The Secretary of State to President Wilson

My Dear Mr. President: There is a means employed frequently by the British Foreign Office and occasionally by this Department to communicate in a frank way views which it would be embarrassing to do formally. The way it is done is to send a telegram to a diplomatic representative which he is permitted to show the Secretary of Foreign Affairs on his own responsibility and in an entirely unofficial manner. An example of this practice was the telegram from Viscount Grey to Sir Cecil, a copy of which I sent you in my letter of the 18th. It has the advantage that it avoids note-writing and not being given publicity avoids the charge of being done for political effect.

It has seemed to me that it might be advisable to pursue this method at the present time in bringing home to the British Government the growing irritation in this country at the blacklisting, censorship of mails and other measures adopted by Great Britain, and the indifference shown by the British Government in failure to make prompt reply to our notes. I am afraid that London does not appreciate that the tide of resentment is rising very high in this country, and that there is a tendency to demand drastic action by this Government. The British Government ought to be fully advised of this menace to our cordial relations, because the removal of it lies with them. I do not think that their representatives here have correctly pictured the state of the public mind in this country or impressed them with the conditions which are rapidly approaching a critical stage.

In accordance with the method of communicating information, which I have mentioned, I have prepared a telegram to our Chargé at London very frankly and very bluntly telling the truth about the present situation. This telegram he is confidentially authorized to show to Lord Grey on his own responsibility and unofficially.

A draft of the proposed telegram to Mr. Laughlin is enclosed and I would be obliged if you would give me your views as to the advisability of sending any telegram of this nature and as to the language of the telegram, if you approve sending one. I think the decision should be made immediately.

Faithfully yours,

Robert Lansing
[Page 315]

Draft Telegram From the Secretary of State to the Charge in Great Britain (Laughlin)

We have received, after waiting over six weeks, no reply to our protest of July 26th7 in regard to the blacklisting of persons in the United States and its possessions. On the contrary, the results of our recent unofficial representations in specific cases of blacklisted firms, and the intimations given to various American firms not to continue business relations of many years standing or not to make new business connections with certain persons, firms and companies resident in the United States or in other neutral countries, together with other information which has come to my attention, but to which it is not necessary at the present time to refer cause me to conclude that the reply to our note of July 26th will be unsatisfactory.

This Government has taken every means in its power, as it has in dealing with other belligerents in this war, to conduct the relations of the United States and Great Britain on a friendly and cordial basis, though maintaining the rights and duties of neutrality as it was bound to do. I regret to say, however, that in no single instance of any importance have the British Government on their part modified their pretensions to extraordinary belligerent privileges so as to conform their conduct to established usage; nor do they appear to have regard for the rights of the United States or for the public opinion of this country. Some of the British practices, which are causing increasing irritation, cannot, so far as I am able to judge, have any material effect on the outcome of the war. The removal of reservists from American vessels on the high seas, the searching of American vessels in territorial waters of the Philippines, the censorship of genuine letter-correspondence, the refusal of cable privileges in legitimate neutral trade, and the blacklisting of American business houses are some of the matters which are carried on now with as much, if not greater, vigor than before this Government protested against them.

I confess that I have been most unfavorably impressed with the absolutely unrelenting attitude of the British Government, courteous though it be, when their measures have been opposed by this Government on grounds of reason, law or practice. Not a single rule that we have contended for and that Great Britain herself has insisted upon in the past, has been admitted by the British Government. A few isolated cases have been decided in our favor but only upon notification that they were acts of grace and must not be regarded as precedents. It should not be a matter of surprise that the American [Page 316] people are resenting more and more this practice of granting favors which are claimed as a matter of right.

When a remonstrance is made by the United States, it is frequently met by the argument that, considering the American attitude toward Germany, Great Britain is surprised that the United States should take such a view of the British action complained of. It would seem needless to point out that the United States is not fighting Great Britain’s warfare against submarines. Great Britain should understand that the position which the United States has taken toward submarine warfare, is based primarily on its relations to American rights and interests. I cannot but believe that the apparent purpose of treating our controversies by reference to the conduct of Germany is based on a misapprehension of the relations between our intercourse with Germany on the one hand and with Great Britain on the other, a misapprehension, but which it has constantly sought to avoid. The respective subjects of controversy are entirely distinct, and this Government, therefore, perceives no ground for changing its firm intention to keep them separate.

If the British Government is expecting an attitude of “benevolent neutrality” on our part—a position which is not neutral and which is not governed by the principles of neutrality—they should know that nothing is further from our intention. The freedom of our shores to commerce of the allied powers for the exportation of thousands of shiploads of all kinds of supplies—munitions, food, clothing and metals—while their enemies have been able to obtain scarcely a single cargo, and the forbearance, if not the leniency, shown by this Government toward Great Britain in cases involving grave breaches of international law, have apparently caused the British Government to misjudge the policy of this Government and the attitude of the people of this country, and led them to believe that ours is a neutrality from which the Allied Powers might expect no remonstrance, no matter how grievously American rights are infringed or American interests impaired.

Such apparent indifference to the viewpoint and views of the United States on the varied subjects of controversy cannot but have its effect upon the Government and people in this country. The continuance of palpably objectionable practices creates the impression, whether justified or not, that Great Britain is indifferent to the friendship and good will of the American people or else confidently believes that nothing done in violation of American rights will be seriously resisted because of the profitable trade being carried on at the present time with the United Kingdom and its Allies; and this impression is growing stronger in this country and materially affecting public opinion. This unyielding attitude of Great Britain has, [Page 317] to my personal knowledge, awakened against the Allies a resentful sentiment among the American people which is in marked contrast to the popular sympathy, which earlier in the war was strongly on their side in the conflict. This is probably shown best by the feeling aroused in the last session of Congress, whose committees held hearings on the effects of British measures on the rights and interests of the people of the United States, and whose opinion was crystallized in certain legislation enlarging the powers of the President to deal with the situation resulting from the British measures which were considered not only as illegal but as needless from a military point of view, and as imposing upon our citizens losses and burdens, to which Great Britain seemed entirely indifferent.

Perhaps the one measure more responsible than any other for this result is the blacklisting plan of the British Government, although the improper censorship of the mails has affected thousands of our people. I cannot too earnestly impress upon you the strong public feeling in the United States in regard to the blacklist. This feeling is naturally most hostile among those of our citizens whose business has been directly affected, but they are not alone in their complaints or in their demands on the Government for radical action. I have taken pains to sound the opinion of the more conservative portion of our people and I am convinced that a bitterness of feeling is increasing to such a degree as to endanger the good relations of the United States and Great Britain. To resist this rapidly growing sentiment this Government will be powerless, unless the British Government shows a more considerate and friendly regard for American rights. I do not know what reports are sent home by British Agents here, but whatever they are they are ill advised if they have not reported to their Government this change in public opinion. This change is further augmented not only by the fact that the blacklisting plan results in many cases in the transfer of American trade from American houses to British competitors who reside and carry on their business in the United States, but by the belief, whether true or false, that the blacklisting plan, as it has only an infinitesimal effect on the war, is in reality aimed at the destruction of German trade after the war, a purpose which, if true, cannot be justified before the world.

The objectionable features of blacklisting seem to me so apparent that I cannot understand how the British Government can defend it on any but most technical grounds if indeed it can be defended on any grounds. It is clearly an invasion of the independence and sovereignty of the United States by an endeavor to enforce indirectly, if not directly, British laws upon American soil and to impose restraints upon trade in the United States. Not only do the British Government control the actions of British subjects here but [Page 318] seek to control the actions of the American traders. In fact, as I am advised, British agents in their official capacity have gone so far as to intimidate American citizens against pursuing certain lines of business which are entirely legitimate. The criminal nature of such intimidations is receiving the attention of the law officers of the Government with a view to taking such steps to stamp out the practice as may be proper and necessary. There are even some indications that members of the British Embassy and of certain Consulates are involved in such proceedings. If this should prove to be true, I need not tell you that the case would be most serious, and the unavoidable publicity would still further increase the indignation of Americans.

The British Government appears not to comprehend the fact, for it is a fact, that they are really forcing this Government into a position which cannot but result in strained relations between the two countries. The temper of the American people is now so aroused over the attitude and practices of the Allies, that I fear the consequences unless there is some recession on their part. The blacklist and the mail censorship are the matters which are most in the minds of the American people—particularly so because the annoyance to individuals is so intimate and so general. I anticipate, therefore, that in the near future this Government, however reluctantly, will be forced by the strength of public opinion to take steps to put the retaliatory legislation of Congress into effect. If the Government does not do this, it is easy to foresee that Congress may at its next session make this legislation, which now confers discretionary powers upon the President, mandatory upon the executive authorities.

My great desire is to avoid this possible crisis in Anglo-American relations and to conduct them in conformity with the truest international amity, but I can not view the present situation and its logical outcome with anything but the gravest apprehension. I am therefore sending this to you confidentially and requesting you to let no moment be lost in reporting to me confidentially by telegraph your views on the chances of moving the British Government, first, to an appreciation of the effects of their present policy; second, to a realization of the result which is sure to follow from a continuance of it; and lastly, to a recession from their position by radically changing their objectionable measures.

On your own responsibility you may let Lord Grey read this despatch after deleting this paragraph and heading it merely “Telegram from Mr. Lansing, Secretary of State, to Mr. Laughlin, Chargé d’Affaires” as a frank statement of the views of this Government on the present situation. If he asks for a copy do not hand him one at the time, but have one made and sent to him later marked “unofficial and not to be made a part of the records.”