723.2515PC/338a: Telegram

The Secretary of State to the Minister in Panama ( South )

4. For General Lassiter.85

The President has asked me to notify you that he formally appoints you as Chairman of the Plebiscitary Commission under the Tacna-Arica Arbitration to take the place of General Pershing who must resign, at least temporarily, on account of health and desires you to sail on the Cleveland as soon as possible. The Cleveland will have instructions from the Navy. You can, of course, take an aide with you.
I should much prefer to have had a personal conversation with you and explained the situation in Tacna and Arica but this is impossible on account of time. You should, therefore, as soon as you can after your arrival read all the cable and other correspondence between General Pershing and myself during his administration of the plebiscite. I shall ask him to furnish it to you. The President thought it best to select some one who had not heretofore had any connection with the Tacna and Arica plebiscite. The situation there, not only between Chile and Peru but now between Chile on the one hand and General Pershing and his American advisers on the other, is very strained and bitter. I cannot here comment on the history of the [Page 275] plebiscite or the cause of these disagreements and the bitterness. They render a satisfactory plebiscite exceedingly difficult but it is the duty of the President and he desires to do everything in his power within his legal rights to hold a plebiscite. If it fails, the blame must rest on one or both of the countries involved.
The President, as Arbitrator, realizing that all of the acts of the Plebiscitary Commission are subject to review by him on appeal, has desisted from making any suggestions or giving directions to General Pershing. I have, however, as you will see, from time to time made suggestions to him in an advisory capacity. My object has been to keep the Arbitrator’s record clear, to do everything possible to hold a plebiscite, and to prevent a break so that if the time came when a plebiscite could not be held, the responsibility would not be on the Arbitrator but would be on the party making the plebiscite impossible. I feel very earnestly that this course should be pursued. You should, as I know you will, take the greatest pains, to be strictly impartial between the two countries in their conflicting views. On the one hand, I have made it perfectly plain to Peru that the President has no power under the Treaty of Ancon and the convention by which the question was submitted to the President to take over the administrative control of Tacna and Arica. That remains in Chile. On the other hand, I have advised General Pershing that Chile has no right to use her administrative control to interfere with or frustrate a fair plebiscite. While it may eventually be impossible to satisfy both or either of the countries fully, an impartial and careful adherence to the terms of the Award is absolutely essential. I think the greatest caution should be taken to avoid getting into a position where it can be claimed that the Arbitrator or his representatives on the Commission is fighting the battles of either party. Very bitter charges have been made by Chile against the advisers of General Pershing as to their conduct of investigation and complaints have been made to us that they have not shown tact and discretion in such work. I am, of course, unable to judge at this distance accurately between the conflicting charges of these countries, but without in any way impairing a reasonably fair and honest plebiscite, I think every effort should be made to maintain a frank and friendly attitude towards both parties. You, of course, will be better able to judge on the ground after you have talked with General Pershing and with all of the advisers but I should expect you to inform yourself and exercise your own judgment.

Mathieu, who has been Chilean Ambassador in Washington for seven years, is now to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the new Government of President Figueroa. He is a high-minded, courageous and a perfectly fair man. He has done very much to induce the [Page 276] Chilean Government to comply with Pershing’s demands as to protection to the plebiscite in Tacna and Arica and I am sure will exercise his authority to the fullest extent he can to carry out the plebiscite. He is now, I am informed, in the Ancon hospital but expects to stop at Arica and have a conference with General Pershing and I hope you can be there and talk with him as I believe he will be of very great assistance, The danger in this plebiscite is that the bitter feeling between the Chileans and Peruvians may break out into open conflicts when the voters come to register and go to the ballot. While public feeling in Chile may be such as to render it impossible for Mathieu to accomplish what he desires, I feel that he should be given a chance as far as it is consistent with your duties as Chairman of the Plebiscitary Commission, to bring about and maintain conditions insuring a reasonably fair election. Granting that ideal conditions can probably not be obtained, it may still be possible to hold a plebiscite which would do substantial justice to the parties, and we are bound to exhaust every expedient to that end.

Another thing we should constantly bear in mind is that this question has been a long standing political controversy and the risk of the blame being thrown on the United States is very great. I have great confidence in your ability and fairness to handle this matter. Formal appointment will be telegraphed to you at Arica.86

  1. Maj. Gen. William Lassiter, commanding the American forces in the Panama Canal Zone.
  2. General Lassiter was formally commissioned on Jan. 27.