IN THE summer of 1948 a conference to work out a new international régime for the Danube was held in Belgrade. Out of it came a new Danube Convention, drafted in Moscow, accepted without change by the Communist Governments of the Danubian states, and passed in the conference by a majority vote. The three western Powers -- the United States, the United Kingdom and France -- were an impotent minority at Belgrade. Mr. Vyshinsky did most of the talking. His manner was overbearing and offensive. And he had the votes. The western Powers had no influence on conference decisions. The final convention, which they refused to sign, was the document which Mr. Vyshinsky brought with him from Moscow.

Was this conference a defeat for western diplomacy? Should the United States have sent a delegation to Belgrade in the first place? What are American interests in the Danube area, specifically in trade and navigation on the river, and how well have we promoted and defended those interests? These questions have been asked repeatedly during and since the Danube Conference. They are answered in part by the statements of the American delegation at Belgrade and by the Department of State's press releases and articles on the subject. The present article will attempt to put in its historical setting this most recent phase of the long controversy over the Danube; to clarify the circumstances under which the conference was called; to describe the main issues as they were presented at Belgrade; to evaluate the results of the conference; and to look ahead to the next phase of the problem.


Since the Crimean War the Danube has been legally subject to regulation as an international river. The Treaty of Paris (1856) reaffirmed the principle of freedom of navigation by the ships of all nations on a basis of equality, and established the European Commission of the Danube to regulate navigation and technical work on the lower or "maritime" Danube (from Braila to the Black Sea). This commission, of which all the Great Powers were members, represented the "Concert of Europe." It exercised broad powers approaching those of a sovereign state, maintaining its own vessels, police force and courts in addition to carrying out technical works.

After the First World War the principle of freedom of navigation on the Danube and provisions for its implementation were written into the peace treaties with the enemy states. The Danube Convention of 1921, signed by 12 European states, riparian and non-riparian (but not including Soviet Russia), completed the legal structure. The European Commission (composed "provisionally" of Great Britain, France and Italy representing the European community and Rumania as the riparian state) was continued. A new International Commission of the Danube was established for the upper or "fluvial" Danube (from Braila in Rumania to Ulm in Germany), composed of all riparian states plus the non-riparians represented on the European Commission.

Inasmuch as this process of "internationalizing" the Danube contributed to freer and more active trade, it was a great benefit to the peoples of Europe. But that was not the only motive behind it. The Danube has always been a political question. As a commercial route it has never lived up to its potentialities. Those Powers which have been concerned either with opening it or closing it have been more interested in their influence and control in the Danubian region than in navigation on the river itself. For imperial Austria and later for Germany it was a highway of expansion to the southeast. For Russia it was a possible barrier, and a possible aid, to control of the Balkans. To the western Powers the system of international control was a means of preserving their own political and economic position in southeastern Europe against those who wished to exclude them.

The Treaty of 1856 formalized Russia's defeat in the Crimean War. England and France had fought that war to block Russian expansion in the Balkans and the Near East. The treaty provisions for the Danube were part of the larger settlement which included the Straits, the demilitarization of the Black Sea, the cession by Russia of the Danube delta and southern Bessarabia (bordering the lower Danube), and the ending of the Russian protectorate over the Danubian Principalities, Moldavia and Wallachia, which were made wards of the Concert of Europe and later became an independent state, Rumania. Russia, before the Crimean War, had allowed the mouths of the Danube to become blocked with silt, to the disadvantage of British, French and Austrian trade. The European Commission was created to keep the river open to that trade. Financial support from the west helped it to do its job well. But it was not intended merely to dredge channels and collect dues. By its physical presence at the mouth of the Danube it was a symbol and sentinel of the political interest of the west in preserving southeastern Europe and Turkey from Russian domination.

Just as the Danube arrangements of 1856 were part and parcel of a settlement imposed on defeated Russia, so those of 1919 and 1921 were a part of the "Versailles system" in Central and Eastern Europe which was based on the temporary disappearance of both Germany and Russia as Great Powers. The Convention of 1921, on paper, represented the application to the entire navigable Danube of the principle of freedom of navigation, given formal international sanction in the Barcelona Convention concluded earlier in the same year. In fact, it was tied also to the new territorial and political settlement by which the western Powers, especially France, hoped to block the resurgence of German or Russian power in the Danube basin. It stood only so long as that general settlement stood.

In the late 1930's Germany again made its influence felt. As Hitler drew the Danubian states into his net by political and economic pressure, he declared Germany's right to participate in the régime of the Danube. In 1939 the western Powers felt compelled to admit Germany as a member of the European Commission. But Hitler wanted more than participation. In September 1940 Germany convoked at Vienna a conference of riparian states (Germany and the small nations brought under Germany's thumb), which suppressed the International Commission, excluding Britain and France from the fluvial Danube. But on the lower Danube there was now a new riparian state. The U.S.S.R., by its seizure of Bessarabia in June 1940, had extended its frontier to the Danube. The Soviet Government, protesting its exclusion from the Vienna Conference, declared its interest in "all problems of the Danube."

Germany and the Soviet Union then called a conference at Bucharest. It ended without result, largely because the interests of the two expanding Powers clashed on the lower Danube and because Rumania, in a surprising assertion of independence, refused to accept a new régime "not conforming to the fundamental principles of international fluvial law and the sovereignty of Rumania." The proposals made by the U.S.S.R. in 1940 were a preview of the convention which it put forward at Belgrade in 1948: 1, suppression of the European and International Commissions; 2, creation of a new commission for the entire river from Bratislava to the sea, composed of riparian states only; 3, establishment of a special Soviet-Rumanian administration on the maritime Danube including all three mouths; 4, exclusion of all mouths but the Sulina channel from the régime of free navigation; 5, recognition of the right of Soviet warships to navigate on the lower Danube. These proposals were calculated to give the Soviet Union control over the maritime Danube -- joint administration with Rumania could only mean Soviet control -- and a share, with Germany, in control of the fluvial Danube. By 1948, with Germany out of the picture and every riparian state from Czechoslovakia to the Black Sea in the Soviet camp, the same plan was a blueprint for Soviet control of the river. It meant the end of the entire international structure built up since 1856.

During the war the Danube was a German river. After the war, from Linz in Austria to the Black Sea, it was a Russian river. But Britain and France had not given up their interests in the Danube, and a non-European Power, the United States, was also asserting its own interest. In order to speed Europe's rehabilitation, the United States was urging that the Danube be opened up to trade as soon as the mines and wrecks of bridges could be cleared away. As the occupying authority in German and Austrian territory through which the navigable Danube flowed, the United States felt entitled to propose and to participate in an interim scheme for regulation of navigation on the river. Over the longer term the United States' interest was in a settlement which would stimulate intercourse among European nations, prevent selfish control of international rivers, and thus contribute to the maintenance of peace. It was not Stalin nor Churchill but President Truman who inaugurated the postwar discussion of the Danube question when at Potsdam in 1945 he proposed that there be international agreements to assure freedom of navigation on Europe's major inland waterways.


In the long process of negotiating peace treaties for the former German satellites in Danubian Europe -- Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria -- the United States and Great Britain pressed for the inclusion of clauses dealing with the Danube. Their approach was somewhat different. The British were concerned with reestablishing their prewar position as a member of both international commissions. Mr. Bevin stated several times that it was unthinkable that Britain should be asked, after great sacrifices in a victorious war, to accept a position in the Danube basin less favorable than that which it had held before the war began. The United States, taking a more general approach, proposed that the treaties contain a uniform general article providing for freedom of navigation and equality of treatment, reasonable and nondiscriminatory tolls and regulations, and reference of disputes to the International Court. Both were less concerned with commercial interests -- the United States had had no shipping on the river before the war -- than with preventing Soviet economic and political domination of the Danubian region. The Soviet Union resisted these proposals, taking the position that the Danube was not a proper subject for the peace treaties. The Danube, Molotov and Vyshinsky said many times over, was the vital concern of the Danubian nations and could not be dealt with in their absence by three or by four Great Powers, only one of which, the U.S.S.R., was itself a Danubian nation.

During the negotiations of 1946 the western Powers finally succeeded in winning Soviet acceptance of articles in the three treaties stating that "navigation on the Danube shall be free and open for the nationals, vessels of commerce, and goods of all states, on a footing of equality in regard to port and navigation charges and conditions for merchant shipping." Supplementing this agreement was a decision of the Council of Foreign Ministers, on December 6, 1946, that there should be a conference, within six months of the entry into force of the peace treaties, "to work out a new convention regarding the régime of navigation on the Danube." On the surface, the western Powers won a victory. Actually, the Soviet Union made only paper concessions. The treaty clauses could hardly be enforced if the U.S.S.R. and the ex-enemy state in question should collaborate in violating them, as it could be expected they would. Nothing was said as to the continued validity of the 1921 Convention. The proposed conference was to be composed of the four members of the Council of Foreign Ministers plus Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Jugoslavia, Rumania, Bulgaria and the Ukrainian S.S.R.; Austria was to take part in subsequent conferences "after the question of a Treaty with Austria has been settled." With no previous agreement on voting or on a review of its decisions by the Council of Foreign Ministers, this decision on the composition of the conference meant that the Soviet bloc would have a clear majority and that the Soviet Union would write the new convention, if it desired to have one. It was a calamitous concession on the part of the United States and Great Britain if they really hoped to get a Danube régime which would actually guarantee freedom of navigation. However, they could hardly argue against giving representation to the riparian states, and it was a melancholy fact that those states were all Soviet satellites. Moreover, so long as the Soviet Union controlled the Danube, no convention could be forced on it against its will. Soviet power, which the western nations did not wish to challenge in this area, except with words, had already decided the issue of the Danube so far as the immediate postwar settlement was concerned.

The peace treaties came into force on September 15, 1947. The following March 15 was the outside date for calling the Danube Conference. None of the four Powers seemed in a hurry to do anything about it. Relations between Russia and the west had grown rapidly worse since the agreement of December 1946. Holding a conference on the Danube was not likely to improve them, or to produce an agreed new convention. Neither the Soviet Union, which was in control of the Danube, nor Great Britain and France, which saw no chance of breaking that control, took the initiative in proposing the calling of a conference. The United States did. It was a decision which may have been taken without full consideration of all the political consequences. But there were plausible reasons behind it. Since 1945 the United States had taken the lead in urging freedom of navigation on the Danube and in securing mention of it in the peace treaties. To have let the March 15 date pass by in silence without mentioning the conference would have been a declaration of disinterest in the Danube, estopping us from raising the question in the future. The conference, successful or not, would test the good faith of the other parties to the agreement of December 1946.

Since the U.S.S.R. was sure to control seven out of ten votes, the United States had to decide whether to safeguard its position by insisting on acceptance of some particular voting procedure before the conference met. There were several alternatives: 1, to consider the decisions of the conference as recommendations, subject to confirmation by the Council of Foreign Ministers, where each of the four Powers had a veto; 2, to follow the procedure of the 11-nation Far Eastern Commission, where decisions required a majority including the concurring votes of the four Great Powers; 3, to include Austria as a member of the conference and then apply the two-thirds rule, so that a minority of four votes could block decisions. The United States did not insist on any of these procedures. Having made such an issue of Soviet use of the veto in the United Nations, the United States would not have found it easy to argue in favor of the veto merely because at this particular conference the western Powers were going to be in the minority. As for Austria, Washington did propose in strong terms inclusion of that country as a full-fledged participant -- which required a rather "liberal" interpretation of the 1946 decision to the effect that Austria would be brought into such a conference only after the Austrian treaty had been settled -- but finally agreed that Austria should be invited to attend "in a consultative capacity." Once that was decided, the question of voting by two-thirds or simple majority became academic.

The United States had, of course, a final safeguard for its own position. The conference was being called to work out a treaty. No participating state could be compelled to accept a treaty as binding on itself merely because it had been passed by majority vote. The American delegation went to Belgrade with only an outside hope that an acceptable treaty might be negotiated. Nothing in past history or in recent Soviet diplomatic conduct led one to believe that the U.S.S.R. was ready to agree to an effective régime guaranteeing freedom of navigation on the Danube. But it seemed barely possible that, as in the peace treaty negotiations, the Soviets might make some concessions to western views. The Smith-Molotov exchange of May 1948 indicated that Moscow might be willing to make a start toward a settlement of differences; the Danube might be the place where the start could be made. At any rate, the American delegation went to Belgrade prepared to negotiate a treaty. Its transportation men, maritime lawyers and other experts had worked out a detailed convention. The State Department had, indeed, overemphasized the technical side of its preparation at the expense of the political. Moscow did not send Vyshinsky to Belgrade to negotiate on port charges and docking facilities.


What were the issues at Belgrade? From the American viewpoint, the first question was whether the Soviet Union had any serious intention to negotiate. That question was answered by Vyshinsky at the opening session, supposedly devoted to formalities; by pushing through a vote excluding English as an official language he set out to demonstrate that he was going to run the conference to suit himself, and perhaps hoped to goad his opponents into an undignified withdrawal. The following day he made his now famous remark: "The door was open for you [the western delegates] to come in; the door is open for you to leave, if that is what you wish." Vyshinsky obviously relished his position. He had six other delegates to make speeches in support of the Soviet position when he himself tired of talking, which was not very often. He had an automatic majority whenever he chose to call for a vote.

As the American representative, Ambassador Cavendish W. Cannon, pointed out in his final statement, it was a "unique" conference. There was no attempt to negotiate. Vyshinsky presented a draft Danube convention. The satellites, including Jugoslavia, endorsed it as a "perfect instrument" before it was even discussed. They proposed no amendments, not even the change of a comma. They acknowledged no differences of views among themselves or with the U.S.S.R. Anyone who questioned the Soviet draft was an imperialist bent on violating the sovereignty of the Danubian states.

In these circumstances, what choice did the western delegates have? They could stay and be insulted and outvoted, or they could walk out. The British and French, who at the very start were subjected to abuse for standing on their rights under the 1921 Convention, on several occasions were ready to "take a walk" but did not do so. The three western governments wished to maintain solidarity at least to the point of staying on or quitting together. The American decision to sit it out to the end was based on several considerations. In the first place it was undesirable to appear, before American and world opinion, as "bad sports" who would participate in international conferences only when in the majority. Secondly, the United States believed that its proposals for a new Danube régime were based on the permanent interest of all nations, including the Danubian nations, in a maximum flow of trade on the river. It wished to get these proposals on the record and to set forth its arguments in favor of them even if the assembled Communists around the table voted them down without a second thought. Thirdly, the United States wished to give Vyshinsky full opportunity to show the world how a Soviet delegation conducted itself when it held the whip hand. He obliged by playing the part at his domineering best. Toward the end he seemed to realize that he had overplayed his hand and belatedly introduced some "additional Soviet proposals" on a few minor points, taking them from the American draft; but this manœuvre could not give the procedure the appearance of a negotiated settlement.

The United States delegation expected that Great Britain and France, being more directly interested, would take the lead in presenting the western case. However, the British and French had prepared no draft convention or draft articles. Their principal concern was to assert their rights as parties to the 1921 Convention, which they considered still legally in force, in opposition to the Soviet view that it no longer conformed to existing conditions and had in fact been killed by Britain and France themselves when they concluded the Sinaia agreements with Rumania in 1938. Under these circumstances the United States felt it necessary to submit its own draft convention and thus to take the lead in arguing the western case against Vyshinsky. As it was obvious that there would be no agreement, the United States wished to argue the case on the basis of its conception of an ideal convention rather than on the narrower legalistic basis represented by the British and French position.

The American strategy was to focus the debate on the major points of difference between the Soviet and American drafts. Superficially there were some resemblances, principally because both drew heavily on the 1921 Convention for their technical clauses. Article 1 of the Soviet text provided for freedom of navigation and equal treatment in the exact words of the Danube article in the three peace treaties. The United States was convinced, however, that the Soviet convention was designed not to guarantee freedom of navigation but to give a legal basis for the existing system of Soviet control over the river. To prove this point it framed its amendments and concentrated its arguments on a few main issues.

The first of these was the practical meaning of the general principles of freedom of navigation and nondiscrimination. Those principles were already written into the peace treaties. But in practice Danube navigation was not open to all on equal terms; it was largely in the hands of monopolistic concerns, the so-called 50-50 companies which were under joint Soviet-local ownership and under Soviet direction. They owned the shipping and the port facilities. The American proposals spelled out in concrete terms specific provisions for equality of treatment with respect to docking, loading facilities and the like. Freedom to navigate meant little unless it included freedom to trade and to do business in Danube ports. The Soviet draft provided that such matters must be handled through agreements with the "appropriate agencies," that is, with the 50-50 companies.

The second big issue was the structure and powers of the new Danube commission to administer the convention. The Soviet draft limited membership to riparian states. Disagreement on this point was enough to ensure the failure of the conference even if agreement had been possible on the others. The U.S.S.R., as the only riparian Great Power, was certain to dominate any commission limited to riparians. The western Powers insisted first of all on the principle of non-riparian representation. It had been recognized for half a century that navigation on this great arm of the sea reaching up into Central Europe did not concern the riparian states alone. The three leading nations in prewar shipping on the maritime Danube were all non-riparians: Greece, Italy and Great Britain. Great Britain and France had been on both the European and the International Commissions of the Danube. The United States rested its claim to representation on two considerations--its temporary position as an occupying Power responsible for riparian territory in Germany and Austria and its permanent interest, as one of the major Allied Powers which had already made a great material contribution to Europe, in European recovery and economic progress. But it did not insist on permanent membership; once Austria and Germany had been admitted and provision had been made for adequate non-riparian representation, the United States was willing to forego its claim to membership on the commission.

The western Powers also had objections on the subject of the powers of the new commission as defined in the Soviet text -- particularly the provision for independent special administrations which in effect removed the important Iron Gates sector and the mouths of the river from the commission's jurisdiction -- but the flat Soviet refusal to let the western nations even be present as a minority on the commission made it useless to go into these clauses further.

Another point of difference concerned Austria. An Austrian delegation sat at the conference table "in a consultative capacity." After a few attempts by the Austrians to state their views and defend their position provoked long and abusive speeches, they subsided into silence until the final session. Austria is one of the most important riparian states from the point of view of navigation, and Vienna has been a great Danube river port. But as a country under four-Power occupation and not fully sovereign, Austria's position was delicate, to say the least. The United States championed it at every turn. It proposed Austria's full membership in the conference and was voted down. It proposed that Austria become an original party to the convention and member of the proposed Danube commission, and was voted down. Fortunately for the western Powers, Austria was not willing to become a party to a convention such as the Soviet delegation presented to the conference.

Fourth of the major points raised by the United States was the establishment of a relationship between the new Danube régime and the United Nations. The proposal was based on the general concept of "support" for the United Nations and more specifically was aimed at providing some means of checking, in an organization where the United States would not be automatically outvoted, on a Danube commission dominated by the Soviet Union. Except in the provision for reference of disputes to the International Court, the American proposal was not very clearly worked out, for there was no obvious connection between the Danube régime and any particular U.N. body. The Danube commission might be required to submit reports to the Economic Commission for Europe, or directly to the Economic and Social Council, according to arrangements worked out with those bodies. However, since the Soviets rejected out of hand the whole idea, the American delegation did not have to be specific. It merely chalked up another point on which no effort had been made to meet the American point of view.

Finally, after a long delay, the United States took a firm stand on the legal position that the 1921 Convention was still in force and that the parties to it could not be deprived of their rights under it without their consent; and its signatories included not only Britain and France but also three states not present at Belgrade -- Italy, Greece and Belgium. All these rights were ignored in the supplementary protocol to the Soviet draft convention, which simply declared the former régime null and void and abolished the European and International Commissions, whose assets, but not liabilities, were to be taken over by the new commission. The primary purpose of this American stand was to give aid and comfort to the French and British and keep the western front solid. In the light of the concurrent negotiations on the Berlin situation, this was a matter of some importance.

Every one of the 28 western amendments was rejected by a solid bloc of seven votes. Every article of the Soviet draft was accepted, thanks to the same seven votes. The conference then solemnly accepted the entire Soviet convention. The United States cast the lone negative vote. The British and French delegations ignored the final vote altogether, not even recording their abstention, on the theory that the whole procedure was improper and a violation of their legal rights.


The new convention was signed, with appropriate ceremony and in the absence of the western delegates, on August 18, 1948. Mr. Vyshinsky had his hour of triumph, as there had never been any doubt that he would, given the circumstances under which the conference was held. But how much of a triumph was it? The Soviet Union has given the stamp of legality to a control which it held anyway. The new convention is not recognized by nations outside the Soviet bloc as superseding the old international régime. The new Danube commission cannot operate on the upper Danube above the zone of Soviet control. Austria and Germany remain outside it. Without western participation and support the necessary work to develop the river and even to keep it navigable is not likely to be accomplished.

The U.S. delegation has been criticized for not engaging in a propaganda duel with Mr. Vyshinsky. The unspectacular, firm and reasoned arguments of the American representative probably were more effective than fiery speeches would have been. Some of the satellite delegates seated round the table may have recognized the weight of those arguments. Indirectly, they may reach the people of those countries. Nations for which the Danube is a principal route to world markets can scarcely feel happy, in the long run, about a system which puts control of that route in the hands of a single Great Power. Danube trade within southeastern Europe, as they well know, has never compared in importance with the trade with Austria and Germany on the upper river and with the Mediterranean and Western Europe through its mouth.

Western policy, at this present point in history, is in open competition with the Soviet Union for the allegiance of Europeans both in the west and in the east. To increase trade and contacts between the two halves of Europe is a basic assumption of the Marshall Plan for Western Europe's recovery. Looking beyond the Marshall Plan, there is the possibility of bringing the Eastern European nations back into the European community. To open up the Danube, on the basis of freedom of navigation and nondiscrimination, would of course further these purposes. It was a foregone conclusion that the Soviet Union, having dedicated itself to the defeat of the Marshall Plan, would not agree to restore the prewar type of international régime and open up the Danube, and the Danubian basin, to the trade and influence of the west. All the western Powers could hope to do at Belgrade was to show that their plans for the Danube were conceived to benefit the Danubian nations themselves as well as non-riparian states, and to prove that the charge of imperialism in the Danube basin lay not against the west but against Russia.

The western Powers may take the case to the United Nations; they may seek from the International Court an opinion on the legal validity of the 1921 Convention. A favorable decision in either case would be helpful in the war of propaganda, although it could hardly change the actual state of affairs on the Danube. That could come only from a weakening of the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe through further developments such as those which have already taken place in Jugoslavia. The policy of the western Powers in Soviet Europe must be, for some time to come, to try to drive a wedge here and a wedge there. If what was said at the Danube Conference, besides having set the record straight, contributes to the success of such a policy, it may prove to have been well worth while to have gone into the lists against Mr. Vyshinsky. There could be no settlement at Belgrade. The Danube can be free and open only when it unites Europe. A solution to the problem of the Danube can be found only when we are much nearer to a solution of the problem of Europe.

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  • JOHN C. CAMPBELL, adviser to the U. S. Delegation at the Danube Conference at Belgrade, 1948; author of "The United States in World Affairs," 1945-47, and 1947-48.
  • More By John C. Campbell