CRS Annotated Constitution

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Interpretation and Termination of Treaties as International Compacts

The repeal by Congress of the “self–executing” clauses of a treaty as “law of the land” does not of itself terminate the treaty as an international contract, although it may very well provoke the other party to the treaty to do so. Hence, the questions arise where the Constitution lodges this power and where it lodges the power to interpret the contractual provisions of treaties. The first case of outright abrogation of a treaty by the United States occurred in 1798, when Congress by the Act of July 7 of that year, pronounced the United States freed and exonerated from the stipulations of the Treaties of 1778 with France.349 This act was followed two days later by one authorizing limited hostilities against the same country; in the case of Bas v. Tingy,350 the Supreme Court treated the act of abrogation as simply one of a bundle of acts declaring “public war” upon the French Republic.

Termination of Treaties by Notice.—Typically, a treaty provides for its termination by notice of one of the parties, usually after a prescribed time from the date of notice. Of course, treaties may also be terminated by agreement of the parties, or by breach by one of the parties, or by some other means. But it is in the instance of termination by notice that the issue has frequently been raised: where in the Government of the United States does the Constitution lodge the power to unmake treaties?351 Reasonable[p.488]arguments may be made locating the power in the President alone, in the President–and–Senate, or in the Congress. Presidents generally have asserted the foreign relations power reposed in them under Article II and the inherent powers argument made in Curtiss–Wright. Because the Constitution requires the consent of the Senate for making a treaty, one can logically argue that its consent is as well required for terminating it. Finally, because treaties are, like statutes, the supreme law of the land, it may well be argued that, again like statutes, they may be undone only through law–making by the entire Congress; additionally, since Congress may be required to implement treaties and may displace them through legislation, this argument is reenforced.

Definitive resolution of this argument appears remotely possible. Historical practice provides support for all three arguments, and the judicial branch seems unlikely to essay any answer.

While abrogation of the French treaty, mentioned above, is apparently the only example of termination by Congress through a public law, many instances may be cited of congressional actions mandating terminations by notice of the President or changing the legal environment so that the President is required to terminate. The initial precedent in the instance of termination by notice pursuant to congressional action appears to have occurred in 1846,352 when by joint resolution Congress authorized the President at his discretion to notify the British government of the abrogation of the Convention of August 6, 1827, relative to the joint occupation of the Oregon Territory. As the President himself had requested the resolution, the episode is often cited to support the theory that international conventions to which the United States is a party, even those terminable on notice, are terminable only through action of Congress.353 Subsequently, Congress has often passed resolutions denouncing treaties or treaty provisions, which by their own terms were terminable on notice, and Presidents have usually, though not invariably, carried out such resolutions.354 By the La Follette–[p.489]Furuseth Seaman’s Act,355 President Wilson was directed, “within ninety days after the passage of the act, to give notice to foreign governments that so much of any treaties as might be in conflict with the provisions of the act would terminate on the expiration of the periods of notice provided for in such treaties,” and the required notice was given.356 When, however, by section 34 of the Jones Merchant Marine Act of 1920, the same President was authorized and directed within ninety days to give notice to the other parties to certain treaties, with which the Act was not in conflict but which might restrict Congress in the future from enacting discriminatory tonnage duties, President Wilson refused to comply, asserting that he “did not deem the direction contained in section 34 . . . an exercise of any constitutional power possessed by Congress.”357 The same attitude toward section 34 was continued by Presidents Harding and Coolidge.358

Very few precedents exist in which the President terminated a treaty after obtaining the approval of the Senate alone. The first occurred in 1854–1855, when President Pierce requested and received Senate approval to terminate a treaty with Denmark.359 When the validity of this action was questioned in the Senate, the Committee on Foreign Relations reported that the procedure was correct, that prior full–Congress actions were incorrect, and that the right to terminate resides in the treaty–making authorities, the President and the Senate.360


Examples of treaty terminations in which the President acted alone are much disputed with respect both to facts and to the underlying legal circumstances.361 Apparently, President Lincoln was the first to give notice of termination in the absence of prior congressional authorization or direction, and Congress shortly thereafter by joint resolution ratified his action.362 The first such action by the President, with no such subsequent congressional action, appears to be that of President McKinley in 1899, in terminating an 1850 treaty with Switzerland, but the action may be explainable as the treaty being inconsistent with a subsequently enacted law.363 Other such renunciations by the President acting on his own have been similarly explained, and similarly the explanations have been controverted. While the Department of State, in setting forth legal justification for President Carter’s notice of termination of the treaty with Taiwan, cited many examples of the President acting alone, many of these are ambiguous and may be explained away by, i.e., conflicts with later statutes, changed circumstances, or the like.364

No such ambiguity accompanied President Carter’s action on the Taiwan treaty,365 and a somewhat lengthy Senate debate was provoked. In the end, the Senate on a preliminary vote approved a “sense of the Senate” resolution claiming for itself a consenting role in the termination of treaties, but no final vote was ever taken and the Senate thus did not place itself in conflict with the President.366 However, several Members of Congress went to court to contest the termination, apparently the first time a judicial resolu[p.491]tion of the question had been sought. A divided Court of Appeals, on the merits, held that presidential action was sufficient by itself to terminate treaties, but the Supreme Court, no majority agreeing on a common ground, vacated that decision and instructed the trial court to dismiss the suit.367 While no opinion of the Court bars future litigation, it appears that the political question doctrine or some other rule of judicial restraint will leave such disputes to the contending forces of the political branches.368


349 1 Stat. 578 (1798).
350 4 Dall. (4 U. S.) 37 (1800). See also Gray v. United States, 21 Cl.340 (1886), with respect to claims arising out of this situation.
351 The matter was most extensively canvassed in the debate with respect to President Carter’s termination of the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1954 with the Republic of China (Taiwan). See, e.g., the various views argued in Treaty Termination, Hearings before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 96th Congress, 1st sess. (1979). On the issue generally, see Restatement, Foreign Relations, op. cit., n.262, Sec. 339; CRS Study, 158–167; L. Henkin, op. cit., n.315, 167–171; Bestor, Respective Roles of Senate and President in the Making and Abrogation of Treaties—The Original Intent of the Framers of the Constitution Historically Examined, 55 L. Rev.1 (1979); Berger, The President’s Unilateral Termination of the Taiwan Treaty, 75 U. L. Rev.577 (1980).
352 Compare the different views of the 1846 action in Treaty Termination, Hearings before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 96th Congress, 1st sess. (1979), 160–162 (memorandum of Hon. Herbert Hansell, Legal Advisor, Department of State), and in Taiwan, Hearings before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 96th Congress, 1st sess. (1979), 300 (memorandum of Senator Goldwater).
353 S. Crandall, op. cit., n.264, 458–459.
354 Id., 459–462; Q. Wright, op. cit., n.302, 258.
355 38 Stat. 1164 (1915).
356 S. Crandall, op. cit., n.264, 460. See Van der Weyde v. Ocean Transp. Co., 297 U. S. 114 (1936).
357 41 Stat. 1007 . See Reeves, The Jones Act and the Denunciation of Treaties, 15 Am. J. Int’l. L. 33 (1921). In 1879, Congress passed a resolution requiring the President to abrogate a treaty with China, but President Hayes vetoed it, partly on the ground that Congress as an entity had no role to play in ending treaties, only the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. 9 J. Richardson, op. cit., n.42, 4466, 4470–4471. For the views of President Taft on the matter in context, see W. Taft, The Presidency, Its Duties, Its Powers, Its Opportunities and Its Limitations (New York: 1916), 112– 113.
358 Since this time, very few instances appear in which Congress has requested or directed termination by notice, but they have resulted in compliance. E.g., 65 Stat. 72 (1951) (directing termination of most–favored–nation provisions with certain Communist countries in commercial treaties); 70 Stat. 773 (1956) (requesting renunciation of treaty rights of extraterritoriality in Morroco). The most recent example appears to be Sec. 313 of the Anti–Apartheid Act of 1986, which required the Secretary of State to terminate immediately, in accordance with its terms, the tax treaty and protocol with South Africa that had been concluded on Decemberr 13, 1946. P. L. 99–440, 100 Stat. 3515 , 22 U.S.C. Sec. 5063 .
359 5 J. Richardson, op. cit., n.42, 279, 334.
360 S. Rept. No. 97, 34th Congress, 1st sess. (1856), 6–7. The other instance was President Wilson’s request, which the Senate endorsed, for termination of the International Sanitary Convention of 1903. See 61 Cong. Rec. 1793–1794 (1921). See CRS Study, op. cit., n.262, 161–162.
361 Compare, e.g., Treaty Termination, Hearings before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 96th Congress, 1st sess. (1979), 156–191 (memorandum of Hon. Herbert Hansell, Legal Advisor, Department of State), with Taiwan, Hearings before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 96th Congress, 1st sess. (1979), 300–307 (memorandum of Senator Goldwater). See CRS Study, op. cit., n.262, 164–166.
362 13 Stat. 568 (1865).
363 The treaty, see 11 C. Bevans, Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America (Washington: 1970), 894, was probably at odds with the Tariff Act of 1897. 30 Stat. 151 .
364 Compare the views expressed in the Hansell and Goldwater memoranda, op. cit., n.361. For expressions of views preceding the immediate controversy, see, e.g., Riesenfeld, The Power of Congress and the President in International Relations, 25 Calif. L. Rev. 643, 658–665 (1937); Nelson, The Termination of Treaties and Executive Agreements by the United States, 42 L. Rev.879 (1958).
365 Note that the President terminated the treaty in the face of an expression of the sense of Congress that prior consultation between President and Congress should occur. 92 Stat. 730, 746 (1978).
366 Originally, S. Res. 15 had disapproved presidential action alone, but it was amended and reported by the Foreign Relations Committee to recognize at least 14 bases of presidential termination. S. Rept. No. 119, 96th Congress, 1st sess. (1979). In turn, this resolution was amended to state the described sense of the Senate view, but the matter was never brought to final action. See 125 Rec.13672,13696,13711,15209,15859 (1979).
367 Goldwater v. Carter, 617 F.2d 697 (D.C.Cir.) (en banc), vacated and remanded, 444 U.S. 996 (1979). Four Justices found the case nonjusticiable because of the political question doctrine, id., 1002, but one other Justice in the majority and one in dissent rejected this analysis. Id., 998 (Justice Powell), 1006 (Justice Brennan). The remaining three Justices were silent on the doctrine.
368 Cf. Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 211–213, 217 (1962).
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