840.48/6550: Telegram

The Ambassador in the United Kingdom (Winant) to the Secretary of State

2915. Following is text of Lord Selborne’s21 letter to Riefler giving British views on proposals in Department’s airgram A–411, March 16:22

“I am writing with reference to airgram A–411 of 16 March, of which you were kind enough to leave a copy with me, and which contains the outline of your Government’s proposals on the subject of food relief for selected classes of people in the occupied territories. As you desired, these proposals have been urgently and carefully examined by His Majesty’s Government, but I am sorry to say that, while the greatest sympathy is felt for the motives which inspire them, there are various objections to the course proposed which seem to us to be insuperable.

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“His Majesty’s Government feel that this whole question is governed by impending military operations. The conduct of the Greek scheme has caused considerable difficulties for, and restrictions on, our Naval and Air Forces, and these difficulties increase as new operations are begun. The opening of further channels of importation into Europe at the present moment would, in our view, be wholly incompatible with the Naval and Military situation as it is developing and will continue to develop. If we went to the Germans and offered to send food into Europe under conditions, and if they accepted the conditions, we would then be obliged to organise the entry of the food. This would involve not only the granting of safe conduct for ships to sail to designated ports within the operational Zones, but also the preservation of inland transport from those ports to the countries in which the food is to be distributed. No promise could possibly be given to keep any ports or the routes to them open, or to keep intact any railways between now and the end of this year; and if it were possible to make such a promise, we should by making it give the Germans valuable information as to our military intentions. Any relief action now undertaken would inevitably hamper impending military operations. Nor can we ignore the risk that relief supplies admitted into Europe at this critical stage would ease the strain on German economy and communications. In our view these considerations alone would have made it imperative first to consult the Soviet Government had we found it possible to contemplate relief action.

“Even if military considerations were not decisive, there is the fundamental blockade difficulty indicated in the third of the conditions which your Government proposes that the Germans should be required to accept. That this difficulty is recognized by your Government, is clearly shown by the complexity of the condition in question. But this very complexity is such as to impose what would seem to be an impossible task on the neutral supervisors of the action, when it is remembered that many of the occupied countries depend for the maintenance of their rations on imports not from Germany, but from one another, and that the supervisors would have the task of checking not only the existing rations and their availability in all these countries, but also the level of German rations, and also the disposal of all unrationed food throughout the whole area. Furthermore, even if a breach of the agreement were detected, it is impossible to foresee what sanction could be applied to oblige the Germans to keep their word. They could and doubtless would, plead that they were prevented from fulfilling their obligations by causes outside their control, such as weather or our own military and aerial activities but even if a case were proven against them, it would virtually be impossible to cut off the relief supplies, since to do so would have the effect of leaving the recipients worse off than they were before the relief action started. I would add that experience in the much simpler case of Greece has shown that precise agreements would be necessary to cover the provision of transport and the local currency for the people conducting the relief work, and above all that any conditions can be nullified by the denial by the Germans of facilities for rapid and confidential communication. We have in fact, as you know, received no adequate reports on the relief work in Greece since about November last, and all [Page 260] the efforts of the Swedish Government have so far failed to remedy this state of affairs.

“These considerations lead to the conclusion that any conditions put to the Germans would be required to be worked out in much closer detail if they were to have any chance of success. But from what I have said above you will see that it is our conviction that it is not possible to devise conditions for the satisfactory working of a scheme which involves supplementing the diet available under a German controlled ration system, and that the merits, such as they are, of the Greek scheme are due to the fact that the basic food supply of the population is provided by the relief imports, and not merely a supplement.

“We feel that there are other serious objections to putting forward a relief plan at the present moment. It is clear that the time taken in obtaining German concurrence, in setting up the necessary organization in the occupied territories and elsewhere, and in bringing ships from the Baltic or other places inside the blockade area would necessarily prevent the arrival of any relief until at least 4 months from now. The occupied countries are however looking forward to liberation rather than relief. It seems to us that by proposing a general relief action at this point we should lay ourselves open to charges of insincerity, and cause grave misgivings in those countries. From the psychological point of view we can therefore see nothing but disadvantage in opening at the present moment.”

We understand that the Prime Minister has cabled a reply to the President on this subject.

  1. British Minister of Economic Warfare.
  2. Copy of airgram A–411 had been handed to Lord Selborne and to Parliamentary Under Secretary Foot on March 29. Ambassador Winant reported in telegram 2546, March 29 (not printed) that Lord Selborne had declared at the time that as a “preliminary and offhand reaction” he would be duty bound to advise against breaking the blockade. He saw many difficulties in the American scheme and expressed the view that “a move such as this would, on balance, be politically unpopular in Great Britain; i.e., those elements in the country who would oppose the opening of the blockade for the purpose of giving food relief” were “much more powerful than those who would favor such a move.” At the same time both Lord Selborne and Mr. Foot made it clear that they realized conditions might well be different in the United States. “This latter consideration, i.e., the possibility that such a move might have a favorable effect within the United States, appeared to weigh more with both of them than other considerations as an argument for the proposal.” (840.48/6535)