740.00111 A.R./741½

Memorandum of Conversation, by the Acting Secretary of State

The British Ambassador3 called to see me this morning by appointment in order to have our first preliminary exchange of views with regard to the attitude of the British Government concerning the Declaration of Panama.

I told the Ambassador that a digest had been made of the salient points in the communications sent on October 5 by Mr. Winston Churchill and Admiral Phillips to Ambassador Kennedy in London,4 and that I would read to him these points together with the opinion of this Government regarding each of the points listed:


Point 1: “… If America requests all belligerents to comply, we should immediately declare that we would respect your wishes.”

Answer: At the time the declaration was approved by the Conferference, a resolution was adopted requesting the President of the Republic of Panama to transmit the declaration to the belligerent governments involved in the present war in Europe in the name of all the Republics of America. This was done on October 4, 1939, and is to be considered as a communication not only from this Government but from all the other American Republics. It is, of course, the wish and expectation of this Government that all belligerents shall respect the declaration.

Point 2: “General questions of international law would of course remain unprejudiced.”

Answer: It was not the purpose of the American Republics in adopting the declaration to prejudice international law but rather it was their purpose, as a practical matter, to assert first, that as long as they maintained their neutrality, the war in Europe, in which they were not involved, should not jeopardize their rights to self-protection nor interfere with or destroy normal relations between them; and second, that belligerent activities undertaken by the European powers should not take place within waters adjacent to the American continent which embrace normal inter-American maritime communications. We do not consider that this is to be regarded as prejudicial to international law, and that Mr. Churchill’s statement is in the nature of a reservation.

Point 3: “More difficulty arises about surface ships, because if a raider operates from or takes refuge in the American zone, we should have to be protected or allowed to protect ourselves.”

Answer: It is, of course, the purpose of the American Republics that the zone be respected by all belligerents and, hence, that belligerent operations by raiders within the zone no less than operations [Page 88]by any other vessel will not be permitted. In case the zone is not respected, the matter will become the subject of consultation between the American Republics.

Point 4: “We do not mind how far south the prohibited zone goes, provided that it is effectively maintained. We should have great difficulty in accepting a zone which was only policed by some weak neutral. But of course if the American navy takes care of it, that is all right.”

Answer: The zone extends south to 58° south latitude and applies to both sides of the continent. It is the purpose of the governments whenever they may determine that the need therefor exists, to patrol either individually or collectively as may be agreed upon by common consent, and in so far as the means and resources of each may permit, the waters adjacent to their coasts within the area defined in the declaration. The United States cannot, of course, give assurances that the American Navy alone will patrol the entire area but it is expected that the United States Navy will participate whenever necessary in any patrol that may be undertaken.


The points raised by Admiral Phillips might be answered as follows:

Point 1: “From the point of view of international law, it would obviously be necessary to make it clear that British assent to the proposal was not any precedent and did not imply a recognition of a right on the part of a neutral to exclude belligerents from operating anywhere on the high seas (i. e. outside the three mile limit).”

Answer: The United States perceives no objection to the adoption of such an attitude by the British Government, but it perceives no good reason why belligerent operations should be conducted in waters adjacent to the American continent to the great danger of the neutral American countries which, while maintaining positions of neutrality, are of right entitled to pursue their normal peacetime trade and commerce in waters adjacent to their shores.

Point 2: “It would naturally be necessary for belligerent forces to have free access to their own or allied territory and territorial waters within the zone.”

Answer: The second paragraph of Point 1 of the declaration makes specific exception for territorial waters of Canada and of the undisputed colonies and possessions of European countries within the limits of the described zone.

Point 3: “It would be a fundamental part of the scheme that it should be effective, i. e., not only that enemy action against territory, forces or shipping should be prevented, but also that the use of the area as a sanctuary in which raiders or supply ships might take refuge should be prevented.”

Answer: The purpose of the declaration is to prevent all hostile acts by any non-American belligerent nation. This would preclude the use or the area as a sanctuary or place of refuge. It is expected that through consultative collaboration the plan should be placed in as [Page 89]fully effective operation as is possible to the end that hostile acts by any belligerent would be repressed and that there would be full enforcement of the obligations of neutral American states with respect to assistance in any manner to raiders by use of supply ships or otherwise, so as to preserve the area free from unneutral activity.

Point 4: “The extent of the zone to be finally accepted would presumably be linked up with the possibilities of effective enforcement.”

Answer: The declaration does not contemplate specific acceptance by belligerent nations but rather compliance by them with its purposes, namely, to refrain from the commission of any hostile act within the area. The zone has been delimited in the declaration. It is this zone that the American Republics expect the belligerents to respect. The question of effective enforcement will not arise unless some belligerent fails to respect it, in which event the measures to be adopted will be decided after consultation.

Point 5: “The conversion of belligerent merchant ships into warships in ports within the zone would presumably be prevented.”

Answer: Naturally such acts being in contravention of the neutrality of the American Republics will be prevented. A specific provision on this question is contained in paragraph 3 (c) of the General Declaration of Neutrality of the American Republics, approved October 3, 1939,5 wherein the American Republics resolve to prevent on their respective territories the fitting out, arming, or augmenting of the forces or armament of any ship or vessel to be employed in the services of one of the belligerents.

Point 6: “It would naturally be necessary that a belligerent should retain the right to continue a pursuit of the forces of his enemy into that area, because otherwise the existence of the zone might frequently enable a raider to escape destruction and subsequently emerge from the zone to recommence raiding in some other area.”

Answer: This Government does not consider that legitimate hot pursuit begun outside the area and continued in the area would be in contravention of the purposes of the declaration.

Point 7: “We should of course hope to obtain any information concerning the movements of enemy forces within the area since otherwise the operation of the scheme would greatly reduce the possibilities of obtaining such information for ourselves.”

Answer: It can hardly be expected that the American Republics would give to one belligerent information regarding operations within the area of the vessels of another belligerent except to the extent that such information might be obtained from public announcements made by one or more of the American Republics at the time. To communicate information to an opposing belligerent would place the American Republics in the position of compromising their neutrality.

Point 8: “… enemy merchant ships … because the number now interned in various American ports might presumably, under the [Page 90]safety given by the scheme, resume trading on the American continent, so earning considerable quantities of foreign currency. Such trading would presumably in any case not be allowed unless the Germans themselves had accepted the scheme and respected it.”

Answer: There has been no decision by the American Republics or, so far as this Government is informed, by any one of them, concerning the action to be taken with respect to belligerent merchant vessels in ports of the American Republics. It is to be supposed that if such vessels are allowed to trade between ports of the American Republics they will be permitted to do so only on condition of strict observance of the neutrality of the American Republics and with proper respect to the neutrality of the area in question, and on condition that their governments shall likewise respect the neutrality of the area.

The Ambassador requested clarification of certain of the opinions of this Government as I read them to him, but although he had received voluminous instructions, which he had with him, he raised no points of any significance in addition to those contained in Mr. Churchill’s communications.

The Ambassador requested my interpretation of Point 1 of Mr. Churchill’s memorandum, and I stated that it seemed to me that it was hardly appropriate for me to undertake to interpret what seemed to be a very clear and concise statement of the British First Lord of the Admiralty. I said that it seemed that there could only be one interpretation given, namely, that the British Government signified its intention to respect the provisions of the Declaration of Panamá provided the other belligerents likewise undertook to respect the terms of the declaration. The Ambassador stated that he had not yet received from his Government copies of the Churchill communications and that his instructions did not go so far as the assertion contained in Point 1 of Mr. Churchill’s memorandum.

With regard to the final point, namely, the question of German merchant vessels which had taken refuge in ports of the American Republics, the Ambassador read to me a memorandum sent to him by his Government, of which he promised to furnish me a copy and which copy is attached herewith.6 I inquired in this connection what the attitude of the British Government would be in the event that some American government, which had owing to it a considerable volume of blocked marks in Germany which it could not utilize and which it could not take out of Germany in the form of goods, determined to take over German merchant vessels in its ports as payment for such amounts owing to it. The Ambassador replied that he would assume that if such action were taken unilaterally the British Government would respect the transfer of flag resulting from such action, but [Page 91]that he would inquire of his Government what their definitive opinion might be and give me a reply accordingly.

S[umner] W[elles]
  1. The Marquess of Lothian.
  2. See telegram supra.
  3. See Report of the Delegate of the United States of America to the Meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the American Republics Held at Panamá September 23–October 3, 1939, p. 54.
  4. A notation at the bottom of the page reads: “12–22–39. Memo not yet received.”