The Secretary of State to the German Ambassador (Bernstorff)

My Dear Mr. Ambassador: In acknowledging the receipt of your confidential letter of the 13th instant I note that you state that you do not consider the controversy between our two Governments about the basis-question as closed, giving as a reason for failure to follow up your memorandum of December 15, 1914,1 and the Pisa question,2 that other and more urgent matters had arisen in the meantime.

As the essential principle of the position taken by this Government was that the territory of a neutral nation could not be employed as a base for naval operations on the high seas without violating the neutrality of such nation, I am at a loss to understand why nearly a year has been allowed to pass without denying that principle. If your Government considered the position taken by this Government to be unwarranted by international practice, it would appear to have been in the interest of our cordial relations to have stated the objections of your Government to that position, [Page 870] especially in view of the judicial proceedings instituted last spring against officials of the Hamburg-American Steamship Line when the principle was directly involved.

At the time of the institution of those proceedings, however, delay was urged on the ground of expediency and abandonment of them as a matter of right was not suggested, nor was any reservation made at that time of the question of principle. In these circumstances this Government had a right to presume that the correctness of its position was acquiesced in by your Government.

I also note that your excellency draws the conclusion from my letter of the 8th instant that in my opinion no military or political question involving your Government will be referred to in the trial of the Hamburg-American officials, and state that you think I will agree. “that the details of the military system of a belligerent in the conduct of its naval warfare should not be made the subject of investigation by a civil court of a neutral country.”

Your excellency, through some failure of mine in my letter to make clear my meaning, is laboring under a misapprehension as to the scope of the inquiry by the officers of the Department of Justice. Unavoidably any violation of the laws of this country which pertains directly or indirectly to naval activities of a belligerent may involve the military or political secrets of the government of that belligerent. If such secrets relate to the conduct of war by the employment of neutral territory as a base of naval operations or of direction of naval operations, it does not impress me that they are entitled to immunity in a judicial investigation aimed to enforce the laws of the United States, since, for the purpose of exempting them from prosecution the plea of official secrecy could be interposed in many cases in which private persons have been apprehended and brought to trial.

In the present case, therefore, I do not feel that the course of justice should be interrupted or that violations of the laws of the United States by private persons should go uninvestigated because the secrets of a belligerent government may possibly be connected with such violations.

Very sincerely yours,

Robert Lansing