The Chargé in Ethiopia ( George ) to the Secretary of State

No. 9

Sir: I have the honor to refer to the Department’s special confidential instructions 403,11 408 and 412,12 dated respectively September 27, October 6, and October 18, 1934, enclosing for the comment of this mission:

copy of a report from the Acting Military Attaché in Rome, dated August 29, 1934,
paraphrase of a telegram from the Ambassador in Moscow, dated September 22, 1934,
copy of an article from the New York Times of September 30, 1934, and
copy of a report from the Military Attaché in Rome, dated September 21, 1934.

The Military Attaché’s report of September 21, 1934, to some extent diminishes the value of the material furnished in the previous more detailed report of Captain Brady, who on August 29th was Acting Military Attaché, and appears to represent a conservative view of the situation in Italo-Ethiopian relations. Nevertheless, as Italian policy is acknowledged in the later report to contemplate “preparations for defense, and for offensive warfare should an ‘overt’ act [Page 762] tempt …13 the conquest of coveted lands” it may reasonably be assumed that the Italian General Staff has devoted some planning, however theoretical for the moment, to offensive military operations in Ethiopia. Furthermore, plans of potential offensive value might easily be regarded as precautionary and therefore defensive from the public Italian standpoint, even though it is reckoned hardly likely that the Italian possessions in Africa would ever be formally attacked by Ethiopian forces, except in the event of a very unusual diversion of Italian attention elsewhere, however frequently frontiers may be violated by the guerrilla bands of Ethiopia.

I have been unable to obtain from the Italian Minister in Addis Ababa a confirmation of the statements made by the Italian Ambassador in Moscow to Ambassador Bullitt, as reported in the latter’s telegram 319 of September 22, 1934, but can understand that out of a regard for public opinion in other countries it might be deemed impolitic on the part of England or France to acknowledge the suggested agreement respecting Ethiopia, and that Italy, if given such assurances of non-interference, must therefore use them with discretion. My conclusion differs for this reason from that of the Italian Ambassador. The existence of such an agreement cannot be made so clear to the Ethiopians as to justify their pacific surrender to Italy’s “reasonable” demands and Italy is in an extremely delicate diplomatic position for negotiating on the point and is reduced, in my opinion, to the inescapable necessity of applying force.

In attempting in summary manner to estimate the practical effects that an Italian occupation of Ethiopia might have upon the interests of the three parties to the agreement of 1906 guaranteeing Ethiopian independence,14 and upon Ethiopia, the following points have occurred to me:

An economic development might be expected under Italian administration, beneficial to trade in general and particularly to that of Italy and Ethiopia.
A severe control of slavery, now impossible in this country, might reasonably be hoped for.
Communications would be vastly improved, with benefit to neighboring Italian and British possessions and to Ethiopia.
British colonial frontiers would presumably be better secured than at present.
Italy would come into possession of a vast, fertile colony, not only self-sustaining but easily capable of contributing to the active side of Italy’s trade balance.
Ethiopia would secure an outlet to the sea.
Owing to the heterogeneous and backward nature of Ethiopia’s population, the nation is probably incapable of opposing serious resistance to modern offensive operations, or of any strong subsequent patriotic reaction.

On the other hand:

British Somaliland would become virtually surrounded by Italian frontiers.
Either the Lake Tsana project would be abandoned or the flow of the Nile would come under the control of a great European power.
Mileage would be added to the Italian frontiers of colonial France.
The French railway might cease to enjoy its present monopoly of Ethiopian rail traffic, and the port of Djibouti might suffer through the inevitable development of the nearby port of Assab.
I am assured, however, that the existing railway monopoly enjoys no contractual guarantee and that the Ethiopian Government is free to permit the construction of other lines.

On November 12th I had an long conversation with Count Vinci, the Italian Minister to Ethiopia, in the course of which he expressed the conviction that the agreement of 1906 is still integrally effective. He considered recent press reports to the contrary imaginative, but suggested the possibility that some foreign elements having a hand in the Ethiopian situation may think it advantageous to “mix the cards” by spreading such rumors. Italy’s intentions toward Ethiopia, he declared, are loyal, and if armaments have been increased in Eritrea, this has been necessitated as a purely defensive measure, by the incomprehensible, hostile attitude of Ethiopia. Everyone knows that this country is arming, that taxes are destined for the military budget, and that tax receipts for the new head tax are so marked. Last summer it was openly boasted about town that preparations were being made for war against Italy, and Count Vinci was even told by high Ethiopian officials that the attack would be made in September! He did not believe, however, that the Emperor could seriously entertain such fantastic designs. Italy is naturally interested in the economic development of this country, and desires to have a share in it. It is obvious that Eritrea and Somaliland would profit thereby. This is the hinterland of the Italian possessions. Economic collaboration is intended however, rather than penetration, and there is no view to conquest. Italy is far too occupied on the continent of Europe to risk disturbing the colonial situation at this time.* Efforts have been made to assist the neighbor state in its development but overtures have been badly received and little has been accomplished. [Page 764] Ethiopia is unfriendly to Italy and does not wish to cooperate. It is awkward for the Italian Legation to see its proposals for practical collaboration regarded with suspicion, and indefinitely shelved, and out of a sense of dignity Count Vinci has somewhat relaxed his efforts. The amity pact of 1928,15 negotiated on Italian initiative, carried a supplementary agreement on highway construction (See despatch No. 1821 of the Embassy in Rome, dated August 9, 1928, and despatch No. 61 of this office dated August 21, 192816) which provided for the opening of a highway from Assab to Dessie and for a free Ethiopian zone in the port of Assab. The Government of Eritrea has opened the road from Assab to the frontier and offered plans (through an Italian company) for the easy financing of the remaining construction, but the Ethiopian Government has always interposed objections of a technical nature. It is now Count Vinci’s feeling that the Ethiopian Government never intended to permit the realization of the project, but signed the convention merely to close the negotiations. Concrete proposals have also been made for a road from the Setit River to Gondar, and a road from the Setit to the sea, on the Italian side, has actually been constructed. Again Ethiopian agreement was secured, only to be nullified by subsequent objections of futile character. Count Vinci has been able to increase the caravan traffic to Eritrea to some extent by obtaining from his Government the customs facility of a coffee contingent for Eritrea, and latterly the extension of the contingent to include a certain quantity of Ethiopian coffee for the Italian peninsula.

Meanwhile the political position is not improved by the constant frontier violations and other incidents, of which the Ethiopian Government is reluctant to take cognizance. A sullen indifference is encountered in official circles here which renders the amicable liquidation of these almost daily occurrences extremely difficult.

The Minister concluded his remarks with a reference to the latest incident, concerning which details are not yet known. This occurred on the night of November 6th, when the Italian Consulate at Gondar appears to have been attacked and entered by a squad of Ethiopian troops, or police agents, led by an officer in uniform. One consular guard was killed and two others were wounded in the Consulate, according to Count Vinci, who informs me that he has demanded an immediate explanation, punishment of the offending Ethiopian officials, and damages for the family of the guard who lost his life in the course of the attack.

[Page 765]

On November 16th, in the course of a conversation with the French Chargé d’Affaires who has been here two years, I asked if he considered the Italo-Ethiopian situation more or less acute now than when he arrived. Mr. Baelen immediately replied: “Infiniment plus tendue!” He was pessimistic as far as the outlook for improvement in the existing situation is concerned, and seemed in a general way not unfavorable to the prospect of an Italian occupation in some form. He did not believe, however, that any agreement has been reached between France and Italy in this connection.

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

Respectfully yours,

W. Perry George
  1. See footnote 5, p. 758.
  2. Nos. 408 and 412 not printed.
  3. Omission indicated in the original.
  4. Agreement between Great Britain, France, and Italy respecting Abyssinia, December 13, 1906, British and Foreign State Papers, vol. xcix, p. 486.
  5. It was noticeable that the adverb of time occasionally crept into the conversation. [Footnote in the original.]
  6. Treaty of Amity, Conciliation and Arbitration, August 2, 1928, League of Nations Treaty Series, vol. xciv, p. 413.
  7. Neither printed.