Memorandum by the Under Secretary of State (Welles)

The British Ambassador, in the course of his conversation with me this morning, gave me to read a telegram which he had just received from his Foreign Office. The Ambassador felt unable to leave me a copy of this message but at my request permitted me to take notes so that I would be sure to get the exact phraseology used in this message in the more important portions of it. The message was as follows:

The British Government has come to the conclusion that not only has the Japanese Government arrived at the determination to disregard international interests in the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, but has likewise reached the conclusion to disregard the interests of third parties in China, not only with regard to human life and property, but likewise with regard to the “normal courses of international life”.

The British Government desires to know whether the Government of the United States takes as serious and anxious a view of the situation above described as that taken by the British Government.

The British Government likewise desires to know whether in such event the United States Government would be disposed to join with the British Government in strengthening the hands of the two Governments through supporting representations to be made with regard to the above questions “by an overwhelming display of naval force”.

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Should the United States Government be disposed to consider such a possibility, the British Government suggests that the two Governments undertake immediately, through the appropriate authorities of the two Governments, staff conversations “to consider appropriate and adequate combined steps”.

I said to the Ambassador that in view of the very great importance of this message and in consideration of the implications involved, it would, of course, be necessary, before a reply could be made, for consideration to be given to this message by the President, by the Secretary of State and by other authorities of this Government. I said that as the Ambassador knew the President had not been well and was leaving Washington tonight. I stated that a reply would be made to this message at the first practicable moment.

I asked if the Ambassador would be kind enough to clarify the phrase, “by an overwhelming display of naval force”. I remarked that only ten days ago the Ambassador by instructions from his Government had made it known to this Government that the British Government, because of the Mediterranean situation and because of certain European complications, was not in a position to divert any considerable portion of its naval force from European waters.55 I said that in addition to this statement made to me, officials of this Government had been repeatedly advised by competent British authorities during recent months that the British Government was not in a position to employ its naval forces in Far Eastern waters and that the whole policy of the British Government, as explained to me by the British Ambassador himself, had been predicated upon its unwillingness to be drawn into a position with regard to the Japanese-Chinese controversy where the exercise of forceful measures might prove to be essential. I asked the Ambassador if my understanding was correct and he said entirely so. I then inquired whether he had any reason to believe that the situation of his Government in the regard above mentioned had recently been changed. He stated that he was not informed but that he would suppose that the position of the British Government in this connection would be brought out clearly through the staff conversations proposed. I said that that, of course, was quite probable, but that it would appear to me that the suggestion proffered, unless the policy of the British Government had changed, would imply that the “overwhelming display of naval force” would have, under present conditions, to be an overwhelming display of United States naval force and that any decision that might be reached by this Government would necessarily have to take into account that very important fact. The Ambassador said that he was without instructions to give me any further light upon this problem.

  1. No record of this statement has been found in Department files.