The Secretary of State to the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (Pittman)

My dear Senator Pittman: I am in receipt of your letter of February 5, 1935, requesting my views regarding S. Res. 70, introduced by Senator Borah on January 30, 1935, with respect to alleged antireligious activities in Mexico under the Government of that country.

The Resolution, if passed, would authorize the Committee on Foreign Relations, or a subcommittee thereof, to conduct hearings and receive evidence, relating to the matter mentioned, for the purpose of “determining the policy of the United States in reference to this vital problem and in what way we may best serve the cause of tolerance [Page 790]and religious freedom”; and, nevertheless, if the Resolution should be adopted, as drafted, it would place the Senate in the position of having rendered judgment in advance of hearing evidence. It declares, for example:

that “the Senate of the United States deems it fitting and proper to protest the antireligious campaign and practices of the present rulers of Mexico; and that it views with the gravest concern such ruthless persecution of helpless men and women who have become the innocent victims of antireligious persecution”;
that the Senate “strongly condemns the cruelties and brutalities that have accompanied the campaign of the present Mexican Government against the profession and practice of religious beliefs”;
that it calls upon the Government of Mexico “to cease denying fundamental and inalienable rights to those of our nationals who may be resident in Mexico regardless of religious convictions”.

Nothing can be clearer than that these statements, if promulgated by the Senate, would constitute an unreserved premature indictment of a friendly neighboring Government which, in my opinion, would be most unwise from every point of view.

The Resolution, as set forth in the third paragraph on page 3, has for its purpose “determining the policy of the United States” with respect to the “cause of tolerance and religious freedom”, and this without a participation by the House of Representatives or the President. Aside from the constitutional question whether the passage of the Resolution would not be an encroachment upon the prerogatives of the Executive with respect to the conduct of our foreign relations, and at least certainly tend to discredit the executive authority, it is subject to other serious objections.

It is fundamental that sovereign States have the right to control the internal order of their affairs in such manner as they deem to be to their best interests, free from unwarranted interference by other powers. While we should always be ready to protect American citizens in the enjoyment in foreign territory of rights which they may have under the laws of a foreign State, under treaties, or under the law of nations, it is not permissible for us to undertake to dictate to foreign governments their national policies on matters conceded to be within their domestic jurisdiction, although this Government, adhering as it does to the broad principle of freedom of thought and religious belief, is naturally desirous of seeing its citizens enjoy in other countries freedom from restrictions or disabilities in this respect. The subject just indicated has been before this Government from time to time in the past in connection with a variety of complaints and requests, and the records of this Department disclose a general consistent policy of non-interposition, except for the purpose of securing to American citizens the benefits of treaty rights or of rights conferred [Page 791]by the laws of the country in question. For example, Secretary of State Buchanan stated on October 22, 1845,43 in regard to a complaint with reference to alleged acts of Sardinia, that:

“… It is our glory that all men within the United States enjoy the inestimable right of worshipping God according to the dictates of their own conscience. In Sardinia, however, the case is unhappily far different. There they have a state religion and a strict censorship of the press; and they exclude all books of every kind, except such as are in accordance with their own faith and principles. They have their system and we have ours; and it has ever been the policy of this Government not to interfere with the internal regulations of foreign governments, more especially in questions of religion.”

On June 2, 1875, Secretary Fish stated,44 with reference to complaints concerning the situation then existing in Austria, that the rights of American nationals with respect to religious questions were, in the absence of treaty provision, to be determined in accordance with the local law, and that:

“It is a delicate task for this Government to assume to enter upon an examination of a question depending solely on foreign law, and to express to the Government of Austria-Hungary the opinion that its authorities have improperly or unfairly refused what is claimed merely as a privilege pursuant to its laws.”

Secretary Day, in speaking on June 3, 1898,45 of a request that instructions be sent to representatives of this Government in South America with a view to securing (1) religious liberty for missionaries working in States of South America, and (2) religious liberty for native Christians who dissented from the Roman Catholic faith, stated:

“The standing instructions of the Department to the representatives in that quarter, supplemented by special instructions from time to time as cases arise, have been directed to securing for American citizens the same right to pursue their vocation of preaching and teaching, if such practices are lawful in the country of their residence, as any other American professional men or merchants have to pursue their calling. On the whole, the success of the efforts of our diplomatic and consular officers in this direction has been gratifying.

“As respects your second point, the Department would overstep a long-established rule were it to instruct its ministers abroad regarding the civil and religious rights of citizens of the countries where they reside.”

It will be seen that the statement by Secretary Day that American representatives were under instructions to secure for American citizens the right to pursue their vocation of “preaching and teaching” [Page 792]was qualified by the further statement, “if such practices are lawful in the country of their residence”.

Interference with the domestic affairs of a foreign government through inquisitorial or other process, in the absence of a very definite showing that the nationals of the complaining government are being denied rights to which they are entitled by law, cannot but have a detrimental effect on the relations between States, frequently with results contrary to those sought to be attained. “The great communities of the world”, said Secretary of State Webster in an instruction of January 29, 1842,46 to Minister Everett,

“are regarded as wholly independent, each entitled to maintain its own system of law and government, while all in their mutual intercourse are understood to submit to the established rules and principles governing such intercourse. And the perfecting of this system of communication among nations, requires the strictest application of the doctrine of nonintervention of any with the domestic concerns of others.”

In this connection it may be pertinent to recall the statement of former President Theodore Roosevelt in his annual message to Congress of December 6, 1904,47 that:

“…Ordinarily it is very much wiser and more useful for us to concern ourselves with striving for our own moral and material betterment here at home than to concern ourselves with trying to better the condition of things in other nations. We have plenty of sins of our own to war against, and under ordinary circumstances we can do more for the general uplifting of humanity by striving with heart and soul to put a stop to civic corruption, to brutal lawlessness and violent race prejudices here at home than by passing resolutions about wrongdoing elsewhere.”

While we are naturally solicitous of the right of American citizens to give expression in a proper manner to their religious beliefs wherever they may be, we, of course, can no more insist upon a privilege in this respect, if contrary to local law, than we can insist upon their right to practice a profession, or to carry on a business that is declared by that law to be contrary to the policy of the State. There can be no doubt whatever that the abandonment of the policy insisted on by the statesmen who have been quoted could have no other effect than to embroil our Government in endless international disputes and hostilities.

The right to worship freely, to conduct services within their houses, or within appropriate buildings maintained for that purpose, is conferred by a number of our treaties with other countries. There is, however, no such provision in any existing treaty between the United [Page 793]States and Mexico. Any complaint, therefore, as to the treatment that may be accorded American nationals in Mexico must be based upon some violation by the Government of that country of its municipal law or some principle of international law.

Relative to the allegation of facts, it is extremely significant that, regardless of what has or has not occurred in Mexico, there has not been brought to the attention of this Department by anyone either within or without the Senate, during the past year, a single case wherein it has even been suggested that an American citizen has “been outraged and reviled” or his home “invaded” or his “civil rights abridged” or his life “placed in jeopardy”, as charged in the third paragraph of S. Res. 70, nor has the Department received complaint from any such citizen that he has been the victim of cruelties or brutalities at the hands of the Mexican Government in its alleged campaign against the practice of religious beliefs, as charged in another paragraph of the resolution. If a case of that character were brought to the attention of the Department, it would be investigated immediately, and appropriate action taken. It seems inconceivable that the Senate will assume the existence of a condition which may not actually exist, or anticipate what may be future possibilities.

It is not intended by the foregoing to suggest that this Government should in any wise condone or acquiesce in any act of another Government which has, or would have, the effect of circumscribing complete religious liberty by American citizens or denying to them rights which they should, in our opinion, be permitted to exercise. I might even go further by saying that we feel that privileges which inhabitants of this country are allowed under our laws should be allowed our citizens in other countries. I am merely endeavoring to point out that there is a distinction between what we think should be the situation and what we are in a position to demand. While entertaining these views, we are limited to a consideration of any concrete cases that may arise in which our own nationals are involved and in which it is shown that a legal right has been violated. We cannot on general grounds undertake to change or regulate the domestic policy of a foreign State to conform to our Constitution or our conceptions of religious freedom. Such action would only meet with resentment in the foreign country.

Finally, it is my conviction that the action proposed by the resolution could serve no purpose other than to offend the Mexican Government and prejudice the disposition of several important matters now in process of settlement and other important matters that require for their settlement the maintenance of amicable relations between the two countries which today, I may assure you, are far more satisfactory than they have sometimes heretofore been.

Sincerely yours,

Cordell Hull
  1. John Bassett Moore, A Digest of International Law, vol. ii, p. 171.
  2. Ibid., p. 174.
  3. Ibid., pp. 178–179.
  4. Moore, Digest, vol. vi, pp. 15–16.
  5. Foreign Relations, 1904, pp. ix , xlii .