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

Participants: The Chinese Ambassador, Dr. Wei Tao-ming;
Minister Counselor, Mr. Liu Chieh;
Representative of Minister of Finance, Mr. T. M. Tsi;
The Attorney General, Mr. Francis Biddle;
Mr. A. A. Berle, Jr.

The Chinese Ambassador and his aides and the Attorney General met in my office, at the suggestion of the Attorney General. The purpose was to see whether the Chinese Ambassador would make any objection to the text of the proposed amendment to the Immigration Act.8 The purport of the amendment was to permit the Department of Justice to deport alien seamen who had illegally entered the United States, to the country of the flag of the ship in which they came, where it was impracticable to deport them to their own country. The effect of this would be to permit deportation of deserting Chinese seamen to Britain, because practically all such desertions are from British ships. As deserting Chinese seamen cannot be deported to China, without such an amendment in practice they remain here.

I began by stating the case, pointing out that the Embassy was thoroughly familiar with the problem, on which they had been working for months with the War Shipping Administration. We had hoped, by ameliorating the lot of the Chinese seamen, to reduce the desertion rate, and the Chinese Government had agreed to try to discourage desertions. As a result, the Chinese seamen were now very nearly on a parity with the British seamen, and arrangements were being made for their welfare here. Yet the desertions were continuing, and since the men could not be deported, it was necessary to change the law. In previous contacts, I pointed out, the Embassy had not taken a position.

The Attorney General thereupon explained the text and drift of the proposed amendment.

The Chinese Ambassador said that this was a difficult problem which they wished to regard as a whole, and that it had many phases. Particularly, he said that the War Shipping Administration had now promised to the Chinese Government a number of liberty ships, two of which might be delivered in the not distant future. Some 600 seamen had deserted and they could be used as crews on the ships. The real issue, he said, was not so much equality of pay as treatment [Page 797] by the British officers. He thought that with patience a solution could be reached, especially after the liberty ships were delivered since Chinese seamen could then be used on Chinese ships.

I said at once that I did not think this Government could permit the question of liberty ships to be connected with the problem of handling deserting seamen. As the Ambassador knew, there were many thousand Chinese seamen on British ships. If the theory was that they could leave the British ships and await the delivery of American ships to China, the net result would be to tie up a British ship for every liberty ship furnished the Chinese. Plainly, this would gravely handicap the war effort.

The Ambassador made a second attempt to tie up the question of delivery of ships to China with the problem of dealing with deserting seamen, and got no encouragement from the Attorney General or from me. He evaded taking a clear position on the proposed amendment, bringing in the various grievances against British officers, and saying that the knowledge that Chinese seamen might be deported to Britain would, in his opinion, increase rather than decrease the difficulty.

The Attorney General then made a brief statement. He said he hoped the Ambassador would realize that it was very unusual to consult a foreign embassy in a matter of domestic legislation. He had asked this meeting because of the very great consideration they had for the Chinese Government and for the views of the Embassy, and because he did not wish it to be thought that any step was being taken to discriminate against the Chinese. He pointed out that the Department of Justice had taken the lead in endeavoring to ameliorate the position of the Chinese seamen when Mr. Marshall Dimock had worked on these matters; and had achieved a very considerable degree of success. As the situation now stood, every other seaman could be deported to England. The text of the amendment did not set up a special category for Chinese, since it applied to any seaman who could not be deported to his native country; it applied not merely to Chinese but to Swedes, Finns and Russians.

Answering a point that the Ambassador had made, namely, that in the case of other seamen deportation to England meant deportation to a country in which their governments-in-exile were situated, the Attorney General pointed out that this was not true of Swedes, Finns and Russians since none of them had governments-in-exile in Britain.

The Ambassador said that the Chinese could be deported to China by way of Karachi. I interposed that this would not help much, since Chinese seamen were guilty of desertion under British law and would be picked up at Karachi before they ever got to China.

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The Counselor of Embassy inquired whether there were not maritime courts of countries having governments-in-exile in Britain, so that the seamen would then be tried in a maritime court of their own country. I answered that I was not wholly clear about the jurisdiction of maritime courts, but my understanding was that they had jurisdiction only over offenses committed on, or in respect of, ships of their own flag. A Norwegian seaman committing an offense on a Norwegian ship would be tried by a Norwegian maritime court. But if he deserted from a British ship he would be tried in a British court under British law. By consequence, the question of maritime courts did not seem to me to be relevant.

The Ambassador repeated somewhat vaguely his hope that an all around solution could be found, and said he would study the text and let us know.

The Attorney General emphasized the desire for speed. He pointed out that the War Shipping Administration was pressing for the legislation, and that the only effect of it was to restore a situation which had existed until a couple of habeas corpus cases had been decided, restricting the power of the Immigration authorities. Finally, he said that in situations of this kind they wanted not only to right the grievances of the seamen, but also to provide some method by which a satisfactory solution could be had.

A[dolf] A. B[erle], Jr.
  1. Approved May 26, 1924; 43 Stat. 153.