Memorandum by the Secretary of State Regarding a Conversation With the Italian Ambassador (Rosso), [WASHINGTON,] November 22, 1935.

The Italian Ambassador called by his own request and after some preliminary exchanges of the usual nature he said that he called upon instruction of his Government to lay before me two views which his Government supports; that he was not handing me a note or any other formal instrument of writing; that he had reduced to writing the oral conversation that he is proposing to conduct. The Ambassador thereupon proceeded to read to me the typewritten copy of his proposed oral conversation:

"l- The various official declarations and public statements issued from the Federal Government during the last two months with regard to the Italo-Ethiopian conflict, and particularly the statement of the Secretary of State of November 15, cannot be interpreted otherwise than an extension and aggravation, to the principal detriment of Italy, of the meaning of the Neutrality Act of August 31, 1935.

"Although these declarations and statements apply, formally and theoretically, to both the contending parties, it is well known that their practical result would be actually to impair the freedom of trade only with respect to Italy.

"Such an assumption has been confirmed by the fact that the statement made by the Secretary of State on November 15 specifically mentions certain commodities which Italy has been used to buy in the United States and which, being largely employed for non military purposes, are essential to the needs of the economic and social life of any civilized country.

"We maintain that any measure or policy aiming at, or resulting in, imposing restrictions which actually are detrimental to only one of the contending parties, goes against the spirit of neutrality.

"2- We maintain also that the above mentioned statement of the Secretary of State is contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Treaty signed between the United States and Italy in 1871-and still in force-which reciprocally guarantees each contracting party a 'complete freedom of commerce and navigation.

"No justification whatsoever for the limitation of the freedom guaranteed by the Treaty can be found in any international Act dealing with the status of neutrals. Reference is made in this respect to the Hague Convention of 1907.

"Such a limitation, if and when applied, is bound to assume the meaning of a 'sanction' and therefore the positive character of an unfriendly act.
NOVEMBER 22, 1935."

The Ambassador paused briefly here and there in the course of the reading to elaborate with one or two sentences, but they did not change the purport of the instrument of writing. He then indicated his desire to answer any question or listen to any comment I might see fit to offer in case I desired to do so. I addressed the Ambassador and said that, of course, he and his Government should keep in mind all of the essential phases of the situation as it relates to this country; that in all of the past the most cordial and friendly relations have existed between the people of this country and those of Italy; that the people of this country today do not feel personally unfriendly towards the people of Italy, but that they are vigorously and almost wildly against war and are at all hazards in favor of keeping out of the present war; that, if those participating in the war were double cousins and twin brothers of the American people, the people of this country would be just as violently and eternally against the war and in favor of peace and, above all considerations, in favor of keeping away from and out of the war as would be possible. I said that it was in these circumstances and in this highly wrought up state of the public mind of this country that the Neutrality Act of last August was enacted and the Executive Department was directed to pursue the policy of neutrality which it provided; that this mandate of Congress was promptly put into effect when the President declared a state of war to exist between Ethiopia and Italy and declared an embargo on the shipment of arms, ammunition and implements of war to either of the belligerents; that at the time heavy pressure was brought to bear upon the State Department also to include a number of prime and essential war materials out of which finished arms, ammunition and implements of war might be made in large quantities over night; that since that time insistent demands representing large groups of sentiment in this country have been made upon the Executive Department to include these war materials in the embargo issued under the Neutrality Act against arms, ammunition and implements of war.

I added, in this connection, that I hoped that the Ambassador and his Government would recall the experience of the people of this country in ways that will shed much light upon the state of mind and the viewpoint of the people and of this Government in accordance with it, and that is that our country sent 2,000,000 men to Europe to fight for Italy and other countries at an enormous cost to this Government and this country; that we likewise loaned Italy much money at the time and afterwards; that we later made almost a nominal settlement with the Italian Government at twenty-five cents on the dollar, all of which, with interest, is due and unpaid, to say nothing of other vast indebtedness in Europe; that I have been besought during past months to demand aggressively, if necessary, payment by the Italian Government of this indebtedness instead of its spending hundreds of millions in this Ethiopian conquest. I said that I had not done so thus far, but until this time I had been willing, on a suitable occasion, to sit down with the Ambassador and seek a satisfactory adjustment of the indebtedness.

I then said that with the extremely disastrous and unsatisfactory experience of the American people in going to Europe and aiding Italy and other countries to the extent they did, they are almost wild in their demand that we not only avoid being drawn into the war but that we stay entirely away from the same; that the people of this country are in no state of mind to engage in any activities or steps except those primarily looking towards keeping out of the war and in a secondary or subordinate sense manifesting proper interest in peace and the shortening of the duration of the war in the light of our obligations under the Kellogg Pact; that it is in this highly wrought up state of mind of the American people that the Government of Italy now arraigns this Government upon both a charge of unneutrality and of violating the provisions of the treaty between the United States and Italy of 1871 pledging complete freedom of commerce and navigation. I said that these are surprising as well as serious complaints in the circumstances.

I said I might remark here that from the outset this Government has pursued its own separate, independent course and initiative with respect to all phases of the controversy between Ethiopia and Italy; that we have had no agreements whatsoever, directly or indirectly, with Geneva or London or Paris; that they did not know of any of the steps this Government had taken until they read about the same in the press; that this Government believes that it has been consistent in its course and policies and naturally feels constrained to adhere to them; that the Government, as stated, placed in operation its embargoes and at the same time the President warned all Americans against any business or economic contacts with any of the belligerents, except at their own risk. The President and myself in public statements during the weeks that followed made it clear that this warning statement of the President was intended, generally, to discourage any business or economic relationships between our nationals and the belligerents; that nothing further was said by the President, myself or the Government officials relative to business dealings with the belligerents until some days ago when the official statistics showed that some five essential war materials were being exported from this country to belligerents in abnormal quantities compared with similar shipments during any recent period, and that I thereupon made a further official statement, in which I said that this class of business was directly contrary to the policy of the Government in opposition to selling war materials to belligerents, which policy was held and believed to be strictly within the spirit of the Neutrality Act; that nothing further has been said by the President or myself with respect to trade relations between this country and the belligerents.

I then said that the Ambassador must realize that just as soon as the American people discovered that abnormal quantities of essential war materials were being shipped on an increasing scale to belligerents without protest but with the silent acquiescence of the proper Government officials, there would probably be a storm of criticism and a loud demand for the immediate convening of Congress to take adequate steps in the premises, and that the result scarcely beyond any question would be a swift passage of a drastic act dissolving every possible relationship with the belligerents pending the war.

I repeatedly expressed surprise that the Italian Government would make a complaint against this Government in all the circumstances in the severe language that it does. I inquired whether and what the Italian Government had said to Germany in the light of a more sweeping and inflexible prohibition of business relations with the belligerents than this Government has taken. The Ambassador replied that he did not know whether his Government had made any representations to Germany. I commented rather emphatically and stated that I had seen no published account of any complaint whatsoever, and that it was therefore all the more strange to me to read this rather harsh complaint against this Government, that it seemed all the more surprising when both the Ambassador and I know that the bitterest critics of the Executive branch of the Government and the most extreme isolationists who are demanding that all Americans stay entirely away from the war zone do not in the slightest question the integrity of the neutrality policies of this Government as they are being carried out in accordance with the letter or the spirit, or both, of the Neutrality Act. I said that it was really astonishing to find that a government cannot be neutral without being attacked and a demand made to supply war materials to a belligerent under penalty of being charged with an unfriendly act.

The Ambassador emphasized the view that the manner in which this Government is conducting its policy of neutrality operates as a discrimination against Italy. I replied that under the law of neutrality in the past any belligerent controlling the high seas was usually at an advantage over its enemy with respect to obtaining goods from neutral countries, that a poor belligerent without means of purchasing and paying for supplies from neutrals was at a disadvantage under the operation of neutrality laws, and likewise where one country has or can produce its military supplies and another is without such facilities or equipment, the latter suffers under the operation of the neutrality law. I then pointed out that, in fact, under the policy this Government is now pursuing neither Italy nor Ethiopia should be securing war materials with the result that both countries are as nearly on a parity in this respect as it is possible for them to be. The charge of discrimination, therefore, does not apply.

I repeatedly inquired of the Ambassador why his Government does not sit down with others and work out this difficulty in a peaceful manner. He made very slight and casual comment in reply. The Ambassador sought to emphasize the idea that the attitude of his Government was not fully understood in this country and that it had been misrepresented to a considerable extent. I commented that his Government might well have thought of all of these and other unsatisfactory phases before getting into the war. I stated as emphatically as possible that these trading incidents to which the Italian Government refers and about which it complains are entirely trivial compared with the real problems and deep concern which the Ethiopian-Italian war causes this Government that the Ambassador must realize the awful repercussions that make their immediate appearance in far and remote parts of the world, but which are calculated to give this nation and perhaps others, including Italy, unimaginable troubles for a generation. The Ambassador immediately indicated that he knew the Far East was in mind.

I added that the second condition which is giving this Government immense concern relates to the possible spread of the war to any number of other countries at almost any time with unimaginable troubles and injuries and consequences to this country as well as others; that it is, therefore, all the more deplorable to see the Italian nation moving forward with the war, which it must realize threatens to create these terrific problems and conditions so far-reaching that the imagination cannot grasp their possibilities. I inquired why these considerations were not in the mind of the Italian Government before it went into the war and again reiterated my surprise that the Italian Government, on the contrary, is upbraiding this Government virtually because it is thus so deeply concerned and is striving in every possible way to keep entirely away from and out of the war. I remarked then that the Ambassador well recalls that the President and I pleaded with and almost prayed with Mr. Mussolini to keep out of the war but that he ignored our plea and now seems to expect us to furnish him with war supplies while he prosecutes the war ad libitum.

I added that regardless of anything or anybody this nation proposed to stay out of and as far away from the war as possible, and that we feel most deeply the indifference with which the world is subjected to the threat of a general war and with the frightful repercussions in the Far East; that this Government is keeping its attitude flexible under the Neutrality Act and the spirit of that Act which is being carried out in connection with the policy of opposition to the supplying of certain war materials to the belligerents; that if the war should spread, for example, this Government will be in an attitude to take further steps relative to both miscellaneous trade and the five war materials which I recently referred to in a statement opposing their shipment to the belligerents; that this Government cannot think of any course or any precautionary plans short of these, in view of the fact that aeroplane bases, naval bases and submarine bases dot the entire Mediterranean section with the result that almost at any time a conflagration might be touched off; that it is in the light of these dangerous possibilities, which to the American people seem to be probabilities, that this country is almost madly opposed to our Government taking the slightest risk of being drawn into the war by permitting its nationals to trade promiscuously with belligerents in and about this dangerous war zone, especially in essential war materials.

I stated that during the past three years I had almost worn myself out physically in an effort to aid in world economic rehabilitation so that Italy and other countries would have an adequate amount of international trade to afford contentment to their respective populations, and that the Ambassador could not begin to imagine the deep disappointment I feel at the effort to renew the practice which all nations have recently undertaken to abandon, relating to that of military aggression by any and all countries at any and all times, and that, of course, if one country is to be allowed to violate this new policy of the pacific settlement of disputes, then every country may do so with consequences that one shudders to contemplate.

I pointed out to the Ambassador the fact that the League of Nations organization at Geneva solemnly adjudged an aggressor in this war, while the United States did not; that the Geneva agency seeks to aid Ethiopia, which the United States does not; that the Geneva agency seeks to embargo all imports from Italy, which this Government does not; that this Government, as stated, is pursuing its own separate course without understanding or collaboration with other governments or peace agencies, and that in these circumstances it is not only difficult to understand the Italian complaint but I repeat that it is surprising to contemplate it; that the mere fact that there are some concurring acts on the part of the League of Nations in pursuing sanctions and of the United States in frankly carrying out its policy of neutrality is, in the circumstances, no basis whatever for a charge against the United States of unneutrality and of unfriendliness. This makes a mere coincidence or its absence determine the question of whether the United States is or is not neutral, in the eyes of the Italian Government. In other words, if there were no attempted sanctions at Geneva the United States would be entirely neutral in carrying out its present policies of opposing the sale of war materials to belligerents.

I added that when I issued my statement on the 15th of November, about which complaint is now made, I not know and, in my opinion, no one here knows yet what the League of Nations may or may not do regarding concerted action to curb exports to Italy of oil and other prime war materials, and yet here is a charge that this Government is engaged in an unfriendly act as stated. The Ambassador said that this step, in his opinion, would be taken on the 28th of this month at Geneva. I commented that, of course, that remains to be seen. I inquired of the Ambassador why his Government had not taken $100,000,000 to Ethiopia and brought back a key to the entire Empire instead of expending several hundred million dollars in its military conquest with all of the worry and threat of danger to the balance of the world. He replied that Italy had been attempting for forty years to effect colonizations in Ethiopia, but without success. I repeated that the people of this country are as yet entirely friendly to the Italian people but added that if his note should be made public in the United States, an inflamed public that nobody could control or curb would be almost instantly aroused and that, of course, the pressure of a surprising charge such as he is bringing against this Government will in due time make the American people personally hostile to the people of Italy, and naturally it would endure long in their minds.

I took up the complaint of violation by this Government of the treaty of freedom of commerce and navigation of 1871 with Italy and at once stated that I was satisfied that international and all other law makes it possible for either country a party to this commercial treaty to remain neutral in the event the other country becomes involved in war; that it is inconceivable that either Italy or the United States in an ordinary commercial treaty signed away its right to remain neutral in case of war on the part of the other and that that is the precise reason this Government is undertaking to pursue and has no other idea than to pursue it; that, furthermore, with both Italy and America signatories of the Paris Peace Pact with the solemn obligations it imposes upon each, it is not possible to understand how Italy can go to war and announce to the United States Government that despite the Paris Pact it must supply Italy with materials of war under penalty of being guilty of an unfriendly act, as stated. I remarked further, without discussing the merits, that the American people cannot be convinced that the Italian Government is not under most solemn obligations to keep the peace under three or four treaties, and it is incomprehensible to them to find Italy demanding of this Government that to be neutral it must furnish war supplies and that if it fails to do so it is guilty of an unfriendly act. I repeatedly emphasized my great surprise and incomprehension and repeatedly inquired why his Government had not thought of these phases before it went into the war.

I finally said that, while entirely satisfied as to the lack of interference of the treaty of 1871 with the present course of this Government, I would, as a matter of courtesy to the Ambassador, again give some further attention to the authorities, although I have no doubt hat I have examined them fully and accurately. The Ambassador id not attempt any aggressive utterances and I endeavored throughout the conversation to make the impression upon him that our nation and most other peace loving nations were greatly pained and hurt to find their traditional friends, the Italian people, in involved in this war despite the numerous treaties of peace to which the Government is a party, and despite the awful menace to the peace of the world which this war creates.


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, p. 293-300

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