740.00116 European War 1939/693

The Ambassador in the United Kingdom (Winant) to President Roosevelt12

Dear Mr. President: Just before Harry13 left, the Lord Chancellor14 told me of a memorandum which you had given to the Prime Minister on his last visit to Washington, relating to atrocities.15 He told me that he understood that Harry had prepared this memorandum for you, and that as a result of it, and on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, the War Cabinet had formed a “War Cabinet Committee on the Treatment of War Criminals” to study the problem presented in the memorandum. He asked me if I would sit in with the Committee. On Harry’s suggestion, I did so. The recommendations made are not in line with the memorandum but Harry thought that it might be well to consider the problem without necessarily being bound by the memorandum.

The committee is composed of the following, and I found that they had given considerable study to the subject:

  • Lord Simon (In the Chair),
  • Sir Stafford Cripps,16
  • Sir Donald Somervell,17
  • Sir Alexander Cadogan,18
  • Mr. Eden,
  • Major Sir David P. Maxwell Fyfe,19
  • Sir William Malkin,20
  • Sir Claud Schuster21

After talking over their conclusions they unanimously decided to ask that I forward them to you for such suggestions as you might want to make. There was a kind of preamble attached relating the present program back to the Bryce Committee of the last war,22 with the [Page 49] thought that it might give standing to action taken at the present time. I felt that the Bryce Committee had been somewhat discredited as a propaganda agency and therefore suggested eliminating reference to it, which was agreed. There is great pressure on the part of Allied Governments here to force some action that might act as a deterrent against further atrocities by the enemy. The suggested plan might be a deterrent and would at least prevent less wise measures being taken.

I am forwarding a copy of the proposal for a “United Nations Commission on Atrocities”, and likewise a copy of the “Suggested Functions for a United Nations Commission for the Investigation of War Crimes”.


John Gilbert Winant
[Enclosure 1]

Proposal for a United Nations Commission on Atrocities

1. The Committee on the Treatment of War Criminals (the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Privy Seal, the Foreign Secretary, the Minister of Information,22a the Attorney General, and the Solicitor General) has considered, on reference by the War Cabinet, a proposal for a United Nations Commission on Atrocities. After preliminary consideration by the Committee, the Chairman invited the American Ambassador to attend the Second Meeting on 27th July, and Mr. Winant was good enough to do so. The following is a summary of the suggestions discussed.

2. Nature of Commission

The Commission should investigate atrocities committed against nationals of the United Nations and should report from time to time to the Governments of those Nations any case where they are satisfied that an atrocity has been committed and should name, where possible, the persons responsible; they should direct their attention in particular to organised atrocities. For this purpose, atrocities perpetrated by Germany in occupied France should be included.

If it is thought desirable to set out the functions of the Commission in some detail, the attached paper (Annex I)23 gives a summary of suggested functions.

The suggestion of some sort of international court for the trial of war criminals should be deprecated. Nor is it necessary or desirable to create a new body of law, for war crimes are already sufficiently well-defined.

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The Commission should be a fact-finding body, making reports to the Governments of the United Nations and to the Fighting French which would be available for publication; these reports might also contain material upon which decisions would ultimately be taken on the treatment of war criminals. Some of the European Allies have suggested that war criminals who come into their hands might be dealt with by their own tribunals. It is not suggested that we can intervene to prevent this. But if the United Nations Commission acquires authority and reputation by its composition and work, it may be that the reports of the Commission would influence or control the selection of persons to be prosecuted in Allied countries.

3. Representation

Membership should be confined to nationals of the United Nations; the following might be invited to send representatives—

United Kingdom Belgium
United States Greece
U. S. S. R. Luxembourg
China Poland

Special provision for the representation of the Fighting French would be desirable. The Dominions Secretary23a should be asked to consult the Dominions as to whether they wish separate representation.

4. Method

It would seem decidedly preferable to constitute a single Commission, which might sit from time to time in two or more panels in different countries. The whole Commission should examine the conclusions of the panels before reporting to the United Nations.

5. Scope of Enquiry

The atrocities of all offenders, irrespective of rank, should be investigated. The aim should be to collect material about the main atrocities, especially those which are being systematically committed.

Every effort should be made to fix the names of those who have been responsible for the perpetration of the atrocity, in addition to verifying the occurrence.

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[Enclosure 2]

Suggested Functions for a United Nations Commission for the Investigation of War Crimes

With a view to establishing responsibility for atrocities in the nature of war crimes perpetrated by the enemy in the present war, to investigate all cases referred to the Commission by any of the Governments of the United Nations of atrocities committed by, or by order of, the nationals of any of the countries at war with any of the United Nations against nationals of the United Nations.
To collect, record and assess all available evidence, oral and written, upon such atrocities.
To direct their attention in particular, in the first instance, to those cases which appear to be atrocities organised and committed in pursuance of a deliberate policy.
To report from time to time, as early as possible, to the Governments of the United Nations, cases in which the Commission is satisfied that an atrocity has been committed, naming, where possible, the person or persons whom they consider responsible.
To investigate, consider and report upon any other instances or classes of war crimes referred to them by the general consent of the Governments of the United Nations.
To constitute such panels for the taking and recording of evidence, and to sit whether in panels or as a whole, in such places as the Commission may from time to time decide.
To co-opt such expert technical advisers for the purpose of particular investigations as the Commission may consider necessary.
Perhaps, to make recommendations upon the procedure by which war criminals should be dealt with after the war.

[For text of President Roosevelt’s statement regarding crimes against civilian populations, released to the press on August 21, 1942, see Department of State Bulletin, August 22, 1942, page 709. For statement made by British Prime Minister Churchill on this subject in the House of Commons on September 8, 1942, see Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 5th series, volume 383, column 97.]

  1. Copy received in the Department of State about September 20, 1942.
  2. Harry L. Hopkins, Special Assistant to President Roosevelt.
  3. Lord Simon.
  4. Post, p. 56. The records of the Washington Conference between President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill in June 1942 are scheduled for publication in a subsequent volume of Foreign Relations.
  5. Lord Privy Seal.
  6. Attorney General.
  7. Permanent Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.
  8. Solicitor General.
  9. Legal Adviser, Foreign Office.
  10. Permanent Secretary to the Lord Chancellor.
  11. James Bryce presided over a committee set up in 1914 to consider breaches of law and established usages of war alleged to have been committed in Belgium; see British Cd. 7894, Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages (London, His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1915), and also the appendix to the report, British Cd. 7895.
  12. Brendan Bracken.
  13. i. e., enclosure 2, infra.
  14. Clement R. Attlee.