Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1915, Supplement, The World War
File No. 763.72/1547
The Netherland Minister (Van Rappard) to the Counselor for the Department of State
[Received March 6.]
Dear Mr. Lansing : Herewith I send to you the exact text of the notes my Government delivered to the British Government regarding the abuse of the neutral flags and to the German Government regarding the war-zone declaration.
Yours very truly,
The Netherland Minister of Foreign Affairs (Loudon) to the British Minister (Johnstone)
Mr. Minister: I have had the honor of receiving the letter of the 7th Instant by which, in reply to my request, your excellency had the goodness to inform me that your Government had not yet published any proclamation regarding the use of a neutral flag by British merchant vessels, but that in practice such use was an established ruse de guerre.
The Government of the Queen is aware that belligerent merchant vessels have often displayed neutral flags in order to elude the vigilance of enemy warships.
It shares in the British Government’s opinion that warships have at their disposal the means afforded them by the right of visit for ascertaining the nationality of any merchant vessel they suspect.
Yet the fact remains that the use of a state’s flag without its consent is nevertheless an abuse. In time of war that abuse takes on a character the seriousness of which cannot be overlooked by the powers signatory of the Declaration of Paris: it compromises the neutral flag, it casts suspicion upon neutral ships flying their own colors, it exposes them to being mistaken for enemy ships and to suffering the dangerous consequences.[Page 135]
Your excellency was pleased: to remind me of the provision in the merchant shipping act under which abuse of the British flag is punishable except in case a belligerent merchant vessel makes use of this flag to escape capture by the enemy.
The Government of the Queen could not admit that this provision might be invoked to establish the right of British merchant vessels for their part to use the Netherland flag for the same purpose.
The law of the Netherlands likewise forbids the abuse of the Dutch flag, but it contains no exception analogous to that in the merchant shipping act covering the case of utilization of the flag for the purpose of escaping the enemy. In the absence of international rules determining this matter, each state has the exclusive right of fixing the conditions under which its national flag may be used.
It is evident that the British Government will not always be in a position to prevent British merchant ships from making use of neutral flags, but the Government of the Queen deems itself justified in expecting that the British Government will refrain from approving an abuse which may expose Dutch shipping to the perils of war.
I beg your excellency kindly to bring the foregoing to the knowledge of your Government, and I avail myself, [etc.]
The Netherland Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the German Legation
The memorandum of the Imperial Government published in the Reichsanzeiger of February 4 was addressed not only to the allies and adversaries of Germany, but also to the neutral powers.
It reproaches the latter with having, with few exceptions, submitted to the measures ordered by Great Britain and particularly with having failed to secure the release of German subjects taken from neutral vessels and the return of confiscated German goods. It reproaches them further with having in a sense assisted in carrying out British measures incompatible with the principle of freedom of the seas by forbidding, through export and transit embargoes, apparently under pressure from Great Britain, the transportation into Germany of goods not specially used for war. Finally it reproaches them with admitting that vital interests of the belligerents may offer sufficient excuse for any sort of methods of warfare.
The memorandum warns the neutrals no longer to entrust crews, passengers, or property of any kind to enemy ships. In addition, it calls their attention to the advisability of earnestly urging their vessels to avoid the region designated as a war zone in the Naval General Staff’s proclamation of the 4th instant, that is to say, the waters surrounding England, Scotland, and Ireland, including the whole of the English Channel. This advice is based upon the danger run by neutral vessels of falling victims to attacks directed against the enemy, all the more since the English Admiralty is said lately to have ordered British merchant ships to fly neutral flags.
In conclusion, the memorandum states that the Imperial Government can expect the neutral powers to show no less respect for Germany’s vital interests than for those of England and to assist in keeping their subjects and property away from the war zone.
The Imperial Government’s memorandum calls for the following observations on the part of the Netherland Government:
Since the beginning of the war, the Government of the Queen has protested energetically against every measure taken by the belligerents which, in its opinion, conflicted with international law or impaired its national interests. It has likewise protested when those interests were but indirectly at stake, as in the case of the arrest of German subjects or the unwarranted seizure of German goods on board Dutch ships. The Government of the Queen procured the release of the German subjects taken from the steamers Tubantia and Zeelandia has not dropped the other claims.
In the first months of the war, the Allied Governments applied to Dutch merchant vessels carrying conditional contraband a system of regarding as suspect every cargo bound for a Dutch port. The Government of the Queen [Page 136] protested against this attitude which, from the standpoint of international law, constituted an obstacle to legitimate commerce.
Free transit to Germany, guaranteed moreover, so far as the Rhine is concerned, by the convention of 1868, is in no wise hampered by the Government of the Queen. If that transit has diminished, it is as a result of the Allied Governments’ activities at sea, and not because of any measures taken by the Netherland Government. Quite to the contrary, that Government has consistently upheld before the Allied Governments the duties regarding Germany imposed upon it by its position as a neutral power; thus it has refused to give a guaranty of any sort that goods imported from oversea will not be reexported to Germany.
The Government of the Queen protests most formally against the assumption that it has decreed any export prohibitions under pressure from the British Government. In decreeing such prohibitions, it has been actuated solely by the anxiety to keep up necessary stocks in the country. Furthermore, it has taken part in no exchange of views on the subject with the British Government.
As for the British Admiralty’s proclamation of November 5 last, declaring the entire North Sea to form a military zone in which shipping would be exposed to grave danger, the Government of the Queen pointed out to the British Government that, according to the law of nations, only the immediate sphere of action of the belligerents’ military operations can form such a military zone, and that the extension of the term to so vast a region as the North Sea constituted a serious encroachment upon the fundamental principle of the freedom of the seas, a principle recognized by all the nations of the world.
The issuance of the German proclamation of February 4 concerning the delimitation of a theater of war calls forth the same observation on the part of the Government of the Queen. Once again it maintains its right to the free navigation of a free sea.
The Netherland Government is not bound to see to it that the Dutch merchant marine refrain from navigating within a zone which, by reason of its vast extent, will not in fact be the immediate sphere of action of warlike operations.
In actual practice, the British decree has not as yet in any way affected Dutch shipping, which has continued to follow the course which it was taking at the time the decree was promulgated. There has never been any blockade whatsoever of the ports and coasts of the Netherlands.
The Netherland Government trusts that the German operations of war will not affect Dutch shipping in any greater degree and that the Imperial Government will give strictest orders to its navy to respect under all circumstances the neutral character of Dutch ships.
The Government of the Queen is urging upon the British Government its objections against the abuse of the Netherland flag by British merchant ships. That improper practice does not diminish the Imperial Government’s responsibility, since the examination of a ship before its seizure or destruction is a duty which the belligerent cannot escape. Should a Dutch vessel fall victim to a mistake on the part of the German forces, the responsibility therefor would lie with the Imperial Government.
The Netherland Government, which is scrupulously fulfilling the duties toward belligerents imposed by its neutrality, looks to them for their part to respect its rights.