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British Foreign Secretary Arthur J. Balfour to American Ambassador to Great Britain Walter Hines Page




Cypher telegram to Sir C.Spring Rice (Washington).

     Foreign Office [London]. April 5th.1917. 10.0 p.m.

No.961 (R).

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     I have communicated to-day to the American Ambassador here the following memorandum:-

     (Begins):- In answer to Your Excellency’s request I should put on paper a summary of the most urgent needs of the Allies, I venture the following observations:-

     Without doubt, the most pressing need of the Allies at this moment is shipping. This is not merely, nor even perhaps mainly, due to the fact that Great Britain being an island largely dependent for its foodstuffs on overseas sources of supply, communications with these is not a luxury, but a necessity. The difference between Great Britain on the one hand and France and Italy on the other is, in this respect, not so great as might be supposed. Both France and Italy are largely dependent upon imported foodstuffs, and in addition they require coal and iron from the United Kingdom.

     The truth is that tonnage is as much a military as an economic necessity. About half of the British mercantile marine is now devoted to war services and the assistance of our Allies.

     Quite apart, therefore from German piracy, the tonnage question would be important and difficult; and, if the rate of loss by submarine attack is going to be maintained (and according to our calculation it is likely to increase rather than diminish) it becomes evident, not merely from the point of view of Great Britain, but from that of the Allies generally, that the tonnage problem is the one most urgently in need of solution.

     If Your Excellency asks how the United States can contribute to lighten this particular difficulty, I venture to lay before you the following suggestions for consideration:

     (1) The seizure of enemy ships and their employment at the earliest moment on the important trade routes;

     (2) The charter of neutral shipping, which might be transferred from the European trade to safer waters;

     (3) The release of shipping from coastal or lake trade to work on the main lines of communication; and, most important of all,

     (4) The rapid increase of shipbuilding to the extreme limits of possible production, not only during the present year but also during next year.

     This work will no doubt have to be carried on chiefly in American yards. But I would press upon Your Excellency that even in British yards shipbuilding might be increased could an additional supply of steel be obtained from the United States of America: a matter which we greatly hope may be taken into favourable consideration by the American Government.

     In this connexion I would beg Your Excellency to consider whether it would not be desirable, as it would certainly be legitimate, to requisition ships now building for neutrals in the yards of the United States.

     The second need of the Allies, in order of immediate importance, is financial assistance, especially for the purpose of facilitating the purchase in the United States by the Allied countries of munitions and other necessaries. As Your Excellency is aware, the difficulty in this case is largely one of exchange. The imports of the Allies from the United States far exceed their exports to that country, and the balance of indebtedness has to be met in some other fashion. Practically the whole burden of so meeting it has hitherto been borne by the United Kingdom; but our power to finance, not merely ourselves, but all our Allies, has inevitable limitations; and, if the burden could be diminished by direct arrangement between the United States and the various Allied countries, immense assistance would thereby be given towards the efficient conduct of the war. Great care would no doubt have to be taken lest this change should lead to competitive buying by one belligerent country against another in the same market; but good organisation and mutual confidence should be sufficient to guard against so unfortunate a result.

     In the third place (while I am on the subject of transport and supply) I ought to mention the extreme need of all the Allies, and especially the Russians, for locomotives and other rolling stock. Nor is it merely material that is required. If all stories are true the capacity of the Vladivostok railway and port could be many times increased if America could provide, not merely the needful rolling stock, but the still more needful management. This no doubt might involve a somewhat difficult and delicate negotiation with the Russian Government. But if they were convinced that American management was purely a war measure and had no financial aspect, something really important might be accomplished towards making the efficiency of Russian organisation correspond more closely with the size of Russia’s territories and the number of her population.

     I have said nothing so far on the question of naval and military assistance, though, if the war lasts the service that could be rendered by the United States to the cause of the Allies in this direction is incalculable.

     As regards maritime affairs, indeed there seems, so far as we can judge, to be no immediate sphere of employment for the American Battle Fleet. But the share which American cruisers could take in policing the Atlantic is of the greatest importance; and all craft from destroyers downwards, capable of dealing with submarines would be absolutely invaluable.

     It is in the matter of fighting men, however, that the most vital aid could be given to the Allied Cause, should the war unhappily continue. The experience of the British Empire has shown what can be done by a non-military nation in the creation of a military force. Doubtless the United States, with a far larger population, could better the example, should be necessity arise. It must be admitted, no doubt, that after the United States has determined on the best method of training their new levies, difficult questions of transport will arise; but on these I need say nothing in this memorandum.

     In conclusion, let me assure Your Excellency that any lessons which we may have succeeded in learning from 2½ years fighting are entirely at the disposal of your Government, and that we shall be glad to place at your service experts familiar with the new problems which the present war has produced so plentiful a supply. (Ends).

Source Note: Cy, UK-KeNA, Adm. 137/1436, #305. This copy of Balfour’s memorandum to Page was sent as a cipher telegram to Sir Cecil Spring Rice, the British Ambassador to the United States. The telegram bears the identification number “961” and the designation “(R)” is probably the cipher used. Following the memorandum is another note to Spring Rice that reads: “A telegram will be sent to Your Excellency as soon as possible dealing generally with matters connected with the restriction of enemy trade.”

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