Memorandum of Conversation, by the Assistant Secretary of State (Berle)

By direction of the Secretary I asked Dr. Escalante to come in and see me this morning. He came in at 11:30.

I referred to the subject of our previous conversation relating to the possibility of American forces assisting in the defense of Curaçao and Aruba.

I said that the situation there had been the subject of careful and day to day study by officers of our Government and we had yesterday received a letter from the Secretary of War. I then read to him those portions of Secretary Stimson’s letter of January 29th27 addressed to Secretary Hull which set out the imminent danger of attack on Curaçao and Aruba, and the immediate need for further defense. I said likewise that the President had had the matter in mind and had come to the same conclusion.

We were still engaged in negotiations with the Dutch. These had not been brought, as yet, to a successful termination and I could not say whether they would be, though I hoped that ultimately an arrangement might be worked out. In the case of the defense of Surinam, [Page 68] these negotiations had been quite lengthy. We had steadily represented the interest of Venezuela in the matter, the intimate connection between Venezuela and the islands, and the need for a cooperative arrangement like that which had been worked out with respect of Brazil.

But, I said, I considered that the paramount duty of the United States and, indeed of all of us, was to assure the defense of the islands in the interest of Venezuela, of the United States, and of the hemisphere in general. Irrespective of whether the negotiations had terminated, we felt bound both under the Act of Habana28 and under the general declarations of continental defense, to take such action as was needed to assure defense.

I then referred to the attitude taken by his Government, reflected in the recent note on the subject handed to us by the Venezuelan Government, and said that a similar attitude had been taken by President Medina in his conversation with Ambassador Corrigan. We fully realized the difficulties arising in terms of public opinion if something had to be done in advance of an agreement. But I said that public opinion in both of our countries would forgive us for having acted in advance of an agreement when it would never forgive us for leaving a danger point undefended.

I said that I wanted to submit these considerations frankly to the Ambassador because I considered that movements might be necessary very soon, and I asked whether he had any suggestions.

Dr. Escalante, in his usual courteous and reserved way, heard me out. He then said that he too fully realized the point of imminent danger as set out by the Secretary of War. He too considered that defense was a paramount necessity. He could not, however, escape the fact that public opinion in Venezuela would probably regard the failure of the Netherlands to agree to participation as a direct slap at Venezuela and as a blow to Venezuelan prestige. The Venezuelan opinion would probably be excited against the Dutch and he considered it was bad business for Holland. He would, however, cable his Government. He advised that we instruct Ambassador Corrigan to present the urgency of the matter again directly to the Venezuelan Government, and therefore he would not undertake to cable suggestions for a solution but merely that he had this conversation, that we were keeping in close touch with Venezuela, that the need was urgent, and that Ambassador Corrigan would discuss more specific suggestions.

I said that in connection with a solution, various ideas had occurred to us which could be explored. In any event, we proposed to maintain closest contact with the Venezuelan Government in connection with this operation. This we could do by continuing the discussions we [Page 69] were now having so that at no point should the Venezuelan Government be uninformed. Again, it might be possible that certain Venezuelan officers could be placed in direct communication with our own officers on the ground—the place might be a matter of determination. Possibly this might best be done not in the islands of Curaçao and Aruba but at the real center of things, namely, the headquarters of the Caribbean command.

Other solutions might suggest themselves as, for example, a group of American officers designed to maintain liaison with Venezuelan officers at some nearby point.

I emphasized that we considered that we were defending the islands and were not in the slightest endeavoring to infringe on the sovereignty of Curaçao and Aruba and that we had, of course, assumed that Venezuela had an exactly similar motive. To that end, it was understood that the troops should be at least nominally under command of the Dutch authorities while in Curaçao and Aruba, though naturally their action would be chiefly determined by the necessity of the European command for defense, and not by purely local considerations.

I concluded by saying that I wished to have no misunderstanding whatever and make it entirely clear, that in view of the situation we considered that we might have to take very prompt action, irrespective of whether the negotiations were finished. I hoped that the Ambassador would understand this, not that we desired to create a fait accompli but that defense came first.

A. A. B[erle], Jr.
  1. Not printed.
  2. Signed July 30, 1940; for text, see Department of State Executive Agreement Series No. 199, or 54 Stat. (pt. 2) 2491.