Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to President Woodrow Wilson
THE SECRETARY OF THE NAVY,
<Apr. 10, 1917.>
Dear Mr. President:-
I am enclosing you two statements, prepared in the division of Operations bearing upon the interned ships and refugee ships, requesting a policy and method of carrying it into execution, for your consideration. I thought you would wish this before the meeting of the cabinet.
April 8, 1917.
P R O B L E M :-
GENERAL SITUATION: As at Present. At war with Germany.
Three vessels of German Navy in our ports. Two at Philadelphia; one at Pearl Harbor. The CORMORANT, a fourth vessel just blown up by own crew in harbor of Guam.1 Crews of vessels at Philadelphia discovered some time ago to have made preparations for destroying their vessels. All crews have been removed from their vessels and the German flag has been hauled down on these vessels.
One hundred and two vessels of German Merchant Marine in our ports. Most of these vessels have been disabled by their own crews. In consequence crews have been removed and confined.
REQUIRED: Estimate of the Situation to determine a policy as to treatment of German vessels now within the ports of the United States and its insular possessions.
POLICY TO BE FOLLOWED:-
(1) MAKE GERMAN NAVAL VESSELS NOW WITHIN OUR PORTS PRIZES OF WAR, AND MAKE THEIR OFFICERS AND CREWS PRISONERS OF WAR.
(2) SEIZE ALL GERMAN MERCHANT VESSELS NOW WITHIN OUR PORTS AND USE THEM. Protect. BY SUITABLE MEASURES, THE INTERESTS OF PRIVATE OWNERS OF GERMAN MERCHANT VESSELS NOW IN OUR PORTS.
S O L U T I O N
FIRST AS TO GERMAN NAVAL VESSELS.
(a) These vessels entered our ports of their own free will.
(b) They voluntarily submitted to internment which carries with it at least a partial surrender of the rights of sovereignty usually accorded to vessels of war in foreign ports.
(c) Internment can be for no other period that for the duration of the war in progress at the time of internment.
(d) The United States, were it so disposed, could not release vessels of the German Navy from internment without performing an act gravely unneutral towards the Entente Powers.
(e) Since these vessels cannot depart our ports under their own flag they must remain in our ports so long as their flag flies.
(f) There is no law, nor treaty, nor practice that requires that the vessels of war of an enemy power be given safe conduct from port much less refuge within the port. A belligerent having within his ports enemy vessels is using only reasonable precaution in making sure that they shall not go forth to his injury.
(g) In war the armed forces of the enemy are legitimate objectives of warfare. So long as they remain outside of neutral jurisdiction they are subject to our will in so far as we are able to impose it upon them. We seek to turn the situation of our enemy to our advantage being limited in our efforts solely by the laws and customs of civilization. Armed forces of the enemy within our borders are a public menace.
From all of which I conclude:-
(1) THAT THE VESSELS OF THE GERMAN NAVY NOW WITHIN OUR PORTS ARE LEGITIMATE AND COMPLETE PRIZES OF WAR, AND THAT THEIR OFFICERS AND CREWS ARE PRISONERS OF WAR.
(2) THAT PRIZES OF WAR BECOME COMPLETELY UPON CAPTURE THE PROPERTY OF THE GOVERNMENT.
SECOND AS TO GERMAN MERCHANT VESSELS:
(a) The German merchant vessels within our ports are refugee ships. They came to our ports of their own free will to claim our hospitality. They have remained of their own free will. The sea is forbidden to them by the enemies of their country. No German merchant ships are at sea today except in the capacity of raiders on the commerce of their enemies. Every type of merchant vessel lends itself to employment as a raider, if armed, or, as a tender of submarines if it can escape detection and can obtain supplies.
(b) German policy, first illustrated by the case of German vessels in Portuguese ports, is to disable refugee ships that might otherwise be used by the enemies of Germany. Most of the refugee ships in our ports have been disabled, showing an absence of any intention on the part of these ships to depart our ports, and showing further an expectation,now realized, of war with the United States.
(c) The concerted, worldwide action of the crews of German refugee ships has demonstrated that the actions of these crews are controlled by the German Government. The blowing up of the CORMORANT is conclusive proof that public safety demands that these vessels shall be completely within the control of the United States.
The above considerations bear upon the precepts of international law as interpreted in the past. Examining past practice we find:
FIRST AS TO INNOCENT ENEMY MERCHANT VESSELS.
It has been the practice of each belligerent government to announce days of grace, after the declaration of war, within which innocent enemy merchant vessels might depart and might pursue their homeward voyage provided they were and continued to be innocent.
On March 27, 1854, France granted to the merchant vessels of Russia six weeks to quit French Ports.
On March 29, 1854, England granted to the merchant vessels of Russia six weeks for loading at and departing from English ports, but expressly prohibited the vessels from having on board any officer of the military or naval service of Russia or any contraband, or any despatches of or to the Russian Government.
On April 23, 1898, Spain granted five days in which American Merchant Vessels might quit Spanish ports.
On April 21, 1898 the United States granted ten days to Spanish vessels to land their cargoes and depart.
On February 9, 1904, Japan granted seven days of grace to Russian merchant vessels then in Japanese ports.
On February 14, 1904, Russia granted a maximum of 48 hours of grace to Japanese merchant vessels in her ports.
The above instances are sufficient to show that “Days of grace” for innocent merchant vessels are well recognized in international practice.
Let us assume that all German merchant vessels in United States ports are “innocent” and that we grant them “days of grace.”
The following will naturally be the sequence of resultant events:
(1) Return crews to their vessels;
(2) Crews sink or destroy their vessels in our ports. Such an act would be contrarynto the interest of humanity, or
(2) Crews say (quite truthfully with a very few exceptions,) vessels are unseaworthy and cannot be made ready within the days of grace;
(3) Those vessels that can go to sea cannot be given safe conduct. They are sure either to be wrecked by their own crews or captured or destroyed by the enemies of Germany.
(3) Those vessels unseaworthy must remain in port.
We see from the above that no matter how liberal our intentions may be we cannot, through the method of “days of grace” make the misfortunes of war fall less heavily on the noncombatant private owners of enemy merchant vessels in our ports. The sole object of days of grace is to continue the innocent vessels in the private ownership of enemy subjects, so that these, acting in good faith in a friendly capacity towards our own people shall not thereby be made to suffer loss.
Since war has been forced upon us, and since we still adhere to the underlying principle of days of grace, that is,- PROTECTION OF THE PRIVATE OWNER OF INNOCENT PROPERTY WITHIN OUR SOVEREIGNTY IN HIS PROPERTY RIGHTS,- wemmust seek for some other method than days of grace. There are two possible methods,-
(1) To continue the innocent vessels in the status they have chosen.
(2) To seize those vessels and to use them but to protect by suitable measures the interest of private owners
Success in the war now in progress may hinge upon the continued and properly directed employment of an adequate merchant fleet supporting those nations who are the enemies of Germany. Once war has begun all the resources of the Government and all the private property within its sovereignty are subject to the will of the Government. It would be nothing short of an absurdity to permit shipping vital to the successful prosecution of the war to lie idle in our ports. Private property of enemy subjects enjoy no immunity not enjoyed by similar property of our own citizens.
Method (1) above is rejected.
This leaves as the one possible policy to adopt regarding innocent enemy merchant vessels within our ports to be,-
“TO SEIZE those vessels and to use them, BUT TO PROTECT BY SUITABLE MEASURES THE INTERESTS OF THEIR PRIVATE OWNERS.”
If it were necessary for further justification of the seizure of enemy merchant vessels the universally accepted rule regarding the treatment of vessels adopted for use in war might be invoked.
No Government can be expected or required deliberately to take steps in favor of its enemy and tending to its own defeat.
April 8, 1917.
P R O B L E M
GENERAL SITUATION – As at present, war with Germany.
SPECIAL SITUATION – The President has decided “To seize all German merchant vessels now within our ports and use them; to protect by suitable measures the interests of private owners of German merchant vessels now in our ports.
REQUIRED – Estimate of the situation as to employment of above vessels.
S O L U T I O N
A previous estimate of the general situation of the United States in the present war led to the adoption of the following missions:-
1. TO DEVELOP THE FULL MILITARY AND NAVAL STRENGTH OF THE UNITED STATES AS FAST AS POSSIBLE.
2. TO EMPLOY OUR FORCES IN WAR SO AS BEST TO BUILD UP OUR FIGHTING POWER AS AN INDEPENDENT NATION.
3. TO RENDER THE MAXIMUM POSSIBLE SUPPORT NOW TO THE ENEMIES OF THE CENTRAL POWERS.
An examination of the methods of accomplishing the above missions led to the conclusion that the United States should make as small military demands as possible on merchant shipping so that the flow of the supplies and munitions essential to the support of the Entente Powers might be maintained. It was further determined that assistance to the Entente Powers should be rendered as quickly as possible so as to support and reinforce them while they are still strong. The only limitation on the methods of support of the Entente Powers was found in the requirements of missions (1) and (2) above. Applying these general principles to the situation outlined in the problem, we derive the following:-
M I S S I O N
TO USE THE GERMAN VESSELS THAT HAVE BEEN SEIZED SO AS BEST AND SOONEST TO SUPPORT THE MILITARY AND NAVAL OPERATIONS AGAINST GERMANY.
As the vessels are now without crews and not in condition for service, the first steps of all must be to man the vessels and to place them in condition for service. In order that each step may be directly towards the final employment of these vessels we must decide now what that employment should be.
All the information at hand points to the commanding military importance of maintaining and increasing trans-Atlantic commercial traffic. If this traffic fails the Entente Powers fail. Their failure will be our failure, too. From this we conclude that:-
It is of commanding military importance that the refugee German vessels be placed in the trans-Atlantic traffic as soon as possible.
Trans-Atlantic traffic is becoming increasingly dangerous. We are seeking to lessen the danger by Armed Guards, but their discretion is limited. The Armed Guards are for defense only. Such an attitude is inefficient. In war all our forces should be free to act offensively against the enemy wherever he may be. The ships at sea must be free to pursue and to attack enemy vessels wherever they are seen. International law does not permit merchant vessels so to act. We can meet completely the requirements of international law and give to our Armed Guards the authority and discretion demanded by a state of war, by commissioning in the Navy every vessel carrying an Armed Guard.
As the danger to shipping increases private enterprise will be increasingly reluctant to accept the hazards of the sea. If vessels are under naval control and their officers and crews are of the Navy, the maximum possible certainty of their continued operation is assured. If the Entente Powers fail and America is left alone in the war, we shall have done our best if all our vessels at sea are fighting ships ready to act with the Fleet. This is the phase of naval development that missions (1) and (2) demand of us.
At the end of the war the adjustment of the claims of private owners may be made more satisfactorily if the vessels are still in possession of the Government.
From the above considerations we arrive at the following
D E C I S I O N S
1. TREASURY DEPARTMENT TO TRANSFER ALL GERMAN REFUGEE VESSELS TO THE NAVY DEPARTMENT FOR COMMISSIONING AS NAVAL AUXILIARIES AND TO ASSIST NAVY IN GUARDING THESE VESSELS UNTIL THEY ARE COMMISSIONED.
2. NAVY DEPARTMENT TO SURVEY, REPAIR, ARM AND MAN THE VESSELS AS NAVAL AUXILIARIES FOR TRANS-ATLANTIC COMMERCIAL SERVICE.
3. ANNOUNCE THAT PRIVATE OWNERS OF VESSELS SEIZED WILL BE PROTECTED IN THEIR PROPERTY RIGHTS WHEN PEACE IS DECLARED.
1. An officer of the regular Navy in command of each vessel.
2. Trained gun pointer groups for each gun. Remainder of crew need have no special naval qualifications.
3. A battery of not less than four 3-inch or larger guns for each vessel.
4. Make careful inventories and appraisals of all property taken into custody.
5. Bureau of Supplies and Accounts to make arrangements with existing commercial organizations to handle shipments in both directions, the Navy to operate the vessels but not to handle the shipments.
6. Repair work on vessels to take precedence over all construction work.
Source Note: D, DLC-MSS, Woodrow Wilson Papers. The note at the beginning of the document is handwritten.
Footnote 1: The German cruiser Cormoran had put in to Guam 1914 after running out of coal. The United States interned the ship, and once America formally entered the war against Germany her crew blew their ship up rather than surrender it to the enemy. https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/s/supply-ii.html, consulted 29 November 2018.