Foreign Relations of the United States Diplomatic Papers, 1940, General, Volume I
740.0011 European War 1939/1597
The Panamanian Minister for Foreign Affairs ( Garay ) to the Secretary of State
[Received February 1.]
Mr. Secretary: For Your Excellency’s information, I have the honor to transmit to you an authenticated copy of the notes from His Britannic Majesty’s Minister and from the Chargé d’Affaires of France, forwarding the replies of the Governments of Great Britain and France to the cablegrams which the President of Panama, in behalf of the 21 American Republics, sent to His Majesty King George VI and to the President of the French Republic, in connection with the encounter between naval forces of the British and German belligerents which occurred on December 13, 1939, within the Security Zone decided upon at the Consultative Meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the American Republics, held toward the end of last year in this city.
I take [etc.]
The British Minister in Panama ( Dodd ) to the Panamanian Minister for Foreign Affairs ( Garay )
Monsieur le Ministre: On December 23rd the Acting President of the Republic of Panama communicated to His Majesty The King the text of a document agreed upon unanimously by the 21 American Republics in connection with the recent encounter in the South Atlantic [Page 690] between certain of His Majesty’s Ships and the German warship Admiral Graf Spee. On December 27th His Majesty formally acknowledged the receipt of this document, stating that, in accordance with constitutional practice, he had referred it for the consideration of his responsible Ministers.
I now have the honour, under instructions from His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, to communicate to Your Excellency the enclosed statement on behalf of His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom and to request that Your Excellency will be good enough to communicate it to the other Pan-American Governments.
I have [etc.]
Statement on Behalf of the British Government
His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom have devoted most careful consideration to the communication agreed upon unanimously by the 21 American Republics, the text of which was telegraphed to His Majesty The King by the Acting President of Panama on December 23rd last. In that communication reference was made, among other matters, to the recent naval action between British and German warships in the South Atlantic and to the maritime security zone described in the Declaration of Panama of October 3rd, 1939.
His Majesty’s Government, who themselves so long strove to prevent war, fully appreciate the desire of the American Republics to keep the war away from the shores of the American Continent. It was therefore not merely with interest but with understanding that His Majesty’s Government learned of the maritime security zone proposal. His Majesty’s Government noted with satisfaction from the Declaration of Panama itself that the attempt would be made to base the observance of its provisions upon the consent of the belligerents. This fresh expression of adherence to the idea of solving international difficulties by mutual discussion, which has always been upheld by the American Republics, confirmed His Majesty’s Government’s belief that these Powers would not attempt to enforce observance of the zone by unilateral action and encouraged their hope that it would be possible to give effect by means of negotiation to the intentions which inspired it.
It was in this spirit that His Majesty’s Government were examining the proposal of the Conference of Panama at the time when the communication of December 23rd was received. In view of this communication His Majesty’s Government desire to draw the attention of the American Republics to the following considerations: It will [Page 691] be apparent, in the first place, that the proposal, involving as it does the abandonment by the belligerents of certain legitimate belligerent rights, is not one which on any basis of International Law can be imposed upon them by unilateral action, and that its adoption requires their specific assent. The acceptance by His Majesty’s Government of the suggestion that the belligerents should forego their rights in the zone must clearly be dependent upon their being assured that the adoption of the zone proposal would not provide German warships and supply ships with a vast sanctuary from which they could emerge to attack Allied and neutral shipping and to which they could return to avoid being brought to action, and in which some un-neutral service might be performed by non-German ships, for example by the use of wireless communications. It would also be necessary to ensure that German warships and supply ships would not be enabled to pass with impunity from one ocean to another through the zone, or German merchant ships to take part in Inter-American trade and earn foreign exchange, which might be used in attempts to promote subversion and sabotage abroad and to procure supplies for the prolongation of the war, thus depriving the Allies of the fruits of their superiority at sea. Moreover, the acceptance of the zone proposals would have to be on the basis that it should not constitute a precedent for a far-reaching alteration in the existing laws of maritime neutrality.
Unless these points are adequately safeguarded, the zone proposals might only lead to the accumulation of belligerent ships in the zone. This in turn might well bring the risk of war nearer to the American States and lead to friction between on the one hand the Allies, pursuing their legitimate belligerent activities, and on the other, the American Republics endeavouring to make this new policy prevail.
The risk of such friction, which His Majesty’s Government would be the first to deplore, would be increased by the application of sanctions. His Majesty’s Government must emphatically repudiate any suggestion that His Majesty’s Ships have acted, or would act, in any way that would justify the adoption by neutrals of punitive measures which do not spring from the accepted canons of neutral rights and obligations. If, therefore, the American States were to adopt a scheme of sanctions for the enforcement of the zone proposal, they would, in effect, be offering a sanctuary to German warships, within which His Majesty’s Ships would be confronted with the invidious choice of having either to refrain from engaging their enemy or laying themselves open to penalties in American ports and waters.
Up to the present it does not appear that means have been found by which the disadvantages of the zone proposal could be eliminated. That this is the case was shown by the operations in the zone of the warship Admiral Graf Spee and the supply ship Tacoma.[Page 692]
With regard to the specific incidents of which mention is made in the communication under reply, His Majesty’s Government must observe that the legitimate activities of His Majesty’s Ships can in no way imperil, but must rather contribute to the security of the American Continent, the protection of which was the object of the framers of the Declaration of Panama. His Majesty’s Government cannot admit that there is any foundation for a claim that such activities have in any way exposed them to justifiable reproach, seeing that the zone proposal has not been made effective and belligerent assent has not yet been given to its operation.
In view of the difficulties described above, it appears to His Majesty’s Government that the only effective method of achieving the American object of preventing belligerent acts within the zone would be, firstly, to ensure that the German Government would send no more warships into it. Secondly, there are obvious difficulties in applying the zone proposal at this stage of the war when so much German shipping has already taken refuge in American waters. If the Allies are to be asked to forego the opportunity of capturing these vessels, it would also seem to be necessary that they should be laid up under Pan-American control for the duration of the war.
In the view of His Majesty’s Government it would only be by means such as those indicated that the wish of the American Governments to keep war away from their coasts could be realised in a truly effective and equitable manner. Until His Majesty’s Government are able to feel assured that the scheme will operate satisfactorily, they must, anxious as they are for the fulfilment of American hopes, necessarily reserve their full belligerent rights in order to fight the menace presented by German action and policy and to defend that conception of law and that way of life, which they believe to be as dear to the peoples and Governments of America as they are to the peoples and Governments of the British Commonwealth of Nations.
The French Chargé in Panama ( De la Blanchetai ) to the Panamanian Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Communications ( Garay )
Mr. Secretary: As Your Excellency knows, on December 23rd last, His Excellency Mr. Augusto S. Boyd, Acting President of the Republic of Panama, sent to the President of the French Republic the text of a note the terms of which had been drawn up in common accord by the twenty-one American Republics, regarding a naval action that had taken place between English and German warships close to [Page 693] the coast of Uruguay. On January 4th, Mr. Albert Lebrun acknowledged receipt of the communication in question, indicating that the French Government would submit to a thorough examination the problems raised by the American Republics, problems with regard to which it reserved its stand.
By order of my Government, I have the honor to send to Your Excellency, under this cover, the response of Mr. Daladier,23a requesting you to be good enough to communicate it to the American Republics which signed the Declaration of Panama.
I take [etc.]
Statement on Behalf of the French Government
The Government of the French Republic has examined with attention the communication which the Acting President of the Republic of Panama was good enough to address to the President of the French Republic on December 23rd last, following a unanimous agreement among the twenty-one American Republics. This note referred to a naval action that had taken place between British and German warships after the Admiral Graf Spee had attempted to come up with the French merchant vessel Formose for the purpose of destroying it.
- This communication referred to the desire manifested by the American Republics in the Declaration of Panama to keep the war away from the coasts of the American continent. The Government of the Republic, which strove for a long time to avoid war, fully appreciates the desire of the American Republics, and has examined in the most sympathetic spirit their proposal aiming at the establishment of a zone of maritime security. It interprets the steps taken in the name of the American Governments both on December 23rd and also by the preceding communication of the Declaration of Panama as implying that in the minds of those Governments the constitution of such a zone, involving a renunciation by the belligerent states of the exercise, over wide areas, of rights well established by international custom, could result only from an agreement among all the states interested.
- The recent occurrences to which the communication addressed to the Government of the French Republic in the name of the American Republics refers illustrate very plainly the situation which is to be regulated. These facts arise from the attempt of the Admiral Graf Spee to attack and destroy, within the zone of maritime security, the French merchant vessel Formose. It is evident that under the conditions of the present war such attempts on the part of the Germans can have no effect on the outcome of this war. It is no less clear that [Page 694] if such acts are committed or attempted it is the strict right of France and Great Britain to oppose this in good time by a counter-attack and that they cannot be asked to renounce this right. It follows that, if the maritime security zone is to become a reality, as the American Governments desire, it is necessary for the latter to furnish the Government of the Republic with satisfactory assurance that the German Government will no longer send warships or supply ships into that zone.
- The incontestable superiority that France and Great Britain have over Germany in the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans has had the result that numerous German merchant vessels normally have no other resource for escaping the legitimate exercise of the right of taking prizes than to seek refuge in American ports. The institution of the zone of protection could not have the effect of releasing them and of thus depriving the Allies of advantages for them arising out of their naval superiority over Germany. It would therefore have to include, on the part of each American Government, effective measures adapted to hold in its ports the German ships which have taken refuge there.
- The American Governments do not appear to contemplate assuming the responsibility of insuring within the wide areas which would constitute the zone of protection the suppression of acts of aid to the enemy (un-neutral service). The possibility of such acts is so great, thanks in particular to radio communications, that naval forces could not be deprived of the right of preventing them and repressing them to the full extent permitted by international law.
- These are the bases on which, if the American Governments cause them to be accepted by all the belligerent states, there must, in the opinion of the Government of the Republic, be sought the accomplishment of the aims pursued by the American Republics.
- The Government of the Republic is not unaware that because of the novelty of the procedure and the extent of the zone, differences of opinion may arise over concrete cases. At least, they can be easily discussed through diplomatic channels if, in application as well as in theory, an effort is made to follow the method of free discussion and reciprocal agreement. On the other hand, there would be danger of provoking regrettable friction by proceeding unilaterally, departing from the habitual practice of nations. Such friction would be particularly serious if it proceeded from punative measures against ships that had done nothing contrary to international law. To refuse, in a case of this kind, refuge, transit or refueling to a warship would contrast badly with the line of conduct adopted by the Government of Uruguay with regard to the Admiral Graf Spee.
- The Government of the Republic hopes that by thus setting forth its sentiments it will have contributed to the putting into practice of the views by which the twenty-one American Republics have [Page 695] been inspired. At the same time, it anticipates that the latter will recognize that as long as an agreement is not reached on the bases described above, the Government of the Republic retains the full exercise of its rights as a belligerent, which are founded on international law and which must permit it to safeguard the principles of law and the concept of life which it shares with the Governments and the peoples of America.