The Assistant Secretary of State (White) to the Minister in Switzerland (Wilson)


Dear Hugh : A couple of nights ago the Secretary and I were discussing the Bolivia-Paraguay problem and he suggested that it might be well to let you have some of the background in order that you might advise Drummond thereof, with a view to staving off any independent action on the part of the League in the matter. We of course understand that if either Bolivia or Paraguay makes a request of the Assembly, when it meets next month, to study the matter, it will have to do so.

[Page 223]

The story is as follows:

On December 5, 1928, there was a clash in the Chaco at a fort called Fortín Vanguardia. This was a Bolivian fort and was destroyed by the Paraguayans. Hostilities were imminent. On December 10, 1928, the Pan American Conference on Arbitration and Conciliation opened and it seemed to all of us to be most anomalous to have a Pan American Conference considering arbitration and conciliation while two of the countries were on the point of going to war. Consequently, the first thing the Conference did, upon its opening, was to offer its good offices to the Bolivian and Paraguayan Governments.95 The good offices were accepted and after most tedious negotiations the sub-committee of five succeeded in bringing about an agreement between the two countries for the signature of a protocol96 which provided for the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry and Conciliation, composed of five neutral members, to investigate and conciliate the incident of December 5 and to apportion the responsibility therefor. The function of the Committee was strictly limited, on the insistence of Bolivia, to the two points mentioned, and its duration was also strictly limited, likewise on the insistence of Bolivia, to a six months period.

The Sub-Committee of the Pan American Conference which considered this matter was presided over by Señor Maúrtua of Peru. Mr. Hughes represented the United States; Ferrara, Cuba; Manuel Foster, Chile, and do Amaral, Brazil. It was contemplated that the Neutral Commission of Inquiry and Conciliation would consist of representatives of those five countries. Chile, however, at that time had a young, inexperienced, rather peppery and indiscreet Minister of Foreign Affairs, Rios Gallardo, who also was quite anti-Bolivian, and he had sent some rather gratuitously affronting telegrams to the Bolivian Government. In naming the Commission, therefore, Bolivia insisted that Chile should not be on it. The Peruvians at once said that if Chile was not on the Commission Peru would withdraw as Peru did not want to seem to be getting any advantage over Chile, the Tacna-Arica affair at that time not yet having been settled. Argentina was the only American nation not present at the Conference. Before the Conference went into the matter of drawing up a protocol, it asked Argentina, who had been carrying on negotiations in the past between the two countries, whether she was still interested and whether the work or action of the Commission would interfere [Page 224] with what she was doing. Irigoyen replied that as his good offices for a definite settlement of the Chaco matter had not been unreservedly accepted by Bolivia, Argentina had stepped out and was no longer interested, and the work of the Neutral Commission would not interfere with anything Argentina was doing. Argentina was then asked if she would like to be represented on the Commission of Inquiry and Conciliation and declined.98 Mexico and Cuba were then put on the Commission in the place of Chile and Peru. At the last moment, much to our surprise, Brazil withdrew from the Commission,99 saying that she had just settled a boundary dispute with Bolivia respecting territory which borders on the disputed Chaco area, and she therefore thought it would be better if she did not take part in the Commission. Colombia was then substituted in Brazil’s place1 and the Commission of Inquiry and Conciliation was finally established on March 13, 1929, consisting of representatives of the United States, Mexico, Colombia, Cuba and Uruguay.

Frank McCoy represented the United States and meetings were held until the Commission expired by limitation on September 13, 1929. This Commission succeeded in conciliating the incident of December 5, 1928. The Commission, in the course of the six months’ period, endeavored to see whether a direct settlement or an agreement on a formula for arbitration could not be arrived at to dispose of the fundamental question at issue and succeeded in getting both countries to extend the powers of the Commission so that they could informally discuss these matters. They were unable to come to a direct settlement nor were they able to find a formula for arbitration which both parties would agree to. Therefore, when the Commission went out of existence on September 13, 1929, the fundamental question was still pending; there were considerable troops on both sides in the Chaco; there were about fifty forts (really only mud huts) facing one another in the Chaco, and further clashes were apt to occur at any time.

Impressed with the danger of the situation, in view of the very strained relations between the two countries, as shown in the course of their negotiations, and the fact that it was only the fortuitous circumstance that the Pan American Conference was in session that there was any machinery in this hemisphere quickly available to act in the matter and offer its good offices, the five neutral members of the Commission of Inquiry and Conciliation recommended to the Secretary of State and to their respective Governments that some machinery [Page 225] should be set up to offer its good offices to the two parties. As a result, the Secretary called in the diplomatic representatives in Washington of the other four neutral countries and suggested that they get the agreement of their Governments to the five Governments offering their good offices to the two contending parties. This was agreed to and on October 1, 1929, telegrams signed by the Secretary and the diplomatic representatives in Washington of the other four countries were sent to the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Bolivia and Paraguay offering the good offices of this group to both countries.2 Paraguay accepted at once. Bolivia temporized, made all sorts of inquiries and reservations, but would not accept any concrete suggestion for an arbitral settlement or negotiations looking to an arrangement by other amicable means.

Finally, at the end of May or early in June, 1931, the Neutral Commission here received a further inquiry3 from Paraguay asking whether it was not time to take the matter up again and make another attempt. The President of Bolivia having in the meantime made a very vague statement, which nevertheless gave us something to hook onto as representing a readiness on the part of Bolivia now to enter into negotiations, inquiry to this effect was made of both countries in June, 1931.4 The Paraguayans again accepted at once5 but it was not until the end of July that we got a reply from Bolivia which still insisted on impossible conditions but did definitely state a readiness to consider a pact of non-aggression.

While the Neutrals felt that a pact of non-aggression would be a useless step and a waste of time, nevertheless it was the only tangible thing Bolivia had indicated a readiness to discuss, and therefore, on August 6, 1931, both countries were invited6 to send representatives to Washington to consider a pact of non-aggression. Later in the month they both accepted. In view of the delay in getting Bolivia to fix a date on which the conversations could begin, it was necessary to ask all the nations of America to join with us in sending telegrams to both countries asking them to take up the negotiation for a pact [Page 226] of non-aggression without delay and to follow it up by a consideration of an agreement to submit the whole matter to arbitration. The nineteen countries of America sent such a message on October 19, 1931,7 and then we got their prompt agreement for the opening of the conference on November 11.

At the opening of the conference the Bolivians produced their credentials which were addressed to the Paraguayan Delegation, ignoring the Neutrals. They pretended that they had come to Washington to discuss the matter directly with the Paraguayans without any intervention or suggestions on the part of the Neutrals. Grudgingly they said that the Neutrals could look on as spectators but could not make any suggestions. The Bolivians were told flatly that the Neutrals had not proposed to do anything of the sort; they had offered their good offices; their good offices had been accepted by both parties, and they would not put up with any such nonsense. The Bolivians then suggested that I take part as representing all the Neutrals. I would not agree to this unless the Bolivians said that they would welcome the presence of all the Neutrals. Finally it was agreed that I would not only be present but would preside over the meetings and, as presiding officer, would naturally make suggestions, and that the other Neutrals would be welcome to come in and take part in any and every meeting if they so desired.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The above details of course are not for Drummond, especially any reference to the difficulties we may have had with independent action on the part of Argentina, but are merely to show you, so that you can tell Drummond, how the Neutrals have been working on this intricate matter for four years now and almost constantly in the face of most discouraging obstacles and setbacks. … The outlook at present is favorable for a definite settlement of this matter if patience and forbearance is used and a united front is presented by all concerned. Independent negotiations at two or three different focal points can only complicate matters as we have already seen. We therefore hope that the League, which I must say in its communications so far has been very good about supporting the Neutrals and has not entered the matter more than it was absolutely obliged to, will continue not to, get into the matter any more than it absolutely has to, and that if it has to take action it will use its influence to support what the Neutral Commission in Washington is doing. We of course understand that if either of the parties to the conflict demands League [Page 227] action the League will be obliged to take action. Even in that case, however, they could probably reiterate the principles set forth by the American nations on August 3 and further support the work of the Neutrals. Incidentally, it may be stated, in this connection, that four of the nations signing the declaration of August 38 have not adhered to the Kellogg Pact,9 namely Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and El Salvador. The only American nation, therefore, which has not agreed to the Kellogg Pact or has not signed this declaration is Bolivia and Bolivia has stated that she supports the principles we have set forth in the declaration of August 3.

The Neutrals have a definite objective, namely to bring about peace and settle this controversy, and in doing so to have a cessation of hostilities as quickly as possible and to support the declaration of August 3. The Argentine suggestion of a truce on the basis of present occupations, which is the Bolivian contention, is definitely contrary to the declaration and would scrap it practically at its inception. We have therefore not been able to accept that proposal. Also, while we did not put too much stock in the Argentine argument and the argument put forward by the Bolivian representative here that the Bolivian Government would fall if it had to turn back the positions now occupied, (as we knew that this suggestion did not arise in La Paz but was given to the Bolivian Government by their Minister in Washington, perhaps at the instigation of certain others here), we nevertheless did not want to take too rigid a position and make this collateral question the main issue when we are trying to bring about peace. On August 9 the Neutrals therefore inquired of Bolivia10 whether the Bolivian proposal of a cessation of hostilities on the basis of present occupations was made with the understanding that such occupations do not alter the juridical situation of Bolivia and Paraguay since the first of June, 1932; secondly, whether Bolivia would accept to submit the controversy over the Chaco immediately to an arbitration by means of negotiations which would begin before the fifteenth of September; thirdly, whether it would agree to abandon before the fifteen of June, 1933, the occupations made in the territory since the first of June, 1932, unless there should be a distinct agreement regarding this point between the two countries in dispute and that, in the meantime, it would maintain only the minimum personnel in those positions for their custody, and fourthly, whether it would agree to give facilities to the representatives which the Neutral Commission might wish to send to the Chaco territory for such investigation [Page 228] as might be pertinent. This suggestion was made to help Bolivia if she really has a bona fide political situation that is troubling her. It maintains the principle of the August 3 declaration by fixing a definite date for the evacuation of the territory recently conquered. It was Argentina’s support of the Bolivian thesis which we feel caused Bolivia not to accept this proposal. We are going back at Bolivia as we have now got the neighboring countries in agreement to support our stand. If we can get Bolivia to accept, the way should then be open for a definitive settlement of this long drawn out controversy.

I think the above gives you the full story to date and I shall let you know of any other developments which might be helpful to you. The Secretary thought that a frank confidential talk by you with Drummond to let them know in advance just what our problem and difficulty is in this matter and what our objectives are would probably avoid their taking any action counter thereto.

With all good wishes [etc.]

Francis White
  1. The omitted portion of this letter summarizes correspondence printed under sections entitled “Good Offices of the Commission of Neutrals” and “Efforts of the Commission of Neutrals to Obtain the Cooperation of the ABCP Republics,” pp. 8 ff. and 136 ff.
  2. Foreign Relations, 1928, vol. i, p. 685; Proceedings of the International Conference of American States on Conciliation and Arbitration Held at Washington December 10, 1928–January 5, 1929 (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1929), p. 86.
  3. Protocol of January 3, 1929, Foreign Relations, 1929, vol. i, p. 835.
  4. Foreign Relations, 1929, vol. i, p. 829.
  5. Ibid., p. 831.
  6. Ibid., p. 833.
  7. See Foreign Relations, 1929, vol. i, pp. 903907.
  8. See note No. 502 (bis), April 20, 1931, from the Paraguayan Minister for Foreign Affairs to the American Chargé in Paraguay, ibid., 1931, vol. i, p. 715.
  9. For texts of notes (to be presented June 25), see telegram No. 23, June 22, 1931, 7 p.m., to the Chargé in Bolivia, and telegram No. 20, June 22, 1931, 7 p.m., to the Chargé in Paraguay, ibid., pp. 725 and 727.
  10. See telegram No. 70, October 9, 1931, 7 p.m., to the Ambassador in Brazil, par. 3, ibid., p. 759, where it is stated that “This note was never answered by Paraguay.”
  11. For texts of notes (to be presented August 6), see telegram No. 40, July 30, 1931, 7 p.m., to the Minister in Bolivia; telegram No. 29, July 30, 1931, 7 p.m., to the Chargé in Paraguay; and telegram No. 41, August 5, 1931, 6 p.m., to the Minister in Bolivia, ibid., pp. 751, 752, and 753.
  12. See circular telegrams of October 16, 1931, 5 p.m., and October 19, 1931, 5 p.m., to certain diplomatic representatives in Latin America, Foreign Relations, 1931, vol. i, pp. 766 and 768.
  13. Ante, p. 159.
  14. Foreign Relations, 1928, vol. i, p. 153.
  15. See telegram of August 9 to the Bolivian Minister for Foreign Affairs, p. 63.