Memorandum by the Assistant Chief of the Division of European Affairs (Hickerson) to the Secretary of State
The Maritime Commission has authority, under our basic legislation, to dispose of laid-up American ships. This legislation requires that before proceeding with the sale of laid-up ships the Maritime Commission obtain clearance from the Navy Department insofar as national defense is concerned.
The Maritime Commission received, a few days ago, an inquiry concerning the possibility of the purchase of four laid-up vessels—the America, the George Washington? the Montecello, and the Mount Vernon. These vessels are all former German vessels which were seized by the United States during the World War. The vessels were built at various times between 1903 and 1909, and all of them are now more than thirty years old. The Montecello and the Mount Vernon were operated as United States transports during the War, and were not reconditioned as passenger boats; these vessels are now in the condition in which they were when they were laid up in 1924 for the Montecello and 1921 for the Mount Vernon. The America and the George Washington were reconditioned and operated after the War as passenger vessels. They were laid up finally in 1931.
The Maritime Commission has reached the conclusion that these four vessels are without value as commercial vessels, and they have obtained an informal opinion from the Navy Department to the effect that the Navy has no objection to the sale of these vessels from the standpoint of national defense. Mr. Morse of the Maritime Commission stated that he would like to receive an informal intimation from this Department that we perceived no objection to the Maritime Commissions proceeding with the sale of these four vessels in accordance with existing legislation. He went on to say that he understood that the inquiry which was made concerning these vessels, while made by private broker, indicated that if the vessels were sold to this broker they would ultimately wind up in England after the vessels had been placed in condition to navigate the Atlantic. I told Mr. Morse that we would consider this matter and place the facts before our superiors in the Department.
As you know, the existing embargo contains no reference to the exportation to belligerents of commercial vessels. These laid-up vessels are clearly commercial vessels, and would, in my opinion, be wholly unsuited to any military use whatever. I recommend that you authorize us to tell the Maritime Commission orally that this Department perceives no objection to the sale of these four vessels by the Maritime Commission in accordance with the legislation governing such sales.