Executive Agreements on the Sole Constitutional Authority of the President

Executive Agreements on the Sole Constitutional Authority of the President

Many types of executive agreements comprise the ordinary daily grist of the diplomatic mill. Among these are such as apply to minor territorial adjustments, boundary rectifications, the policing of boundaries, the regulation of fishing rights, private pecuniary claims against another government or its nationals, in Story’s words, “the mere private rights of sovereignty.”421 Crandall lists scores of such agreements entered into with other governments by the authorization of the President.422 Such agreements were ordinarily directed to particular and comparatively trivial disputes and by the settlement they effect of these cease ipso facto to be operative. Also, there are such time-honored diplomatic devices as the “protocol” which marks a stage in the negotiation of a treaty, and the modus vivendi, which is designed to serve as a temporary substitute for one. Executive agreements become of constitutional significance when they constitute a determinative factor of future foreign policy and hence of the country’s destiny. In consequence particularly of our participation in World War II and our immersion in the conditions of international tension which prevailed both before and after the war, Presidents have entered into agreements with other governments some of which have approximated temporary alliances. It cannot be justly said, however, that in so doing they have acted without considerable support from precedent.


1397 (1833).

422 S. Crandall, supra, ch. 8; see also W. McClure, supra, chs. 1, 2.

An early instance of executive treaty-making was the agreement by which President Monroe in 1817 brought about a delimitation of armaments on the Great Lakes. The arrangement was effected by an exchange of notes, which nearly a year later were laid before the Senate with a query as to whether it was within the President’s power, or whether advice and consent of the Senate was required. The Senate approved the agreement by the required two-thirds vote, and it was forthwith proclaimed by the President without there having been a formal exchange of ratifications.423 Of a kindred type, and owing much to the President’s capacity as Commander-in-Chief, was a series of agreements entered into with Mexico between 1882 and 1896 according each country the right to pursue marauding Indians across the common border.424 Commenting on such an agreement, the Court remarked, a bit uncertainly: “While no act of Congress authorizes the executive department to permit the introduction of foreign troops, the power to give such permission without legislative assent was probably assumed to exist from the authority of the President as commander in chief of the military and naval forces of the United States. It may be doubted, however, whether such power could be extended to the apprehension of deserters [from foreign vessels] in the absence of positive legislation to that effect.”425 Justice Gray and three other Justices were of the opinion that such action by the President must rest upon express treaty or statute.426

Notable expansion of presidential power in this field first became manifest in the administration of President McKinley. At the outset of war with Spain, the President proclaimed that the United States would consider itself bound for the duration by the last three principles of the Declaration of Paris, a course which, as Professor Wright observes, “would doubtless go far toward establishing these three principles as international law obligatory upon the United States in future wars.”427 Hostilities with Spain were brought to an end in August, 1898, by an armistice the conditions of which largely determined the succeeding treaty of peace,428 just as did the Armistice of November 11, 1918, determine in great measure the conditions of the final peace with Germany in 1918. It was also President McKinley who in 1900, relying on his own sole authority as Commander-in-Chief, contributed a land force of 5,000 men and a naval force to cooperate with similar contingents from other Powers to rescue the legations in Peking from the Boxers; a year later, again without consulting either Congress or the Senate, he accepted for the United States the Boxer Indemnity Protocol between China and the intervening Powers.429 Commenting on the Peking protocol, Willoughby quotes with approval the following remark: “This case is interesting, because it shows how the force of circumstances compelled us to adopt the European practice with reference to an international agreement, which, aside from the indemnity question, was almost entirely political in character ... purely political treaties are, under constitutional practice in Europe, usually made by the executive alone. The situation in China, however, abundantly justified President McKinley in not submitting the protocol to the Senate. The remoteness of Peking, the jealousies between the allies, and the shifting evasive tactics of the Chinese Government, would have made impossible anything but an agreement on the spot.”430

423 Id. at 49-50.

424 Id. at 81-82.

425 Tucker v. Alexandroff, 183 U.S. 424, 435 (1902).

426 Id. at 467. The first of these conventions, signed July 29, 1882, had asserted its constitutionality in very positive terms. Q. Wright, supra at 239 (quoting Watts v. United States, 1 Wash. Terr. 288, 294 (1870)).

427 Id. at 245.

428 S. Crandall, supra at 103-04.

429 Id. at 104.

430 1 W. Willoughby, supra at 539.

It was during this period, too, that John Hay, as McKinley’s Secretary of State, initiated his “Open Door” policy, by notes to Great Britain, Germany, and Russia, which were soon followed by similar notes to France, Italy and Japan. These in substance asked the recipients to declare formally that they would not seek to enlarge their respective interests in China at the expense of any of the others; and all responded favorably.431 Then, in 1905, the first Roosevelt, seeking to arrive at a diplomatic understanding with Japan, instigated an exchange of opinions between Secretary of War Taft, then in the Far East, and Count Katsura, amounting to a secret treaty, by which the Roosevelt administration assented to the establishment by Japan of a military protectorate in Korea.432 Three years later, Secretary of State Root and the Japanese ambassador at Washington entered into the Root-Takahira Agreement to uphold the status quo in the Pacific and maintain the principle of equal opportunity for commerce and industry in China.433 Meantime, in 1907, by a “Gentleman’s Agreement,” the Mikado’s government had agreed to curb the emigration of Japanese subjects to the

431 W. McClure, supra at 98.

432 Id. at 96-97.

433 Id. at 98-99.

United States, thereby relieving the Washington government from the necessity of taking action that would have cost Japan loss of face. The final result of this series of executive agreements touching American relations in and with the Far East was the product of President Wilson’s diplomacy. This was the Lansing-Ishii Agreement, embodied in an exchange of letters dated November 2, 1917, by which the United States recognized Japan’s “special interests” in China, and Japan assented to the principle of the Open Door in that country.434

The Litvinov Agreement.—The executive agreement attained its modern development as an instrument of foreign policy under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, at times threatening to replace the treaty-making power, not formally but in effect, as a determinative element in the field of foreign policy. The President’s first important utilization of the executive agreement device took the form of an exchange of notes on November 16, 1933, with Maxim M. Litvinov, the USSR Commissar for Foreign Affairs, whereby American recognition was extended to the Soviet Union and certain pledges made by each official.435

The Hull-Lothian Agreement.—With the fall of France in June, 1940, President Roosevelt entered into two executive agreements the total effect of which was to transform the role of the United States from one of strict neutrality toward the European war to one of semi-belligerency. The first agreement was with Canada and provided for the creation of a Permanent Joint Board on Defense which would “consider in the broad sense the defense of the north half of the Western Hemisphere.”436 Second, and more important than the first, was the Hull-Lothian Agreement of September 2, 1940, under which, in return for the lease for ninety-nine years of certain sites for naval bases in the British West Atlantic, the United States handed over to the British Government fifty over-age destroyers which had been reconditioned and recommissioned.437 And on April 9, 1941, the State Department, in consideration of the just-completed German occupation of Denmark, entered into an executive agreement with the Danish minister in Washington, whereby the United States acquired the right to occupy Greenland for purposes of defense.438

434 Id. at 99-100.

435 Id. at 140-44.

436 Id. at 391.

437 Id. at 391-93. Attorney General Jackson’s defense of the presidential power to enter into the arrangement placed great reliance on the President’s “inherent” powers under the Commander-in-Chief clause and as sole organ of foreign relations but ultimately found adequate statutory authority to take the steps deemed desirable. 39 Ops. Atty. Gen. 484 (1940).

438 4 Dept. State Bull. 443 (1941).

The Post-War Years.—Post-war diplomacy of the United States was greatly influenced by the executive agreements entered into at Cairo, Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam.439 For a period, the formal treaty—the signing of the United Nations Charter and the entry into the multinational defense pacts, like NATO, SEATO, CENTRO, and the like—reestablished itself, but soon the executive agreement, as an adjunct of treaty arrangement or solely through presidential initiative, again became the principal instrument of United States foreign policy, so that it became apparent in the 1960s that the Nation was committed in one way or another to assisting over half the countries of the world protect themselves.440 Congressional disquietitude did not result in anything more substantial than passage of a “sense of the Senate” resolution expressing a desire that “national commitments” be made more solemnly in the future than in the past.441

439 See A Decade of American Foreign Policy, Basic Documents 1941-1949, S. Doc. No. 123, 81st Congress, 1st Sess. (1950), pt. 1.

440 For a congressional attempt to evaluate the extent of such commitments, see United States Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad: Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 91st Congress, 1st Sess. (1969), 10 pts.; see also U.S. Commitments to Foreign Powers: Hearings on S. Res. 151 Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 90th Congress, 1st Sess. (1967).

441 The “National Commitments Resolution,” S. Res. 85, 91st Congress, 1st Sess., passed by the Senate June 25, 1969. See also S. Rep. No. 797, 90th Congress, 1st Sess. (1967). See the discussion of these years in CRS study, supra at 169-202.

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Last modified: June 9, 2014