Primary Documents - U.S. Reaction to Official Allied Protest to Regarding Status of Submarines, 31 August 1916

Robert Lansing On 9 July 1916 the captain of the German submarine Deutschland, Paul Koenig, docked in the U.S.  A merchantmen, and therefore carrying no munitions, the newfound ability of the Germans to despatch submarines across the Atlantic was duly acknowledged by the governments of all belligerent nations as significant.

While the U.S. government allowed merchant vessels from all warring nations to dock at U.S. ports and to freely trade, in practice Britain's dominance of the seas ensured that Germany was effectively excluded from the U.S. market.  Thus the arrival of the Deutschland threatened to challenge Britain's naval blockade, at least so far as trade with the U.S. was concerned.

Britain, in a joint statement with the other Allied governments, promptly despatched a note of protest to the U.S. government arguing that submarines should not be regarded as merchant vessels.  In support of this argument the Allies suggested that as a submarine could not be stopped and inspected for munitions in the same manner as other vessels, her real intentions could not be verified.

The U.S. government - under constant pressure from the German government on account of suspected favouritism granted to the Allied nations - responded at the close of August 1916 with a rejection of the Allies' arguments; unarmed submarines, from whatever nation, were to be regarded as merchant vessels and accordingly permitted to trade.

Click here to read Captain Koenig's initial announcement upon arrival in the U.S. with the Deutschland on 9 July 1916.  Click here to read the text of the Allies' official protest to the U.S. government in July 1916.

Reproduced below is the reply of the U.S., written by Secretary of State Robert Lansing.

Reply of the U.S. Government to Allies' Protest Regarding the Treatment of Submarines as Merchant Vessels, 31 August 1916

Washington, August 31, 1916

The Government of the United States has received the identic memoranda of the Governments of France, Great Britain, Russia, and Japan in which neutral Governments are exhorted "to take efficacious measures tending to prevent belligerent submarines, regardless of their use, to avail themselves of neutral waters, roadsteads, and harbours."

These Governments point out the facility possessed by such craft to avoid supervision or surveillance or determination of their national character and their power "to do injury that is inherent in their very nature" as well as the "additional facilities" afforded by having at their disposal places where they can rest and replenish their supplies.

Apparently on these grounds the allied Governments hold that "submarine vessels must be excluded from the benefit of the rules heretofore accepted under international law regarding the admission and sojourn of war and merchant vessels in neutral waters, roadsteads, or harbours; any submarine of a belligerent that once enters a neutral harbour must be held there," and therefore the allied Governments "warn neutral powers of the great danger to neutral submarines attending the navigation of waters visited by the submarines of belligerents."

In reply the Government of the United States must express its surprise that there appears to be an endeavour of the allied powers to determine the rule of action governing what they regard as a "novel situation" in respect to the use of submarines in time of war, and to enforce a compliance of that rule, at least in part, by warning neutral powers of the great danger to their submarines in waters that may be visited by belligerent submarines.

In the opinion of the Government of the United States, the allied powers have not set forth any circumstance, nor is the Government of the United States at present aware of any circumstances, concerning the use of war or merchant submarines which would render the existing rules of international law inapplicable to them.

In view of this fact and of the notice and warning of the allied powers announced in their memoranda under acknowledgment, it is incumbent upon the Government of the United States to notify the Governments of France, Great Britain, Russia, and Japan that, so far as the treatment of either war or merchant submarines in American waters is concerned, the Government of the United States reserves its liberty of action in all respects, and will treat such vessels as, in its opinion, becomes the action of a power which may be said to have taken the first steps toward establishing the principles of neutrality and which for over a century has maintained those principles in the traditional spirit and with the high sense of impartiality in which they were conceived.

In order, however, that there should be no misunderstanding as to the attitude of the United States, the Government of the United States announces to the allied powers that it holds it to be the duty of belligerent powers to distinguish between submarines of neutral and belligerent nationality, and that responsibility for any conflict that may arise between belligerent warships and neutral submarines on account of the neglect of a belligerent to so distinguish between these classes of submarines must rest entirely upon the negligent power.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

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