File No. 763.72111/1869

The British Ambassador ( Spring Rice ) to the Secretary of State

No. 98]

Sir: With reference to previous correspondence and especially to the State Department’s memorandum of the 16th November,1 and the resolution passed by Congress on the 4th instant empowering the President to refuse clearances to ships in United States ports under certain circumstances, I have the honour to submit to you the following considerations:

According to information reaching me from various sources the fast German ships at present in United States ports, or at least some of them, have guns in the hold ready or at for use; have wireless installations capable of communicating with. (or at any rate receiving from) the German stations on the Continent, which wireless apparatus has been recently in use have obtained clearances enabling them to leave the port; have ordered and discharged pilots from time to time; and having large stores of coal on board are ready to start at any moment. According to information received from European sources it is intended that the ships in question should put to sea on a signal sent from Berlin with the intention of preying on commerce, or otherwise conducting or aiding in belligerent operations.

It is also stated that the examination conducted on several occasions by United States officers of these ships has not been extended to all their parts and that the German officers have denied the right of the United States Government to conduct a thorough search. It is also a matter of common report that the German officers have stated that in the view of the United States Government the fact that a merchant vessel carries guns and ammunition is no reason to detain her, unless there is clear and evident proof that she intends to conduct, or aid in, military operations; and that consequently all that is necessary for these ships to do is to make a true manifest and obtain clearance papers through the customhouse.

I venture however in this connection to refer to the clearly expressed provisions of the circular of the Department of State of September 19 relative to the status of armed merchant vessels in which it is laid down in positive terms what are the conditions under which a merchant vessel may carry an armament and ammunition without acquiring the character of a ship of war.

It will be in your recollection that subsequent to the declaration of war by Germany on France the Kronprinz Wilhelm left the port of New York without passengers, with 7,000 tons of coal and according to the general belief, with armament on board, and this ship is still engaged in preying on commerce.

I enclose for convenience of reference the note which this Embassy addressed to you on this subject on the 4th August last.2

Other German ships of a similar character have been employed in a similar manner, as for instance the Kap Trafalgar.

[Page 853]

According to evidence which is in your possession the Hamburg-American Line is acting here as the agent of the German Government and has directly provided for the supply of the belligerent cruisers from the territory of the United States.

It is also a matter of common notoriety and will be within the knowledge of the Navy Department that the fast German mail ships have been constructed with a view to their employment as commerce destroyers, or tenders, or for their speedy conversion at sea into armed cruisers. Such being the known facts it would appear prima facie that there is a case for action in compliance with the order of the Department of State similar to that which as a matter of fact was conducted on board the steamship Winchester in New York Harbour by order of the Treasury and also in the case of the British merchant ships which left United States ports with arms on board, on their usual trade routes.

It is not my intention, in addressing to you this communication, to imply even in the remotest degree that the United States Government is not acting in exact conformity with the principles laid down in the Geneva Award of 1872. Nor am I in a position to make an official and formal request that any definite step, or any particular measure of precaution should be taken in the matter.

But it is clearly my duty, in view of the rumours current, of existing circumstances, of the information which has reached me, and of the state of public opinion, to renew the warning already given, namely that if these ships by permission of the United States Government, or by reason of the absence of measures of precaution, leave United States waters and thereafter without repairing to their home port should prey upon British shipping and trade, or engage in non-commercial, and belligerent action against the British forces, the British Government would be bound to hold the United States Government responsible for the consequences.

I have [etc.]

Cecil Spring Rice