The Minister in Uruguay (Wilson) to the Secretary of State
No. 595

Sir: I fear that our inability to comply with the request of the Government of Uruguay to sell to it at least one destroyer (Department’s telegram No. 112, September 13—4 p.m.) has produced an unfortunate impression here. I am reliably informed that not only the Minister of National Defense and high officers of the Navy, but other members of the Government and members of the Parliament are greatly disappointed and even, in certain cases, resentful, because of this.

A circumstance which has contributed to enhance the disappointment of the Uruguayans is the following:

When our cruisers Wichita and Quincy42 were in Montevideo from August 23 to 28, a ranking officer of the Uruguayan Navy had a conversation [Page 168]with one of our officers urging that the United States sell destroyers to Uruguay. The United States officer, who reported the conversation to me, said that he had replied that he of course had no authority to discuss the question, but that personally he hoped that the Uruguayan request might be complied with. The Uruguayan officer, with limited knowledge of English, evidently entirely misunderstood these remarks and interpreted them as signifying that the United States Government had in fact determined to make these destroyers available to Uruguay. A few days after the cruisers left Montevideo, the Under Secretary of National Defense called upon me at the request of the Minister, to tell me of the conversation as reported by the Uruguayan officer, and to say that the Minister of National Defense was delighted that the United States Government would sell these destroyers, and that he assumed that confirmation thereof would shortly be forthcoming through the Legation. I explained to the Under Secretary, and begged him to make clear to the Minister, exactly what the situation was: I stated that there had evidently been a complete misunderstanding of what the United States officer had said. I then recalled that at the time that the Uruguayan Government had sought information from the United States Government regarding various types of airplanes, I had telegraphed to the State Department at the request of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of National Defense to inquire whether the United States Government would sell three destroyers to Uruguay. On August 18, I informed Dr. Guani of the reply of my Government to the effect that the strategic situation in the North Atlantic would make it very difficult to effect the delivery of any destroyers, but that the matter continued under consideration of our Navy Department. I was awaiting a final reply from my Government, and that was where the matter stood.

A few days later, I took occasion to call on the Minister of National Defense and explained personally the foregoing to him in an effort to clear up any misunderstanding.

Meanwhile, articles were published in the press to the effect that it had been learned “that the United States Government had offered” destroyers at extremely reasonable figures to the Uruguayan Government, and that it was only a question of a short time before the sale would be definitely completed.

In view of the expectation by Uruguayan Naval officers that the destroyers would in fact be made available to them, the news that the United States Government had found it impossible at present to sell these vessels, which, in accordance with the Department’s telegram No. 112, September 13—4 p.m., I communicated to Dr. Guani and General Roletti, caused deep disappointment.

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The Uruguayan Navy, as the Department is aware, is practically non-existent insofar as naval vessels are concerned. There is one old gunboat and a few despatch boats and tugs. The Navy personnel includes, however, at least three Rear Admirals and a number of other high-ranking officers. Furthermore, the ranks of the Navy have been enlarged recently by a number of volunteers. In the present atmosphere of patriotic fervor which exists in Uruguay, and with the knowledge that steps are being taken to acquire airplanes and artillery for the Army, it is natural that Naval Officers should wish to place the Uruguayan Navy in condition to exercise effective patrol along the coast and to cooperate in measures of continental defense.

A further reason, I am informed, which has moved many patriotic Uruguayans to wish to build up the Navy is the following: One of the arguments which Argentina has used in the conflict between the two countries over the question of jurisdiction in the waters of the River Plate, is that Uruguay, lacking a Navy, is in fact unable to exercise jurisdiction. Uruguayans would like to remove this disability.

A leading Uruguayan, member of one of the liberal opposition groups, and a staunch friend of the United States has recently spoken to me about as follows:

“You do not realize how difficult your country is making it for friends of the United States in Uruguay to explain the attitude of your country towards Uruguay. You abound in exhortations to do this or that, and in pronouncements of general principles, but when it comes to implementing your assurances, and to giving us practical assistance, you always find some excuse for not doing so. Take commercial matters: You preach the gospel of liberal commercial principles, and you urge us to abandon the narrow, bilateral balancing arrangements which have been forced upon us by European countries, but you are unwilling to open more generously your markets to us. We agreed to negotiate a commercial arrangement with you, but you dropped the matter in the middle of the negotiations because your negotiations with Argentina broke down. Then, take the matter of continental defense: When the Nazi menace appeared greatest a few months ago, we asked for immediate financial assistance to enable us to improve our defenses. You, the richest country in the world, were unable to loan us three or four million dollars. Brazil, however, sent us arms immediately without even stopping to discuss the cost. Now, having been exhorted to cooperate in continental defense, we want to build up our pitifully non-existent Navy, and we ask you to let us have two or three old destroyers that have been lying useless in your ports since the last war. You handed over fifty of these destroyers to Great Britain, and we see pictures reproduced in the papers of quantities of these ships tied up in your ports, looking like so many toy vessels in a shop window. Yet, you tell us that you find it impossible to let us have even a single one of these.”

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The gentleman in question went on to say:

“Uruguay is cooperating 100 per cent with the United States and with the other American countries in the matter of repressing Nazi activities and desires nothing more than to cooperate fully in questions of continental defense. It is surprising that the United States Government does not appreciate that an effort to translate into something tangible its general professions of desire to assist Uruguay is called for in the present circumstances. I fear that the results of this attitude regarding the destroyers will provoke considerable resentment on the part of Uruguayan Navy officers and cause discouragement to Uruguayan friends of the United States.”

There are of course obvious answers and explanations with reference to the foregoing statements, and I of course made use of them in this conversation. The views expressed, however, coming, as I have said, from a steadfast friend of the United States, and doubtless shared by many people here, seem worth bearing in mind.

Respectfully yours,

Edwin C. Wilson
  1. For correspondence regarding the visits of United States naval vessels to the eastern coast of South America, see pp. 1147 ff.