Memorandum of Conversation, by the Under Secretary of State (Welles)
The Argentine Ambassador80 called to see me this afternoon. The Ambassador came to talk to me with regard to the proposal of the Argentine Government communicated in Ambassador Armour’s telegram 112 of April 19, 6 p.m.
Dr. Espil stated that on Saturday he had received a brief cable from his Foreign Minister, Dr. Cantilo, giving him a summary of the proposal and that he had barely read it when Dr. Cantilo called him on the long distance phone asking him what the reaction of this Government might be. He replied that he had not yet had an opportunity to do more than talk with me on the telephone and that I had limited myself to stating that there were many aspects of the proposal which were not clear and that in a matter of such importance very full consideration would have to be given by the President and by the Secretary of State. The Ambassador added that he himself was not at all clear as to what the real objective of his Foreign Minister might be and the Foreign Minister had replied with a great deal of vehemence that he couldn’t understand why it wasn’t entirely clear but that he would follow up his telephone conversation with a full explanatory telegram.
Dr. Espil received this second telegram yesterday and handed me a digest of it of which the following is a translation:
“The American countries are neutral and have even established a zone of security to protect that neutrality, a zone which the belligerents have not recognized and do not respect. Furthermore, in Europe neutral countries are either being invaded or else are on a war footing as a result of the threats of the great powers. Russia, the ally of the Reich, maintains relations with England and France—Denmark is invaded, et cetera. In a word, neutrality does not exist in reality. It creates obligations but it does not offer guarantees. The norms and conventions which we neutrals apply and which we invoke are a dead letter. Meanwhile the European war is assuming proportions and a threat which must necessarily disquiet America.
“I propose that we Americans issue forth from fiction and adapt ourselves to reality and that by common accord we declare that we are ceasing to be neutrals in order to be ‘nonbelligerents’. This signifies, as the case of Italy demonstrates, not to enter into war and to proceed according to one’s own interests. I believe that if we declared in lieu of neutrality a state of non-belligerency that that would have the following advantages:
- “1. It would be a kind of warning in the face of present aggressions.
- “2. It would give us full liberty of action in foreign, as well as internal, policy, freeing us from the restrictions of an illusory and fictitious neutrality.
- “3. Germany could not reproach us if we assumed a position which she accepts on the part of her ally, Italy.
- “4. The Allies would see with pleasure an act which is favorable to them because it would permit any eventual aid to their cause.
“In the circumstances of the existing war the American countries placed under the régime of neutrality are accepting a fiction which diminishes their moral stature. I believe decidedly that the moment has come when America should place herself within the bounds of reality, and I think that the gesture which I suggest would be beneficial both for America and for the world.”
I stated to the Ambassador that the telegram which he had now been good enough to give me clarified certain questions in my mind since I had not been able, up to now, to see with any precision what the precise objectives sought by his Foreign Minister might be. I added that I would submit this message to the Secretary of State and to the President for their information and that as soon as a definite reply had been determined upon by this Government, I would see that the Ambassador received it in writing and that a similar message would be sent to Ambassador Armour in Buenos Aires for communication to the Argentine Foreign Minister. I said, therefore, that for the moment I had no further official statement to make, but that I would be glad to discuss with the Ambassador, in an entirely unofficial and personal way, my own reaction to the proposal.
I said that the Ambassador had been in the United States so many years and knew public opinion in this country so well that I felt sure he would immediately recognize what the reaction on the part of the people of the United States would be if the Government of the United States adopted the policy suggested by the Argentine Foreign Minister. I said I was sure he would realize that such a step would inevitably be regarded by an immense majority of public opinion in the United States as an abandonment of neutrality in all that that term implied by the United States and as a clear evidence that this country was moving rapidly towards involvement in the European war. I said that this, of course, was a domestic problem which could not be dealt with in any official communication to the Argentine Government, but that I thought the Ambassador must realize this for himself.
Secondly, I said, it seemed to me that what in essence Dr. Cantilo proposed was a complete abandonment on the part of all of the American Republics of the agreements reached at the meeting of Panama in September 1939.81 At that time, I stated, the American Republics had [Page 747] unanimously declared their neutrality, had agreed upon a common point of view with regard to the observance of their rights and obligations as neutrals and had in many declarations adopted at that meeting stated their conviction that this common continental policy was in the interest of their own security and in the interest of their own non-involvement in war. I could not, I said, understand what possible advantage the American Republics would derive from such a course. Up to the present moment I had not known of any incidents where the course of procedure there decided upon had resulted in disadvantage or in difficulties by any American Republic.
Thirdly, I said, the American Republics constituted the one remaining portion of the civilized world which stood for, which upheld and which practiced the standards of international law which were being openly violated in every other part of the world. What Dr. Cantilo suggested, I said, seemed to me to be tantamount to a declaration now on the part of the American Republics that they were going to join those nations of the world which were violating international law by refusing any longer to uphold those principles upon which their modern civilization was founded. I said it seemed to me that any such course would result in the most serious blow to decent and orderly international relations that could well be conceived.
Fourthly, I said that as a result of the conferences of Buenos Aires, of Lima and of Panama a complete and most gratifying unanimity of criterion had grown up on the part of all of the American Republics. For the first time after Panama we were adopting a common policy with regard to the situation confronting all of us as a result of the war in Europe and in the Far East. Now what was proposed by Dr. Cantilo was that all of the American Republics reverse their course, abrogate their agreements to adopt such common policy and proceed helter-skelter along the uncharted road of “non-belligerency”. If this course were pursued, it seemed to me inevitable that the Government of Argentina would construe “non-belligerency” as meaning one thing, the Government of Chile something completely different and every other government as something again distinct. I said that I did not believe that more than two months would pass, should we follow the course presented by Dr. Cantilo, before the most serious and grave difficulties would arise in inter-American relations due solely to such divergencies of opinions and of policies, in the shaping of which non-American powers would undoubtedly play a very gravely considerable part.
Fifthly and finally, I said that if the term “non-belligerency” meant anything at all, it implied that Italy had an understanding or an alliance with Germany but was not, at least at this moment, taking part in actual hostilities, although always with the very definite threat that [Page 748] Italy might take part in the existing hostilities on the side of Germany at any given moment. I said that certainly that situation did not apply to any American Republic. None of them had alliances with belligerent powers and I consequently was unable to apprehend the reasons why any American Republic should adopt as its course of conduct a policy which was being followed by an ally of a belligerent in Europe.
I reiterated to the Ambassador that these were entirely personal reflections and that he could be quite sure that this Government would, in the most friendly spirit, study every aspect of the proposal presented by the Argentine Government and in its reply would make clear to the Argentine Government that it appreciated the friendly spirit in which we had been consulted by Argentina.