File No. 124.55/6

The Minister in Belgium ( Whitlock ) to the Secretary of State


40. The news of the rupture in our diplomatic relations with the German Government was known here through Reuter and Wolff despatches on Sunday, February 4. The Department’s telegram No. 248 of Saturday, February 3 did not reach me until Wednesday, February 7. In the meantime, Lancken was in Berlin and I was awaiting instructions. The announcement of the rupture had created a panic among the Belgians who feared that the Legation would leave Brussels and the work of the commission come to an end. Incidentally, Bissing sent a staff officer to tell me that he hoped that a press report from Washington stating that I might remain in Brussels was true. I had incessant appeals, official and otherwise, from Belgians to continue the relief work. They would view the immediate departure of the Americans with despair and American pride would be touched were the splendid work of the commission now to fail. My feeling that the humanitarian work was paramount to other considerations was strengthened by the receipt of Department’s telegram No. 249 of February 4, changing the instructions as originally written and envisaging the continuance of the relief. It has been this consideration, the fate of the (seven?) millions of people whose lives hang on the American relief work, that I have [Page 641] tried to keep before me in the continuous and difficult negotiations of the last fortnight. Lancken on his return from Berlin told me that the German authorities hoped that the relief work would be continued, and that while the privileges of the American delegates would be curtailed, they were anxious that the directors of the commission remain in charge and made the suggestion that I remain, not in a diplomatic capacity, but to assist in relief work. The American delegates were to be gradually withdrawn and replaced by delegates of other nationalities. My duty would have been simple and obvious had the relief work not been involved. I told Lancken that I should remain provisionally to see if the future of the commission could be assured, provided my Government approved, and provided also that the German authorities assure me the consideration due in such cases, when and whenever I might decide to leave Belgium. The proposal to replace gradually the American delegates by those of other nationalities was the plan repeatedly considered by Hoover as proper to this very emergency, and Gregory had already begun to adjust the work to this basis when Hoover’s despatch No. 135, February 12, ordering the immediate withdrawal of all Americans in the commission,1 was received. This despatch produced its sensation and at a conference, at which the German authorities, the patron minister, the Comité National, and the commission were represented, it was stated on behalf of the Germans that the American delegates might continue to exercise their functions as in the old time, though certain substitutions would be necessary on the [military] front. Gregory thereupon agreed provisionally to remain and to continue the work and so advised Hoover in his telegram of the 14th. I am of the opinion, and Gregory agrees with me, that in the interests of the relief this tentative plan should be approved. The American delegates can continue, as long as the present situation remains unchanged, to work in Belgium. But the position of the Americans here will grow more and more delicate and should the present state of things degenerate into war, become wholly impossible. It would be folly to indulge in any illusions on this score and I, therefore, suggest that Hoover take immediate steps to meet all possible eventualities and that as rapidly as it can be done without impairing the efficiency of the commission the American delegates be replaced by others. Gregory says that in any event he will not remain longer than April.

In the meantime my own situation is anomalous, embarrassing, and of course untenable. The Germans, while showing me personal courtesy, no longer consent to my having the services of the courier, or to my use of the cipher, and only in certain exceptional cases will [Page 642] they accept and forward telegrams en clair. For a week after we heard of the break in relations I kept the flag on the Legation. Lancken remarked one day after, in the course of a conversation, that this was not correct. He said nothing beyond making this observation, but inasmuch as according to the protocol he was right, I felt that it was better to avoid any complicating incident, if possible, and so had the flag down the following day.

Thus in relation to the Germans I seem to have no diplomatic character but to have become a distinguished personality, the degree of whose distinction depends on their uncertain and whimsical mood. Nevertheless, I have felt that I should delay my departure at least until the changes in the personnel of the commission are effected and the American delegates have left or until the continuance of the relief work, so far as it lies within my power to contribute to that end, is in some other way assured. I have the official assurance of the authorities that I may depart at any time with all the consideration due to ministerial rank. I am giving the representation of American interests to the Spanish Minister, as well as Japanese, Serbian, Danish, and Liechtenstein interests heretofore committed to my care. He will not however raise his flag on the Legation until I go, and the Legation staff will continue to do the work. According to an official note delivered to me by the Dutch Chargé d’Affaires, the British Government has asked the Netherland Government at The Hague to assume the protection of British interests here. I am therefore turning over the protection of British interests to the Dutch Chargé d’Affaires.

I am making arrangements for the immediate departure of the consuls, their families and personnel, and for such Americans as desire to leave Belgium. Other than those engaged in the relief work there are about 75 Americans left in Belgium. Missionary establishments have their houses and interests here and prefer to remain.

  1. Not printed.