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National Affairs: Ribbentrop on Monroe

5 minute read

Joachim von Ribbentrop, Foreign Minister of the Third Reich, is the hard-boiled diplomatist of a conquering power. But as a historian he is a regular Fritz Kuhn. Last week he let himself go on the Monroe Doctrine.

In Washington Secretary of State Cordell Hull, wearing his usual air of fierce weariness, told his press conference how, after the fall of the Low Countries and France, the U. S. sent to Germany, as to all belligerents, a warning that the U. S. would not permit territory in the Western Hemisphere to be transferred from one non-American power to another. In other words, the Caribbean and South American colonies of France, The Netherlands, Britain, could not be seized even if those countries were conquered.

He paraphrased the answer of von Ribbentrop (whose exact words were not made public): Germany could not understand why the U. S. had sent its reaffirmation of the Monroe Doctrine to Germany. Germany had no American colonies and “has given no occasion for the assumption that itintends to acquire such possessions. . . .” (So also had spoken the Holy Alliance in the 1820s.) The Nazi Foreign Minister complained that the Monroe Doctrine would seem to confer on some European countries the right to have American territories and deny that right to others. (A Nazi discovery made 117 years after it had been detected by the acute Prince Metternich. Actually, the Doctrine permitted powers that had American colonies in 1823 to keep them—but not to get any more.) Moreover, said von Ribbentrop, if European nations could not intervene in American continental affairs, then American nations could not interfere in European affairs. By & large, Joachim von Ribbentrop’s note made plain, Germany did not respect the Monroe Doctrine.

No useful purpose, said Mr. Hull, could be served by continuing the discussion. Said Steve Early for the President at Hyde Park: the U. S. has no intention of interfering in territorial adjustments in Europe or Asia, but “the Government of the U. S. wants to see, and thinks there should be an application of the Monroe Doctrine in Europe and Asia similar to its application of the Monroe Doctrine in this hemisphere.”

First reaction to this statement was consternation. It looked like a retreat from the U. S. position, stated again & again. That reaction was premature. Nub of the President’s case was that if Germany claimed territory in the Western Hemisphere, the U. S. would invoke the Monroe Doctrine. It would not seize the islands or other possessions of the conquered nations for itself. Its position would be that the fate of such possessions should be decided “by and among all the republics of this hemisphere.” If a Monroe Doctrine operated in Asia, it would mean that in deciding the fate of Indo-China, all the Asiatic countries would confer. Said Steve Early, summing up the President’s view: “The same procedure follows also with respect to Europe and to other parts of the world—that all European and Asiatic countries confer and make these decisions—not just one conquering power. Do you get the point?”

Havana. Meanwhile, big in Mr. Hull’s mind was the job of making the Monroe Doctrine work in Latin America itself. Due to assemble on July 20 in the big Capitol Building in Havana was the Inter-American Conference. Planned originally to deal with the creation of a Pan-American cartel (TIME, July 1), the conference last week looked much bigger than that. The cartel plan was now less favored than a proposal to have the RFC buy Latin-American surpluses to prevent great barter deals with Germany. Last week, when the agenda of the conference was agreed on, the cartel plan led the list, followed by the question of the U. S. obtaining Latin-American air bases, and the great problem of what was to become of the American possessions of Hitler-conquered Europe.

At week’s end a new development pointed up the biggest of these questions.

Martinique. Five U. S. destroyers cut out of the grey-green Virgin Islands harbor of St. Thomas. They sped south—225 miles through the Leeward Islands to the tense French island of Martinique. In Washington that day the French Embassy passed out the word that British cruisers were blockading Martinique’s one big harbor. Inside the harbor, they said, were French submarines, the French cruiser Jeanne d’Arc, the French aircraft carrier Beam, with 100 new U. S. planes aboard.

The Monroe Doctrine was no longer an academic question, a problem for historians. The attitude of Germany toward it was no longer irrelevant. The Monroe Doctrine meant again what it had meant in the beginning, when the “despots” against whom it was directed seemed to have conquered in Europe forever—when it was the defiance of a weak and outnumbered country—it meant courage, guns, men, ships; blood, threats and counter-threats, cool nerves, swift actions and no chance to make two mistakes.

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