811.0141 Phoenix Group/23¾

Memorandum by the Counselor of the Department of State (Moore)

Last summer I was directed by the President to approach the British with a view to discussing the ownership of islands in the Pacific, and I handed Sir Ronald Lindsay a note containing a proposal looking in that direction. As no reply was received, the matter was brought to the attention of the British Chargé, who wrote me that he was awaiting instructions from his government, but on October 20th he came in and handed me a reply containing a refusal to discuss the ownership of the islands of the Phoenix group, which include Canton and Hull, the former of which is important. The Chargé said that his government is not disputing our ownership of Howland, Jarvis and Baker,33 but is declining to admit that there is any doubt about British ownership of Canton and Hull. He indicated that the British are willing to talk about all of the islands except the two last mentioned, Canton being the one we now mainly have in mind. I at once informed the President of all of this, leaving it to him to determine whether he will discuss the matter with Admiral Leahy and me before he goes to Hyde Park tomorrow evening. It may be that he will think it desirable for our government to do what the British government is said to have recently done, namely, build a small house on Canton Island and put a couple of men in charge. While our investigation of the ownership of Canton has not been completed, I am satisfied, as I told the British Chargé that if there were a judicial proceeding involving the British claim, his government would be unable to prove ownership, and that if it can be assumed that neither government can show a perfectly good title, it would seem very desirable to canvass the situation, with the result, perhaps, of agreeing that the island shall be used for aviation purposes under some sort of joint control by both British and Americans.

R. W[alton] M[oore]

P. S. After the foregoing was dictated, Admiral Leahy and I were called to the White House and discussed the matter in question and finally it was determined on my suggestion that no immediate reply should be made to the British note, but further conversation be had with the British Ambassador on his return here around November 1st, it being just possible that he may bring about some reconsideration of the view expressed in the Chargé’s note. From what the President [Page 133] said, it is very probable that he may wish to participate in any conversation with the British Ambassador.

I will of course not forget the importance of contacting with the British Ambassador on his return. There is nothing that we could do in the few days remaining before he will be here that would serve to strengthen our claim to any of the islands, or weaken the British claim.

R. Walton Moore
  1. On May 13, 1936, President Roosevelt had issued an Executive Order placing Howland, Jarvis, and Baker Islands under the control and jurisdiction of the Interior Department; Federal Register, May 15, 1936, p. 405.