File No. 763.72112/3512

The Consul General at London ( Skinner) to the Secretary of State

No. 3998

Sir: I have the honor to enclose herewith a copy of a letter which I have sent to the Ambassador, which resumes the course of a conversation which I had some days ago with the British officials named, with regard to the above very important matter [British proposals, informally submitted, respecting carrying on of blockade in the event of American participation in the war]. After having thus written, to the Ambassador, Mr. Simpkin, of the War Trade Intelligence Department, sent me a memorandum which he and Mr. Finlay had. prepared for submission to Lord Robert Cecil, the Minister of Blockade, a copy of which I enclose. It was quite frankly stated to me that these gentlemen desired me to know what was passing through their minds before proposals of an official character should be transmitted to the Department, through the Embassy.

It is scarcely necessary to add that in all that has passed between myself and the British officials who have to do with the blockade, I have made no suggestions of a direct or indirect character with respect to the probable attitude of the Department of State under changed international conditions.

I have [etc.]

Robert P. Skinner
[Enclosure 1]

The Consul General at London ( Skinner) to the Ambassador in Great Britain ( Page)


Dear Mr. Ambassador: As I stated to you on Friday, I had just then returned from a visit to the War Trade Intelligence Department, whither I had been invited by Mr. Simpkin to meet Mr. Finlay, chairman of the contraband committee, and a son of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to talk about blockade matters as they might be affected in the event of a declaration of war on our part. Naturally, in all that was said I refrained from suggesting what the Department [Page 804] of State might be willing to do under the changed conditions which now appear to confront us. The gentlemen with whom I had this conversation desired simply to suggest in unrestrained language what they then had in mind as desirable from their point of view, even though it might not be possible from ours, and stated their intention of sending a formal communication on the subject to Lord Robert Cecil, which no doubt will reach you in due time.

Our friends in the Blockade Department are quite prepared to believe, I think, that the Department of State will not recede from its expressed position on points of law, and that it will consider the blockade to be just as illegal after we go to war as now, and will have a still poorer opinion of the black list; but they probably hope that the Department will recognize these weapons as existing de facto, and will assume towards them, if I may so express it, an attitude of benevolent neutrality.

At the present time all goods which leave the United Kingdom [States] for European destinations, practically without exception, are covered by British “letters of assurance” or equivalent documents. This means that the shippers consult the British authorities in the United States before forwarding their goods, and give certain guarantees that the ultimate destination of the goods is satisfactory. Then the ship proceeds upon its way, and the cargo is examined either at Halifax, Kirkwall or Lerwick, to see that it is in order, and the enforced call at an intermediate port of course involves considerable danger to the ship, and great loss of time in the manipulation of the cargo. It would be very agreeable to the people here if they might be permitted to perfect machinery in the United States for examining cargoes before putting goods into the ship, and then seal the holds and check up papers, thus obviating the necessity of undertaking similar operations at an intermediate port. From a purely commercial point of view, it would be to the advantage of the carrying vessels to be held up for a day or two longer in New York while this scrutiny was going on, if, by so doing, they might avoid an enforced visit to Halifax, Kirkwall or Lerwick. Furthermore, the danger to the ship would be considerably reduced. Ships thus examined at New York, on passing through the blockade line, would identify themselves very quickly, and would proceed to final destination. The people here think that if we raise no objections to this plan, the commercial interests involved would ask for its application just as they now ask for letters of assurance; and the position then would be that they would be under no obligation to submit to this investigation if they were willing to take the chance of getting through the blockade without “voluntarily” allowing themselves to be examined.

A more spiny problem in connection with the departure of ships from the United States arises in connection with passengers and the [Page 805] handling of mails. People here assume that on the outbreak of war we ourselves shall adopt very stringent regulations respecting east-bound passengers, subjecting them all to the closest scrutiny, and excluding practically all persons objectionable to British interests as well as to our own. I think they hope, also, that their own secret service agents will be permitted to work in connection with ours, and to support each other. They regard an understanding of this kind as indispensable, unless ships are to be brought into an intermediate port, after clearing from New York.

The handling of the mails probably causes more thought here than anything else. The authorities know that we object to what they have been doing in the past, and they, on their side, deem it to be imperatively necessary to continue this scrutiny. Obviously, ships cannot proceed from New York to European ports without calling at intermediate ports if mails are to be examined, unless the examination is undertaken in the United States. While we shall exercise a censorship, very probably, it is doubted whether our censorship, unless it can be exercised jointly with the British authorities, will be satisfactory. The suggestion was made during our talk that the whole difficulty might be overcome if the British authorities simply required all mails for European destinations to be sent in transit through Great Britain. I think that my informants looked upon the suggestion of all European mails being sent to Great Britain as somewhat revolutionary, but at the same time, quite a practical method of facilitating the dispatch of correspondence.

Mr. Finlay said that if our people were willing to meet them in all or some of these plans, they would be only too happy to grant me access to all their confidential material with regard to contraband, enemy firms, and the like. In fact, they look forward to a close exchange of information of this kind, believing that, as time goes on, our interests will insensibly merge. I listened with attention to all that was said to me, merely putting in a question here and there, and without committing myself in any manner.

It is needless to say that if you desire me to step in for a talk on the general subject I am always at your disposition.

Sincerely yours,

Robert P. Skinner
[Enclosure 2]

Memorandum of the British War Trade Intelligence Department

Mr. Finlay and Mr. Simpkin discussed to-day with the American Consul General various questions relating to the effect which the entry of the U. S. A. into the war might have upon the blockade [Page 806] organisation. The discussion was completely informal and unofficial; but it was felt that matters were urgent and that an exchange of ideas might be helpful and might prove to be an economy of time and trouble.
The principal points dealt with were (a) the navicert system, (b) the machinery for the examination of vessels sailing from the U. S. A. to Scandinavia or Holland, and (c) the question of liaison work in London.
It was agreed that the navicert system, which has been in operation for over a year and which is now thoroughly understood both by shippers and importers, should if possible be maintained. Mr. Skinner fully appreciated that our statistical and other methods rendered decentralization practically out of the question and that the system should be worked, as heretofore, from London. Mr. Skinner wished to emphasize his view that shipments covered by navicerts or by N[etherlands] O[versea] T[rust] permits should be subjected to no delays except in the cases where fraud or deliberate intention to transmit goods to the enemy had been discovered. It was considered that the proportion of navicerts which had been dishonoured was extremely small, probably no more than one in five hundred; and it was hoped that the proposed scheme for the approval in advance of N.O.T. permit would remove any ground of objection so far as concerned Holland.