Italian Preparations for War

ON SEPTEMBER 28, 1934 the United States Ambassador at Rome, Breckinridge Long, reported to the Secretary of State that rumors were current that Italy contemplated war against Ethiopia and was making extensive preparations to this end. Ambassador Long said he was convinced that preparations of an unusual sort were under way; he considered it quite possible that these preparations related to Ethiopia. A few months later, February 14, 1935, he reported to the Secretary of State that there were indications of general preparation for an extensive campaign in Ethiopia. The Ambassador reported that factories for the manufacture of trucks, tanks, and artillery at and around Milan were working day and night; that supplies and military forces were moving clandestinely; that concerted effort was being made to prevent any information getting out as to the size or general nature of shipments; that troop movements were at night; that embarkation was proceeding from several cities; that he had received reports that 30,000 troops had left Naples, and that the movement under way contemplated the use in Ethiopia of 200,000 or 300,000 troops; and that all of these movements were being camouflaged by the use of the regular merchant marine without using war vessels.

Italian preparations continued in the spring and summer and the danger of war became acute. Secretary Hull called in Italian Ambassador Rosso on July 10, 1935 to discuss the situation. He informed the Ambassador that the United States was deeply interested in the preservation of peace in all parts of the world. He emphasized the increasing concern of this Government in the situation arising cut of Italy's dispute with Ethiopia and expressed the earnest hope that a peaceful means might be found to arrive at a mutually satisfactory solution of the problem.

On August 18, 1935 President Roosevelt sent a personal message to Premier Mussolini of Italy, stating that the Government and people of the United States felt that failure to arrive at a peaceful settlement of this dispute and a subsequent outbreak of hostilities would be a world calamity the consequences of which would adversely affect the interests of all nations.

Ambassador Long cabled the Secretary of State on September 10, 1935 that there remained no vestige of doubt that Italy was irrevocably determined to proceed in Africa. The Ambassador reported that the entire population, both military and civilian, was in complete accord with Mussolini's policies; that the press in every issue gave expression of the national determination to proceed to war and not to tolerate interference from any source. There was every indication of a carefully prepared, well-calculated, "hard, cold, and cruel" prosecution of preconceived plans by the use of an army and navy which were almost fanatic in their idolatry of and devotion to one man and which were worked up to an emotional pitch unique in modern times. Ambassador Long expressed the view that the situation was fraught with dangers for the future as well as for the present.

A few days later he pointed out in a despatch to the Secretary of State that the long period of friendly cooperation between Italy and Great Britain had come to an end; he feared that it would be generations before the situation could be cured. The Ambassador said that any estimate of future possibilities must be based on one of two alternatives: first, that sufficient force would be applied to stop Italy's adventure and to impose upon it a definite defeat by arms or, second, that Italy would be successful in attaining its objectives in Ethiopia. In the latter case, he said, there would be nothing but trouble in the future; for if the venture were successful, Italy would be emboldened to proceed to others. Ambassador Long declared that Italy must either be defeated "now" and prevented from realizing its ambitions in East Africa, "or the trouble will continue on through for a generation as an additional irritation to European politics and an additional menace to world peace".

On September 12, 1935 Secretary Hull made a public statement of the attitude of this Government. He said that the United States desired peace; that we believed international controversies could and should be settled by peaceful means; that a threat of hostilities anywhere would be a threat to the political, economic, and social interests of all nations; and that armed conflict in any part of the world would have adverse effects in every part of the world. He stated that all nations had the right to ask that any and all issues between nations be resolved by pacific means; that every nation had the right to ask that no other nation subject it to the hazards and uncertainties that must inevitably accrue to all from resort to arms by any two. In conclusion, the Secretary said that this Government asked the parties in dispute to "weigh most solicitously" the pledge given in the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which was made by the signatories for the purpose of safeguarding peace and sparing the world the incalculable losses and human suffering that inevitably follow in the wake of war.

Outbreak of War

During this period of threatening hostilities the League of Nations was endeavoring to prevent the outbreak of war. The Italian Government, however, refused to be deterred from carrying out its plan for conquest. On October 3, 1935 Italian armed forces invaded Ethiopia.

With the outbreak of war between Italy and Ethiopia President Roosevelt, in accordance with provisions of the Neutrality Act, issued proclamations putting into effect an embargo on the export of arms, ammunition, and implements of war to the two belligerent nations and restrictions on travel by United States citizens on vessels of the belligerents. Upon issuing these proclamations on October 5, 1935, the President stated that "any of our people who voluntarily engage in transactions of any character with either of the belligerents do so at their own risk".

The League of Nations, after deciding that Italy had violated its obligations under the Covenant, recommended to its members a number of commercial and financial sanctions against Italy. While sanctions were under consideration, it was reported that the League might ask non-League countries to participate. Thereupon the Secretary of State instructed the United States representatives at Geneva, on October 9, 1935, that he considered it advisable for the League to understand that definite measures had already been taken by the United States in accordance with our own limitations and policies; that these measures included the restriction of commercial and financial transactions with the belligerents; and that we desired to follow our course independently, in the light of developing circumstances. A week later the Secretary again sent instructions explaining the attitude of the United States toward cooperation with other governments or with the League of Nations in relation to the Italian-Ethiopian conflict. He declared that the United States was acting on its own initiative with respect to the war and that its actions had preceded those of other governments. He said that the major policy of the United States was to keep from becoming involved in war that, however, this Government was "keeping thoroughly alive its definite conviction" that it had an obligation to contribute to the cause of peace in every practical way consistent with this policy.

Secretary Hull, in a radio address on November 6, 1935, stated the position of the United States on the general subject of peace. He conceived it to be our duty and in the interests of our country and of humanity not only to remain aloof from disputes and conflicts with which we had no direct concern, but also to use our influence in any appropriate way to bring about the peaceful settlement of international differences. He said that our own interests and our duty as a great power forbade that we sit idly by and watch the development of hostilities with a feeling of self-sufficiency and complacency when by the use of our influence, short of becoming involved in the dispute, we might "prevent or lessen the scourge of war".

During this period there was an increase in the export from the United States to Italy of war materials which did not come within the category of "arms, ammunition, and implements of war". There was no statutory authority for stopping these exports. In a statement of November 15, 1935 Secretary Hull said that the people of the United States were entitled to know that considerably increasing amounts of oil, copper, trucks, tractors, scrap iron, and scrap steel, which were essential war materials, were being exported for war purposes. He said that this class of trade was directly contrary to the policy of the Government of the United States.

Secretary Hull's Conversation With the Italian Ambassador

Under instructions from his Government, Italian Ambassador Rosso called on the Secretary of State on November 22, 1935. The Ambassador referred to the various statements of the United States Government on the war between Italy and Ethiopia, especially the Secretary's statement of November 15, and said that although these statements applied formally and theoretically to both contending parties, it was well known that their practical result would be actually to impair the freedom of trade only with respect to Italy. The Ambassador said further that the statement of November 15 was contrary to the letter and spirit of the treaty of 1871 between the United States and Italy which accorded freedom of commerce and navigation to each contracting party; that the limitation on freedom of commerce envisaged by the statement of November 15 would constitute an "unfriendly act".

The Secretary replied emphatically that these trading incidents complained of by the Italian Government were trivial compared with the real problems and deep concern which the war caused the United States; that the Ambassador must realize the resulting awful repercussions that made their immediate appearance in remote parts of the world, and which would give the United States and other nations unimaginable troubles for a generation. The Secretary said that this Government was immensely concerned with the possible spread of war to other countries at almost any time with serious consequences. He said that it was deplorable to see Italy moving forward with a war which it must realize threatened to create terrific problems and conditions so far-reaching that the imagination could not grasp their possibilities. He inquired why these considerations were not in the mind of the Italian Government before it went to war. He reiterated his surprise that Italy was upbraiding this Government because we showed our deep concern and were striving in every possible way to keep entirely out of the war.

The Secretary took up the Italian complaint that the United States had violated the treaty of 1871 and said that, with both Italy and the United States signatory to the Kellogg-Briand Pact, it was not possible to understand how Italy could go to war and announce to the United States that regardless of this pact we must supply Italy with materials of war or be guilty of an unfriendly act. The Secretary said that the people of the United States were convinced that Italy was under most solemn obligation to keep the peace, and it was incomprehensible to them to find Italy contending that to be neutral the United States must furnish war supplies.

In this long conversation the Secretary endeavored to impress upon the Ambassador that the United States and other peace-loving nations were greatly pained to see their traditional friends, the Italian people, involved in this war in spite of numerous peace treaties and despite the awful menace to the peace of the world.

Italy continued the conquest of Ethiopia. By the spring of 1936 Italian military forces had overrun most of Ethiopia and on May 5 Addis Ababa, the capital, fell to the invader. Shortly thereafter, on June 20, the United States terminated the application of the Neutrality Act to the conflicting parties.

The United States never recognized Italian sovereignty over Ethiopia.

Source: U.S., Department of State, Publication 1983, Peace and War: United States Foreign Policy, 1931-1941 (Washington, D.C.: U.S., Government Printing Office, 1943), pp.28-32

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