On June 29, 1915, Foreign Minister Istvan von Burian of Austria-Hungary sends a note to the United States protesting the U.S. sale and shipment of munitions in enormous quantities to Britain and its allies for use against the Central Powers–Austria-Hungary and Germany–on the battlefields of World War I.
When war broke out in Europe in the summer of 1914, the United States maintained a position of strict neutrality. The commercial opportunities of the war, however, were enormous, and neutrality did not impede the U.S.–by 1910 the leading industrial nation, with 35.3 percent of the world’s manufacturing capacity, compared with 15.9 percent for Germany and 14.7 percent for Britain–from carrying on a brisk trade of munitions from the first months of the conflict. Beginning with guns and proceeding to boats and submarines, a steady flow of war materials soon began to travel across the Atlantic. Due to the naval blockade of the Central Powers by the mighty British navy, in place from the autumn of 1914, the great majority of these war materials were bought by Britain and France, a situation Burian considered intolerable and incompatible with the U.S. profession of neutrality.
In his note of June 29, 1915, Burian deplored “the fact that for a long time a traffic in munitions of war to the greatest extent has been carried on between the United States of America on the one hand and Great Britain and its allies on the other, while Austria-Hungary as well as Germany have been absolutely excluded from the American market.” He went on to make the case for a violation of neutrality, stating that “a neutral government may not permit traffic in contraband of war to be carried on without hindrance when this traffic assumes such a form or such dimensions that the neutrality of the nation becomes involved thereby.”
On August 15, U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing issued the official reply to Burian’s note. In it, he vigorously refuted Burian’s suggestions of a violation of neutrality and claimed that a comparable situation had existed during the Boer War of 1899-1902, during which Austria-Hungary and Germany had sold munitions to Britain, even as British dominance of the seas prevented a similar trade with Britain’s enemies, the Boer population of South Africa. “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,” Lansing pointed out, “the Imperial and Royal Government might with greater consistency and greater force urge its present contention.”
Austria-Hungary was as entitled as Britain to purchase U.S. munitions, Lansing continued, but the U.S. required that the munitions be collected by Austro-Hungarian ships from American ports, as to transport war materials in U.S. ships would, in fact, violate the principles of neutrality. If the inability of Austro-Hungarian (or German) ships to do this was due to the overwhelming threat of the British navy, Lansing maintained, it was not the fault of the United States. He concluded the statement by thoroughly dismissing Burian’s claims, asserting that “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?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.”