124.842/127: Telegram

The Minister Resident in Ethiopia (Engert) to the Secretary of State

454. Background to my 453 of today is as follows: At about 3 o’clock this afternoon two Italian officers and four Carabinièri arrived at the Legation and said they had verbal orders from the Marshal to close the radio station. They placed a guard in front of the door and prevented our radiomen from entering. As a brief conversation I had with the officers showed that their orders were explicit and they had no discretion, I immediately called on Marshal Graziani and told him that, without discussing the question of the wireless, I could not permit him to send soldiers or police into the Legation compound and to occupy any building therein without my previous consent. I felt, therefore, obliged to request him very emphatically to withdraw the guard at once.

[Page 297]

The Marshal replied that he had received instructions from Rome that the Legations should no longer be recognized lex loci and that he therefore had a right to treat Legation premises as private dwellings. I denied this and referred him to Marshal Badoglio’s note of May 654 which I considered still in force. He said that the situation had changed since then because Ethiopia had been annexed and in any event his orders were now clear on the subject.

I then thought it best not to pursue this argument for the moment and asked him why he had suddenly decided to close radio stations belonging to Legations. He replied with great heat that he had been told by his Government that distorted and even entirely false reports regarding the situation were being spread by various Legation radios and although he did not mention any by name it was obvious from his remarks that he had the British and French Legations in mind. He even went so far as to say that certain rumors were being maliciously and systematically concocted locally in order to alarm the population and that he was determined to put a stop to it. I assured the Marshal that this Legation had had nothing whatever to do with the spreading of false reports either locally or by radio but that he had doubtless been in the city long enough to realize how even the most absurd bazaar rumors were seized upon and circulated by both natives and foreigners simply for lack of other news. I suggested that perhaps the best protection against false reports was telling people the truth in so far as military exigencies permitted. I added that since the Italian occupation even the Legations had been left completely in the dark as to what was going on and when we applied to Italian sources for perfectly legitimate information we only received evasive answers.

The Marshal admitted the justice of some of my remarks but explained that he had heavy responsibilities on his shoulders and was therefore obliged to use extreme caution. He admitted frankly that there were still some elements in the situation which caused him anxiety but nothing was to be gained by exaggerating the dangers, and he therefore hoped the Legations would not render his task more difficult by obliging drastic action. I laughed and said I considered his action in forcibly seizing my radio station sufficiently drastic.

As our interview had already lasted nearly an hour and we were not getting anywhere I asked him if he would allow me to suggest to him the following compromise solution to our present impasse:

The Italian soldiers to be withdrawn from the Legation premises tonight and not to return.
Radio station to continue to function as hitherto for the entire 24 hours during which I would inform my Government of his wishes.
In return for the above I would recommend to my Government [Page 298] that it authorize me to accept any reasonable regulations for radio stations which he might consider it necessary to promulgate in view of the military situation, provided of course that such regulations were applicable to radio stations of all legations.

The Marshal was inclined to haggle and said he would take away the guard if I gave him my word that the wireless would not be used. This afforded me a chance to say that if Washington did not hear from me tonight they would probably think we had all been massacred and that would be worse than any inaccurate reports we could have possibly sent out. The thought came as a distinct shock to Graziani and turning to a colonel who was in the room he said: “I never thought of that. I suppose it is true that if all the legation radios suddenly ceased transmitting without explanation their Governments would fear something terrible had happened”. He at once telephoned to recall his pickets from the American and other Legations and to inform the latter of the temporary arrangement. The Italian soldiers left our Legation at about 9 p.m.

As we are at best only [apparent omission] from hand to mouth here and I have been fully expecting the Italians ever since their arrival to insist that our radio stations be closed, I trust the above meets with the Department’s approval. We have at least upheld our diplomatic immunity and it may be an advantage to have even a limited use of our own radio so long as this Legation is functioning, for the Italian commercial wireless is still most unreliable and excessively slow.

  1. See telegram No. 298, May 6, 11 a.m., from the Minister Resident in Ethiopia, p. 286.