The Counselor for the Department of State (Lansing) to the Secretary of State

Dear Mr. Secretary: In compliance with your request I herewith enclose a proposed public statement setting forth the attitude of this Government as to a protest by it for alleged violation of the neutrality of Belgium.

The statement follows the lines of my memorandum to you dated January 7, 191527 and embodies your amendments to that memorandum.

Very sincerely yours,

Robert Lansing
[Page 189]

Proposed Statement for the Press

Since the outbreak of the European war and the invasion of Belgium by the armies of the German Empire a great number of communications have been received from individuals and organizations in this country asking or demanding the Government to protest against the violation of Belgian neutrality by Germany on the ground that such neutrality was secured by the Hague Conventions to which the United States and Germany were parties.

It seems expedient that the attitude of this Government in regard to its right and duty as a party to the Hague Conventions in relation to Belgian neutrality should be made public in order that the people may not be deceived by the incorrect assumptions as to our duty as a neutral power which constitute the foundation for criticism of the Administration’s failure to protest to the German Government.

In the first place it should be pointed out that those who advocate action by this Government fail to discriminate between a neutralized State and a neutral State. The neutrality of the two classes is essentially different and is founded on different principles.

The neutrality of a neutralized State (such as Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, etc.,) is a matter of conventional agreement between powers, which are interested in preventing the State from being absorbed politically by any one of such powers. The treaty, which declares the neutralization of the State, is in fact a guaranty that the parties to the treaty will not deprive the State of independence or invade its neutrality.

The neutrality of a neutral State is a condition, in which all nations other than the belligerents find themselves immediately upon the outbreak of an international war.

The Hague Conventions have nothing to do with the neutrality of a neutralized State or with the guarantees to preserve such neutrality. Only the powers which are parties to the neutralization agreement have a legal right to complain of its violation. To agreements of that sort the United States is not and has not been a party. It would be manifestly improper for this Government to complain of the violation of a treaty to which it was not a party.

So far, therefore, as the invasion of Belgium may be considered a breach of guaranty by Germany to preserve its character as a neutralized State this Government has neither the duty nor the right to protest.

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As regards the violation of the neutrality of Belgium as a neutral State the provision in the Hague Conventions relative thereto is found in Article 1 of Convention No. V of 1907,28 entitled “Convention respecting the Rights and duties of Neutral Powers and Persons in case of War”. It reads as follows:

“The territory of neutral powers is inviolable.”

Article 20 of the Convention provides:

“The provisions of the present convention do not apply except between contracting powers, and then only if all the belligerents are parties to the convention.[”]

The right or duty to enter protest against a violation of a provision of the Hague Conventions is not affirmatively set forth in the documents themselves. If the right or duty exists it must arise from the nature of the undertakings. It will not be questioned but that this Government has the right to protest against any violation of a convention in force when the interests of the United States or of its citizens are involved. But this is not the case in regard to the violation of the neutral territory of Belgium. It does not affect American rights or interests, but those of the Belgians. It is necessary, therefore, to consider the nature of the undertaking to which the ratifying powers subscribed.

While the form of the Hague Conventions is that of a joint undertaking, the adoption of that form was, in the view of this Government, for the sake of convenience and not for the purpose of binding the parties to joint action in case of violation by one of them; and this is evidenced by the fact that there is no provision authorizing joint action by the parties. The same end would have been attained had each of the parties entered into an identical treaty with each one of the other powers. To avoid so cumbersome a method and the repetition of ratification and exchanges the form of the Hague Conventions was adopted and provision was made for the deposit of the ratifications at The Hague. In a word, the undertaking is several and not joint. It lacks entirely the element of a joint obligation imposed by the guaranty of the treaties which neutralize the Kingdom of Belgium.

In view of the several character of the undertakings incorporated in The Hague Conventions the United States would have no right and would even less be charged with the duty to make protest or demand explanation as to an alleged violation unless the rights or interests of the United States or its citizens are affected.

  1. Not printed.
  2. 28 Malloy, Treaties, 1776–1909, vol. II, p. 2290.