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U.S. Antarctic Policy —
Historical Perspective

The nonrecognition of territorial claims dates to 1924, when the Secretary of State (Charles Evans Hughes) wrote that discovery of lands unknown to civilization "does not support a valid claim of sovereignty unless the discovery is followed by an actual settlement of the discovered country." In 1934 the Assistant Secretary of State added: "I reserve all rights which the United States or its citizens may have with respect to this matter." President Franklin D. Roosevelt reaffirmed the U.S. stance in 1939: "The United States has never recognized any claims of sovereignty over territory in the Antarctic regions asserted by any foreign state." And in 1947 Dean Acheson, the Under Secretary of State, wrote that the United States "has not recognized any claims of any other nations in the area and has reserved all rights which it may have in the area."

As early as 1948, drawing on its leadership in Antarctica and world affairs, the United States had proposed an international trusteeship. The seven claimant nations and the United States (and other nations, if they wished) would have agreed ":not to seek a division of the territory in the area, but to join with the others." The eight nations would make joint explorations and would have free access over the area.

For a decade the idea did not catch. Then the International Geophysical Year renewed ties, and in May 1958 President Dwight D. Eisenhower invited the 11 other Antarctic IGY nations to come to Washington to draft an Antarctic Treaty. He wrote: "The United States is dedicated to the principle that the vast uninhabited wastes of Antarctica shall be used only for peaceful purposes. . . . We propose that Antarctica shall be open to all nations to conduct scientific and other peaceful activities there." Referring to the IGY, the President wrote: "Our proposal is directed at insuring that this same kind of cooperation for the benefit of all mankind shall be perpetuated."

The Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, referred to the extensive activities of United States expeditions to the Antarctic and set forth the basic position and proposal of the United States in these words:

In view of the activities of the United States and its nationals referred to above, my Government reserves all of the rights of the United States with respect to the Antarctic region, including the right to assert a territorial claim or claims.

It is the opinion of my Government, however, that the interests of mankind would best be served, in consonance with the high ideals of the Charter of the United Nations, if the countries which have a direct interest in Antarctica were to join together in the conclusion of a treaty which would have the following peaceful purposes:

A. Freedom of scientific investigation throughout Antarctica by citizens, organizations, and governments of all countries, . . .

B. International agreement to ensure that Antarctica be used for peaceful purposes only.

C. Any other peaceful purposes not inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations.

It is believed that such a treaty can be concluded without requiring any participating nation to renounce whatever basic historic rights it may have in Antarctica, or whatever claims of sovereignty it may have asserted. It could be specifically provided that such basic rights and such claims would remain unaffected while the treaty is in force, and that no new rights would be acquired and no new claims made by any country during the duration of the treaty.

The nations met, the Antarctic Treaty was written, and all the proposed provisions were in it. The treaty entered into force in 1961. The Antarctic Treaty became the keystone of U.S. Antarctic policy.

In October 1970 President Richard M. Nixon stated U.S. policy for Antarctica to be:

  • To maintain the Antarctic Treaty and ensure that this continent will continue      to be used only for peaceful purposes and shall not become an area or object   of international discord.
  • To foster cooperative scientific research for the solution of worldwide and regional problems, including environmental monitoring and prediction and assessment of resources.
  • To protect the Antarctic environment and develop appropriate measures to ensure the equitable and wise use of living and nonliving resources.

The President added:

"Science has provided a successful basis for international accord, and the Antarctic is the only continent where science serves as the principal expression of national policy and interest."

In 1970 and again in 1976 National Security Decision Memoranda 71 and 318 reaffirmed the "importance of maintaining an active and influential United States presence in the Antarctic" that is "responsive to United States scientific, economic, and political objectives."

In February 1982 President Ronald Reagan reaffirmed the prior policy and noted that the presence in Antarctica shall include "the conduct of scientific activities in major disciplines" and "year-round occupation of the South Pole and two coastal stations."