The Acting Secretary of State to the Cuban Minister (de Céspedes)

My Dear Mr. Minister: I have received your informal communication of February 25th,34 enclosing an aide-memoire with regard to our recent conversation on the matter of the German ships which you state are now being re-delivered to your Government by the United States Shipping Board, requesting the Department’s opinion [Page 526] as to the present and future status of these ships. You inquire whether under the articles of the Armistice or the Treaty of Versailles and its Annexes, the vessels are to be considered purely and simply as having passed definitely into the power of the Cuban Government as Cuban property, or whether request can be justly made of the Cuban Government by Germany or by any of the Allied and Associated Powers, involving the turning over of the ships to Germany or to the Commission on Reparations. You also inquire if any such stipulation exists, by virtue of which the ships should be relinquished by the Cuban Government, when, where and to whom must they be delivered, or whether the Cuban Government can substitute for the physical consignment of the ships, a payment in money, and if so, how and by whom should their value be determined. You state that the Cuban Government is under the impression that no such return, transfer or payment of the ships has been agreed upon by them, and that the title to the ships as Cuban property is now perfected without any ulterior obligation on the part of the Government and that they can now dispose of the ships freely either by sale or charter.

In view of the fact that the United States has not as yet ratified the Treaty with Germany, this Government is unable to take a final position at this time in regard to its construction, and the Department cannot therefore undertake to answer definitely the questions presented by you. Nor is the Department in a position to determine whether final and complete title to the vessels in question was acquired through appropriate procedure by the Cuban Government prior to the signing of the Treaty. Your attention is called, however, to the following Treaty provisions which may have a bearing on the status of the vessels:

By paragraph 1, Annex III, Part VIII, (Reparation), of the Treaty:

“The German Government, on behalf of themselves and so as to bind all other persons interested, cede to the Allied and Associated Governments the property in all the German merchant ships which are of 1,600 tons gross and upwards; in one-half, reckoned in tonnage, of the ships which are between 1,000 tons and 1,600 tons gross; in one-quarter, reckoned in tonnage, of the steam trawlers; and in one-quarter, reckoned in tonnage, of the other fishing boats.”

The ships and boats mentioned in paragraph 1, are, by paragraph 3 stated to include all ships and boats which

(a) fly, or may be entitled to fly, the German merchant flag; or (b) are owned by any German national, company or corporation or by any company or corporation belonging to a country other than an [Page 527] Allied or Associated country and under the control or direction of German nationals; …”34

By paragraph 2 of the Annex, the German Government agrees to deliver to the Reparations Commission within two months of the coming into force of the Treaty, all the ships and boats mentioned in paragraph 1. It appears from the foregoing that the vessels referred to in paragraph 3 of the Annex are ceded to the “Allied and Associated Governments” jointly, rather than to any particular government, and that they are to be delivered to the Reparations Commission.

In this connection the Department may call attention to the Wilson–Lloyd-George Agreement, a copy of which is enclosed herewith for the information of the Cuban Government.35 This agreement provides that the Reparations Commission will take such steps as will secure that each of the Allied and Associated Governments will retain as its own the complete title to and use of all ships captured, seized or detained during the war as a war measure, and prior to November 11, 1918, and will own the same free from any claim of any of the other Allied and Associated Governments. This agreement further provides that as the ships and boats to be retained will, in the cases of Brazil, China, Cuba, Siam and the United States, exceed the total amount of tonnage which should be allocated to those countries, were the total enemy tonnage captured, seized, detained or still in existence, shared in proportion to losses of ships and boats during the war, in each such case a reasonable value on the excess of ships and boats over the amount which would result from such a division will be determined, and the amount of the value so fixed will be paid over by each such state to the Reparations Commission for the credit of Germany toward the sums due from her for reparation in respect to war losses of merchant ships.

The Department understands that the Italian Government on certain conditions has expressed its willingness to adhere to the Wilson–Lloyd-George Agreement. The French Government has agreed to be bound by the terms of the Agreement at least in so far as the vessels taken over by the United States are concerned.

It is possible that the Cuban Government may desire to consider the question of whether it should make its adherence to this agreement a matter of formal record, in order to participate in any advantages which may flow from it.

I am sorry that the Department is not in a position to answer your inquiry more specifically, but; it is probable that the information [Page 528] given may enable your Government, with a full knowledge of the facts which surrounded the taking over of the German ships by Cuba, to reach a conclusion.

Frank L. Polk
  1. Not printed.
  2. Omission indicated in the original.
  3. Ante, p. 512.