The Counselor for the Department of State (Lansing) to the Secretary of State 31

Dear Mr. Secretary: I have read the President’s memorandum of the 12th relative to the proposed statement for the press setting forth the Government’s position in regard to a protest against German violation of the neutrality of Belgium.

The necessity of making a statement is of course a matter of debate. We cannot ignore the fact that the Department is receiving daily communications from all over the country asking the reasons for our failure to protest. It is an increasing embarrassment not to be able to reply to these inquiries.

Furthermore, I feel that there is public feeling, which is growing stronger, that the Government is shirking a responsibility, which as a party to The Hague Conventions it is bound to assume. Not only is this shown in private letters but also in articles published in newspapers and periodicals. I may over-estimate the importance of this feeling upon the attitude of many of our people toward the Administration, but it seems to me that something ought to be done to check it. Whether the proposed statement is the best way is another matter.

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I appreciate the force of the President’s comment as to the apparent technical character of the explanation which is made in the proposed statement. I think, however, that the violation of a treaty such as that neutralizing Belgium is the violation of a legal right and not a natural right. The guaranty of neutralization was in the interest of the guarantors rather than of Belgium. It was a compromise of conflicting national interests entered into by the parties to preserve the balance of power; the integrity of Belgium was incident to the compromise and not its primary object. The agreement was purely political in character.

I think in all frankness it should be said that, while the German breach of the contract of guaranty may possibly be viewed as an immoral act, it may also be viewed as injurious to the rights of the other guarantor powers and a menace to their national safety in destroying the political equilibrium which it was intended to preserve. Great Britain in making the breach a casus belli has declared her action to be based on ethical rather than political grounds and has appealed to the conscience of the world for justification. The fact should not be ignored, however, that her political interest coincides with her conception of international morality in this case. If it were otherwise, I am not convinced that righteous indignation alone would have induced the British Government to declare war.

In the case of violations of the rules of humane warfare, such as the dropping of bombs from aircraft on unfortified towns, the indiscriminate sowing of contact mines in the open sea, and the bombardment of unprotected seaports without even giving notice of the proposed attack, natural rights as well as legal rights are invaded. These practices may well be classed as inhumane and, therefore, immoral. It may not be unreasonable to claim that methods of warfare of this sort invite the condemnation and protest of all civilized nations, and that a neutral power is morally bound to exert its influence to prevent their practice. Yet this Government, in spite of the fact that the evidence of the employment of these improper methods is uncontradicted and conclusive, has remained silent and made no effort to check the belligerents.

I do not refer to our failure to protest against these practices by way of criticism because I believe that the moral duty was doubtful and the policy of silence was wise. I only wish to call attention to the fact that the moral duty, if any, is far more evident in such cases than in the case of a right dependent solely upon a treaty stipulation.

Violations of treaties have occurred frequently in the past without calling forth protests from nations not parties to the treaties unless their interests were affected. The recent breach of the Berlin Treaty by Austria-Hungary when she annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina and [Page 194] the invasion by Great Britain of the South African Republics passed without objection by this Government. Both of these violations of agreements affected the territorial integrity and sovereignty of independent states. That is all that the German invasion of Belgium has done.

A treaty violation of this sort is morally wrong when the motive is bad or when an imperative necessity does not compel the violation. It cannot be denied that national safety may justify a nation in violating its solemn pledges. Who is to judge whether the breach of a treaty is justifiable or unjustifiable? Who is to decide whether a government’s motives are good or bad?

It seems to me that a nation, which is not a party to a treaty violated, must assume this judicial character, if it enters protest against the violation and condemns the conduct of the violator as immoral. I do not think that international ethics impose such a responsibility upon a nation or furnish an excuse for it to sit in judgment on the motives and necessities of other nations.

Furthermore, the moral duty of this Government to make protest against Germany’s conduct has not been emphasized in the complaints, which have been made as to our failure to protest. The legal right and the legal duty to do so have been constantly asserted and argued on the basis that the United States is a party to The Hague Conventions. If the fallacy of that argument can be shown and it can be established that no legal right or duty to act exists, it is my judgment that the present agitation will decrease and that the Government will be relieved of much unjustifiable criticism by those who honestly believe that we are legally bound to protest.

It comes down then to the following questions:

Is the need to state the Government’s policy as to Belgian neutrality sufficient to overcome the expediency of continued silence on the subject?

If a statement is made, is it wise or necessary to go beyond a discussion of legal right and duty?

What replies are to be made by the Department to its many correspondents in case no statement is issued?

Very sincerely yours,

Robert Lansing
  1. This paper bears the notation: “Approved W. J. B[ryan].”