File No. 763.72/1589

The Ambassador in France ( Sharp ) to the Secretary of State


616. French Government replies as follows:

In a letter dated March 71 your excellency was good enough to draw my attention to the views of the Government of the United States regarding the recent communications from the French and British Governments concerning a restriction to be laid upon commerce with Germany. According to your excellency’s letter, the declaration made by the Allied Governments presents some uncertainty as regards its application, concerning which the Government of the United States desires to be enlightened in order to determine what attitude it should take.

At the same time your excellency notified me that while granting the possibility of using new methods of retaliation against the new use to which submarines have been put, the Government of the United States was somewhat apprehensive that the Allied belligerents might (if their action is to be construed as constituting a blockade) capture in waters near America any ships which might have escaped the cruisers patrolling European waters. In acknowledging receipt of your excellency’s communication I have the honor to inform you that the Government of the Republic has not failed to consider this point as presented by the Government of the United States, and I beg to specify clearly the conditions of application, as far as my Government is concerned, of the declaration of the Allied Governments. As well set forth by the Federal Government, the old methods of blockade can not be entirely adhered to in view of the use Germany has made of her submarines, and also by reason of the geographical situation of that country. In answer to the challenge to the neutrals as well as to its own adversaries, contained in the declaration by which the German Imperial Government stated that it considered the seas surrounding Great Britain and the French coast on the Channel as a military zone, and warned neutral vessels not to enter the same on account of the danger they would run, the Allied Governments have been obliged to examine what measures they [Page 146] could adopt to interrupt all maritime communication with the German Empire and thus keep it blockaded by the naval power of the two Allies, at the same time however, safeguarding as much as possible the legitimate interests of neutral powers, and respecting the laws of humanity which no crime of their enemy will induce them to violate.

The Government of the Republic, therefore, reserves to itself the right of bringing into a French or Allied port any ship carrying a cargo presumed to be of German origin, destination, or ownership, but it will not go to the length of seizing any neutral ship except in case of contraband. The discharged cargo shall not be confiscated. In the event of a neutral proving his lawful ownership of merchandise destined to Germany, he shall be entirely free to dispose of same, subject to certain conditions. In case the owner of the goods is a German they shall simply be sequestrated during the war.

Merchandise of enemy or gin shall only be sequestrated when it is at the same time the property of an enemy; merchandise belonging to neutrals shall be held at the disposal of its owner to be returned to the port of departure.

As your excellency will observe, these measures, while depriving the enemy of important resources, respect the rights of neutrals and will not in any way jeopardize private property, as even the enemy owner will only suffer from the suspension of the enjoyment of his rights during the term of hostilities.

The Government of the Republic, being desirous of allowing neutrals every facility to enforce their claims, has decided to give the prize court (an independent tribunal) cognizance of these questions, and in order to give the neutrals as little trouble as possible it has specified that the prize court shall give sentence within eight days, counting from the date on which the case shall have been brought before it.

I do not doubt, Mr. Ambassador, that the Federal Government, comparing on the one hand the unspeakable violence with which the German military government threatens neutrals, the criminal actions unknown in maritime annals already perpetrated against neutral property and ships and even against the lives of neutral subjects or citizens, and on the other hand the measures adopted by the Allied Governments of France and Great Britain respecting the laws of humanity and the rights of individuals, will readily perceive that the latter have not overstepped their strict rights as belligerents.

Finally, I am anxious to assure you that it is not and it has never been the intention of the Government of the Republic to extend the action of its cruisers against enemy merchandise beyond European seas, the Mediterranean included.

  1. See telegram No. 1233 of March 5 to the Ambassador in Great Britain, ante, p. 132. A similar telegram was sent to Paris.