411.60d Finnish Vessels/144

The Secretary of State to the Finnish Minister (Åström)

Sir: Reference is made to Your Excellency’s note of June 4, 1934, and to your memorandum of October 22, 1934,38 respecting the desire of your Government that authority be given various Finnish citizens to sue the United States in the Court of Claims on account of the allegedly illegal detention of their vessels by this Government in 1918.

Since the receipt of your communication of October 22, 1934, a thorough examination of pertinent information has been made, with the result that it now appears that the claim which you urge was based on faulty factual premises.

[Page 158]

The appropriate officials charged with the responsibility of conserving the interests of the United States realized early in 1917 that drastic steps would have to be taken effectively to meet the challenge of the submarine warfare. It was then determined to convoy shipping. It is, of course, recognized that sailing vessels are not readily convoyed, and consequently American sailing vessels were not permitted to enter the war zone. The evidence at that time was overwhelming that the risk of loss of a sailing vessel in the submarine zone was so great as to approach certainty. In fact, it was the experience of this Government prior to 1917 that if an American sailing vessel arrived at a foreign port in the submarine zone the owner would apply for permission to sell to foreign purchasers on the ground that it would be almost sure death to attempt to sail home. As a matter of self-defense, it became the policy of this Government to conserve commodities and tonnage for war needs. This policy found expression in the following definite restriction on the issuance of bunker licenses to sailing vessels going through the war zone which appeared as General Rules No. 1, War Trade Board, Bureau of Transportation:

“I. No application for ‘bunkers’ by a sailing vessel for a voyage into the submarine war zone shall be approved. Sailing vessels equipped with auxiliary motive power shall, in the application of these rules, be classified as sailing vessels.” (Journal of the War Trade Board, No. 5, page 8.)

This restriction was in force prior to and during the time the sailing vessels here in question were in the ports of the United States.

A similar statement appeared in the War Trade Board Manual for Shippers, No. 2, May, 1918. On October 10 and 25, 1917, and January 24, May 31, and June 25, 1918, substantially the same instructions were issued to the Division of Transportation of the Bureau of Export Licenses. It will thus be seen that this restriction as to bunkers was common knowledge among shippers long before and at the time the ships to which this correspondence relates entered United States waters.

As a matter of interest the Vacuum Oil Company, which, I understand, was interested in the cargoes of the ships under consideration, on January 12, 1918, inquired “if there has been any change in the recent ruling which was to the effect that no sailing vessels could proceed from the States to ports in the war zone.” They were advised in reply that there had been no change with respect to the licensing of bunkers and cargoes for such vessels. So stringent was this restriction that an urgent request by one of the Governments associated with the United States in the war to permit one of its sailing vessels in an [Page 159] American port to be supplied with bunkers and cargo for voyages through the submarine zone was denied. And in another instance a cargo license was cancelled when it developed that it would be transported by sailing vessels.

When it is recalled that approximately half of the tonnage under consideration was to carry petroleum products, it is not difficult to understand why the licenses for bunkers were delayed. As late as September 16, 1918, the military authorities are on record in refusing to countenance the granting of licenses for petroleum products for even steam vessels in any trade.

The petroleum products on the sailing vessels here in question and the remainder of those cargoes which were denominated “general cargo,” as well as the ships stores for a period of some seven months for all of the vessels would have been of great value to the enemy, and therefore, the authorities of this Government were unwilling to lend themselves to the possibility of thus enhancing the enemies’ supplies.

These thirteen vessels were destined for either South Africa or Australia, the routes to both of which countries would carry them into the submarine zone.

It was only at the earnest solicitation of one of the Allied Governments, based on the military situation then existing, that bunker licenses were finally issued.

It will be apparent from the foregoing that no discrimination was practiced in delaying the granting of bunker licenses for the ships in which you are interested. Licenses were withheld in accordance with Regulations in force when the ships arrived. Exceptions to these Regulations in favor of the ships were made when licenses were granted.

The above disclosure, and the statement in your note of June 4 that “these claimants and my Government have always admitted and still admit that the owners of these vessels were obliged to observe the conditions prescribed by local laws for clearing and carrying out cargoes and supplies,” will, I hope, enable Your Excellency to agree with me that the action of the licensing authorities of the United States was legal and consistent. In the circumstances I cannot see my way to propose the legislation which it would be necessary to obtain to provide a remedy in the Court of Claims.

Since all of the arguments advanced and evidence adduced in Your Excellency’s note of June 4, 1934, are predicated on the hypothesis that these sailing vessels were illegally detained, and as this contention was fully answered in my note of May 8, 1934, reiteration of my Government’s [Page 160] position in this regard would, in the light of the above discussion, appear to be unnecessary.

It is noted from the correspondence in this case that you are being advised by certain American lawyers. I therefore deem it appropriate to hand you herewith a copy of a Departmental Order, regarding the employment of American citizens as counsel by foreign governments.39 Especial attention is called to Title 18, Section 5, of the United States Code quoted in the Order.

Accept [etc.]

[File copy not signed]
  1. Memorandum not printed.
  2. For text of Departmental Order No. 601, see Department of State, Press Releases, November 10, 1934, p. 290.