Around the World in 175 Days, 1924: Department of State Contributions to the U.S. Army Flight Around the World: Part II

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

This is the second in a series of occasional blog posts.   

Even as the Department of State’s work on securing approval from Japan for the preliminary work on the Army’s around-the-world flight (see Part I), the Department of State was moving into the second phase of its work on the around-the-world flight: securing approval from the various countries to be overflown.

This work was initiated by receipt of the following December 1, 1923, War Department letter setting out a tentative route for the mission:

The Department began on December 19, by informing the British embassy in the United States, followed three days later by telegrams to the U.S. embassy, legation, or other American representatives in Austria, Bulgaria, China, Denmark, France,  Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Persia (now Iran), Siam (now Thailand), Turkey, and Yugoslavia.  The embassy in Japan was not notified because, as recounted in Part I, that country had yet to approve the arrival of an Army representative even just for scouting purposes.  Several days after that, the Department sent the message to the U.S. legation in Rumania (as it was then spelled).  The following is one example of those telegrams:

Telegram to American Embassy in Paris, Dec 22, 1923

When, after almost a month had passed and only one post, the legation in Persia, had responded, the Department sent the recalcitrant posts a telegram that referred to its earlier message to each and reading “Please endeavor to expedite reply and obtain confirmation in writing.”  This quickly led to reports of positive responses from the governments of Austria, Bulgaria, China, Denmark, France (eventually including its Syrian mandate), Germany, Great Britain (eventually including Hong Kong and on behalf of the governments in Canada, India, and Iraq), Hungary, Rumania, Siam (now Thailand), and Yugoslavia.

In some cases, details, especially about permission for aerial photography, landing sites, and establishment of temporary support bases, remained to be worked out over the next months but most approvals for overflight were quickly granted.  The British and French had to consult with their respective colonial governments.

Chinese officials initially objected to the flight on the grounds that the aircraft were of a military character; they had allowed foreign aircraft of a non-military nature previously.  After the Department conveyed the War Department’s comments that the flight was “to increase . . . scientific knowledge of aeronautics and to advance the art of aviation” and that the planes were “a modification of a commercial airplane” and “in no way a military type,” Chinese approval was secured.

One country, however, put up serious obstacles.  On January 30, 1924, U.S. Commissioner to Turkey Admiral Mark L. Bristol reported that on an unofficial basis Turkish officials had requested that the flight bypass Turkey explaining “that safety to machines and crews could not be assured” and furthermore, that a similar request by the British had been denied.  Bristol believed that the possibility of approval still existed as the refusal had been conveyed unofficially.  Nevertheless, the War Department began planning for an alternative route, one that would take the flight through several additional countries and add about 1500 miles to the journey.

The situation was complicated by the absence of formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Turkey.  After World War I, the Ottoman Empire dissolved, and in its place arose the modern state of Turkey, with which the United States did not establish formal diplomatic relations in 1927.  Until that time, the senior American representative in Turkey was the U.S. High Commissioner.

On February 7, Bristol reported that the matter was, indeed, still under consideration by the Turks and one Turkish official “evidenced considerable sympathy regarding plans of [the] War Department.”  To assist Bristol in his efforts to secure approval, the Department sent the following telegram:

Six days later, by which time there was no reply, the Department advised Bristol to try the embarrassment approach, telegraphing “Favorable replies have now been received from all countries traversed by flight with the exception of Turkey.  If you deem advisable, you may so inform authorities.”  When another 9 days had passed with still no Turkish response, the Department sent the High Commissioner a telegram asking that he “[e]ndeavor to ascertain definite objections of Turkish Government to flight across Turkey.”  That message also noted that the War Department, which was increasingly concerned about having to change the route, would “gladly” provide any information needed to assuage Turkish concerns.  The High Commissioner finally reported Turkish approval, with conditions, on March 6.  None of those conditions proved to be insurmountable.

The Department of State largely closed out its work securing approval for overflight on April 11, five days after the planes departed from Seattle, with similar instructions to the relevant American posts.  Here is one example of that document:

Telegram from J. Butler Wright to Frank Kellogg, Ambassador to London, April 11, 1924

The Department sent this to the U.S. diplomatic posts in Austria, Bulgaria, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Persia, Rumania, Siam, and Yugoslavia, the U.S. High Commissioner in Turkey, and the U.S. consul in Bagdad (as it was then spelled).

Sources:  All the documents mentioned above come from file “811.2300” in the 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  A listing of those documents will be found in the Purport List for that file, which is available online.  See NAID 87603160, beginning at frame 510.

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