The Secretary of State to the French Chargé d’Affaires.
Washington, October 16, 1906.
Sir: I have the pleasure to acknowledge your note of the 18th of August last, in which, at the instance of the chamber of commerce of Paris, attention is drawn to the perils to which vessels are exposed by the dormant mines scattered over the open seas of the Far East, and the suggestion is made that this subject be taken up by The Hague conference and an international agreement effected to prevent the liability of such dangers.
After-consultation with my colleague of the navy, I may say that this Government would incline to favor an international agreement whereby to restrict and regulate the employment by belligerents of dormant or other mines which are liable to drift away from the spot of their strategic employment and become a menace to legitimate navigation on the high seas or in neutral waters.
While the use of submarine mines in war is as legitimate as that of torpedoes and other dirigible explosive devices, the mutual rights of the belligerents and their obligations toward the whole neutral world forbid their employment except under conditions of reasonable control, both as to the area in which they are effective and the duration of their destructive character. Certainly the menace from drifting mines to all shipping navigating the Yellow Sea and adjacent waters [Page 305] since and during the Russo-Japanese war (and no one can foresee when this menace will cease nor how far afield it will extend with the lapse of time) constitutes a condition of affairs to which no neutral can reasonably be asked to submit, no matter how great the military value to the belligerent of the use of the mines from which this condition results. In view of the impossibility of fixing the responsibility in any particular case, it is no solution of the difficulty to argue that the belligerent is responsible for all damage to neutral shipping resulting from his use of mines, and where the damage to a neutral is accompanied by the sacrifice of innocent lives the question becomes still more complex.
While it may be premature to formulate the restrictions and regulations applicable to the case, it may be observed that in the case of unanchored mines the conditions should be similar to those in regard to torpedoes which are merely automobile modifications of the unanchored or floating type, and that as to both the area of destructive influence should not exceed that of the circle whose diameter equals that of the run of the ordinary standard torpedo. It would seem further that neutrals have a right to demand that belligerents who make use of contact mines, whether anchored or unanchored, shall use only such as shall become innocuous upon getting adrift and passing, uncontrolled, beyond the immediate range of belligerent activity. The point which seems proper to assert and emphasize by an international agreement is that a belligerent has no right to seek his own safety or to attack the enemy at the expense of probable injury to a neutral, against which no precaution on the part of the neutral can adequately provide. The belligerent’s remedy and duty is obviously to improve his contact mine and prevent its becoming a terrible uncontrollable peril to innocent mankind.
The Secretary of the Navy has furnished me with a memorandum in regard to derelict mines off the China coasts. I have the pleasure to inclose a copy of it for your further information.
Accept, sir, etc.,