The Ambassador in Great Britain (Page) to the Secretary of State
[Received January 22.]
Dear Mr. Secretary: As I telegraphed you, I am sure there was no need to show to the Foreign Office the two personal statements that you made to the newspapers.41 They were both telegraphed to all the principal London newspapers, and they had, therefore been read here; and everybody here regarded them as a purely domestic episode. They caused no confusion in the British mind. To have taken them up with any officer of the Government would have seemed somewhat forced. The whole incident did not the slightest harm here nor did it cause the slightest confusion.
I am much worried about the irritation that the British way of dealing with our ships is causing and the very much greater irritation that will be caused if they continue their stupid and shortsighted actions. I am constantly discussing this subject both with Mr. Balfour and Lord Robert Cecil, Minister of Blockade, trying to get them to adopt some other plan of action.
Their aim, tho’ they have never publicly explained it, is perfectly simple. The German submarines sink so many European neutral ships, all which serve this Kingdom by bringing food or something else here, that the owners of these ships naturally wish to get them out of European waters. Hence they are willing, and even eager, to get hauling to do in safer waters. Naturally they are purchasable or charterable to American companies. Just as naturally the British wish them to stay this side the Atlantic and they seek methods of discouraging them to go over our side.[Page 714]
But they have hit upon what I regard as the worst possible methods. They take ship by ship and try to find some discouragement to it. With one it is the so-called bunker agreement. With another it is a possible former part-ownership by Germans. With another it is something else. Now these devices and excuses and straining of mere coal-supply contracts wouldn’t hold for a day in any court of justice— certainly most of them would not. And they have, besides, the enormous incidental disadvantage of annoying American shippers and ship companies. All this I repeat to them over and over again. They know it is all true, but they don’t quickly see what other way to do it.
The interference with our rights and the infinite annoyance to us is not a part of their aims, and they regret it. “But”, they ask, “what can we do?”
Well, I’m trying to help them answer that question. “First”, I say, “that isn’t my task. I don’t care what you do, if only you will not contravene our rights. Then, as a preliminary, make a clean, clear, frank statement of your problem. You have not yet informed our Government why you do these things. Make a clear, frank statement.” They are doing that now, and I expect it in a few days. Such a statement has now gone to Sir C. Spring-Rice. But that only clears the way—and doesn’t yet remove the difficulty.
Then, I have said to them: “If you object to American companies’ buying or chartering Scandinavian ships, why don’t you buy or charter them yourself? Or, if you need shipping bad enough (and they do) why don’t you try to charter ships belonging to other European countries? It’s all a matter of price—unfortunately, for you, of very high prices. But by such means as these you will keep from doing violence to American rights and keep from the inevitable irritation of the American shipping-world, the American public and the American Government. Call in your big practical shipping men and ask them for plans.”
The new Government has created a new Cabinet portfolio—the Ministry of Shipping, and the Minister is Sir Joseph Maclay, a big Liverpool ship-man. At my suggestion, Mr. Balfour is now arranging a meeting with himself of Sir Jos. Maclay, Ld Rob’t Cecil & myself.
I have at least got this far with them—to show them that their present small method will cause an increasing trouble with us. I come back to this with every turn of every conversation.
They are quite sincere in their protestations that the last thing they want is another subject of controversy with us. What they want is to keep as many ships as possible on this side the Atlantic to serve their ever-growing needs. “All right,” say I, “we have no [Page 715]objection to that, provided only that you do not interfere with American rights.” It’s the submarine trouble—the most damaging and threatening blow that the Germans have dealt them. That’s what staggers them.
I’ll report what progress I make towards inducing them to change their present foolish plan. I have askd them in the meantime to give us no more provocation—with what result remains to be seen. I am demanding, too, the setting-right of the breaches of our rights that they have already committed.
Yours very sincerely,