Memorandum of Conversation, by the Under Secretary of State (Welles)

The Italian Ambassador16 called to see me this morning in consequence of the statement he had made to me a few nights ago that he had not had the opportunity of talking with me for some time and that he felt it would possibly be helpful if he could give me his impressions of the present policies of his own Government. I had replied that I would be most happy to have such an opportunity.

The Ambassador said that he was instructed by his Government to state that the policy of the Italian Government with regard to [Page 7] the hostilities between Japan and China17 was one of complete neutrality. He emphasized his next statement, which was that the only reason why the Government of Italy had joined the Anti-Communist Pact18 with Japan and Germany was because it would have been absurd for Italy, whose determined opposition to communism was well known as an integral part of its national policy, not to join in an international pact which had for its sole purpose the opposing of the spread throughout the world of communism. He stated most emphatically that the agreement into which Italy had entered had no other purpose than this and that it contained no provisions which could in any way be construed as being in the nature of a military alliance between the countries involved. The Ambassador then went on to say that his Government, from the commencement of these hostilities, had been animated by the belief that because of the military superiority of Japan, it was in the interest of China herself to make peace as quickly as possible for Italy was convinced that no other country would render any effective assistance to China and that the action taken by the League, both recently and last September, had merely offered encouragement to China on false premises and had led her to believe that material assistance would be forthcoming. It was for that reason, the Ambassador said, that Italy had also encouraged direct negotiations at all stages. The Ambassador then continued by referring to the Brussels Conference19 and said that the attitude of the Italian representative at that Conference had been assumed in accordance with the policy which he had above indicated; that the only reason why the Italian representative had not expressed Italy’s willingness to join in efforts to mediate between the two belligerents was because of the fact that Italy knew that such an offer would be rejected by Japan, and that inasmuch as all of the governments represented, except Italy, had already condemned Japan as a treaty violator, it could hardly have been supposed that Japan would welcome mediation by the powers attending the Conference.

I took this opportunity of saying to the Ambassador that theoretically I could understand the arguments advanced by Italy in favor of this policy, but that I was led to ask whether Italy as a member of the Nine Power Treaty,20 into which it had entered voluntarily as one of the great powers of the world having an interest in the Far East, had now determined to consider as obsolete the agreement upon the maintenance of the integrity of China and those principles [Page 8] of the open door and of the right of equal opportunity for peaceful trading in China on the part of foreign nations upon which the Nine Power Treaty was based. The Ambassador replied, “Certainly not.” I then went on to say that the policy assumed by Italy with regard to the violation by Japan of the provisions of the Nine Power Treaty would lead the average observer to assume that the violation of the Nine Power Treaty provisions by Japan was condoned by Italy. I added that to this Government it would seem that there was no more important principle to be salvaged in modern international relations than the recognition of the sanctity of treaty obligations with the similar recognition that any party to a treaty which considered the provisions of a treaty unduly onerous or obsolete should have the full right to request the other parties to the treaty to consider such facts with the possibility that existing treaty obligations might be modified by the unanimous consent of the parties concerned. The Ambassador replied that in the case of Japan, the Italian Government took cognizance of the fact that Japan was a country increasing very rapidly in population with a physical need for expansion and with a physical need for obtaining the means of livelihood for its nationals. He said that that statement led him to the question of the recognition of Manchukuo. He stated that the action taken by the Italian Government in recognizing the independence of Manchukuo had been taken because of its belief that it was an accomplished fact which could not now be disregarded; that the quiet of the inhabitants of Manchukuo at the outbreak of recent hostilities had made it clear that there was no real opposition on the part of the inhabitants of Manchukuo to their present autonomous form of government, and that inasmuch as Italy knew that Japan would insist as a prerequisite to peace terms with China upon recognition by the latter of the independence of Manchukuo, such action by a great power like Italy before peace negotiations had commenced would probably make it easier for any Chinese government to convince its own nationalistic public sentiment that such action was imperative.

I said to the Ambassador that I had been particularly interested in his reiteration of the attitude of complete neutrality on the part of Italy between China and Japan because of certain rumors which had recently reached me, and that I was now, purely in an individual and personal way, going to mention one of these rumors to him. I said that I had been told that the Italian Government was sending fifty experienced and veteran aviators of the Italian military service with a large number of military planes to Japan to take part in the Japanese aviation service, and that I wondered if the Ambassador knew if there was any truth in this report. The Ambassador looked somewhat confused and said that he did not know of any such report, but [Page 9] that the fact that he was not advised of it did not necessarily mean that it was not true. He said, however, that if the report were true, he could call attention to the fact that the newspapers had printed only recently a story showing that a considerable shipment of Italian munitions and military supplies had been delivered to the Chinese authorities at Canton, and that he saw no reason why, in accordance with its policy, his Government should not sell munitions and military supplies to both sides. I merely remarked that the sending of aviators of the Italian military service as alleged in the report would hardly seem to be on the same footing as the sale of munitions, but I did not pursue the subject.

The Ambassador then brought up the subject of press attacks in the United States press against Italy and the policies of the Italian Government. He said that of course he knew that the press in this country was entirely free and could not be controlled, but that he regretted very much the harmful effect on relations between our two countries which these constant press attacks were creating. I replied that I deplored the effect as much as he did, but that in all candor I must say that it was equally well known that the press in Italy was not free but was responsive to governmental influence and that for that reason the recent diatribes in the Italian press against this Government and the policies of the present Administration were having an even more harmful effect because they so clearly represented the desires of the Italian authorities themselves. I remarked that in my own personal belief there was nothing more helpful towards really friendly and cordial relations between countries than for the respective governments of the world to refrain from criticizing or condemning the purely domestic and internal aspects of the policies of other foreign governments. I stated that the principle of non-intervention and non-interference in other countries, which was a cardinal feature in the foreign policy of this Government, supported my belief in this regard. The Ambassador quickly said that unfortunately high officials of this Government, and in particular Secretary Ickes,21 apparently lost no opportunity of inveighing in the most severe terms against the purely domestic policies of the Italian Government and that obviously both the Italian authorities and Italian public opinion had been greatly concerned by speeches of this character. I replied in turn that it seemed to me that although foreign governments should refrain in every way from appearing to interfere with the domestic policies of other governments, nevertheless, they had every legitimate right to consider and to remark upon the international policies of other governments. To this the Ambassador agreed. I concluded [Page 10] this phase of our conversation by stating that I felt there was very little to be gained and a great deal to be lost by constant press recriminations in one country and then the other, and that I hoped the time might soon come when the particularly friendly feeling which had always existed in this country for Italy and in Italy for the United States might once more become predominant.

I then asked the Ambassador if he could give me any information as to the present situation in Europe and specifically whether any progress had been made in the conversations between Italy and Great Britain. The Ambassador said that he felt in fact that some progress had been made and referred specifically to the agreement on the part of both Governments that they would refrain from radio propaganda to the Arab populations in the Near East and in Northern Africa. He said that he knew that his Government was anxious to undertake and to conclude an agreement with Great Britain as soon as Great Britain was willing to move. At the present time he believed that the British Cabinet was divided into two factions, the one, headed by Mr. Chamberlain,22 urgently desirous of proceeding with these conversations, and the other, headed by Mr. Eden, anxious to postpone them. I asked if he wouldn’t clarify the position of his Government with regard to what it desired to achieve through such conversations. He said that he would very gladly do so.

The Ambassador stated that he was now speaking with the authority of a man who had been for more than three years at the head of the Italian Foreign Office and who had earnestly desired a rapprochement with Great Britain throughout these past three years. He stated that Italy desired the recognition by Great Britain of the Italian Empire, namely, the Italian conquest of Abyssinia. In that connection, he said, there had apparently been very considerable misunderstanding in the United States as to Italy’s position. The Ambassador said that in the treaty of 188923 Italy had been granted an effective protectorate over Abyssinia including among other things the sole right to represent Abyssinian interests abroad. He stated that the defeat of Italy in 1896 at Adowa, which had been solely due to the lack of national spirit in Italy at that time and to her extreme national poverty, had checked what otherwise would have been an accepted fact by all the great powers of Europe, including Great Britain, namely, the domination of Ethiopia as a colony of Italy. He himself mentioned the fact that the action taken in 1935 by Italy24 had been in contravention of her contractual League obligations, but he said [Page 11] that, nevertheless, there was this treaty background which he had mentioned as being in the nature of a justification of a legal character for the conquest.

The Ambassador then went on to define the points which Italy desired to obtain in negotiations with Great Britain. (1) It desired that the Mediterranean be kept open to peaceful trade and commerce. In that connection he said that Great Britain physically could close the Suez Canal, but on the other hand, Italy through fortification of Sicily and the islands adjacent thereto and of the coast of Libya could physically close the middle of the Mediterranean. He said that it should be in the interest of both England and Italy to keep the Mediterranean open and to commit themselves not to attempt to impede navigation in any way or at any time. (2) He stated that Italy had no desire for any further territorial acquisitions in the Mediterranean and that she was now “completely satisfied”. (3) He reiterated the willingness of Italy to guarantee the integrity of Spanish territory, including the Balearic Islands, and the unwillingness of Italy to see any portion of Spanish territory alienated by any power including Italy. (4) He stated that the French colonies in Northern Africa in their present status were entirely acceptable to Italy, and that the present integrity of Egypt was entirely acceptable to Italy. (5) He stated that Italy had no desire to have Great Britain reduce the fortifications which it now possessed in the Mediterranean either in Malta, Cyprus, or Gibraltar, and that Italy was willing to give guarantees on all the above-mentioned points provided the present Italian Empire was recognized by Great Britain.

In response to a remark which I had made that world appeasement, both political and economic-financial, was obviously the great objective towards which the great powers of the world today must strive and that if world appeasement of a major character appeared feasible, this Government, within the limitations of its traditional policy of non-involvement in political entanglements, would of course be prepared to consider what it could do to further such an objective, the Ambassador said that while a bilateral arrangement of the character he had indicated between Great Britain and Italy was indispensable to world appeasement, nevertheless, it was not in itself sufficient. He said that Germany was not satisfied, as Italy was, and that unless Germany could be satisfied, no solid foundations for the “new day” for which he hoped could be laid. I asked him what he considered the essential satisfaction for Germany might be. He replied, “Colonial compensations and commercial and financial assistance through the transition period which would be required before Germany could return to her pre-war status”.

[Page 12]

I asked the Ambassador if he believed that Germany had any further aspirations, specifically in Central Europe or Eastern Europe. The Ambassador answered, “If you mean Austria, I can tell you definitely not.” He said, “Remember that I myself was born an Austrian subject and that the interests of Austria are therefore peculiarly close to my heart. Remember also that in 1934 Mussolini instructed me to come to the rescue of Dollfuss25 at the most critical period in Austria’s post-war history and that the assistance then given by Mussolini to Dollfuss saved the day.” I said, “Am I to understand that your Government considers the independence and integrity of Austria as being an integral part of Italy’s foreign policy?” The Ambassador told me that I could so regard his statement. He went on to say that he felt that conditions in Austria were far more satisfactory than they had been and that the most significant thing that had recently occurred had been the official disavowal by the German Foreign Office of the recent Nazi disturbances in Austria. The Ambassador said that his Government had only recently been reiterating to the German Government its belief that an independent Austria was far more in the interest of Germany than an Austria which was merely a German province both for economic considerations as well as by reason of the fact that an independent Austria on close and friendly terms with Germany would constitute herself a liaison between the Danubian and Balkan states and Germany which was the indicated field for peaceful economic and financial penetration on the part of Germany. I remarked to the Ambassador that, as I had said before, under present conditions rumors of one kind or another were constantly in circulation and that one rumor which was being sedulously repeated was that Germany intended to make some démarche of one kind or another against Austria in the not distant future. The Ambassador said that he was confident that no such move was contemplated, and repeated verbatim that the independence of Austria was a cardinal point in Italian policy.

The Ambassador concluded our conversation by talking for some time on the subject of armaments. He reminded me of Mussolini’s interview to the United Press26 last summer in which he had expressed the hope that the President of the United States might take the lead in checking the increase in armaments and that, while that was not to be considered as an official invitation on the part of the Italian Government, it was nevertheless the sincere expression of Mussolini’s belief. He stated that it was his own intimate conviction that Great [Page 13] Britain would not now agree to accept any move of that character, but that he believed that the British rearmament program should be completed to a reasonable extent by next autumn and that when that time came, he felt that some agreement on armaments by the great powers was within the bounds of possibility. I asked the Ambassador what grounds there could be for any agreement as to the limitation of armaments in a world in which the very basis of international understanding, namely, the conviction that treaty obligations would be respected, was non-existent. The Ambassador replied, “I quite agree with you but if the world can obtain the type of appeasement which we have been discussing, the time will have come to forget the past and to look forward to the future and if an appeasement of a political and economic character, founded on justice, can be obtained, the nations of the world can once more try and agree upon the essential principles upon which a new civilization can be built.”

S[umner] W[elles]
  1. Fulvio Suvich.
  2. See vol. iii, pp. 1 ff.
  3. See Foreign Relations, 1937, vol. i, pp. 605 ff.
  4. See ibid., vol. iv, pp. 1 ff.
  5. Signed at Washington, February 6, 1922, ibid., 1922, vol. i, p. 276.
  6. Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior.
  7. Neville Chamberlain, British Prime Minister.
  8. Treaty of Friendship and Commerce Between the Kingdom of Italy and the Empire of Ethiopia, signed May 2, 1889; British and Foreign State Papers, vol. lxxxi, p. 733.
  9. See Foreign Relations, 1935, vol. i, pp. 662 ff.
  10. Englebert Dollfuss, Austrian Chancellor, 1932–34; three agreements known as the Rome Protocols were concluded between Italy, Austria, and Hungary on March 17, 1934; see League of Nations Treaty Series, vol. cliv, pp. 281, 287, and 297.
  11. See telegram No. 244, May 25, 1937, noon, from the Ambassador in Italy, Foreign Relations, 1937, vol. i, p. 655.