Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Secretary of State Robert Lansing to United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom Walter Hines Page

BLUE CIPHER              September 9. 1917

TO        American Embassy, London.

FROM      Department of State, signed LANSING

DATED     September 7, 3 p.m.

RECEIVED  September 9.1917. 11 a.m.

No.  5388.

     Your 6993. August 21. 4 p.m.

     After giving very careful thought and consideration to Mr. Balfour’s1 views, the Chairman of the Shipping Board2 has made the following reply to Secretary of State which represents the views of this Government.

     “It has not been with any view of the national advantage but with the singleminded purpose of waging the war successfully that my own personal thought has been given to this matter. On account of the uncertainty of the amount of tonnage we may require for our troops in France my views are that we must move slowly. Our line of communication to our troops in France extends over the Atlantic Ocean. It is our first duty not only to ourselves but to the nations associated with the United States in the war against the German Government to see to it that every precaution is taken to preserve these lines of communication.

     The American Government will be held responsible for the maintenance of its own fighting forces in France. It must not only have adequate transport facilities for troops but must always have at hand a sufficient number of ships for the movement of supplies for the maintenance of these troops as well as for the needs of the nations associated with us. The responsibility for this vital war service falls upon us. We cannot shirk the responsibility or share it.

     If we could calculate the measure of destruction of merchant ships by submarines in the future we would have greater freedom of action in this matter, but as the future must be guessed rather than gauged, it seems to me that we would assume grave risks in adopting any policy which would affect (?) our control of our own military and naval situation without reducing our responsibility.

     For your information, I will say that the steamship WARSWORD, owned by the Cunard Line and now in San Francisco which came under our commandeering order has been turned over to the Cunard Company. This ship was ordered and paid for by the Cunard Company and I understand no money was due when the commandeering order went into effect and the ship was about ready to sail. You will appreciate the uncertainty of our requirements on the other side at the present time as well as in the future and we figure on sending thousands of tons of freight cars, locomotives, hospital trains, rails, ties, thousands of feet of lumber and many other materials for construction of which it is impossible at the moment to guarantee complete date. In addition, the army must be provided with transports, supplies for the army, animals, munitions and food. For the sending of troops and supplies for our own men, we can arrive at an approximation, but even this approximation is again made tentative by the degree of destructiveness in future submarine operations.

     No one can predict with certainty or accuracy what demands will be made upon us in the future. The uncertainty of the entire situation is such that we should move cautiously with the thought always in mind of living up to our promises to our own people and to the nations associated with us. Our first thought of course must be for our own troops and we must take every precaution to see that we are able to meet their requirements abundantly even at a time when we may have a million or two million men in France.

     If we were to act hurriedly and turn over the tonnage to all foreign countries now in our yards, and later the submarine menace should increase and thus decrease our present tonnage and proposed tonnage to a point where we could not supply our own soldiers or even delay the sending of such supplies, we would be placed in the position of having failed to use the good judgement which the American people expect us to use. The very labor used in the construction of these ships would have right to complain that its work had not saved its brothers in the trenches from the disaster that would come from a failure of supplies.

     In view of all the facts it is my hope that the British Government will appreciate the seriousness of our position and realize that the transportation of troops 3000 miles is a serious task, that our ships must sail 6000 miles in order to carry a cargo; that this is the longest line of communication which any nation in war has ever been compelled to maintain, that while they have suffered severely by the submarine and we recognize the point of view set forth in all friendliness, our own necessities require us to move with caution and care. They may rest assured that the tonnage in our yards, that we may from time to time take over if conditions demand it, will be in the service of our army in France as well as in the service of the nations associated with these in the war.

     The American people have been most generous in giving every branch of our Government unlimited powers not only in supplying our Government sufficient funds but in being ready and willing to continue financing our associates in the war. The American people in turn expect us to pay special attention to our soldiers who are to fight our battles thousands of miles from home, and any steps taken whereby these men are not first considered to my mind would meet with the general disapproval of the American people.”

Lansing. 

Source Note: CyS, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517B. Document reference: “In 11.”

Footnote 1: Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour.

Footnote 2: Edward N. Hurley.

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