File No. 763.72111/161
Public circular issued by the Department of State1 August 15, 1914, regarding neutrality, contraband, and the seizure of ships and cargo
All citizens of and persons within the United States are under legal duty to observe neutrality during the war in Europe; this duty is demarked in the neutrality laws and in the President’s proclamation. The following acts are violative of neutrality and are forbidden under penalty of law:
- Accepting and exercising a commission to serve either of the said belligerents by land or by sea against the other belligerent.
- Enlisting or entering into the service of either of the said belligerents as a soldier, or as a marine, or seaman on board of any vessel of war, letter of marque, or privateer.
- Hiring or retaining another person to enlist or enter himself in the service of either of the said belligerents as a soldier, or as a marine, or seaman on board of any vessel of war, letter of marque, or privateer.
- Hiring another person to go beyond the limits or jurisdiction of the United States with intent to be enlisted as aforesaid.
- Hiring another person to go beyond the limits of the United States with intent to be entered into service as aforesaid.
- Retaining another person to go beyond the limits of the United States with intent to be enlisted as aforesaid.
- Retaining another person to go beyond the limits of the United States with intent to be entered into service as aforesaid. (But the said act is not to be construed to extend to a citizen or subject of either belligerent who, being transiently within the United States, shall, on board of any vessel of war, which, at the time of its arrival within the United States, was fitted and equipped as such vessel of war, enlist or enter himself or hire or retain another subject or citizen of the same belligerent, who is transiently within the United States, to enlist or enter himself to serve such belligerent on board such vessel of war, if the United States shall then be at peace with such belligerent.)
- Fitting out and arming, or attempting to fit out and arm, or procuring to be fitted out and armed, or knowingly being concerned in the furnishing, fitting out, or arming of any ship or vessel with intent that such ship or vessel shall be employed in the service of either of the said belligerents.
- Issuing or delivering a commission within the territory or jurisdiction of the United States for any ship or vessel to the intent that she may be employed as aforesaid.
- Increasing or augmenting, or procuring to be increased or augmented, or knowingly being concerned in increasing or augmenting, the force of any ship of war, cruiser, or other armed vessel, which at the time of her arrival within the United States was a ship of war, cruiser, or armed vessel in the service of either of the said belligerents, or belonging to the subjects of either, by adding to the number of guns of such vessels, or by changing those on board of her for guns of a larger caliber, or by the addition thereto of any equipment solely applicable to war.
- Beginning or setting on foot or providing or preparing the means for any military expedition or enterprise to be carried on from the territory or jurisdiction of the United States against the territories or dominions of either of the said belligerents.
Commerce between this country and countries at war not suspended. The existence of war between foreign governments does not suspend trade or commerce between this country and those at war. This right to continue to trade with belligerents is upheld by the well-recognized principles of international law, subject to the exceptions herein noted.
The subject of contraband of war is too comprehensive to admit of a statement covering all phases of the question. But certain general statements, it is believed, will be of service to those interested:
- The sale or shipment of contraband of war by citizens of the United States to citizens or subjects of any of the belligerent powers, in course of commerce, is not prohibited by the neutrality laws or the President’s proclamation. But contraband, whether shipped in vessels of the belligerents or neutrals, is subject to seizure and confiscation by the belligerents, and when so seized is not entitled to the protection of intervention of this Government.
Contraband of war is ranked under two heads, namely, absolute and conditional.[Page 276]
Absolute contraband includes those articles which are peculiarly adapted to war, such as arms and ammunition and military and naval equipment.
When absolute contraband is destined to one of the countries at war, whether to the government or to an individual of that country, it is subject to seizure and confiscation by any of the opposing belligerents when beyond the territory of the neutral government from which it is shipped.
- The nationality of the vessel in which contraband of war in shipped is immaterial; it is subject to capture and destruction whether shipped in a neutral or enemy vessel.
Conditional contraband consists, generally speaking, of articles which are susceptible of use in war as well as for purposes of peace; in consequence, their destination determines whether they are contraband or non-contraband.
Articles of the character stated are considered contraband if destined to the army, navy, or department of government of one of the belligerents or to a place occupied and held by military forces; if not so destined they are not contraband, as, for example, when bound to an individual or private concern.
- What is contraband of war is to be determined by international law and usage, influenced in some degree by the positions assumed by the belligerents. As there is no final tribunal for the definite determination of these international questions, they are not as determinable as questions of domestic law. There are no general treaties amongst the nations of the world determinative of contraband of war. The London convention, 1908-9, though signed by the delegates of the countries at war, of the United States and of other countries, was not ratified by the signatory governments, and is valuable only as indicating the disposition of the governments represented. This convention may be found in compilations of treaties, available in most public libraries.
Great Britain and Germany have made declarations on contraband since the outbreak of hostilities, which declarations follow rather closely the London convention:
ENGLISH DECLARATION ON CONTRABAND
- Arms of all kinds, including arms for sporting purposes and their distinctive component parts.
- Projectiles, charges, and cartridges of all kinds, and their distinctive component parts.
- Powder and explosives especially prepared for use in war.
- Gun mountings, limber boxes, limbers, military waggons, field forges, and their distinctive component parts.
- Clothing and equipment of a distinctively military character.
- All kinds of harness of a distinctively military character.
- Saddle, draught, and packing animals suitable for use in war.
- Articles of camp equipment, and their distinctive component parts.
- Armour plates.
- Warships, including boats and their distinctive component parts of such a nature that they can only be used on a vessel of war.
- Aeroplanes, airships, balloons, and aircraft of all kinds and their component parts, together with accessories and articles recognisable as intended for use in connection with balloons and aircraft.
- Implements and apparatus designed exclusively for the manufacture of munitions of war and for the manufacture or repair of arms, or war material for use on land and sea.
The following articles will be treated as conditional contraband:
- Forage and grain suitable for feeding animals.
- Clothing, fabrics for clothing, and boots and shoes suitable for use in war.
- Gold and silver in coin or bullion; paper money.
- Vehicles of all kinds available for use in war and their component parts.
- Vessels, craft, and boats of all kinds; floating docks, parts of docks, and their component parts.
- Railway material, both fixed and rolling stock, and materials for telegraphs, wireless telegraphs, and telephones.
- Fuel; lubricants.
- Powder and explosives not specially prepared for use in war.
- Barbed wire, and implements for fixing and cutting the same.
- Horseshoes and shoeing materials.
- Harness and saddlery.
- Field glasses, telescopes, chronometers, and all kinds of nautical instruments.
GERMAN DECLARATION ON CONTRABAND
Foreign Office communicates list of articles and materials which German Government, pursuant to Nos. 21, 23 of prize ordinance of September 30, 1909, Reichs-Gesetzblatt, page 275, declares contraband of war. They correspond exactly as regards absolute contraband to Article 22, Nos. 1 to  inclusive, of the Declaration of London, and as regards conditional contraband to Article 24, Nos. 1 to 14. They further state that ordinance mentioned contains substance of the Declaration of London; that Germany will apply these laws provided that the other belligerents do not disregard them. Foreign Office requests to be informed regarding attitude of the other powers.
It is supposed that the declarations of the other belligerents will, in the main, agree with those of England and Germany.
SEIZURE OF VESSELS AND CARGOES
Vessels flying the flag of one of the belligerents are subject to seizure and confiscation by the opposing belligerents. Contraband of war on board of such vessel is, of course, subject to confiscation, though the property of a neutral.
Goods, not contraband, belonging to a neutral aboard a captured vessel are subject to delay and interruption consequent upon the seizure of the vessel, but not to confiscation, upon manifestation of neutral ownership and the non-contraband character of the goods.
When a vessel containing cargo of a citizen of the United States is captured and is carried before a prize court, as it will be presumably, he should give notice of his claim of property to the prize-court authorities and be prepared to furnish proof of his ownership and the non-contraband character of his goods.
Goods of a neutral, not contraband of war, shipped on a neutral vessel are not rightfully subject to seizure or confiscation by any of the belligerents, and it is not presumed that the vessels of neutrals carrying only non-contraband cargoes will be interfered with.[Page 278]
It should be borne in mind that the foregoing advices are based upon the most generally accepted principles of international law and usage and are general and advisory only, the Department being unable to forecast the precise course or position of the belligerent governments in particular instances.
The Department takes pleasure in answering specific inquiries from interested parties. Hypothetical questions not related to actual transactions should be avoided.
Solicitor Department of State,
- The foregoing letters are representative of inquiries which reached the Department in such numbers as to necessitate the preparation of this printed circular covering the most general points in question. Thereafter, such circulars were enclosed with brief notes of reply, pointing out the application to specific cases as far as practicable. A great part of this circular was later invalidated by subsequent proclamations and orders issued by the belligerent governments departing from the principles laid down in the Declaration of London. These were then likewise printed and distributed, accompanied by a statement that the Department did not approve of all their provisions. For a later circular on Neutrality and Trade in Contraband, dated October 15, which was thereafter also enclosed in replies to inquiries, see post, p. 573. ↩