The Acting Secretary of State to President Wilson

My Dear Mr. President: The Siamese Minister has explained to me the great desire of his Government to break down the regime of extraterritoriality which foreign nations enjoy in Siam and which apparently has been a great barrier to the successful development of its governmental system, particularly the judicial branch.

At the present time the great powers have the right to try their own subjects before their own consuls in Siam or before the Siamese Courts on which an advisor of the nationality of the defendant sits, and whose opinion prevails. One result of this system is that it is difficult, if not in some cases impossible, to enforce highly desirable laws and regulations generally in respect of all persons in Siam. For example, I am advised that, although Siam is a party to The Hague Convention for the suppression of the abuse of opium and other drugs, she is unable to give effect to its provisions through appropriate legislation owing to her lack of jurisdiction over foreigners in Siam under the present judicial system.

Siam, therefore, is very anxious to free herself from this system and to formulate codes of laws along the lines of Western ideas, which will be applied to Siamese and foreigners alike in Siamese Courts. The Minister states frankly that negotiations are now proceeding with other countries with a view to obtaining this result. The purpose of his Government is to obtain a treaty with the United States which will define a certain period after which the enjoyment of extraterritorial rights in Siam shall cease. He desires us to agree to make this period a definite one, say one to five years (preferably as short as possible) from the date of the promulgation and putting into force of all of the Siamese codes; namely, the Penal Code, the Codes of Procedure, and Civil and Commercial Codes, and the Law for the Organization of the Courts. Up to the termination of this period Siam is willing to agree that legal proceedings against Americans as defendants be tried in Siamese Courts, [Page 858] in which an American Advisor would sit, and his opinion would prevail. This would supersede, for the transitory period, the present method of trying such cases before American consuls in Siam, and I see no objection to this substitute, as I believe that the rights of American defendants would be fully protected. The important point with Siam is the absolute termination of such “Advisor” Courts and of the Consular Courts after a definite time; for she believes that with such a treaty with us as a model she will be able to obtain similar treaties with other countries having extraterritorial rights in Siam.

The Siamese Minister has discussed with the Department various plans short of absolute termination of our extraterritorial rights at the end of a definite period. The plans which have been discussed are: that the United States will give up extraterritorial rights at the expiration of a certain period after the promulgation of the Codes, if the operation of the Siamese Courts proves to be satisfactory; or that the United States will terminate its extraterritoriality on a definite date after the promulgation of the Codes if the Codes are found upon examination to be satisfactory to the Government of the United States; or that we could give up our extraterritorial rights as soon as all other governments have given up their rights.

None of these plans entirely satisfied the Minister as there is a condition attached to each one of them. He is pressing for a definite date of termination without any conditions. However, I am inclined to think that he may agree to a provision running something like this:

Said system shall absolutely cease and terminate after years from the promulgation and putting into force of all Siamese Codes—namely, the Penal Code, the Codes of Procedure, and Civil and Commercial Codes, and the Law for the Organization of the Courts; it being understood that if the Government of the United States perceives objections to them that the Government of Siam will endeavor to take measures to meet such objections.1

The Department has never committed itself with respect to giving up our rights on a certain date without conditions, and the purpose of this letter is to ask how far I may go in this regard. The only objection I can think of to terminating our rights on a certain date without conditions is that the Senate may interpose the objection that we cannot be sure now that the Siamese Courts will at that date in the future be functioning so as to mete out justice to American citizens who become involved in litigation. If this objection is [Page 859] raised we cannot say that it is covered by a reservation. We will have to meet such an objection by pointing out that the relations between the United States and Siam have been friendly for over a hundred years and that the relative strength and influence of the United States will carry weight in our representations to Siam in the event that our confidence in her courts is overestimated, and that so far no citizen of the United States has suffered a wrong at the hands of the Siamese Government which has not been satisfactorily adjusted; that her judicial system bids fair to be as strong and as impartially administered as the systems of some of the Central and South American Republics, and, finally, that in our Treaty of 1898 with Japan we gave up extraterritorial rights in that country on a certain date without any reservation whatever, although the Japanese Codes had not yet been put into effect.

The Siamese Government have made considerable progress in reforming their judicial system. Several years ago the Siamese Government created a Code Drafting Commission, composed of Siamese and foreign jurists, including jurists of Great Britain, France and (for a time) the United States. This Commission is now engaged drafting and revising the codes, which I mentioned above, and has up to the present time completed drafts of the Penal Code, the Codes of Procedure, and the Civil and Commercial Codes. I am informed that the Penal Code was in fact promulgated and put into effect on June 1, 1908. Our reports are that the Siamese Courts have in the last few years been functioning in a fairly satisfactory manner. There is probably no doubt that the Siamese Government will be unable to develop its judicial system beyond a certain point unless it is able to free itself from the extraterritorial privileges of foreign nations.

I should add that Japan has agreed definitely to give up extraterritoriality upon the promulgation of all of the codes. I understand also that Denmark has agreed to give up her rights at the same time. Great Britain and France have already made a partial surrender and the former has agreed to make a further concession on the promulgation of all of the codes.

In connection with our surrender of extraterritorial privileges Siam is willing to revise her commercial treaty and in the revision is willing to grant us effective favored nation commercial treatment, free privilege of travel throughout Siam, the right to own property and engage in business throughout Siam on the same footing as natives, etc., none of which rights we enjoy at the present time. This in a sense is a quid pro quo for our surrender of extraterritoriality, as Siam is unwilling to revise the Commercial Treaty unless we make this concession.

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So far as the American interests in Siam are affected, I may say that American commercial interests in that country are practically negligible, consisting of only two or three business concerns. It is believed, however, that, if the interior of Siam were opened up for travel and commerce, a greater number of Americans would be attracted to that country to our mutual benefit. Our main interest there at present is that of American Missionaries. American Missions held considerable property in Siam at the suffrance of the Government, and the Minister states that his Government is quite willing that in the new treaty these holdings be confirmed and title be granted to the Missions. There are few Americans in Siam, probably not much over two hundred, made up almost entirely of Missionaries. I am advised by representatives of the Missionaries that they are entirely favorable to the surrender of extraterritorial rights in Siam by the United States. In fact I know of no objection to this suggestion from any quarter.

I am sorry to make this letter so long, but I could not well present the situation fully without doing so. If you desire further details I can send you memoranda on the subject. I will be pleased if you will indicate whether you approve the surrender without conditions of all extraterritorial rights in Siam at the expiration of a stated period following the promulgation of all of the codes, the last of which will probably not be put into effect for about four or five years.

Faithfully yours,

Frank L. Polk
  1. On a letter dated Feb. 28, 1920, in which the Acting Secretary of State put forward this provision for the second time, inserting the word “five” in the blank space, the President made, in the margin, the following notation in pencil: “I like this. … W. W.” (File no. 711.923/126½.)