The Under Secretary of State ( Welles ) to President Roosevelt

My Dear Mr. President: I am enclosing a memorandum of a conversation I had with the British Ambassador yesterday evening. I think that whatever misapprehension existed in the mind of Lord Halifax21 has now been cleared up as a result of a cable which Sir Ronald said he would send him last night. In view of the importance of the rest of the message, I thought you would probably want to read this memorandum.

Faithfully yours,

Sumner Welles

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

The British Ambassador called to see me late yesterday evening. He had been instructed by telegram from Lord Halifax to convey a message22 to this Government which he then communicated to me.

The message the Ambassador was instructed to communicate to me commenced with the statement that Lord Halifax was very much gratified to know that the President and the Government of the United States considered the procedure of the British Government in its efforts to find a political appeasement “to be right” and that the new British Foreign Secretary was encouraged in the thought that in its effort the British Government had the sympathy of the United States.

At this point I interjected to say to the Ambassador that I assumed that this message was the result of a telegram which the Ambassador had probably sent after his conversation with me of March 323 and that it was not the result of any statement made to the Ambassador by the President or by the Secretary of State directly. The Ambassador said that I was correct in that belief. I then said that I felt it necessary in the most friendly way to make it clear that I had never indicated in our previous conversation that the President or any responsible officials of this Government had undertaken to determine or much less to say to the British Government that they considered its procedure “to be right”. I had said that this Government was, of [Page 127] course, adopting an attitude of contemplation and that it hoped that the British Government in its endeavor to find a solid foundation for a political appeasement in Europe would meet with a complete measure of success. I said that as the Ambassador knew from his knowledge of the proposal which the President had had under consideration for some time that the President frankly recognized that certain political appeasements in Europe with which this Government had no direct concern and in which this Government could not participate were evidently an indispensable factor in the finding of bases for world peace; that in that sense and in that spirit I had said to the Ambassador that this Government trusted the negotiations for these political appeasements would prove completely successful, but that I wanted to make it very clear that this Government had not attempted to pass upon the methods of approach determined upon by Mr. Chamberlain nor in any other way to offer advice or counsel as to the manner in which the negotiations were being conducted.

The Ambassador frankly admitted that he had probably over emphasized what I had said to him in our previous conversation and that Lord Halifax in turn had over emphasized what the Ambassador had communicated to him. The Ambassador said that he himself had been so deeply concerned by the attitude of the American press with regard to Mr. Chamberlain’s policies and by the distortion of the real issues involved in the conflict which had arisen between Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Eden that he had been particularly gratified to know from his conversation with me that the Government here was viewing the question dispassionately and objectively, and was regarding the ultimate objectives sought by Mr. Chamberlain as that which they in fact were—the desire to find through peaceful negotiation a settlement of political disputes in Europe so that the world might return to a condition of normality. He stated that I had no conception of the number or the nature of the letters which he had been receiving from private American citizens inveighing against the present policy of his Government and alleging that the British Government was now endeavoring to bolster up the European dictatorships. The Ambassador remarked, “It is not that we like the dictators nor that we want to associate ourselves with them, but since we are confronted with a world in which there are dictators, we have reached the conclusion that the only thing to do in order to prevent war is to try and find a basis for peaceful understanding with them”.

The Ambassador then went on to give me the rest of the message from Lord Halifax. Lord Halifax said that the British Government was compelled to tackle their European problem piecemeal and that they had commenced with Italy because the rapid and continuing deterioration of relations between Italy and Great Britain was becoming [Page 128] increasingly serious and the British Government hoped that restoration of confidence and friendship between Italy and England might produce a satisfactory and lasting appeasement in the Mediterranean and adjoining regions. He went on to reiterate what Sir Ronald Lindsay had communicated to me in an earlier conversation, namely, that the British Ambassador in Berlin had been instructed to see Hitler on March 3 and that as a result of that conference the British Government hoped to be able to appraise the prospects of advance in that quarter in order to devise a measure of appeasement in Central and Eastern Europe. The British Foreign Secretary emphasized the fact that both negotiations would be attended by many difficulties but that if these “regional agreements” could be secured, he hoped that any danger of conflict could be avoided at least for a period.

At the conclusion of the communication which Sir Ronald Lindsay was instructed to make, Lord Halifax mentioned his belief that in order to secure any real and lasting betterment of the situation it would undoubtedly be necessary to try and obtain some scheme of general cooperation in Europe not only political, but likewise economic, and said that if the United States Government could at any time see its way to assisting or encouraging such a development, that would undoubtedly be of the greatest value. For that reason Lord Halifax again desired to inform this Government fully of the progress of the British negotiations so that the United States could, should it so desire, offer advice or criticism as to the progress of the negotiations and so that the President could, should he be so disposed, determine whether at any point it might be opportune for him to take “independent but correlated action”. The message concluded with the expression of the hope that should the President at any time determine that it was desirable for him to take such “independent but correlated action”, the British Government might be advised beforehand of such intention on the part of the President.

I asked the Ambassador if he had any instructions which would make it possible for him to clarify exactly what the British Government had in mind in the latter part of Lord Halifax’s message. I reminded the Ambassador that the President had made it emphatically clear that this Government did not intend to participate in any way in the questions of European political appeasement and that the only initiative which the President had contemplated was that concerning which the British Government had been fully informed. I said that for the time being the President had determined to hold that initiative in abeyance as the British Government had already been advised and that as the Ambassador had been informed, the British Government would be informed should the President at some subsequent date [Page 129] determine that it was desirable to take any action of the kind which he had previously contemplated.

The Ambassador said that he had no instructions whatever in clarification of the points concerning which I inquired. He said that to him the meaning was very clear and that was that if the political appeasements which the British Government was now seeking were successfully concluded, undoubtedly economic and financial measures would have to be determined upon as supplements and complements to the political appeasements. He said that of course both Germany and Italy, if they decided to move outside of their present autarchic system as a result of satisfactory political adjustments, would find themselves in a very difficult transitional state, both commercially and financially, and that the British Government hoped that the other great powers of the world who were seeking to further peace would then consider how they individually might help in the restoration of normal commercial and financial relationships. He said that up to the present time, in the judgment of his Government, the only constructive program which had been put forward during the past five years had been the Hull trade agreements program and the existence, or rather the continuation and enlargement of the scope of that program, would in the opinion of the British Government be the most effective way that had yet been devised of assisting Italy and Germany through the transition period back to normal relationships with the other powers of the world. I reminded the Ambassador that it apparently had taken the British Government a good many years to comprehend the truth of what he was now saying to me but that, of course, it was clear that if the British Government desired the effective cooperation of the United States through the trade agreement program, the British Government’s own sincere and wholehearted support of that program, particularly after the conclusion of the British-American trade agreement,24 would necessarily be all important. I further said to the Ambassador that the President’s plan had obviously taken the factors which the Ambassador had mentioned to me specifically into account in as much as one of the points which the President would have indicated he was willing to consult other nations upon was the devising of methods for the freeing of restrictions upon trade between nations and the most effective manner of promoting an opportunity for all nations to participate in the processes of world trade on a basis of equality of treatment.

In concluding this part of our conversation I said to the Ambassador that it seemed to me exceptionally important that there be not the shadow of misapprehension on the part of the British Foreign Office of the attitude of this Government nor as to the limits of activity beyond [Page 130] which this Government could not and would not go. I said that I appreciated and I was sure the President and the Secretary of State would appreciate the particularly friendly nature of Lord Halifax’s message but that I wished to assure myself that the precise position of this Government was clearly understood by Lord Halifax. The Ambassador repeated that if there was any misapprehension it was undoubtedly due to the way in which his earlier telegram to Lord Halifax had been worded and that he would see that there was no further misunderstanding even with regard “to the shading or interpretation” of words.

The Ambassador then spent a short time in discussing the situation with regard to the incidents which had arisen in connection with Canton Island and the other Pacific islands.25 He said that he had just received a cable which he would communicate to the Department in writing today indicating that the British proposals would be made in the immediate future so as to provide a solution of this difficulty. I asked when these proposals were expected and he said that he did not know and that any delay that might ensue would be due solely to the intransigent attitude of the Australian and New Zealand Governments. He told me that he had acted as quickly as he possibly could in communicating with the Governor of Fiji so as to avoid the possibility of any physical difficulty when the American colonists arrived at the islands and that he thought he had acted just in time but that one never knew what New Zealanders might do when confronted with a situation of this character.

S[umner] W[elles]
  1. Successor to Anthony Eden as British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, March 1, 1938.
  2. Text not printed.
  3. See memorandum by the Under Secretary of State, March 3, p. 31.
  4. See vol. ii, pp. 1 ff.
  5. See vol. ii, pp. 77 ff.