The Secretary of State to President Wilson

My Dear Mr. President: You will recall that I told you of the informal conversations I have had with the Danish Minister in regard to the purchase by this Government of the Danish West Indies. As doubtless the course of these negotiations have slipped your memory I will repeat what took place.

In October I spoke to the Danish Minister of the desire of this Government to consider the purchase of the Islands if agreeable to his Government, and that I would be pleased if he would communicate with the Danish Foreign Office in regard to this matter, keeping it of course entirely informal at present. Some days later he replied to my inquiry that his Government at the present time would not negotiate upon the subject as they had very large commercial interests which were vastly increased by the construction of the Panama Canal. I then suggested to him that we might, in case his Government would consider the purchase, incorporate certain commercial privileges in favor of Danish subjects, as our interest in the Islands was largely naval.

About the first of November he communicated this second proposition to his Government, adding what I had said in a general way that under certain conditions the United States might find it necessary to occupy the Islands in case Denmark should lose sovereignty over them.

On November 15th the Minister again called to see me about the matter and said he was under considerable embarrassment about a question which his Government had asked, but which he had hesitated to present to me. The question was this: “Whether he thought in case the Danish Government did not agree to a sale of the Islands the United States would feel it necessary to take possession of them.”

In reply I told the Minister that while it had not been in my mind that action of this sort would be necessary, as I had hoped some formal negotiation would result in the transfer of the sovereignty, that I could conceive of circumstances which would compel such an act on our part. He asked me what these circumstances were and I replied that they were the ones to which I had previously called his attention, namely, the possible consequence of absorption of Denmark by one of the great powers of Europe. Such a loss of sovereignty would create a situation which it would be difficult to meet other than by occupation of the Islands, in view of the fact that Danish possessions would come under a different sovereignty in Europe and in case it did, the result might be very serious.

[Page 504]

The other circumstance was that if Denmark voluntarily, or under coercion, transferred title to the Islands to another European power, which would seek to convert them into a naval base.

The Minister called upon me on the first and left a paraphrase of a cablegram received by him on the 25th ultimo from the Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs of which I enclose you a copy.4

I also enclose a telegram just received from our Minister at Copenhagen,5 which is in line with the paraphrase.

I believe we are now in a position to enter into negotiations for the purchase of the Islands. You will observe that the question of Greenland is involved. I do not think it is of material importance, but propose to ask to what extent possession is intended, because much of the Island is still unexplored. I believe that Denmark will ask a very considerable sum for the Islands but we will know more when we begin negotiations.

If the reply to our inquiry in regard to Greenland is satisfactory I will, with your consent, proceed to the direct negotiations of a treaty of cession.

I think I should add that in my opinion the Danish Government very possibly considers the Islands a menace to their sovereignty in Europe in that if the Islands are coveted by another European power the easiest method, and possibly the only method by which they could obtain legal possession of the Islands, would be their absorption of the Danish sovereignty.

Faithfully yours,

Robert Lansing
  1. Supra.
  2. Not printed.