Memorandum of Conversation, by the Under Secretary of State (Welles)

The British Ambassador3a called to see me this evening at his request. The Ambassador went over the main points in a conversation which Mr. Purvis, British member of the Allied Purchasing Mission in the United States, had had the preceding evening with the Secretary of the Treasury and high officials of the War and Navy Departments. The Ambassador stressed the importance of the requests which the British Government had made for the sale to it by the United States of airplanes and various categories of armament and ammunition. I told the Ambassador that, by instruction of the President, General Marshall4 had visited me in the morning and had shown me a tentative list which he had prepared indicating the amounts of artillery and ammunition which the War Department could sell to the British Government by declaring these stocks surplus and as not being required for the national defense of the United States. I said that it was my understanding that the list so formulated was as yet tentative and that it would later be supplemented by a definitive list. I further said that it was my understanding that some of the categories could be transferred to private manufacturers in the United States under existing law in return for new stocks of the same types. In such [Page 4] cases, I said, I had been given to understand that the private manufacturers could then sell directly to the British Government, and there would consequently be involved no breach of the neutrality of the United States under international law and no breach of the existing neutrality act.5 With regard to other categories on the list, I said I had been informed that no such transfers to private manufacturers could be undertaken, and that the question therefore was one of the highest policy which of course could be determined only by the President in consultation with the highest appropriate members of the Administration.

The Ambassador said that he understood this situation fully, but that he earnestly hoped that a speedy decision could be reached. He said it was of vital importance to Great Britain to obtain these supplies within the shortest period humanly possible.

The Ambassador inquired whether I had any recent information from Italy, and I told him that the information which the Department had received continued to show that Italy was making preparations to enter the war but as yet there was no positive indication as to when that move would take place.6

The Ambassador then discussed, as he had done before, the possibilities inherent in the present situation and the attitude which the British Government would take in the event that Germany succeeded in defeating France and then either succeeded in invading England and forcing submission or undertook an intensive bombing campaign of England with great resultant destruction of life and property. The Ambassador in very vigorous terms stated that it was his positive conviction that so long as the British and French fleets remained intact and out of German hands and so long as the United States fleet remained in the Pacific, and the Allied fleets therefore controlled the Atlantic and the United States was able to act as a counterpoise to Japan in the Pacific, Germany could not eventually win the war. He said in this connection that he believed it was of imperative importance that the American fleet at this time should remain in the mid-Pacific since that was the only effective check on Japan which existed in the world today. He said he was further confident that no British Government would surrender the fleet, and that the high ranking naval officers in command of the fleet would never agree to surrender the fleet even if ordered to do so. He said he was positive that even if a majority of the House of Commons voted in a new government which would agree to surrender the fleet, the present British Government would refuse to acquiesce in any such decision and would remove to Canada, where the British fleet could at least in part be based, other [Page 5] portions of the fleet being based on the British West Indies or perhaps off South Africa. I gained the very definite impression from the positive terms in which the Ambassador spoke that he had received some communication upon this subject recently from Mr. Churchill7—presumably after the Ambassador’s last conference with the President.8

S[umner] W[elles]
  1. Marquess of Lothian.
  2. Gen. George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff, United States Army.
  3. Neutrality Act of 1939; 54 Stat. 4.
  4. For correspondence on efforts of the United States to keep Italy from entering the war against the Allies, see vol. ii, pp. 685 ff.
  5. Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister.
  6. For correspondence with regard to concern of the United States over the fate of the British Fleet, see pp. 29 ff.