File No. 763.72/3179

The Secretary of State to the German Ambassador ( Bernstorff )

No. 2307

Excellency: In acknowledging the note with accompanying memoranda, which you delivered into my hands on the afternoon of January 31, and which announced the purpose of your Government as to the future conduct of submarine warfare, I would direct your attention to the following statements appearing in the correspondence which has passed between the Government of the United States and the Imperial German Government in regard to submarine warfare.

This Government on April 18, 1916, in presenting the case of the Sussex, declared—

If it is still the purpose of the Imperial Government to prosecute, relentless and indiscriminate warfare against vessels of commerce by the use of submarines without regard to what the Government of the United States must consider the sacred and indisputable rules of international law and the universally recognized dictates of humanity, the Government of the United States is at last forced to the conclusion that there is but one course it can pursue. Unless the Imperial Government should now immediately declare arid effect an abandonment of its present methods of submarine Warfare against passenger and freight-carrying vessels, the Government of the United States can have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the German Empire altogether.

In reply to the note from which the above declaration is quoted your excellency’s Government stated in a note dated May 4, 1916—

The German Government, guided by this idea, notifies the Government of the United States that the German naval forces have received the following orders: In accordance with the general principles of visit and search and destruction of merchant vessels recognized by international law, such vessels, both within and without the area declared as naval war zone, shall not be sunk without warning and without saving human lives, unless these ships attempt to escape or offer resistance.

But neutrals can not expect that Germany, forced to fight for her existence, shall, for the sake of neutral interests, restrict the use of an effective weapon if her enemy is permitted to continue to apply at will methods of warfare violating the rules of international law. Such a demand would be incompatible with the character of neutrality, and the German Government is convinced that the Government of the United States does not think of making such a demand [Page 107] knowing that the Government of the United States has repeatedly declared that it is determined to restore the principle of the freedom of the seas, from whatever quarter it has been violated.

To this reply this Government made answer on May 8, 1916, in the following language—

The Government of the United States feels it necessary to state that it takes it for granted that the Imperial German Government does not intend to imply that the maintenance of its newly announced policy is in any way contingent upon the course or result of diplomatic negotiations between the Government of the United States and any other belligerent government, notwithstanding the fact that certain passages in the Imperial Government’s note of the 4th instant might appear to be susceptible of that construction. In order, however, to avoid any possible misunderstanding, the Government of the United States notifies the Imperial Government that it can not for a moment entertain, much less discuss, a suggestion that respect by German naval authorities for the rights of citizens of the United States upon the high seas should in any way or in the slightest degree be made contingent upon the conduct of any other government affecting the rights of neutrals and noncombatants. Responsibility in such matters is single, not joint; absolute, not relative.

To this Government’s note of May 8 no reply was made by the Imperial Government.

In one of the memoranda accompanying the note under acknowledgment, after reciting certain alleged illegal measures adopted by Germany’s enemies, this statement appears—

The Imperial Government, therefore, does not doubt that the Government of the United States will understand the situation thus forced upon Germany by the Entente allies’ brutal methods of war and by their determination to destroy the Central powers, and that the Government of the United States will further realize that the now openly disclosed intentions of the Entente allies give back to Germany the freedom of action which she reserved in her note addressed to the Government of the United States on May 4, 1916.

Under these circumstances Germany will meet the illegal measures of her enemies by forcibly preventing after February 1, 1917, in a zone around Great Britain, trance, Italy, and in the eastern Mediterranean all navigation, that of neutrals included, from and to England and from and to France, etc., etc. All ships met within the zone will be sunk.

In view of this declaration, which withdraws suddenly and without prior intimation the solemn assurance given in the Imperial Government’s note of May 4, 1916, this Government has no alternative consistent with the dignity and honor of the United States but to take the course which it explicitly announced in its note of April 18, 1916, it would take in the event that the Imperial Government did not declare and effect an abandonment of the methods of submarine warfare then employed and to which the Imperial Government now purpose again to resort.

[Page 108]

The President has, therefore, directed me to announce to your excellency that all diplomatic relations between the United States and the German Empire are severed, and that the American Ambassador at Berlin will be immediately withdrawn, and in accordance with such announcement to deliver to your excellency your passports.

I have [etc.]

Robert Lansing