152. Memorandum of conversation, November 30, between President Kennedy and President Villeda Morales and other U.S. and Honduran officials1

Part VI (of 7)
[Facsimile Page 1]


  • The Swan Islands


  • President Kennedy
  • Ambassador Charles R. Burrows
  • Assistant Secretary of State Martin
  • Assistant Administrator of AID Moscoso
  • Mr. Ralph Dungan, The White House
  • President Villeda Morales of Honduras
  • Honduran Ambassador to the United States and the OAS Céleo Dávila
  • Honduran Foreign Minister Alvarado Puerto
  • Honduran Finance Minister Bueso Arias

President Kennedy introduced the subject and made the following observations:

The Swan Islands are important to the United States because of the radio station and the weather station on them. The United States also is concerned about any implication that possible cession of United States sovereignty over the Swan Islands might have for United States ownership of certain other islands. Haiti is claiming one such island in the windward passage. The total number of islands affected must be determined. These United States interests must be safeguarded in any settlement of the dispute with Honduras.

Nonetheless, the United States seeks a solution to the problem. The United States is ready to go to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). This would be expensive, though costs probably would be about $50,000 rather than the $300,000 estimated by the Hondurans. If the case goes to the ICJ, the United States hopes it will be on a basis of equality so that both Honduras and the United States have the same amount of legal representation. This should be covered in any agreement submitting the case to the ICJ.

The possibility of arbitration (suggested by Honduran Foreign Minister Alvarado Puerto) will be considered, and an answer given later. A paragraph noting this discussion as suggested by Alvarado Puerto [Typeset Page 368] (see below) was to be inserted in the formal communiqué issued by the two Presidents. The text of the communiqué was to be given to Villeda before he left Washington.

[Facsimile Page 2]

Future discussion of the Swan Island question should be with Mr. Martin.

Answering a question posed by President Kennedy, Assistant Secretary Martin said United States rights to the Swan Islands are based on a 100 year-old act of Congress. The whole matter must be submitted to the Department of State’s Legal Advisor for consultation. A claim on Christmas Island also is affected.

President Villeda said he wanted to resolve this question which is a tool of agitation. He agreed with President Kennedy regarding legal representation. He added that realistic appraisal shows the islands have no value for Honduras, while they render a service to the United States. Unfortunately, Latins are romantic, not practical. Hence, he wanted the discussion on Swan Islands included in the final communiqué. He said it was important to Honduras, the United States and all Latin America to state clearly that a solution of the Swan Island question would not set a precedent regarding rights of sovereignty and ownership, and that the meeting between the two Presidents, including discussion of the Swan Islands, was most cordial and satisfactory.

Foreign Minister Alvarado Puerto reiterated President Villeda’s points, adding that the Communists take advantage of the issue. He said that while a solution through legal channels, the ICJ, is possible, he would prefer arbitration within the confines of the Americas. This would be good for the whole Hemisphere as well as Honduras, and would test once more the spirit of fairness and justice of the United States. (Alvarado Puerto noted in passing that Honduran experience with the ICJ was good since the ICJ had favored Honduras over Nicaragua in a border dispute.)

Alvarado Puerto noted that Swan is not an island, but one of a number of keys about 602 miles off the coast of Honduras. He suggested that the following paragraph be inserted in the final communiqué:

“The two presidents, recognizing the strong friendship of the two countries, and recognizing the desire to reach a solution of the matter of Swan Island in harmony and justice, propose to undertake, in accordance with the principles of International Law and the Inter-American System and the principles of the Treaty for the Pacific Settlement of Disputes, the necessary steps for a rapid solution without taking the matter to an extra-continental tribunal.”

[Typeset Page 369]

(NOTE: The following paragraph was actually inserted in the communiqué after concurrence by Ambassador Dávila:

“The two Presidents agreed that their Governments should seek, on an urgent basis, a solution of the question of Swan Island, within the framework of the Inter-American System and taking full account of the rights and interests of both parties.”)

Interpreters: Mr. Van Reigersberg and Mr. Hervas

  1. The Swan Islands. Confidential. 2 pp. Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Countries Series, Honduras, December 1962–September 1963.
  2. The Islands are actually 97 miles off the coast of Honduras.