Memorandum by the Chief of the Division of British Commonwealth Affairs (Hickerson) to the Deputy Director of the Office of European Affairs (Matthews)17

Mr. Matthews: I handed you a day or so ago a copy of the exchange of notes of February 16 and February 21, 1917, between the British and the Japanese Governments in which those two Governments divided up between themselves the former German Islands in the Pacific, the British agreeing to support the Japanese claims north of the Equator in return for the Japanese supporting British claims to Islands south of the Equator.18

I have heard for many years that the two Governments signed a secret treaty dealing with this same subject in 1916. There is no copy of any such treaty in our files. For that matter there is no official copy of the exchange of notes of February 1917. We have found various indications in the files, tending officially to confirm the fact [Page 1224] that an agreement on the former German Islands was made secretly in 1916. For instance, the following quotations are taken from the memorandum of a conversation between Secretary Hughes and the British Ambassador on April 12, 1921:19

“The Ambassador then said that the reply of his Government to our note on Yap would probably be that the British Government was bound by its agreement with Japan in 1916 to favor the awarding of the Islands in the North Pacific to Japan. The Ambassador said that when they were pressed with the submarine attacks an agreement had been made with Japan in 1916 that Japan should have the North Pacific Islands and that no matter what the consequences might be, his Government, he was sure, would feel that it was bound to stand by this agreement.…

“The Secretary asked if President Wilson was acquainted with this agreement. The Ambassador said that Mr. Balfour had given him a copy when he was here. The Secretary asked if Mr. Balfour had called President Wilson’s attention to it. The Ambassador said that he did not know as to that but he understood it was left with a number of papers. The Ambassador stated, however, that President Wilson knew of it when he reached Paris.…

“The Ambassador asked the Secretary to consider the position of his Government; that it had entered into this agreement with Japan in good faith and that it felt bound to carry it out. He asked what else it could do.… The Ambassador said that the position was simply that Japan was entitled to Great Britain’s votes but that it remained for the United States to express its agreement …

“The Secretary said that he thought the British Government should seriously consider the effect of such a position upon public opinion in America; that the Secretary believed the reaction would be immediate.… The Ambassador said that his Government was fully alive to the possible effect upon public opinion in America … but that they thought they had no alternative and that no matter what the consequences they must abide by their agreement with Japan—at least, he added, unless Japan could be persuaded to admit the contention of the United States.”

John Hickerson
  1. Copy of this memorandum, together with copy of Joint Chiefs of Staff letter, March 11, p. 1201, transmitted by Mr. Hickerson to the Ambassador in the United Kingdom (Winant) on May 22; letter of May 22 not printed.
  2. For texts of notes, see Treaties and Agreements With and Concerning China, 1894–1919 (New York, 1921), vol. ii, pp. 1167–1168. Copies of these texts were transmitted to the Department by the American Commission to Negotiate Peace at Paris, February 26, 1919 (793.94/783).
  3. Foreign Relations, 1921, vol. ii, p. 284.