Memorandum of Conversation, by the Assistant Secretary of State (Long)
The Italian Ambassador9 called about six o’clock this evening at my request. At the direction of the Secretary I had obtained the approval of the President, by telephone, to notify the Ambassador his Naval Attaché is persona non grata.10 When the Ambassador came I told him it became necessary to notify him about one of my friends who was one of his staff. He asked if I referred to Lais. I replied in the affirmative and started to hand him the note.11 He hesitated to receive it and asked if we would not send it to the Rome Embassy for delivery to the Italian Government. I replied in the negative and said we felt he was the proper channel. He said it would be much easier for him if we could notify through Rome and thought that was the protocol. I told him we would advise Rome to notify the Italian Government we had delivered the note to him.
The Ambassador was very downcast and nervous. He did not read the note in my presence or even open the envelope. When I remarked that their action in destroying the engines constituted the vessels obstacles to navigation in our waters as well as being an illegal act he started to say they were no more obstacles than they were before, either tied to docks or anchored in the stream, but I promptly dismissed that as legitimate argument and stated they had become like barges, lacking the power to propel themselves, and had lost their character as vessels, and that it was a breach of good faith to so act while enjoying our hospitality. I also added that aside from the violation of American law the action was fantastic in the extreme; that we had had no intention to expropriate either the Italian or German vessels because they were in a category distinct from the other vessels lying idle in our ports—being active belligerents—and for the crews to act in such a manner and seriously damage valuable vessels was an act which in our eyes was inexplicable and fantastic, but that the serious part of it was that the act was committed in our ports and was a serious infraction of our laws.[Page 803]
The Ambassador left in a very meek manner and soon telephoned me to know just what we meant by the word “immediate”. I replied that the word was used in its ordinary sense but of course he would have an opportunity to cable his Government and time to receive a reply. We would expect arrangements to be made for the departure of the Admiral at the earliest opportunity and could no longer consider him to be Naval Attaché.
- Don Ascanio dei principi Colonna.↩
- On April 1 the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury (Gaston) transmitted to the Department a copy of a report from the Office of the Collector of Customs at Norfolk that the master of an Italian vessel in that port had supplied copies of telegrams from Adm. Alberto Lais, Italian Naval Attaché, instructing him to place his ship out of commission and to read the Attaché’s instructions to the masters of four other Italian ships in port.↩