File No. 763.72111/2719

The Netherland Minister (Van Rappard) to the Third Assistant Secretary of State (Phillips)

My Dear Mr. Phillips: My Government asks me repeatedly for information about the status of armed merchant vessels and the attitude of the United States toward them.

I got some time ago from the Secretary of State, the regulation of September 1914 regulating this matter,3 but I should like so much to know if indeed the British and American Governments have made arrangement to the effect that British merchantmen should not be armed by [when] entering or leaving American harbors, and in the affirmative the reason why that arrangement has been made as in principle the United States according to above named regulation of September have no objections under special conditions to defensive armaments on merchant ships.

In to-day’s Times I find enclosed article on this subject. If you could tell me that the content of that article is exact, where it describes the real facts of the situation governing the status of armed merchant vessels and the attitude of the United States toward them, I should have all the information. I need, but I hesitate to accept this newspaper version, how exact it may seem, without your kindly and quite unofficially endorsing it. Can you do that?

Thanks so much for all the trouble I give you. Believe me [etc.]

W. L. F. C. v. Rappard
[Page 847]

Extract from the “New York Times,” July 28, 1915

Washington, July 27. Captain Perseus, the naval expert of the Berliner Tageblatt, sets up a straw man when he asserts, as quoted in a daily news dispatch from Rotterdam, that all British merchant ships are armed, and that it is with the “connivance of the United States.” The Washington Government is not worried over the comments of Captain Perseus or his allegation that “thus Washington pronounces its blessing on Churchill’s armed merchant vessels.”

The real facts of the situation governing the status of armed merchant vessels and the attitude of the United States toward them are not in accord with the statements made by the German naval expert. It is true that the American Government did issue a memorandum, not a regulation, last September, covering the status of armed merchant vessels in which it was stated that a merchant vessel of belligerent nationality might carry armament and ammunition, but only for purposes of defense, and indicating that no gun of greater caliber than six inches could be carried by such a vessel. Captain Perseus, however, fails to give the correct date of the circular, does not correctly state its provisions, and overlooks entirely the fact that in only two instances have belligerent merchant ships entered American ports carrying guns, and that, while the United States Government takes the stand that belligerent merchant vessels may carry guns solely for purposes of defense, the whole influence of this Government has been exerted against the arming of merchant ships entering or leaving American ports.

The fact of the matter is that the United States Government as long ago as last September expressed the hope informally that belligerent merchant ships should not enter or leave American ports with any mounted guns, and the State Department was assured in the same month by the British Ambassador in Washington that his Government had decided upon the disarmament of British merchant craft plying between British ports and the United States.

The problem of determining whether belligerent merchant steamers should be permitted to be armed when entering or leaving American ports was raised when the White Star Liner Adriatic arrived at New York on August 29 last, carrying four guns. The collector of customs at New York at that time telegraphed to the Treasury Department that the captain of the Adriatic reported that the guns were carried only for defense. The British Government took the position that the Adriatic carried guns only for protection, and that so long as the vessel was engaged in commercial pursuits direct between two ports, and was not cruising the ocean for offensive purposes, it had a right to carry arms for protective purposes.

On September 1 Dr. Arthur Mudra, German Consul at Philadelphia, called the attention of the collector at Philadelphia to the fact that the steamer Merion, flying a British flag, arrived at that port with four 6-inch guns mounted on her decks. Doctor’ Mudra made no protest. The collector referred the question to Washington. The captain said the guns were used only for protection. The result of the reference to the Merion’s case to Washington was the sailing of the Merion without her armament mounted. The guns were dismounted and stored in the Merion’s hold. The British Consul General at Philadelphia explained that the dismounting of the Merion’s guns was done without prejudice to the general principle of neutrality.

It was stated by a high official to-night that these were the only two incidents of merchant vessels entering or leaving American ports with guns mounted.1