Primary Documents - U.S. Reply to Austro-Hungarian Protest Regarding Shipment of U.S. Munitions to Britain, 12 August 1915

Robert Lansing Reproduced below is the text of the reply sent by U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing to a diplomatic note despatched by the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Istvan von Burian on 29 June 1915.

In his original note von Burian protested that U.S. munitions were being openly sent in enormous quantities to Britain and its allies.  Burian suggested that American neutrality was threatened by the behaviour of private companies in contracting to send such munitions shipments.

Lansing's robust reply rebutted such suggestions and noted that a virtually identical scenario existed during the South African War of 1899-1902, in which Austria-Hungary (and Germany) had sold munitions to Britain even while the latter's naval power prevented equivalent shipments reaching Britain's then-enemies.  The present case was essentially the same, Lansing argued.

In short, Lansing stated that Austria-Hungary was as entitled as Britain to purchase munitions from the U.S..  He went on to state that the U.S. however required that such munitions be collected by Austro-Hungarian ships from U.S. ports; for the U.S. to engage to ship such munitions using her own ships would necessarily violate her own policy of neutrality.  It was not the fault of the U.S. that Britain's command of the seas meant that Austria-Hungary could not actually collect munitions directly from U.S. ports.

U.S. Reply to Austro-Hungarian Protest Against U.S. Supply of Munitions, 12 August 1915, by Robert Lansing

Washington, August 12, 1915

The Government of the United States has given careful consideration to the statement of the Imperial and Royal Government in regard to the exportation of arms and ammunition from the United States to the countries at war with Austria-Hungary and Germany.

The Government of the United States notes with satisfaction the recognition by the Imperial and Royal Government of the undoubted fact that its attitude with regard to the exportation of arms and ammunition from the United States is prompted by its intention to "maintain the strictest neutrality and conform to the letter with the provisions of international treaties," but is surprised to find the Imperial and Royal Government implying that the observance of the strict principles of the law under the conditions which have developed in the present war is insufficient, and asserting that this Government should go beyond the long recognized rules governing such traffic by neutrals and adopt measures to "maintain an attitude of strict parity with respect to both belligerent parties."

To this assertion of an obligation to change or modify the rules of international usage on account of special conditions the Government of the United States cannot accede.  The recognition of an obligation of this sort, unknown to the international practice of the past, would impose upon every neutral nation a duty to sit in judgment on the progress of a war and to restrict its commercial intercourse with a belligerent whose naval successes prevented the neutral from trade with the enemy.

The contention of the Imperial and Royal Government appears to be that the advantages gained to a belligerent by its superiority on the sea should be equalized by the neutral Powers by the establishment of a system of non-intercourse with the victor.

The Imperial and Royal Government confines its comments to arms and ammunition, but if the principle for which it contends is sound it should apply with equal force to all articles of contraband.  A belligerent controlling the high seas might possess an ample supply of arms and ammunition, but be in want of food and clothing.  On the novel principle that equalization is a neutral duty, neutral nations would be obliged to place an embargo on such articles because one of the belligerents could not obtain them through commercial intercourse.

But if this principle, so strongly urged by the Imperial and Royal Government, should be admitted to obtain by reason of the superiority of a belligerent at sea, ought it not to operate equally as to a belligerent superior on land?  Applying this theory of equalization, a belligerent who lacks the necessary munitions to contend successfully on land ought to be permitted to purchase them from neutrals, while a belligerent with an abundance of war stores or with the power to produce them should be debarred from such traffic.

Manifestly the idea of strict neutrality now advanced by the Imperial and Royal Government would involve a neutral nation in a mass of perplexities which would obscure the whole field of international obligation, produce economic confusion and deprive all commerce and industry of legitimate fields of enterprise already heavily burdened by the unavoidable restrictions of war.

In this connection it is pertinent to direct the attention of the Imperial and Royal Government to the fact that Austria-Hungary and Germany, particularly the latter, have during the years preceding the present war produced a great surplus of arms and ammunition, which they sold throughout the world and especially to belligerents.  Never during that period did either of them suggest or apply the principle now advocated by the Imperial and Royal Government.

During the Boer War between Great Britain and the South African republics the patrol of the coast of neighbouring neutral colonies by British naval vessels prevented arms and ammunition reaching the Transvaal or the Orange Free State.  The allied republics were in a situation almost identical in that respect with that in which Austria-Hungary and Germany find themselves at the present time.

Yet, in spite of the commercial isolation of one belligerent, Germany sold to Great Britain and the other belligerent, hundreds of thousands of kilos of explosives, gunpowder, cartridges, shot and weapons; and it is known that Austria-Hungary also sold similar munitions to the same purchaser, though in small quantities.

While, as compared with the present war, the quantities sold were small (a table of the sales is appended), the principle of neutrality involved was the same.  If at that time Austria-Hungary and her present ally had refused to sell arms and ammunition to Great Britain on the ground that to do so would violate the spirit of strict neutrality the Imperial and Royal Government might with greater consistency and greater force urge its present contention.

It might be further pointed out that during the Crimean War large quantities of arms and military stores were furnished to Russia by Prussian manufacturers; that during the recent war between Turkey and Italy, as this Government is advised, arms and ammunition were furnished to the Ottoman Government by Germany; and that during the Balkan wars the belligerents were supplied with munitions by both Austria-Hungary and Germany.

While these latter cases are not analogous, as in the case of the South African War, to the situation of Austria-Hungary and Germany in the present war, they nevertheless clearly indicate the long established practice of the two empires in the matter of trade in war supplies.

In view of the foregoing statements, this Government is reluctant to believe that the Imperial and Royal Government will ascribe to the United States a lack of impartial neutrality in continuing its legitimate trade in all kinds of supplies used to render the armed forces of a belligerent efficient, even though the circumstances of the present war prevent Austria-Hungary from obtaining such supplies from the markets of the United States, which have been and remain, so far as the action and policy of this Government are concerned, open to all belligerents alike.

But in addition to the question of principle there is a practical and substantial reason why the Government of the United States has from the foundation of the republic advocated and practiced unrestricted trade in arms and military supplies.  It has never been the policy of this country to maintain in times of peace a large military establishment or stores of arms and ammunition sufficient to repel invasion by a well equipped and powerful enemy.  It has desired to remain at peace with all nations and to avoid any appearance of menacing such peace by the threat of its armies and navies.

In consequence of this standing policy, the United States would, in the event of an attack by a foreign Power, be at the outset of the war seriously, if not fatally, embarrassed by the lack of arms and ammunition and by the means to produce them in sufficient quantities to supply the requirements of national defence.  The United States has always depended upon the right and power to purchase arms and ammunition from neutral nations in case of foreign attack.  This right, which it claims for itself, it cannot deny to others.

A nation whose principle and policy it is to rely upon international obligations and international justice to preserve its political and territorial integrity might become the prey of an aggressive nation whose policy and practice it is to increase its military strength during times of peace with the design of conquest, unless the nation attacked can, after war had been declared, go into the markets of the world and purchase the means to defend itself against the aggressor.

The general adoption by the nations of the world of the theory that neutral Powers ought to prohibit the sale of arms and ammunition to belligerents would compel every nation to have in readiness at all times sufficient munitions of war to meet any emergency which might arise and to erect and maintain establishments for the manufacture of arms and ammunition sufficient to supply the needs of its military and naval forces throughout the progress of a war.

Manifestly the application of this theory would result in every nation becoming an armed camp, ready to resist aggression and tempted to employ force in asserting its rights rather than appeal to reason and justice for the settlement of international disputes.

Perceiving, as it does, that the adoption of the principle that it is the duty of a neutral to prohibit the sale of arms and ammunition to a belligerent during the progress of a war would inevitably give the advantage to a belligerent which had encouraged the manufacture of munitions in time of peace and which had laid in the vast stores of arms and ammunition in anticipation of war, the Government of the United States is convinced that the adoption of the theory would force militarism on the world and work against that universal peace which is the desire and purpose of all nations which exalt justice and righteousness in their relations with one another.

The Government of the United States in the foregoing discussion of the practical reason why it has advocated and practiced trade in munitions of war wishes to be understood as speaking with no thought of expressing or implying any judgment with regard to the circumstances of the present war, but as merely putting very frankly the argument in this matter which has been conclusive in determining the policy of the United States.

While the practice of nations, so well illustrated by the practice of Austria-Hungary and Germany during the South African War, and the manifest evil which would result from a change of that practice render compliance with the suggestion of the Imperial and Royal Government out of the question, certain assertions appearing in the Austro-Hungarian statement as grounds for its contention cannot be passed over without comment.

These assertions are substantially as follows:

(1) That the exportation of arms and ammunition from the United States to belligerents contravenes the preamble of the Hague Convention, No. 13, of 1907.

(2) That it is inconsistent with the refusal of this Government to allow delivery of supplies to vessels of war on the high seas.

(3) That "according to all authorities on international law who concern themselves more properly with the question," exportation should be prevented "when this traffic assumes such a form or such dimensions that the neutrality of a nation becomes involved thereby."

As to the assertion that the exportation of arms and ammunition contravenes the preamble of the Hague Convention, No. 13, of 1907, this Government presumes that reference is made to the last paragraph of the preamble, which is as follows: "Seeing that, in this category of ideas, these rules should not, in principle, be altered, in the court of the war, by a neutral power, except in a case where experience has shown the necessity for such change for the protection of the rights of that Power."

Manifestly the only ground to change the rules laid down by the convention, one of which, it should be noted, explicitly declares that a neutral is not bound to prohibit the exportation of contraband of war, is the necessity of a neutral Power to do so in order to protect its own rights.  The right and duty to determine when this necessity exists rests with the neutral, not with a belligerent.  It is discretionary, not mandatory.  If a neutral Power does not avail itself of the right, a belligerent is not privileged to complain, for in doing so it would be in the position of declaring to the neutral Power what is necessary to protect the Power's own rights.  The Imperial and Royal Government cannot but perceive that a complaint of this nature would invite just rebuke.

With reference to the asserted inconsistency of the course adopted by this Government in relation to the exportation of arms and ammunition and that followed in not allowing supplies to be taken from its ports to ships of war on the high seas, it is only necessary to point out that the prohibition of supplies to ships of war rests upon the principle that a neutral power must not permit its territory to become a naval base for either belligerent.  A war ship may, under certain restrictions, obtain fuel and supplies in a neutral port once in three months.  To permit merchant vessels acting as tenders to carry supplies more often than three months and in unlimited amount would defeat the purpose of the rule and might constitute the neutral territory a naval base.

Furthermore, this Government is unaware that any Austro-Hungarian ship of war has sought to obtain supplies from a port in the United States, either directly or indirectly.  This subject has, however, already been discussed with the Imperial German Government, to which the position of this Government was fully set forth December 24, 1914.

In view of the positive assertion in the statement of the Imperial and Royal Government as to the unanimity of the opinions of text writers as to the exportation of contraband being un-neutral, this Government has caused a careful examination of the principal authorities on international laws to be made.

As a result of this examination it has come to the conclusion that the Imperial and Royal Government has been misled and has inadvertently made an erroneous assertion.  Less than one-fifth of the authorities consulted advocate unreservedly the prohibition of the export of contraband.

Several of those who constitute this minority admit that the practice of nations has been otherwise.  It need not be inopportune to direct particular attention to the declaration of the German authority, Paul Einicke, who states that, at the beginning of a war, belligerents have never remonstrated against the enactment of prohibitions on trade in contraband, but adds "that such prohibitions may be considered as violations of neutrality, or at least as unfriendly acts, if they are enacted during a war with the purpose to close unexpectedly the sources of supply to a party which heretofore had relied on them."

The Government of the United States deems it unnecessary to extend further at the present time a consideration of the statement of the Austro-Hungarian Government.  The principles of international law, the practice of nations, the national safety of the United States and other nations without great military and naval establishments, the prevention of increased armies and navies, the adoption of peaceful methods for the adjustment of international differences, and finally, neutrality itself, are opposed to the prohibition by a neutral nation of the exportation of arms, ammunition, or other munitions of war to belligerent Powers during the progress of the war.

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

The Russian war ace Alexander Kozakov claimed 20 victories during the war; his nearest compatriot, Vasili Yanchenko, claimed 16.

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