File No. 711.5914/26

Minister Egan to the Secretary of State

No. 833

Sir: It may seem out of place for me, especially when the most terrible events are making a crisis in the world, to return to a subject on which in the past I have written many despatches, the purchase of the Danish Antilles. For seven years I have hoped that the Department might instruct me to make such suggestions to the Danish Government as would lead to an offer of these islands to the United States at a reasonable price. For good reason, I am sure, I received little encouragement; it was necessary to soften the suspicion of our arrogance and imperialistic tendencies which had arisen here and seemed fixed, and to make the Danish people feel that the Government of the United States has a sincere interest in their progress and sympathy with their national aspirations.

Once during the administration of President Taft there seemed to be some hope that the matter of the purchase of these islands might be considered as probable in the near future; the President went so [Page 589] far as to ask me whether they could be put under the same jurisdiction as Porto Rico and what price might be asked for them. This was sometime after a number of distinguished Danes had sent to me a memorial (September 23, 1910) proposing that our Goverment should accept Greenland in exchange for Mindanao, the Danish Government having the right to surrender Mindanao to Germany in exchange for Northern Schleswig. The hope that Danish Schleswig may one day again become part of Denmark is still cherished by a great number of the Danes, whose very delicate position, between two great Powers, does not depress their national ardor. The knowledge that this memorial had been presented to me produced a discussion in certain groups here as to whether the Danish Government would be willing to part with St. Thomas and the other Danish Antilles.

All this of course was purely academic, but interesting. It was made plain that if the pride of this small country in parting with such useless possessions as the Danish West Indies could be soothed, the islands might easily be made to come to us. The price of course would have had to be greater than it would have been previous to the opening of the Panama Canal or before the present improvements in the harbor of St. Thomas had begun. There would have been then no objection on the part of either England or Germany.

The main opponent of the sale, when the last attempt was made in 1902, was the East Asiatic Company, backed up by certain business men here; for instance Mr. Holger Petersen. Home politics too, played a part in the defeat of the project in the Upper House,—the Conservative Party fearing that the Deuntzer Ministry might strengthen itself by spending the money received for these islands. The interest of the business men in the holding of the islands has fallen off; the national subscription for the improving of the islands, which was opened in 1912 entirely failed. My argument with the principal opposers of the sale of the islands to us was to the effect that if they were to remain a burden to Denmark and a blot on the face of progress, as they were, it would be much better for the national reputation of Denmark that they should be sold to the United States. This attitude was looked upon as reasonable. Representing the ideas of our Government, I said publicly, that the United States would gladly sympathize with any attempt to make the population of the islands more contented and prosperous. The improvements in St. Thomas are still going on, but interest in them, on the part of the Danish people, has almost entirely ceased.

It is not necessary for me to comment on the importance of the great harbor of St. Thomas as a base of operations for any nation that possesses it. There is a rumor, widely spread, founded on the negotiations of 1902, that the United States had secured an option on the islands in question. This is without foundation, as far as I know.

It is not improbable that one day Denmark, in spite of the apparent drawing together of the three Scandinavian countries, may be absorbed by Germany, not by the breaking of her neutrality, which, however, is feared, but by what is called “peaceful penetration.” If Germany should gain great advantages in the present war, neither England, nor Russia, nor France would be in a position to protest; and protests from other nations would of course be useless. The [Page 590] Danish West India Islands would then be the property of Germany, as Heligoland, under very different circumstances, became her property. A copy of the memorial sent by me to the Department on September 23, 1910,15 is appended.

I have been impressed by the fact that the Department, notwithstanding its present arduous and grievous occupations, has kept its eyes fastened on probable contingencies which may result from the present war and I take the liberty of calling attention to one of these possible contingencies.

I have [etc.]

Maurice Francis Egan
  1. Not printed here. See inclosure to despatch of September 20, 1910, from Minister Egan, ante.