1914 - 1915
US Protests Against Maritime Warfare

Correspondence between William Jennings Bryan, Secretary of State and Walter Hines Page, US Ambassador to Great Britain.

Secretary of State Bryan to Walter Hines Page, U.S. Ambassador in Great Britain:

Washington, December 26, 1914

The present condition of American foreign trade resulting from the frequent seizures and detentions of American cargoes destined to neutral European ports has become so serious as to require a candid statement of the views of this Government in order that the British Government may be fully informed as to the attitude of the United States toward the policy which has been pursued by the British authorities during the present war.

You will, therefore, communicate the following to His Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, but in doing so you will assure him that it is done in the most friendly spirit and in the belief that frankness will better serve the continuance of cordial relations between the two countries than silence, which may be misconstrued into acquiescence in a course of conduct which this Government can not but consider to be an infringement upon the rights of American citizens.

The Government of the United States has viewed with growing concern the large numbers of vessels laden with American goods destined to neutral ports in Europe, which have been seized on the high seas, taken into British ports and detained sometimes for weeks by the British authorities. During the early days of the war this Government assumed that the policy adopted by the British Government was due to the unexpected outbreak of hostilities and the necessity of immediate action to prevent contraband from reaching the enemy. For this reason it was not disposed to judge this policy harshly or protest it vigorously, although it was manifestly very injurious to American trade with the neutral countries of Europe. This Government, relying confidently upon the high regard which Great Britain has so often exhibited in the past for the rights of other nations, confidently awaited amendment of a course of action which denied to neutral commerce the freedom to which it was entitled by the law of nations.

This expectation seemed to be rendered the more assured by the statement of the Foreign Office early in November that the British Government were satisfied with guarantees offered by the Norwegian, Swedish and Danish Governments as to non-exportation of contraband goods when consigned to named persons in the territories of those Governments, and that orders had been given to the British fleet and customs authorities to restrict interference with neutral vessels carrying such cargoes so consigned to verification of ship's papers and cargoes.

It is, therefore, a matter of deep regret that, though nearly five months have passed since the war began, the British Government have not materially changed their policy and do not treat less rigorously ships and cargoes passing between neutral ports in the peaceful pursuit of lawful commerce, which belligerents should protect rather than interrupt. The greater freedom from detention and seizure which was confidently expected to result from consigning shipments to definite consignees, rather than "to order," is still awaited.

It is needless to point out to His Majesty's Government, usually the champion of the freedom of the seas and the rights of trade, that peace, not war, is the normal relation betw een nations and that the commerce between countries which are not belligerents should not be interfered with by those at war unless such interference is manifestly an imperative necessity to protect their national safety, and then only to the extent that it is a necessity. It is with no lack of appreciation of the momentous nature of the present struggle in which Great Britain is engaged and with no selfish desire to gain undue commercial advantage that this Government is reluctantly forced to the conclusion that the present policy of His Majesty's Government toward neutral ships and cargoes exceeds the manifest necessity of a belligerent and constitutes restrictions upon the rights of American citizens on the high seas which are not justified by the rules of international law or required under the principle of self-preservation.

The Government of the United States does not intend at this time to discuss the propriety of including certain articles in the lists of absolute and conditional contraband, which have been proclaimed by His Majesty. Open to objection as some of these seem to this Government, the chief ground of present complaint is the treatment of cargoes of both classes of articles when bound to neutral ports.

Articles listed as absolute contraband, shipped from the United States and consigned to neutral countries, have been seized and detained on the ground that the countries to which they were destined have not prohibited the exportation of such articles. Unwarranted as such detentions are, in the opinion of this Government, American exporters are further perplexed by the apparent indecision of the British authorities in applying their own rules to neutral cargoes. For example, a shipment of copper from this country to a specified consignee in Sweden was detained because, as was stated by Great Britain, Sweden had placed no embargo on copper. On the other hand, Italy not only prohibited the export of copper, but, as this Government is informed, put in force a decree that shipments to Italian consignees or "to order," which arrive in ports of Italy, can not be exported or transshipped. The only exception Italy makes is of copper which passes through that country in transit to another country. In spite of these decrees, however, the British Foreign Office has thus far declined to affirm that copper shipments consigned to Italy will not be molested on the high seas. Seizures are so numerous and delays so prolonged that exporters are afraid to send their copper to Italy, steamship lines decline to accept it, and insurers refuse to issue policies upon it. In a word, a legitimate trade is being greatly impaired through uncertainty as to the treatment which it may expect at the hands of the British authorities.

We feel that we are abundantly justified in asking for information as to the manner in which the British Government propose to carry out the policy which they have adopted, in order that we may determine the steps necessary to protect our citizens, engaged in foreign trade, in their rights and from the serious losses to which they are liable through ignorance of the hazards to which their cargoes are exposed.

In the case of conditional contraband the policy of Great Britain appears to this government to be equally unjustified by the established rules of international conduct. As evidence of this, attention is directed to the fact that a number of the American cargoes which have been seized consist of foodstuffs and other articles of common use in all countries which are admittedly relative contraband. In spite of the presumption of innocent use because destined to neutral territory, the British authorities made these seizures and detentions without, so far as we are informed, being in possession of facts which warranted a reasonable belief that the shipments had in reality a belligerent destination, as that term is used in international law. Mere suspicion is not evidence and doubts should be resolved in favor of neutral commerce, not against it. The effect upon trade in these articles between neutral nations resulting from interrupted voyages and detained cargoes is not entirely cured by reimbursement of the owners for the damages which they have suffered, after investigation has failed to establish an enemy destination. The injury is to American commerce with neutral countries as a whole through the hazard of the enterprise and the repeated diversion of goods from established markets.

It also appears that cargoes of this character have been seized by the British authorities because of a belief that, though not originally so intended by the shippers, they will ultimately reach the territory of the enemies of Great Britain. Yet this belief is frequently reduced to a mere fear in view of the embargoes which have been decreed by the neutral countries to which they are destined on the articles composing the cargoes.

That a consignment "to order" of articles listed as conditional contraband and shipped to a neutral port raises a real presumption of enemy destination appears to be directly contrary to the doctrine previously held by Great Britain and thus stated by Lord Salisbury during the South African War:

Foodstuffs, though having a hostile destination, can be considered as contraband of war only if they are for the enemy forces; it is not sufficient that they are capable of being so used, it must be shown that this was in fact their destination at the time of their seizure.

With this statement as to conditional contraband the views of this Government are in entire accord, and upon this historic doctrine, consistently maintained by Great Britain when a belligerent as well as a neutral, American shippers were entitled to rely.

The Government of the United States readily admits the full right of a belligerent to visit and search on the high seas the vessels of American citizens or other neutral vessels carrying American goods and to detain them when there is sufficient evidence to justify a belief that contraband articles are in their cargoes; but His Majesty's Government, judging by their own experience in the past, must realize that this Government can not without protest permit American ships or American cargoes to be taken into British ports and there detained for the purpose of searching generally for evidence of contraband, or upon presumptions created by special municipal enactments which are clearly at variance with international law and practice.

This Government believes and earnestly hopes His Majesty's Government will come to the same belief, that a course of conduct more in conformity with the rules of international usage, which Great Britain has strongly sanctioned for many years, will in the end better serve the interests of belligerents as well as those of neutrals.

Not only is the situation a critical one to the commercial interests of the United States, but many of the great industries of this country are suffering because their products are denied long-established markets in European countries, which, though neutral, are contiguous to the nations at war. Producers and exporters, steamship and insurance companies are pressing, and not without reason, for relief from the menace to transatlantic trade which is gradually but surely destroying their business and threatening them with financial disaster.

The Government of the United States, still relying upon the deep sense of justice of the British nation, which has been so often manifested in the intercourse between the two countries during so many years of uninterrupted friendship, expresses confidently the hope that His Majesty's Government will realize the obstacles and difficulties which their present policy has placed in the way of commerce between the United States and the neutral countries of Europe, and will instruct their officials to refrain from all unnecessary interference with the freedom of trade between nations and which are sufferers, though not participants, in the present conflict; and will in their treatment of neutral ships and cargoes conform more closely to those rules governing the maritime relations between belligerents and neutrals, which have received the sanction of the civilized world, and which Great Britain has, in other wars, so strongly and successfully advocated.

In conclusion, it should be impressed upon His Majesty's Government that the present condition of American trade with the neutral European countries is such that, if it does not improve, it may arouse a feeling contrary to that which has so long existed between the American and British peoples. Already it is becoming more and more the subject of public criticism and complaint. There is an increasing belief, doubtless not entirely unjustified that the present British policy toward American trade is responsible for the depression in certain industries which depend upon European markets. The attention of the British Government is called to this possible result of their present policy to show how widespread the effect is upon the industrial life of the United States and to emphasize the importance of removing the cause of complaint.

W.J. Bryan

Ambassador Page to Secretary of State Bryan:

London, January 7, 1915

Following is the text of Sir Edward Grey's note:

Foreign Office, January 7, 1915.

. . . Let me say at once that we entirely recognize the most friendly spirit referred to by your excellency, and that we desire to reply in the same spirit and in the belief that, as your excellency states, frankness will best serve the continuance of cordial relations between the two countries.

His Majesty's Government cordially concur in the principle enunciated by the Government of the United States that a belligerent, in dealing with trade between neutrals, should not interfere unless such interference is necessary to protect the belligerent's national safety, and then only to the extent to which this is necessary. We shall endeavour to keep our action within the limits of this principle on the understanding that it admits our right to interfere when such interference is not with bona fide trade between the United States and another neutral country, but with trade in contraband destined for the enemy's country, and we are ready, whenever our action may unintentionally exceed this principle, to make redress.

We think that much misconception exists as to the extent to which we have, in practice, interfered with trade. Your excellency's note seems to hold His Majesty's Government responsible for the present condition of trade with neutral countries, and it is stated that, through the action of His Majesty's Government, the products of the great industries of the United States have been denied long-established markets in European countries which, though neutral, are contiguous to the seat of war. Such a result is far from being the intention of His Majesty's Government, and they would exceedingly regret that it should be due to their action. I have been unable to obtain complete or conclusive figures showing what the state of trade with these neutral countries has been recently, and I can therefore only ask that some further consideration should be given to the question whether United States trade with these neutral countries has been so seriously affected. The only figures as to the total volume of trade that I have seen are those for the exports from New York for the month of November 1914, and they are as follows, compared with the month of November 1913:

Exports from New York for November 1913
[and] November 1914, respectively

Denmark ......................$558,000........$7,101,000

Sweden .........................377,000.........2,858,000




. . . Your excellency's note refers in particular to the detention of copper. The figures taken from official returns for the export of copper from the United States for Italy for the months during which the war has been in progress up to the end of the first three weeks of December are as follows:

1913 ..............................315,202,000


Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Switzerland are not shown separately for the whole period in the United States returns, but are included in the heading "Other Europe"; that is, Europe other than the United Kingdom, Russia, France, Belgium, Austria, Germany, Holland, and Italy. The corresponding figures under this heading are as follows:

1913 ...............................37,271,000


With such figures the presumption is very strong that the bulk of copper consigned to these countries has recently been intended, not for their own use, but for that of a belligerent who can not import it direct. It is therefore an imperative necessity for the safety of this country while it is at war that His Majesty's Government should do all in their power to stop such part of this import of copper as is not genuinely destined for neutral countries....

I can not believe that, with such figures before them and in such cases as those just mentioned, the Government of the United States would question the propriety of the action of His Majesty's Government in taking suspected cargoes to a prize court, and we are convinced that it can not be in accord with the wish either of the Government or of the people of the United States to strain the international code in favor of private interests so as to prevent Great Britain from taking such legitimate means for this purpose as are in her power.

With regard to the seizure of foodstuffs to which your excellency refers, His Majesty's Government are prepared to admit that foodstuffs should not be detained and put into a prize court without presumption that they are intended for the armed forces of the enemy or the enemy government. We believe that this rule has been adhered to in practice hitherto, but if the United States Government have instances to the contrary, we are prepared to examine them, and it is our present intention to adhere to the rule, though we ca n not give an unlimited and unconditional undertaking in view of the departure by those against whom we are fighting from hitherto accepted rules of civilization and humanity and the uncertainty as to the extent to which such rules may be violated by them in future.

From the 4th of August last to the 3d of January the number of steamships proceeding from the United States for Holland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Italy has been 773. Of these there are 45 which have had consignments or cargoes placed in the prize court while of the ships themselves only 8 have been placed in the prize court and 1 of these has since been released. It is, however, essential under modern conditions that where there is real ground for suspecting the presence of contraband, the vessels should be brought into port for examination: in no other way can the right of search be exercised, and but for this practice it would have to be completely abandoned. Information was received by us that special instructions had been given to ship rubber from the United States under another designation to escape notice, and such cases have occurred in several instances. Only by search in a port can such cases, when suspected, be discovered and proved. The necessity for examination in a port may also be illustrated by a hypothetical instance, connected with cotton, which has not yet occurred. Cotton is not specifically mentioned in your excellency's note, but I have seen public statements made in the United States that the attitude of His Majesty's Government with regard to cotton has been ambiguous, and thereby responsible for depression in the cotton trade. There has never been any foundation for this allegation. His Majesty's Government have never put cotton on the list of contraband; they have throughout the war kept it on the free list; and, on every occasion when questioned on the point, they have stated their intention of adhering to this practice. But information has reached us that, precisely because we have declared our intention of not interfering with cotton, ships carrying cotton will be specially selected to carry concealed contraband; and we have been warned that copper will be concealed in bales of cotton. Whatever suspicions we have entertained, we have not so far made these a ground for detaining any ship carrying cotton, but should we have information giving us real reason to believe in the case of a particular ship that the bales of cotton concealed copper or other contraband, the only way to prove our case would be to examine and weigh the bales; a process that could be carried out only by bringing the vessel into a port. In such a case, or if examination justified the action of His Majesty's Government the case shall be brought before a prize court and dealt with in the ordinary way....

We are confronted with the growing danger that neutral countries contiguous to the enemy will become on a scale hitherto unprecedented a base of supplies for the armed forces of our enemies and for materials for manufacturing armament. The trade figures of imports show how strong this tendency is, but we have no complaint to make of the attitude of the governments of those countries, which so far as we are aware have not departed from proper rules of neutrality. We endeavour in the interest of our own national safety to prevent this danger by intercepting goods really destined for the enemy without interfering with those which are bona fide neutral....

Pending a more detailed reply, I would conclude by saying that His Majesty's Government do not desire to contest the general principles of law on which they understand the note of the United States to be based, and desire to restrict their action solely to interference with contraband destined for the enemy. His Majesty's Government are prepared, whenever a cargo coming from the United States is detained, to explain the case on which such detention has taken place, and would gladly enter into any arrangement by which mistakes can be avoided and reparation secured promptly when any injury to the neutral owners of a ship or cargo has been improperly caused, for they are most desirous in the interest both of the United States and of other neutral countries that British action should not interfere with the normal importation and use by the neutral countries of goods from the United States.

I have [etc.]
E. Grey

Order in Council of March, 11, 1915:

Whereas the German Government has issued certain orders which, in violation of the usages of war, purport to declare the waters surrounding the United Kingdom a military area, in which all British and allied merchant vessels will be destroyed irrespective of the safety of the lives of passengers and crew, and in which neutral shipping will be exposed to similar danger in view of the uncertainties of naval warfare; and . . .

Whereas such attempts on the part of the enemy give to His Majesty an unquestionable right of retaliation; and

Whereas His Majesty has therefore decided to adopt further measures in order to prevent commodities of any kind from reaching or leaving Germany, though such measures will be enforced without risk to neutral ships or to neutral or non-combatant life and in strict observance of the dictates of humanity; and

Whereas the Allies of His Majesty are associated with him in the steps now to be announced for restricting further the commerce of Germany;

His Majesty is therefore pleased, by and with the advice of his Privy Council, to order and it is hereby ordered as follows:

1. No merchant vessel which sailed from her port of departure after the 1st March 1915 shall be allowed to proceed on her voyage to any German port.

Unless the vessel receives a pass enabling her to proceed to some neutral or allied port to be named in the pass, goods on board any such vessel must be discharged in a British port and placed in the custody of the Marshal of the Prize Court. Goods so discharged, not being contraband of war, shall, if not requisitioned for the use of His Majesty, be restored by order of the Court, upon such terms as the Court may in the circumstances deem to be just, to the person entitled thereto.

2. No merchant vessel which sailed from any German port after the 1st March 1915 shall be allowed to proceed on her voyage with any goods on board laden at such port

All goods laden at such port must be discharged in a British or allied port. Goods so discharged in a British port shall be placed in the custody of the marshal of the Prize Court, and, if not requisitioned for the use of His Majesty, shall be detained or sold under the direction of the Prize Court The proceeds of goods so sold shall be paid into Court and dealt with in such manner as the Court may in the circumstances deem to be just.

Provided, that no proceeds of the sale of such goods shall be paid out of Court until the conclusion of peace, except on the application of the proper officer of the Crown, unless it be shown that the goods had become neutral property before the issue of this Order.

Provided also, that nothing herein shall prevent the release of neutral property laden at such enemy port on the application of the proper officer of the Crown.

3. Every merchant vessel which sailed from her port of departure after the 1st March 1915 on her way to a port other than a German port, carrying goods with an enemy destination, or which are enemy property, may be required to discharge such goods in a British or allied port. Any goods so discharged in a British port shall be placed in the custody of the marshal of the Prize Court, and, unless they are contraband of war, shall, if not requisitioned for the use of His Majesty, be restored by order of the Court, upon such terms as the Court may in the circumstances deem to be just to the person entitled thereto.

Provided, that this Article shall not apply in any case falling within Articles 2 or 4 of this Order.

4. Every merchant vessel which sailed from a port other than a German port after the 1st March 1915 having on board goods which are of enemy origin or are enemy property may be required to discharge such goods in a British or allied port. Goods so discharged in a British port shall be p]aced in the custody of the marshal of the Prize Court, and if not requisitioned for the use of His Majesty, shall be detained or sold under the direction of the Prize Court. The proceeds of goods so sold shall be paid into Court and dealt with in such manner as the Court may in the circumstances deem to be just.

Provided, that no proceeds of sale of such goods shall be paid out of Court until the conclusion of peace except on the application of the proper officer of the Crown, unless it be shown that the goods had become neutral property before the issue of this order.

Provided also, that nothing herein shall prevent the release of neutral property of enemy origin on the application of the proper officer of the Crown.

5. Any person claiming to be interested in, or to have any claim in respect of, any goods (not being contraband of war) placed in the custody of the marshal of the Prize Court under this order, or in the proceeds of such goods, may forthwith issue a writ in the Prize Court against the proper officer of the Crown and apply for an order that the goods should be restored to him, or that their proceeds should be paid to him, or for such other order as the circumstances of the case may require.

The practice and procedure of the Prize Court shall, so far as applicable, be followed mutatis mutandi in any proceedings consequential upon this Order.

6. A merchant vessel which has cleared for a neutral port from a British or allied port, or which has been allowed to pass having an ostensible destination to a neutral port, and proceeds to an enemy port, shall, if captured on any subsequent voyage, be liable to condemnation.

7. Nothing in this Order shall be deemed to affect the liability of any vessel or goods to capture or condemnation independently of this Order.

8. Nothing in this Order shall prevent the relaxation of the provisions of this Order in respect of the merchant vessels of any country which declares that no commerce intended for or originating in Germany or belonging to German subjects shall enjoy the protection of its flag.

Secretary of State Bryan to Ambassador Page:

Washington, March 30, 1915

You are instructed to deliver the following to His Majesty's Government...:

The Government of the United States has given careful consideration to the subjects treated in the British notes of March 13 and March 15, and to the British order in council of the latter date.

These communications contain matters of grave importance to neutral nations. They appear to menace their rights of trade and intercourse not only with belligerents but also with one another. They call for frank comment in order that misunderstandings may be avoided. The Government of the United States deems it its duty, therefore, speaking in the sincerest spirit of friendship, to make its own view and position with regard to them unmistakably clear.

The order in council of the 15th of March would constitute, were its provisions to be actually carried into effect as they stand, a practical assertion of unlimited belligerent rights over neutral commerce within the whole European area, and an almost unqualified denial of the sovereign rights of the nations now at peace.

This Government takes it for granted that there can be no question what those rights are. A nation's sovereignty over its own ships and citizens under its own flag on the high seas in time of peace is, of course, unlimited; and that sovereignty suffers no diminution in time of war, except in so far as the practice and consent of civilized nations has limited it by the recognition of certain now clearly determined rights, which it is conceded may be exercised by nations which are at war.

A belligerent nation has been conceded the right of visit and search, and the right of capture and condemnation, if upon examination a neutral vessel is found to be engaged in unneutral service or to be carrying contraband of war intended for the enemy's government or armed forces. It has been conceded the right to establish and maintain a blockade of an enemy's ports and coasts and to capture and condemn any vessel taken in trying to break the blockade. It is even conceded the right to detain and take to its own ports for judicial examination all vessels which it suspects for substantial reasons to be engaged in unneutral or contraband service and to condemn them if the suspicion is sustained. But such rights, long clearly defined both in doctrine and practice, have hitherto been held to be the only permissible exceptions to the principle of universal equality of sovereignty on the high seas as between belligerents and nations not engaged in war.

It is confidently assumed that His Majesty's Government will not deny that it is a rule sanctioned by general practice that, even though a blockade should exist and the doctrine of contraband as to unblockaded territory be rigidly enforced, innocent shipments may be freely transported to and from the United States through neutral countries to belligerent territory without being subject to the penalties of contraband traffic or breach of blockade, much less to detention, requisition, or confiscation.

Moreover the rules of the Declaration of Paris of 1856 -- among them that free ships make free goods\emdash will hardly at this day be disputed by the signatories of that solemn agreement.

His Majesty's Government, like the Government of the United State[s], have often and explicitly held that these rights represent the best usage of warfare in the dealings of belligerents with neutrals at sea.... And no claim on the part of Great Britain of any justification for interfering with these clear rights of the United States and its citizens as neutrals could be admitted. To admit it would be to assume an attitude of unneutrality toward the present enemies of Great Britain which would be obviously in consistent with the solemn obligations of this Government in the present circumstances; and for Great Britain to make such a claim would be for her to abandon and set at naught the principles for which she has consistently and earnestly contended in other times and circumstances.

The note of His Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs which accompanies the order in council, and which bears the same date, notifies the Government of the United States of the establishment of a blockade which is, if defined by the terms of the order in council, to include all the coasts and ports of Germany and every port of possible access to enemy territory. But the novel and quite unprecedented feature of that blockade, if we are to assume it to be properly so defined, is that it embraces many neutral ports and coasts, bars access to them, and subjects all neutral ships seeking to approach them to the same suspicion that would attach to them were they bound for the ports of the enemies of Great Britain, and to unusual risks and penalties.

It is manifest that such limitations, risks, and liabilities placed upon the ships of a neutral power on the high seas, beyond the right of visit and search and the right to prevent the shipment of contraband already referred to, are a distinct invasion of the sovereign rights of the nation whose ships, trade, or commerce are interfered with.

The Government of the United States is, of course, not oblivious to the great changes which have occurred in the conditions and means of naval warfare since the rules hitherto governing legal blockade were formulated. It might be ready to admit that the old form of close blockade with its cordon of ships in the immediate offing of the blockaded ports is no longer practicable in face of an enemy possessing the means and opportunity to make an effective defense by the use of submarines, mines, and aircraft; but it can hardly be maintained that, whatever form of effective blockade may be made use of, it is impossible to conform at least to the spirit and principles of the established rules of war. If the necessities of the case should seem to render it imperative that the cordon of blockading vessels be extended across the approaches to any neighboring neutral port or country, it wo uld seem clear that it would still be easily practicable to comply with the well-recognized and reasonable prohibition of international law against the blockading of neutral ports by according free admission and exit to all lawful traffic with neutral ports through the blockading cordon. This traffic would of course include all outward-bound traffic from the neutral country and all inward-bound traffic to the neutral country except contraband in transit to the enemy. Such procedure need not conflict in any respect with the rights of the belligerent maintaining the blockade since the right would remain with the blockading vessels to visit and search all ships either entering or leaving the neutral territory which they were in fact, but not of right, investing.

The Government of the United States notes that in the order in council His Majesty's Government give as their reason for entering upon a course of action, which they are aware is without precedent in modern warfare, the necessity they conceive themselves to have been placed under to retaliate upon their enemies for measures of a similar nature which the latter have announced it their intention to adopt and which they have to some extent adopted; but the Government of the United States, recalling the principles upon which His Majesty's Government have hitherto been scrupulous to act, interprets this as merely a reason for certain extra ordinary activities on the part of His Majesty's naval forces and not as an excuse for or prelude to any unlawful action. If the course pursued by the present enemies of Great Britain should prove to be in fact tainted by illegality and disregard of the principles of war sanctioned by enlightened nations, it can not be supposed, and this Government does not for a moment suppose, that His Majesty's Government would wish the same taint to attach to their own actions or would cite such illegal acts as in any sense or degree a justification for similar practices on their part in so far as they affect neutral rights....

This Government notes with gratification that "wide discretion is afforded to the prize court in dealing with the trade of neutrals in such manner as may in the circumstances be deemed just, and that full provision is made to facilitate claims by persons interested in any goods placed in the custody of the marshal of the prize court under the order"; that "the effect of the order in council is to confer certain powers upon the executive officers of His Majesty's Government"; and that "the extent to which these powers will be actually exercised and the degree of severity with which the measures of blockade authorized will be put into operation are matters which will depend on the administrative orders issued by the Government and the decisions of the authorities especially charged with the duty of dealing with individual ships and cargoes according to the merits of each case." This Government further notes with equal satisfaction the declaration of the British Government that "the instructions to be issued by His Majesty's Government to the fleet and to the customs officials and executive committees concerned will impress upon them the duty of acting with the utmost dispatch consistent with the object in view, and of showing in every case such consideration for neutrals as may be compatible with that object, which is, succinctly stated, to establish a blockade to prevent vessels from carrying goods for or coming from Germany."

In view of these assurances formally given to this Government it is confidently expected that the extensive powers conferred by the order in council on the executive officers of the Crown will be restricted by "orders issued by the Government' directing the exercise of their discretionary powers in such a manner as to modify in practical application those provisions of the order in council which, if strictly enforced, would violate neutral rights and interrupt legitimate trade. Relying on the faithful performance of these volunta ry assurances by His Majesty's Government the United States takes it for granted that the approach of American merchantmen to neutral ports situated upon the long line of coast affected by the order in council will not be interfered with when it is known that they do not carry goods which are contraband of war or goods destined to or proceeding from ports within the belligerent territory affected....

The possibilities of serious interruption of American trade under the order in council are so many, and the methods proposed are so unusual and seem liable to constitute so great an impediment and embarrassment to neutral commerce that the Government of the United States, if the order in council is strictly enforced, apprehends many interferences with its legitimate trade which will impose upon His Majesty's Government heavy responsibilities for acts of the British authorities clearly subversive of the rights of neutral nations on the high seas. It is, therefore, expected that His Majesty's Government, having considered these possibilities, will take the steps necessary to avoid them, and, in the event that they should unhappily occur, will] beprepared to make full reparation for every act, which under the rules of international law constitutes a violation of neutral rights.

As stated in its communication of October 22,1914, "This Government will insist that the rights and duties of the United States and its citizens in the present war be defined by the existing rules of international law and the treaties of the United States, irrespective of the provisions of the Declaration of London, and that this Government reserves to itself the right to enter a protest or demand in each case in which those rights and duties so defined are violated, or their free exercise interfered with, by the authorities of the British Government."

In conclusion you will reiterate to His Majesty's Government that this statement of the views of the Government of the United States is made in the most friendly spirit, and in accordance with the uniform candor which has characterized the relations of the two Governments in the past, and which has been in large measure the foundation of the peace and amity existing between the two nations without interruption for a century.

W. J. Bryan

Return to World War I Document Archive

d Comments, corrections and suggestions are welcome:
      Richard Hacken (hacken @ byu.edu)
      or Jane Plotke (cd078 @ gwpda.org). .

Created: 21 April 1996, 09:50:59 Last Updated: 21 April 1996, 09:50:59