Memorandum of Conversation, by the Assistant Secretary of State (Berle)

Participants: Col. Sosthenes Behn, President of I. T. & T.28a
Mr. Page, of I. T. & T.
Mr. A. A. Berle, Jr.

Colonel Behn came in to see me today. He asked advice as to whether or not he should instruct his engineers in the plants in Antwerp and also in Paris to try to avoid taking German military orders. He said that if they did attempt to resist undoubtedly the plants would be taken over. Since he himself was convinced we would be in the war in the not distant future, the only question was whether the plants were taken over now, or later. There were some advantages, he said, in having them taken over later; and he could get out certain men, certain information, and certain machinery which he badly wanted. To avoid that he would have to instruct his men that they could take military orders, though naturally they should avoid them where possible. He wound up by asking what I thought—based on an estimate of our entry into the war in three months.

I said:

I did not feel that I could give any indication of a possible date of our entry into the war, since we hoped to avoid going to war; naturally, no one could guarantee it. Nor could I guess as to the time, though it would seem to me that even accepting his own thesis that “war between America and Germany is inevitable”, he was rushing things somewhat. But I took occasion to point out that this depended on a great many factors which we could not control—as, for instance, when someone decided to attack us.
As to what instructions he should give his plant, I stated that the Department could not advise. The anomaly of our manufacturing military material for the German army, which conceivably [might?] attack us, at the same time that we were helping the British, was obvious. As to the possible advantages of playing for time, as against the disadvantages occasioned in the continuance of this anomaly, I said I thought that the question was really one for a technician. Colonel Behn was far abler than I was to add up the benefits occasioned by the continued operation of the factories, and setting these against the debits occasioned by the continued supply of military material to Germany, and striking his own balance. I presumed that Colonel Behn in having made such a calculation would undoubtedly be guided by the best interests of the United States.
As to sending the instructions, i said that while the Department did not undertake to advise what instructions he might give, [Page 564] the transmission of a message by the Department would imply at least tacit acquiescence. By consequence, to transmit an order for Behn to his subordinates which virtually authorized them to manufacture military supplies for Germany did not seem to me desirable, simply by reason of the fact that it was transmitted through the Department itself. The same objection might not apply to a message sent by him privately.

Colonel Behn then launched into a long story of his own relations with the Germans and the British, including the attempt made by Ribbentrop29 to use him to send a peace feeler to the British. He likewise pointed out that Westrick had been the chairman of their German subsidiary; that Westrick was a Catholic and opposed to the Nazi government, but that he had come to the United States on direct orders from Ribbentrop, and over his (Behn’s) objection. Behn indicated that he had been telling Westrick and his German connections that the invasion of the Netherlands and Belgium inevitably meant that the United States and Canada enter the war. Behn was given the impression of favoring this. He wound up by saying that he was going to instruct his men to avoid by every possible means the manufacture of military orders for Germany, though he believed this meant the prompt seizure of the plants. I repeated that I thought that in this matter the decision, at this stage, had to be chiefly his.

A. A. Berle, Jr.
  1. International Telephone and Telegraph Corp.
  2. Joachim von Ribbentrop, Reich Minister for Foreign Affairs.