Acting Secretary of State Frank Polk to United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom Walter Hines Page
Received August 1st, 1917
5236.......... July 31, 6 p.m.1
In an appointed interview today with the British Ambassador, Lord Eustace Percy and Sir Richard Crawford,2 I discussed the effect of the United States embargo on exports to the European neutrals, taking up each neutral in turn in its relation to the Allies and to Germany as respects imports, exports, trade agreements, military possibilities etc. I emphasized the fact that a policy on the subject was about to be formulated by the United States which, however, is embarrassed by the lack of formal authoritative statements from the British and French Governments concerning particular points only vaguely or partially touched upon in the interviews or memoranda of members of the Embassies. Indeed, some of the statements and views expressed from time to time are, in my opinion, somewhat inconsistent and contradictory and should be made clear by full and frank interchange of ideas as soon as possible. I requested from the Ambassador for our consideration an authoritative expression of the views of his Government on the following points arising out of the discussion:
In the first place: what agreement has Great Britain made with the northern neutrals and what agreement has France reached with Switzerland? We have been given only general statements concerning these agreements and have not been supplied with copies of them. Before our embargo is completed, we should have full information as to the provisions of the agreements which might be broken by it.
In the second place: is Great Britain willing or anxious to break these agreements with the neutral countries? Unless it is understood officially that Great Britain and France concur in and desire such action, the United States would probably not be willing to seem to cause the Allies to break these agreements but on the other hand, if the importation of wheat into Holland, for example, should be prohibited by America while Great Britain freely shipped rice under special conditions to that country, the United States would be placed in a peculiar situation. The responsibility for the termination of the agreements should be shared by the Allies with the United States if such action seems most desirable.
In the third place: if the neutrals should,as the direct or indirect result of the embargo, cut off the supplies or facilities now being furnished by them to Great Britian [Britain], France and Italy, would the latter countries be willing to forego this assistance?
In the fourth place: should Germany attack the neutrals or establish bases on their territory or coasts or in other ways use them to serve its military ends directly, are the Allies ready to meet the military situation arising therefrom with such assistance as could be supplied at the present moment by the United States? The Allied belligerents should share the responsibility of bringing about so serious a situation and should meet it together.
In the fifth place: what demands do Great Britain and France wish made upon the neutrals? Is all importation to Germany to be stopped? To what extent, if at all, will the use of neutral shipping be demanded?
Before action is taken, the responsibility for the effects of a drastic embargo should be clearly understood both as regards the military situation and the supplies to Germany and the Allies and the latter should properly weigh and determine in advance the preparation necessary to meet and nullify these effects and the extent to which we and the Allies are willing to bear the burden of possible naval and military operations.
I informed the Ambassador that I would like to submit to the Export Co uncil definite and official answers to these questions after their technical consideration by the British authorities before the drastic demands, which it is understood the Allies desire us to make on the European neutrals, can be considered or possibly recommended.
POLK, Acting Secretary of State.
Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517B.
Footnote 1: This notes the date and time the letter was sent.
Footnote 2: British Ambassador to the United States Sir Cecil Spring Rice, Eustace Percy, 1st Baron Percy of Newcastle, and Sir Richard Crawford. The latter two were prominent figures in British diplomacy.