The Ambassador in China (Johnson) to American Consular Officers in China18

Circular No. 84

Sirs: You are informed that some time ago the Consul General at Hankow consulted the Embassy with regard to the attitude to be taken by American consular officers in China when asked for advice by American missionaries wishing to proceed to interior regions which are, or may become, areas of disturbance. Mr. Josselyn pointed to the [Page 559] indisputable fact that it is often impossible, at a great distance, for the consular officer to ascertain beyond a doubt whether it will be safe for an American citizen to take up, or to continue, his residence in any particular locality and he suggested that, while the consular officer should provide any given missionary organization with all the information on the subject which he might be able to obtain, the missionary organization itself should shoulder responsibility for its decision. Mr. Josselyn raised the legitimate question whether a missionary organization with representatives and Chinese correspondents in a given area is not in a better position than an American consular officer to determine whether it is advisable for its missionaries to travel or reside in any given locality.

There is now enclosed for your information and guidance a copy of the Embassy’s instruction of April 26, 1937, to Consul General Josselyn, which has been approved by the Department. This instruction discusses the protection, travel and residence of American citizens in the interior of China. Although the instruction may seem to deal in large part with American missionaries and missionary organizations, the principles involved may of course be applied in the case of American citizens engaged in other occupations.

Very truly yours,

For the Ambassador:
Frank P. Lockhart

Counselor of Embassy

The Ambassador in China (Johnson) to the Consul General at Hankow (Josselyn)

Sir: I received your letter of February 19, 1937,19 expressing the opinion that your office should be chary about giving advice to American nationals either in regard to evacuating from places of residence in Shensi and Kansu provinces, or in regard to their return to such places after having left them. You observe that it is the local situation which is usually the important factor to be considered in arriving at these decisions, and you evidently feel that the persons concerned are apt to be in a better position to know the local situation than is an American consular officer.

The subject matter of your letter seemed to me of considerable importance, since it was linked to the whole question of the protection of American citizens abroad and involved a principal and responsible [Page 560] function of the Department of State and its agents in foreign countries, that is, that of determining when and in what manner the Government of the United States may extend protection to or withhold protection from American nationals traveling and residing abroad. I therefore again consulted the Department’s instructions contained in Information Series No. 113, of August 31, 1936,19a and likewise referred your letter by mail to the Department with certain suggestions. The present instruction is in accord with the Department’s views.

I inferred from your letter that the experience of the Consulate General at Hankow in connection with the residence of American citizens in the northwest during the last few years had led you to the conclusion that the danger to American citizens in those remote regions is often not so great as the reports reaching Hankow would indicate. I think this conclusion is justified by the facts. The comment has often been made that in spite of alarming reports of wars and the marching of armies in China, the bulk of the people at any given time is living in comparative peace and quiet. On the other hand, there are instances when the danger is greater than is expected, as in the case of the murder of Mr. and Mrs. Stam in Anhwei in December, 1934,20 within less than two hundred miles of Nanking, following careful investigations by Mr. Stam oil the spot which convinced him of the safety of the region.

It cannot be denied, therefore, that American consular offices and the Embassy are faced with a duty of great delicacy and difficulty when they reply to requests for advice in regard to the wisdom of remaining in or returning to the interior. Nevertheless, in spite of this difficulty, since various American enterprises conducted in China are sanctioned by the treaties in force and by practice extending back over many decades, an unusual responsibility rests on American consular officers to guide and assist American citizens in the enjoyment of their treaty rights. The fact that consular officers exercise extraterritorial jurisdiction and thus stand between the Chinese authorities and American citizens prevents an arrangement under which the latter would rely solely on direct relations with Chinese officials. In times of emergency, especially, cooperation between Chinese and American officials in measures for the safety of American citizens is essential.

From a practical standpoint there must be cooperation in these matters between consular officers, mission authorities and missionaries. It is the duty of American citizens in the interior to keep the consular office concerned informed regarding their whereabouts and any factors which may threaten their safety. It often happens that lack of time and distance from the scene make it impossible to take effective official measures to meet a sudden crisis. The mission authorities, therefore, [Page 561] and the individual missionary concerned, must assume responsibility in advance for the possibility of such an eventuality. Their decisions as to the degree of risk in any situation are based upon their first-hand knowledge of local conditions. The consular officer, on the other hand, has access to sources of information not open to the mission authorities or to the missionary himself, and it is incumbent on him to give them the benefit of his information and his views. The most dependable conclusion regarding the advisability of remaining in or returning to a given locality will be, therefore, one founded on information from all these various sources.

Whenever danger threatens an American citizen in China it is the duty and the desire of the agencies of the American Government to extend all possible assistance and there is a corresponding obligation on the part of American citizens to aid in the performance of this duty by giving American consular officers all pertinent information, well in advance, and an opportunity for them to offer such advice as seems to them proper.

American citizens are aware that travel and residence in the interior necessarily entail risk. It is to lessen this risk, with the minimum of interruption to legitimate enterprises, that the parties concerned must cooperate. The law confers no authority on consular officers to order American citizens to remain away from a locality, but it seems to the Embassy that it is the duty of consular officers to advise them regarding the hazards which may reasonably be anticipated and to afford them all legitimate assistance in the pursuit of their authorized occupations. There are practical limits to the official assistance which can be given and there are risks of expense, hardship and danger which inevitably confront American citizens venturing into remote regions at the present time. If all these aspects are frankly discussed between the parties concerned, the duties and responsibilities of the consular officer will probably not prove so onerous in practice as they appear to be in prospect.

Very truly yours,

Nelson Trusler Johnson
  1. Copy transmitted to the Department by the Embassy in China without covering despatch; received June 1.
  2. Not printed.
  3. Not printed.
  4. See Foreign Relations, 1934, vol. iii, pp. 479490, passim.