The Government of the United States, in view of these considerations, which it urges with the greatest respect and with the sincere purpose of making sure that no misunderstandings may arise, and no circumstances occur, that might even cloud the intercourse of the two Governments, expresses the confident hope and expectation that the Imperial German Government can and will give assurance that American citizens and their vessels will not be molested by the naval forces of Germany otherwise than by visit and search, though their vessels may be traversing the sea area delimited in the proclamation of the German Admiralty. It is stated for the information of the Imperial Government that representations have been made to his Britannic Majesty’s Government in respect to the unwarranted use of the American flag for the protection of British ships.
Feb. 10, 1915.
The Secretary of State has instructed Ambassador Page at London to present to the British Government a note to the following effect:
The department has been advised of the declaration of the German Admiralty on Feb. 4, indicating that the British Government had on Jan. 31 explicitly authorized the use of neutral flags on British merchant vessels, presumably for the purpose of avoiding recognition by German naval forces. The department’s attention has also been directed to reports in the press that the Captain of the Lusitania, acting upon orders or information received from the British authorities, raised the American flag as his vessel approached the British coasts, in order to escape anticipated attacks by German submarines. Today’s press reports also contain an alleged official statement of the Foreign Office defending the use of the flag of a neutral country by a belligerent vessel in order to escape capture or attack by an enemy.
Assuming that the foregoing reports are true, the Government of the United States, reserving for future consideration the legality and propriety of the deceptive use of the flag of a neutral power in any case for the purpose of avoiding capture, desires very respectfully to point out to his Britannic Majesty’s Government the serious consequences which may result to American vessels and American citizens if this practice is continued.
The occasional use of the flag of a neutral or an enemy under the stress of immediate pursuit and to deceive an approaching enemy, which appears by the press reports to be represented as the precedent and justification used to support this action, seems to this Government a very different thing from an explicit sanction by a belligerent Government for its merchant ships generally to fly the flag of a neutral power within certain portions of the high seas which are presumed to be frequented with hostile warships. The formal declaration of such a policy of general misuse of a neutral’s flag jeopardizes the vessels of the neutral visiting those waters in a peculiar degree by raising the presumption that they are of belligerent nationality regardless of the flag which they may carry.