coastal nations and might very well result in Conference adoption of a greater breadth, e.g., twelve miles or more. That, in addition, we saw little prospect of other nations agreeing to a six-mile limit with military conditions attached (right of passage in the outer three for warships and aircraft).
That the only method to retain the three-mile limit for sovereignty was to support a proposal which would separate fish from sovereignty, i.e., agree to extending a coastal state’s exclusive fishing rights beyond the three-mile limit of territorial seas. Further, that the Canadian compromise proposal (3-mile territorial sea with a 9-mile contiguous zone for exclusive fishing) offered the most acceptable concession to the fishing interests and that this compromise would be supported by the United States and also, we hoped, by the British.

The preliminary reports which I received from London indicated that the British military authorities were in whole-hearted agreement that retention of the three-mile limit is essential to our security interests.

I understand that our delegation is now supporting vigorously the Canadian proposal. The British, however, as indicated in their Aide-Mémoire, apparently are not willing to separate fish from sovereignty and support the Canadian proposal. Further, they suggest that a six-mile territorial sea with rights of passage in the outer three might be a more acceptable compromise than the Canadian proposal or, at least, the means by which acceptance of a twelve-mile limit or a formula tantamount to a twelve-mile limit (optional selection in 3–12-mile range) could be blocked.

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In studying the Aide-Mémoire, I find no disagreement between the British and ourselves that, from a military operational standpoint, a six-mile territorial sea is better than twelve or greater. However, the fact remains that three miles is still better than six. The further out from shore the sovereign territorial sea is extended, the more significant is the impact on the mobility of our naval forces. For example, a six-mile limit would restrict mobility in areas of the Mediterranean, particularly in the Aegean Sea. The Straits of Bab El Mandeb, connecting the Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea, would become completely territorial sea under a six-mile limit. Similarly, there would remain no area of high seas in the Straits of Gibraltar under a six-mile limit. By extending the territorial sea to six miles, the entire southern entrance to the Strait of Malacca would become territorial waters. The Tsugaru Kaikyo Strait between the Japanese islands of Hokkaido and Honshu would become entirely territorial under a six-mile limit. In like manner, the Gulf of Trieste would be officially territorial waters. These and other examples clearly indicate the impact on naval mobility in the sensitive areas of the world. [1 sentence (43 words) not declassified] Three miles remains essential to our security interests and we should continue to offer all reasonable concessions to other interests in order to preserve it. Our position with respect to the British six-mile proposal in paragraph 2 above is, in my judgment, still valid.

I believe that the British are wrong in believing that other nations will agree to their six-mile proposal with rights of passage in the outer three. In fact, I think there is every indication that if a six-mile limit is adopted, there will be no rights of passage in either the inner or outer three. Therefore, if these rights are, as the British state, indispensable to them from a strategic standpoint, they should support all measures to insure retention of three miles. Our feeling is that these rights of passage are not only indispensable in the outer three, but they are vital in the inner three also. Supporting a six-mile limit thus abandons any hope we may have in retaining these rights of innocent passage through a territorial sea of three miles.

I should also like to add that the British Aide-Mémoire in paragraph 5b assumes the strategic problem to be in somewhat more limited terms than I view it. The supervision which I perceive is that which embraces all non-friendly activities during a period of emergency which may endure indefinitely.

In closing, I should like to emphasize that, in my opinion, it is essential to the security interests of the United States and the free world that all steps be taken to preserve the three-mile limit. It may be that a later date will find us forced to consider acceptance of six miles in order to prevent Conference adoption of twelve miles, or a formula tantamount to twelve miles. However, in my opinion, that time has [Page 673] not arrived. Again, may I express my concern over the recent British Aide-Mémoire and hope that you will be able to further persuade them to hold the line on the three-mile limit.

With warmest personal regards,


Arleigh Burke
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 399.731/3–2758. Confidential.
  2. See footnote 2, Document 349.
  3. Sir William Dickson, Marshal of the Royal Air Force.
  4. Not found.