Memorandum by the Assistant Secretary of State (White)

The Peruvian Ambassador, Señor Freyre, called and left with me a clipping from a Lima newspaper giving the background and the Peruvian point of view regarding the Leticia incident (the clipping is from El Comercio, Lima, Sunday, October 23, 1932). The Ambassador asked me to read this article at my leisure and I told him that I should be glad to do so.

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The Ambassador again went into the Leticia matter and said that he could not see why the Columbian Government would not agree to discuss the matter with the Peruvians. He thought that was the only way by which war could be avoided. He mentioned briefly the manner in which the Treaty had been negotiated and put through, referring to my conversation with Señor Maúrtua on the 29th.17 He said that it was a great mistake to try to put through a treaty by such methods because in doing so one builds on sand and not on a firm basis. The people affected were so outraged that they had risen up against the treaty.

I told the Ambassador that from my information there were less than a thousand people in the Leticia corridor and that it was not these people who had thrown out the Colombian authorities but Peruvians who came in from Peruvian territory. I said that however good Peru’s case might be on the basis of the manner in which the treaty was negotiated, there is a right way and a wrong way of doing everything and that there is a right way to go about modifying a treaty which one party does not find to its liking. The way to get the modification of a treaty is to open negotiations calmly with the other party, but seizing territory which has been conceded to the other party and then demanding that while that territory is in your occupation the aggrieved state shall negotiate to recognize the return of the seized property to the party desiring it, is certainly the wrong way to go about the matter and, if we should grant for the sake of the argument that Peru has an excellent case, this procedure will in itself ruin that case and lose her sympathy and support abroad.

The Ambassador justified Peru’s action on the ground that public opinion is such that the Peruvian Government could not now disavow the action of the Loretanos because all the people of Peru are now solidly behind them. He virtually admitted, however, that firm action at the outset by the Peruvian Government in disavowing the action of the Peruvians who seized Leticia might have saved the situation. He said the situation has now got beyond control and we are confronted with a practical condition to which we must try to find a solution. I told him that personally it was pretty hard to ask President Olaya to take a position contrary to the firm convictions and public feeling in Colombia in order to save the Peruvian authorities from carrying out their obvious duty. The present situation has not been brought about on account of any action or lack of action on the part of the Colombian authorities and the resentment against any Colombian Government acquiescing in what the Ambassador was requesting would be overwhelming. I did not see how it could be done.

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The Ambassador said that whatever the juridical position may be, we must get down to facts and the facts are that unless the two countries can get together and discuss this matter there will be war and that we should not run the risk of a war just to save a juridical principle.

I told the Ambassador that I thought there was more involved than a mere juridical principle, that there was also a very practical side to it. The Colombians will ask what assurance they would have that any treaty or agreement they might make with the Peruvian Government now would be respected by the present or future Peruvian Governments when a valid treaty is not respected by them. I asked the Ambassador if he could give me an answer to that problem and he said that he was afraid he could not. I told him that he would now see why I did not feel that I could advance any such suggestion as he proposed to the Colombians. If I were asked by him or Dr. Maúrtua to make a suggestion to the Colombians, either in their own names or in the name of the Peruvian Government, I would of course do so but I could not urge and support any proposal unless I thought it was fair and equitable. As I had told Maúrtua, if the Peruvians will state that they are not demanding a modification of the boundary that has been settled by the Treaty of 1922 and hence excluded from the purview of the Gondra Treaty and would state that they wanted to discuss the economic and commercial consequences of the Treaty, which is a matter not excluded from the purview of the Gondra Treaty as having been settled by another treaty, I would certainly be glad to recommend to the Colombians that they accept to discuss those questions.

I told the Ambassador that respect for treaties is the foundation of all international dealings and that unless this were maintained we were opening a situation of chaos; that we would soon arrive at a state where nobody would make any treaties, but that all countries would be forced into making modi vivendi with the existing governments good for the duration of those governments only.

The Ambassador again stated that the question is not merely commercial but is a territorial one and that they could not get out of Leticia until this matter was discussed. I told him that this action on the part of his Government is contrary to the declaration which Peru signed on August 3 of this year stating that it would not recognize the validity of territorial occupations effected by force of arms. Furthermore, if this should lead to war because Peru refused to get out of Leticia, the war would result from the use of force as an instrument of international policy on the part of Peru. Peru would have [Page 289] forcibly seized territory and refused to give it up unless Colombia agreed to certain conditions, among them ceding this territory back to Peru. This would be contrary to the Kellogg-Briand Pact18 which has been signed by sixty-two nations and the matter would therefore affect not only Peru and Colombia, but would be of very great concern to sixty other nations of the world as well. I told him I thought it well to consider that aspect of the problem.

The Ambassador seemed to think that the Peruvian armed forces would not leave Leticia and inquired whether it might not be possible to restore the Colombian civil authorities but not their police or army. I asked the Ambassador if he was suggesting that Colombia was to send her civil authorities to Colombia’s town Leticia to be maintained in power by and at the will of the Peruvian military. He apparently had not thought of the matter before, and did not pursue that angle of it.

He reiterated again, however, the necessity of the two countries talking the matter over. I asked him what was the definite basis on which the negotiations would be carried out, what was the plan his Government had in mind. He said that it had no plan that he knew of other than to negotiate with Colombia through a commission of conciliation. I told him that if he wanted us to give consideration to a plan we would have to know all the details and implications of it. I said that yesterday Mr. Maúrtua had proposed a plan which he wanted me to urge on the Colombian authorities on the understanding that if they accepted it that then Dr. Maúrtua would use his influence with the Peruvian Government to have Peru accept it also. I had told Dr. Maúrtua that obviously I could not do this as even if I were in favor of his plan and the Colombians agreed to it I would certainly be in a very embarrassing position if then Peru declined to carry it out. If he wanted me to give any consideration to a plan, I would have to know definitely in advance all the terms of it and that it was accepted by Peru.

The Ambassador intimated very strongly that his Government was looking for a way out, that they could not get out of Leticia on their own, but that if a commission of conciliation told them to get out that then they would do so. I asked him if he would tell me definitely that Peru was insisting upon the commission of inquiry merely in order to permit it to get out of Leticia with the backing of an international commission on account of internal conditions in Peru. If he would definitely tell me that so that I could explain the matter in that light to the Colombians there might be some possibility of making progress in the matter. The Ambassador said that he was [Page 290] not authorized to make any such statements to me. I also inquired of the Ambassador whether Peru would be willing to arbitrate whether she was entitled to Leticia or not, whether the Treaty of 1922 was valid and effective as that might be a way out and a means of avoiding war. The Ambassador said that he was without instructions on that point also but knew that his Government wanted to negotiate for a conciliation commission. He said, however, that he would try to find out definitely and precisely from his Government just what it wants and will accept.

F[rancis] W[hite]
  1. Memorandum of conversation not printed.
  2. Foreign Relations, 1928, vol. i, p. 153.