The Italian Ambassador (Colonna) to the Secretary of State
The Italian Ambassador presents his compliments to the Honorable Secretary of State and has the honor to refer to the Department’s notes of April 23rd and May 7th, 1941 concerning the taking of possession and control of 28 Italian merchant vessels in ports of the United States and the detention of their officers and crews.[Page 477]
In this connection and while confirming his previous communications on the subject, the Italian Ambassador has the honor to state further, in the name of his Government, the following points on which he invites the attention of the Honorable Secretary of State:
1. It is at least debatable that the Italian merchant vessels were enjoying the hospitality and protection of those ports of the United States in which they were when their engine machinery was dismantled in view of the fact that by Rule 77 of the Rules and Regulations adopted June 27th, 1940 by the Secretary of the Treasury under and by virtue of the presidential proclamation of the same day and the first Section of Title II of the Act of Congress of June 15th, 1917 (40 Stat. 220) the ships in question were denied the right to leave the ports of the United States in which they then found themselves. It is true that said rule provided in effect that the Secretary might let down the bar in the case of any particular ship if he chose to do so. But such special dispensation on his part, unlike ordinary clearance by the Collector of Customs, rested in his sole and uncontrolled discretion. None of the ships nor the owners thereof were in a position to compel by legal means or otherwise the granting of such special permission. And had the Master of any such ship attempted to leave the United States port in which he was without such affirmative release by the Secretary of the Treasury he would have been, under Section 27, Title II of the Act of Congress above referred to (40 Stat. 220), guilty of a felony and subject to imprisonment for 20 years and his ship herself subject to forfeiture. It would, therefore, seem inaccurate to state that the ships under discussion were enjoying the hospitality and protection of the said ports. On the contrary it would seem that the said vessels were in the said ports because they could not help themselves and were as effectively interned therein as prisoners behind their bars.
In any event it is a fact that no violation of any such hospitality or protection took place through any action of the officers and crews of the Italian merchant vessels, inasmuch as no harm or injury was done to American nationals, property or interests, whereas a grave, open and constant violation of the right of property and personal liberty of Italian citizens has been committed by the United States Government, and this violation is still in progress, in spite of the renewed urgent protests of the Italian Government.
2. It seems entirely unreasonable to infer, from the fact that the motive power of the Italian ships was found damaged, the conclusion that they might later have been sunk or burned by action of their officers and crews. On the contrary, the fact that mere dismantling of the engine machinery of the vessels was resorted to, clearly demonstrated not only that there was no intention to proceed to their total [Page 478] destruction, but there was instead a positive purpose to avoid any action that might injure the vessels themselves.
3. No legislation of any Country (to the Ambassador’s knowledge the legislation of the United States included) admits the principle that the doing of an innocent act may serve as the basis for an inference that its author was about to commit a criminal act, as the Honorable Secretary of State in his Note seems to imply.
4. The Italian seamen were on board their ships not by the indulgence of the United States Government, but because they were required to be there, pursuant to their articles of contract, under and by virtue of the law of Italy and the law of nations as recognized, accepted and enforced from time immemorial in and by the Courts of the United States.
And whether the said ships for the time being were in said ports to avoid capture by an enemy or because they were detained by force, they were entitled to full observance by the United States, as a neutral Nation, of the right there to remain at peace with their crews aboard them, without interference or demonstration of violence from either public or private armed forces operating within the confines of the United States.
The Royal Italian Government must, therefore, reject as entirely unsatisfactory and groundless the view on which the United States Government seems to support its conclusions and must renew, therefore, its most urgent protests, reserving all its rights, for the arbitrary action taken by the United States Government against the 28 Italian merchant vessels and their crews (that is, against Italian properties and nationals) giving to the municipal law an interpretation and application that are in open violation and disregard of unquestionable principles of the law international.