740.00111A Combat Areas/233

Memorandum of Conversation, by Mr. Robert B. Stewart of the Division of European Affairs

  • British representatives:
    • Mr. Ashton-Gwatkin
    • Mr. Helm
    • Mr. Reid-Adam
    • Mr. Butler
  • French representatives:
    • Professor Rist
    • Mr. Dumaine
  • Canadian representatives:
    • The Honorable Loring Christie
    • Mr. Macdonnell
  • State Department representatives:
    • Mr. Hickerson
    • Mr. Stewart

Following the discussion of Britain’s blockade of German exports (see separate memorandum of Le)46 Mr. Butler, Mr. Christie and Mr. Macdonnell joined the group which then took up the question of a contraband control base in Canada. Mr. Ashton-Gwatkin opened the discussion on this topic by saying that the control base question was becoming a rather difficult and complicated one. Two ports—St. John, New Brunswick, and Halifax, Nova Scotia—which seemed best suited to the British appeared to be objectionable from the point of view of the United States. St. John’s, Newfoundland, and Sydney, Nova Scotia, which have also been considered, were less desirable because of ice and fog. Their use, moreover, would result in taking ships into the convoy route.

Mr. Hickerson said that he understood that Sydney is ice-bound at the present time and asked whether this were correct. Mr. Christie replied that Sydney was not really ice-bound but that there are at certain times, as at present, a certain amount of ice in the harbor which makes navigation somewhat difficult. However, only twenty-five miles from Sydney there is the port of Louisburg which is not troubled by ice.

On the general question of establishing a control base Mr. Hickerson said that, subject to all the reservations which we have made regarding interference with American ships and their diversion into belligerent ports, there are three ports which from our point of view are in the same category as “least objectionable”—St. John’s, Newfoundland; Sydney, Nova Scotia; and Louisburg, Nova Scotia. Mr. Christie observed that it really came down to two ports since, if Sydney should be chosen, Louisburg would be used only as a subsidiary or alternative port when Sydney is not clear of ice.

Mr. Hickerson said that with regard to the difficulty of crossing the convoy route Louisburg and Sydney seemed to him to be neither more nor less objectionable than the other ports because ships going to Bergen would have to cross the convoy route somewhere anyway and he saw no reason why they should not just as well cross it near this side of the Atlantic. With the navicert and holdback system operating effectively there would be little necessity for ships actually to go in. The threat of taking ships in would accomplish the British purpose just as well as actually taking them in.

Mr. Butler said he was afraid it would be necessary to take the ships in for the purpose of checking the cargo against navicerts. Also, his government would want to check the ships’ stores. Mr. [Page 45] Hickerson said that if the whole cargo were navicerted, it was his understanding that there would be a ship navicert. The last Moore-McCormack ship that sailed, he believed, had about sixty percent of its cargo navicerted. The rest was covered by holdback guarantees. In cases like this, if there are no mails or passengers, he could see no reason whatsoever for taking these ships in. Mr. Helm said that if the percentage of navicerted cargo should reach, say, ninety percent or more then they might find it less necessary to take ships in.

Professor Rist asked whether it would be possible for us to bring pressure of some kind to increase the percentage of navicerted cargo. Mr. Hickerson answered that this was a difficult proposition. He mentioned the 1916 law47 under which vessels may be denied clearance if they refuse to accept cargo when space is available. This law, he added, is discretionary and its application rests with the Secretary of the Treasury. If we reach some understanding on the operation of the navicert system, the American Government would not take a position in respect to the system; we realize that the practical effect of this will be to give the whole system our unofficial blessing.

Returning again to the necessity of actually taking the ships in, Mr. Hickerson said that we in the Department have been referring to the proposed base as a “phantom contraband station”. We have thought that in the overwhelming number of cases there would be no necessity to take vessels in and we have understood the British position to be that if the cargo is covered by navicerts or drawback agreements the British would not want to take in every ship.

Mr. Butler replied that they would certainly have to take in most ships. It must be more than a phantom station. He said that they had to remember the Scandinavian shipping lines and if American ships were exempted, Scandinavian ships would expect similar treatment. He thought that we in the Department had not realized the embarrassment which the British Government had experienced in letting American ships go to Scandinavia without diversion into Kirkwall while Scandinavian ships were taken in. The proposal to establish a contraband control base on this side had, after all, been in deference to American law. He had hoped that we would not find it necessary to raise the question of the neutrality belt. He thought it inconceivable that there could be any protest if, say, a Canadian warship sank a German submarine off the Canadian coast. If Shelburne, for example, were established as a control base would it not be for the safety of American citizens and mails? It seemed to him that if any question arose our government would have no difficulty explaining these points, which appeared to him most reasonable, to the American people.

[Page 46]

Mr. Hickerson said that while Mr. Butler had made a convincing presentation, he must point out that the President and Mr. Welles had considered the question of a control base in respect to the neutrality belt and had taken a strong position in this regard which had been made known to Lord Lothian. Any question respecting this position should be taken up by Lord Lothian with Mr. Welles.

Mr. Ashton-Gwatkin said that the first problem was to discuss the question of the availability and desirability of certain points with the Canadian Government. He thought that we could not go any further in our discussions on this until he had talked to Ottawa again.

It was agreed that this subject would be discussed again at 2:30 next Friday afternoon after Mr. Ashton-Gwatkin’s return from Ottawa.

  1. Memorandum of the Office of the Legal Adviser not printed.
  2. 39 Stat. 728, 733.