The Ambassador in Cuba (Messersmith) to the Secretary of State
[Received June 21.]
Sir: I have the honor to bring to the attention of the Department a matter which I believe is worthy of immediate and serious consideration.
On June 13th during a brief conversation with President Batista in the Palace, he said that he was greatly impressed by the necessities for more active cooperation between Cuba and the United States in the matter of the defense of the United States, of Cuba and of the American Republics. He saw the war coming closer and it seemed almost inevitable that the United States would take an active part in the war. In that case Cuba would, because of her principles, because of her friendship with the United States and because of her definite adherence to the policy of inter-American defense, be in the war immediately after we were. There were many things, President Batista said, which he would like to do without delay in order to increase the power of Cuba to cooperate in a military and naval way.
I knew what the difficulties in the way of the Cuban government were. It was having serious difficulties in meeting its ordinary budgetary expenditures. To endeavor to reduce these budgetary expenditures in any appreciable manner would accentuate an economic situation in Cuba which was already difficult and he could do nothing to interfere with economic stability which was so important to insure political stability. Out of its available resources and current revenues, the Cuban government was not able to undertake defense measures nor to acquire defense material.
In this connection the President of Cuba referred to the cooperation which our government was offering under the lease-lend bill11 in the proposed delivery up to a certain amount of military and naval equipment for the use of the Cuban Army and Navy.12 When such deliveries could be made, he said it would be possible to increase the efficiency of the Cuban Army and Navy.
Completely aside from this, however, he felt there were other things which Cuba should do without delay. It was not in a position to do them without our active cooperation and assistance. He was hoping to take up these matters with us in a broad way as soon as possible, and was preparing appropriate data for our consideration. He did not wish to raise at this time this general question, but he did wish to raise particularly the question of the establishment of several air fields in Cuba. He believed this to be a measure of immediate [Page 105] necessity for Cuba and for ourselves. This would involve certain expenditures which the Cuban government could not meet out of current revenues or available funds, and he asked me whether I would take up this matter with Mr. Warren Pierson, President of the Export-Import Bank, while he was in Habana in order to determine whether any of the funds under the $25,000,000 credit for public works and agricultural diversification projects13 could be used for this purpose, or whether in some other way additional funds could be made available by the Bank or by our government for the construction of such air fields. I told President Batista I would discuss this matter with Mr. Pierson.
I talked this matter over with Mr. Pierson and he agreed as to the desirability of more active measures being taken by Cuba in the defense problem. Mr. Pierson expressed doubt as to whether funds out of the $25,000,000 credit should be used, or could be used, for this purpose. He believed it would be more desirable to explore the possibility of funds being made available to the Cuban government for this purpose by our government in some other manner. This question arose briefly during a meeting on the afternoon of June 13th between Mr. Pierson and myself and the members of the Cuban Cabinet Committee considering the details in connection with the $25,000,000 credit. The members of the Cabinet Committee were of the opinion that it would be desirable to seek this assistance from our government for the air fields outside of the $25,000,000 credit.
During a long conversation with President Batista yesterday afternoon, during which we discussed various matters connected with the defense program as well as other subjects, he again raised in more detail and in the same vein this question of the air fields. He said that if the United States and Cuba got into the war there would be two major ways in which Cuba would figure in the defense problem. The first and most important would be in the use of Cuban soil by American troops, of Cuban ports by American ships, and of Cuban air fields by American air forces; the second would be by patrol of Cuban waters by American or Cuban naval vessels. Of these, he considered that the immedate matter requiring consideration was all possible cooperation between Cuba and the United States in matters which affected aerial warfare and defense. Cuba now had no planes to speak of, and the number at her disposal in the future would remain limited. She was training pilots as rapidly as possible. The major thing Cuba could do in this respect was to provide a base for our air forces. This meant air fields which, while ostensibly built for Cuba, would really be intended for our use. As it took some time to build these fields, we should not wait until war was actually [Page 106] declared to go ahead because there was no telling when they would be needed.
The President expressed the opinion that it would not be desirable to try to enlarge the present air field at Camp Columbia. It was too much in the city and the cost of enlarging it would be too great. To establish a large air field there would be unduly exposing the city of Habana to attack. The commercial air field at Rancho Boyeros was being expanded by the Pan American, but it was also in many respects too close to the city, although the improvements being made there by the Pan American would make it useful from a military point of view. The Pan American was also expanding its field at Camagüey. It was his thought that there should be at least two additional fields, one between Habana and Piñar del Rio and one between Santa Clara and Camagüey. In his opinion these fields should be quite large and should be able to accommodate a minimum of 500 planes. There should be provision for some aërodromes and repair facilities at these two fields. It might be desirable also to consider the establishment of an emergency landing field at some point in the province of Oriente.
President Batista said that the Cuban government was prepared to go ahead and expropriate the land for such fields and to construct them. He had no definite idea what the cost would be, but he believed the total cost might run to two or three million dollars. While the fields would ostensibly be erected by the Cuban government, they would, of course, be primarily intended for the use of our planes as it was quite obvious that Cuba of her own, or even with our assistance, could not have the planes making necessary such fields. The air fields, however, should be necessary as a part of our defense scheme and as a part of the defense scheme of the other American republics. They would serve not only as the defense of Cuba and of the United States but as bases of operations for our own air fleet and for operations further south.
The President of Cuba emphasized that the Cuban government was not so much interested in the building of these air fields for any immediate purposes of its own or because these air fields would be built on Cuban territory and remain after the present war. The Cuban government, he said, was interested because it was of the opinion we would need such air bases in Cuba and it was, unfortunately, one of the few ways in which Cuba could actively cooperate at this time. He again emphasized what he believed to be the importance of not delaying the beginning of the construction of these fields.
Naturally, I am not able to pass any judgment upon where these fields should be located. I am of the opinion that the additional facilities are of extreme importance. I am sure that the Cuban government [Page 107] would be willing to cooperate with us in the most complete manner in the construction thereof. These fields cannot be constructed without the financial assistance of our government. The actual selection of the sites would, I believe, have to be determined by our own people. The actual construction of the fields from certain technical points of view would have to be directed by us. There are, I believe, two immediate matters for our consideration in this connection. The first is whether the appropriate funds are available to our government to extend to the Cuban government the financial assistance for the building of the fields; the second is the determination of the sites. The question of the necessity of the fields, I think, does not require consideration, as that seems to be clearly established if one views the situation realistically.
It may be possible that funds for this purpose can be made available through the Export-Import Bank; it may be possible to do so under the Lease-Lend bill; it may be possible to do so through other funds at the disposal of the President. In view of the financial situation of the Cuban government, the nature of the projects and the fact that they are purely of defense nature, this would, I believe, influence our government in determining whether this obligation by the Cuban government is a reimbursable one. I believe under no circumstances should interest be received for any funds which may be advanced to the Cuban government for this purpose.
The first step after appropriate decisions of a major character have been taken would be for competent officials of our government to proceed to Habana for the purpose of determining where the fields should be built and what sum may be necessary for this purpose.
In view of the fact that this matter was discussed with Mr. Warren Pierson, President of the Export-Import Bank, during his stay in Habana, I would respectfully suggest that the Department may wish to make a copy of this despatch available to him for his confidential background—particularly as it is my understanding that he intends to discuss the matter at my request with the Under Secretary, Mr. Welles.