File No. 763.72112/796a

The Secretary of State to the Ambassador in Great Britain ( Page )


1019. The President directs me to send the following:

Answering your two telegrams in regard to the irritation and apparent change in public opinion regarding the United States,1 you will please discuss the matter again with Sir Edward Grey in effect as follows:

[Page 685]

We regret exceedingly to learn that the British public entertains any doubt as to the strict neutrality of this Government or as to the support given by the general public to the Government’s position. This is probably due to the fact that a portion of the British public is quite naturally uninformed as to the character of our population.

While the English element predominated in the original stock, the immigration in latter years has been largely from other countries. Germany and Ireland, for instance, have contributed very materially during the last half century, and among those who are the children of foreign-born parents the German element now predominates. This element is not only numerous, but it has a strong representation in financial, merchantile life, and agriculture. Congressman Bartholdt is a naturalized American with a long service in Congress. A considerable portion of the voters of his district are naturalized Germans or of German descent. There need be no fear that his proposals will be adopted; but they are a sample of our difficulties. There is, of course, not the slightest alteration in the cordial feeling which has always existed between the United States and Great Britain. Mere debate and newspaper agitation will not alter that feeling; but acts which seem to them arbitrary, unnecessary, and contrary to the recognized rules of neutral commerce may alter it very seriously, because the great majority of our people are trying in good faith to live within those rules, and they are sensitive about nothing more than about their legitimate trade.

It is worth while to enumerate some of the chief causes of irritation on this side the water, because they are causes which can be removed and which this Government would be glad to cooperate to remove.

First, the interruption in exports has very seriously affected cotton, which is the staple product of the Southern States. Cotton for a while was very low, the price being probably not more than half of the ordinary price. As a fall of one cent in cotton means a loss of eighty millions of dollars to the cotton-growing States, they estimated their loss at three or four hundred millions of dollars. The price has risen as ships have been slowly secured, but the number of bottoms is still wholly inadequate and the scarcity of ships has resulted in a rise of freight rates of four, five, six, and even seven hundred per cent. This double tax upon the leading industry of a whole section has aroused a complaint which is being voiced by members of Congress and senators from that section. Moreover, it has seriously affected the whole financial situation of the country inasmuch as cotton is the crop with which the foreign balances against this country have usually been paid at this season of the year.

Next, the copper situation has been embarassing. A large number of people were thrown out of employment in the mining districts just as winter was coming on and the senators and members from the mountain States have been kept busy meeting and making explanations to those most affected.

Third, the export of arms, ammunition, and horses to the Allies is, of course known and the protests made by German-Americans and by a portion of the Irish-Americans, while entirely without justification, is not unnatural. It is difficult for people to think logically when their sympathies are aroused. The Government has done all in its power to make the situation plain and has to-day issued a lengthy letter answering numerous criticisms that have been made.

The Dacia case has received a great deal of newspaper notoriety because of predictions as to what would be done with her. Breitung, seeing that there was a chance to profit by the high freight rates, decided to buy a ship. He first tried to buy an English ship and then a French ship but, as his correspondence shows, he failed to secure a ship from either country. He then bought the Dacia, paying for it about three fourths of what it cost fourteen years ago when it was built. He secured a cargo of cotton and intended to sail for Bremen. When he was informed that it would be wiser to go to Rotterdam he changed the route and planned to sail to Rotterdam. The inquiries which have come to the State Department have come from the owners of the cotton, rather than from the owner of the ship. The Government has had nothing to do with the transaction further than to make inquiries for interested parties. Whether the ship is taken into the prize court or not is a question between the British Government and the owner of the ship, but, if it is taken into the prize court the court will of course decide upon the evidence produced and so far as we know the evidence will support the bona fides of the [Page 686] transactions. If the evidence shows that the sale was made in good faith, the transfer cannot be objected to according to the rules recognized by both Great Britain and the United States. A change in these rules at this time could not be made by the United States and it would seem to be an inopportune time for Great Britain to change them. Great Britain fears that the Dacia might be made a precedent and that other German interned ships would be bought in case the Dacia sale was not contested. That is true and yet the precedent would only stand in case the sales were bona fide in which case they would come within the rules. The chief point presented in your dispatch is that Great Britain is trying to bring pressure to bear upon Germany by preventing the sale of interned German ships. This is perfectly legitimate so long as the pressure is exerted according to the international law, but the pressure becomes illegitimate if well-settled rules are violated, and a well-settled rule would be violated if an attempt was made to prevent a bona fide sale.

The point which should be made very clear to the British authorities as our view and purpose in the whole matter, if such purchases are made, is that as a matter of actual fact such purchases do not constitute a restoration of German commerce to the seas. Such ships would not and could not be used on the former routes or with the former and usual cargoes and would serve as German commerce in no particular. They would serve only the trade of the United States with neutral countries and within the limits necessarily set by war and all its conditions. The withdrawal of so many ships from the seas is so far a curtailment of the commerce of the United States. The United States can not in the circumstances sell articles to Germany which the rules of war or the circumstances now existing forbid. The owners of the ships bought from German owners can not use them on the routes or to the ports which would serve their former owners as the carriers of German commerce. They would be used on new routes and for the release of American merchandise to new ports. They would represent an extension of American commerce, not a renewal of German. This can not be justly or even plausibly regarded as an effort to relieve the present economic pressure on Germany or to recreate anything that Great Britain had a right to destroy. America must have ships and must have them for these uses. She will build them if she cannot find them for sale. The legitimate restoration of American commerce may be delayed but it cannot be prevented. It cannot be part of the purpose of the British Government to put an intolerable economic pressure on the United States, as might very easily be the result if its attitude as reflected in your note is maintained. It is not unlikely that this great hardship will suggest legislation looking to the encouragement of American shipping. Already provision has been made for the transfer and register of foreign bottoms and Congress is considering a measure authorizing the Government to take part in a corporation for the operation of ships. These measures have been the outgrowth of six months of war. Is it not worth while to consider the possibilities of the future? If this Government must undertake the building of enough ships to carry its commerce while idle ships lie in its harbors will there not be an excess of ships when the war is over?

You may assure Sir Edward that this Government will adhere conscientiously to its course of neutrality. It will not intentionally deviate a hair’s breadth from the line but it is powerless to prevent the increasing criticism which has been aroused by acts which have, from the American standpoint, seemed unnecessarily severe for the enforcement of belligerent rights. Say to Sir Edward that we shall take up and consider each question upon its merits and appreciate the candid and friendly spirit which the Foreign Office has manifested. We hope that both Governments may be successful in lessening the criticism and moderating the language of individual citizens.

We are struck by the very encouraging fact that in the principles which they both recognize in such matters the two Governments are practically in agreement. What is lacking is merely the adoption of some practical method by which individual cases of dispute or question may be reduced to a negligible minimum. It ought to be possible for two governments so genuinely friendly and so nearly of one mind with regard to the principles involved to agree upon means by which good faith and entire compliance with the proper restrictions of a time of war and of national defense can be determined with the smallest possible number of seizures and trials in prize courts. We earnestly invite attention to the feasibility of devising and settling upon such methods and would not only welcome but earnestly desire practical suggestions [Page 687] looking to that end. The English Government can thus be assured of compliance with all its just regulations and of freedom from even the risk of friction and hostile sentiment as between the two nations.

  1. The Ambassador’s No. 1486, January 18, ante, p. 682, and No. 1489, January 19, ante, p. 6.