The Ambassador in Austria-Hungary ( Penfield ) to the Secretary of State

My Dear Mr. Secretary: In conversation a few days since with Baron Burián at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs I asked how “things were going,” and inquired if there was any information in connection with the war that he could give me. He had just returned from a three days’ conference in Berlin with Bethmann-Hollweg and Foreign Affairs Minister von Jagow.

“Extremely well in one way and not well in another,” was His Excellency’s reply. Then he explained at length that the Austro-German armies were carrying everything before them and that the Teutonic Powers were clearly victorious and that their present success should by right be recognized and made final. But instead of England and France admitting this, their responsible statesmen announce with unmistakable determination that they will continue the struggle until the last drop of blood of their people and the last coin is exhausted.

“This,” admitted Baron Burián, “has no other meaning than a long war and a bitter one.”

From no functionary of the Austro-Hungarian Government had I heard a statement half so discouraging to the prediction that peace was actually in sight. Only a few days prior to this conversation I had been visited by an American journalist, who has gained a place [Page 646] in the forefront of the correspondents as one behind the scenes at the German capital, and this writer reported that many people in Germany believed the war was practically over, with the crushing of Serbia and the securing of undisputed communication with Constantinople. This journalist claimed that in Berlin the opinion was held by many that the war would end by New Year’s day.

When I read the speeches of Briand, Asquith and Bonar Law— and from my own judgment perceive that henceforth the conflict must be one of resources—I incline to the opinion that it will be a triumph of civilization if the war is concluded by New Year’s day, 1917. And I pray that I may achieve no success as a prophet, for I wish the slaughter might end this day.

“One thing may be said,” explained Baron Burián, “and that is that Austria-Hungary is popular with its war prisoners.” The Minister mentioned the Russians in support of his assertion, of whom it is known that many thousands of these subjects of the Czar are so pleased with their captors that they want to marry and accept Austro-Hungarian allegiance as soon as the war ends. It may truthfully be said that this Monarchy is taking good care of its prisoners. During the past year delegates of the Embassy have on various occasions visited the camps at which the British, French and Italian civil internees and the Italian military prisoners are confined, without finding many things to ask for change or improvement in. Few complaints, with the exception of a lack of blankets and clothing, were communicated to the Embassy visitors and most of them were trivial and generally aimed at over-zealous officials who are inclined to show personal enmity to the peoples at war with Austria-Hungary.

I pretend to no military acumen and in no way am I in the confidence of the Teutonic Powers as to their military plans and aspirations. But, on the other hand, I feel that I understand natural and political conditions in the Near East and the Orient. As you are aware, my books upon Eastern countries have long been recognized as standard works.

In Vienna we listen to much talk of Germany’s programme for invading Egypt, with the assistance of Austria-Hungary and Turkey, even eventually for wresting India from Britain’s control. I have been told in detail by more than one person what the German Kaiser’s plans are for sending an irresistible German-Austro-Turkish expedition through Palestine to the Suez Canal and thence to Cairo. Young officers from Berlin, passing through Vienna, have stated nonchalantly that they are en route to the Egyptian capital by way of Constantinople, and later that they expect to take part in the conquest of India itself.

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To my mind this can be but the gabble of shallow persons, for without ships Germany couldn’t capture India in a thousand years, and it is my modest belief that if members of the proposed Egyptian Expedition cross the Suez Canal in any numbers, and get to Cairo, that it will be as prisoners of war.

The talk about Egypt and India, in my judgment, is designed to conceal a programme much simpler of accomplishment, but if successfully accomplished one that will have an influence in India and elsewhere in Asia of stupendous importance. Briefly, I mean the stoppage of the Canal, the effect of which would be to create consternation throughout Ceylon and India, and if continued for any considerable period would probably be responsible for uprisings and revolts throughout Britain’s possessions in the Far East, for it would be considered as tangible evidence that England was defeated in the war, perhaps had lost everything. India’s 300,000,000 people are none too easily held in control even now, according to news from Bombay and Calcutta.

It may be Germany’s programme to use her long-range ordnance from a point five or eight miles east of the Canal, with the result of causing the high banks between the Bitter Lakes and the Suez terminus to fall in and thereby block traffic indefinitely, and of making every steamer traversing the water-way a target for German gunners—meaning that a vessel obliged to proceed in the narrow channel could scarcely hope to successfully run the gauntlet.

I feel that you will forgive me for recording my simple opinion of what the real spring campaign of Germany and her allies is to be. If it becomes a serious movement against Egypt, I venture to predict that Lord Kitchener will be found in command on the west side of the Suez Canal.

Dr. Dumba has gone to his country estate a short way out of Vienna and will probably pass much of his time there. While his return to Vienna could not be regarded by anyone as an event of importance, he managed to engender additional dislike of America with his reports of official injustices from the Government and the snubs visited upon his wife and himself by society.

I think I should mention some of the difficulties we experience in getting world news in Vienna, especially news having an American importance. Nothing is printed in Austrian journals that could have an embarrassing effect upon the Teutonic Powers, nothing whatever. The censorship is a rigorous and super-partisan one, and the entry of foreign journals into the country is banned. No British or French information and little American news is published unless it possesses something damaging to the countries cited. I get the London Times over Holland, and the Paris Herald in a letter through the courtesy [Page 648] of Minister Stovall at Berne, but these publications are at least five days old when reaching Vienna, and frequently do not come at all.

Hence there are many events like the Dumba incident and the torpedoing of the Ancona, concerning which the Embassy is sublimely ignorant until information is received in the shape of a State Department instruction. I want to assure you that the Embassy staff is in touch with business practically all the time, and there is never delay in acting upon instructions. Taking account of the difference in time, it requires practically two days for a Department telegram to reach Vienna.

I am [etc.]

Frederic C. Penfield