File No. 763.72112/1504

The German Ambassador (Bernstorff) to the Secretary of State

J. Nr. A 5238]

Mr. Secretary of State: In the event of cotton being declared contraband of war by England and her allies, my Government has instructed me to make the following communication:

1. It is an accepted principle of international law that only such articles can be declared contraband of war as can either be used mainly and primarily for military purposes (absolute contraband) or can be used for such purposes under certain circumstances (relative contraband). On the other hand articles that are exclusively intended for peaceful purposes cannot be declared contraband.

The modern technical skill of Germany has been directed toward making the use of cotton in the manufacture of powder and explosives superfluous. The experiments started many years before the beginning of the war in replacing cotton by wood fiber (wood cellulose) have during the war been brought to a conclusion that makes it possible entirely to substitute wood cellulose for the cotton theretofore indispensable in powder and explosives, without thereby lessening the output or impairing the quality. The opinion of English experts to the effect that no other material could be used as a substitute for cotton does not therefore agree with the facts.

In addition I may point out that Article 28 of Chapter II of the Declaration of London expressly provides that cotton may not be declared contraband of war. And besides we have the special assurance to the same effect given by the English Government about the end of last year.

Under the circumstances, declaring cotton contraband of war is another breach of international law and another attempt to carry the economic war beyond the limits set by international law to the injury of Germany and her allies as well as to the injury of the neutral countries engaged in the cotton export trade.

2. With regard to the substitution of wood cellulose for cotton in the uses it can be put to for military purposes, the German Government, without prejudice to the position taken as a matter of principle that to declare cotton contraband of war is a violation of the rights of the neutral states also, is ready to give every guarantee that cotton sold by American cotton growers or merchants to private concerns in Germany shall be used exclusively for commercial purposes and for the use of the civilian population. If a special private organization of German and American interests could be brought into existence and the American Government would assume supervision [Page 195] through its consular officers for that purpose, full assurance could be afforded that the guarantee given in principle would also be fulfilled in practice. This would dispose of any excuse for holding up cotton that could be brought forth against Germany.

That the so-called blockade declared by England and her allies is not in accordance with international law and besides is not effective is a point which, in the clear position of the law of nations, need not be expatiated on.

3. Germany is ready to buy large quantities of cotton for the use of the civilian population and to negotiate the purchases in the open market. Free competition would thus regulate the prices in the United States, as it would be left with the American parties to set the price c.i.f. in German or European ports—the quotation for cotton in Bremen has at times risen above 30 cents a pound—or f.o.b. in American ports. Binding orders will be immediately placed.

I venture to beg your excellency kindly to let me know what action the Government of the United States proposes to take under existing conditions.

Accept [etc.]

J. Bernstorff