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The relinquishment by the United States of its claim to the Isle of Pines may be regarded as but a minor territorial adjustment, but it carries more than ordinary significance because of its effect upon the intangible prestige of this country. Here (leaving out of discussion all question of abstract justice) certain material interests were staked against Latin-American goodwill; and the fact that the latter consideration prevailed seems an augury of closer cooperation in the western hemisphere.
On July 30, 1898, in reply to a request from Spain for terms of peace, William R. Day, Secretary of State, set forth among other conditions: "First. The relinquishment by Spain of all claim of sovereignty over or title to Cuba and her immediate evacuation of the island. Second. . . . the cession to the United States and the immediate evacuation by Spain of the island of Porto Rico and other islands now under the sovereignty of Spain in the West Indies." Thus there entered into the public documents the phrase in italics which was destined to be the subject of controversy for over a quarter of a century, for it inevitably raised the question: Was the Isle of Pines one of these "other islands"? The terms were accepted by Spain and in the protocol preliminary to a treaty of peace the words above quoted were repeated almost verbatim. Another stipulation in the protocol providing for the evacuation of the Spanish troops varied the phraseology somewhat, for it set forth one arrangement for the evacuation of "Cuba and the adjacent Spanish islands" and another and separate arrangement for the evacuation of "Porto Rico and other islands under Spanish sovereignty in the West Indies," thus raising a fair inference that in the minds of the diplomats the islands adjacent to Cuba were not included in the term "other islands under Spanish sovereignty in the West Indies."
On December 10, 1898, the treaty of peace was signed at Paris by the representatives of the two countries. William R. Day, the author of the disputed phrases, was one of those acting for the United States. The treaty again uses the unfortunately ambiguous wording: "Article I. Spain relinquishes all claim of sovereignty over and title to Cuba. Article II. Spain cedes to the United States the island of Porto Rico and other islands now under Spanish sovereignty in the West Indies."
The words of this treaty have been subjected to the most minute examination. On the one hand it was stated that they plainly ceded the Isle of Pines to the United States as one of the "other islands now under Spanish sovereignty in the West Indies." On the other, it was asserted that the Isle of Pines is historically and geographically a part of Cuba, separated from it by only 35 miles of shallow water, and for centuries was considered as a part of it for governmental and administrative purposes. Hence, it was claimed, the Isle of Pines formed a part of Cuba and was disposed of under Article I, rather than one of the "other islands" ceded to the United States under Article II. (The "other islands" were such islands as Vieques, Culebra and Mona Islands near Porto Rico.) Following out this argument a little further, it was asserted that when Cuba secured her independence (which was recognized by Congressional resolution some eight months before the treaty of peace) she had included the Isle of Pines within her sovereign teritory. Accordingly, Spain would have been incompetent to convey it to the United States, even conceding the intention of the treaty so to do, for at the time of the treaty it did not belong to Spain but to Cuba.
What was the intention of the American commissioners when they participated in the framing of the treaty? There is testimony from various persons who knew Commissioners Davis and Frye that they thought the term "other islands" included the Isle of Pines and that it therefore became the property of the United States. Mr. Davis left no written word to this effect, but affidavits of friends and confidants in St. Paul were secured to show that he had so construed the treaty. Senator Clapp in 1909 was authority for the statement that Senator Frye had also entertained this view. However, Senator Frye was a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 1906 and it is to be presumed that he concurred in the majority report of the Committee that the title to the Isle of Pines did not pass to the United States with the treaty, as a dissenting minority report was submitted in which Frye did not join. Mr. Day, the man who had coined the disputed phrases, was later appointed Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, and while a member of that body concurred in the decision in Pearcy vs. Stranahan (205 U. S. 257), in which the following words appeared in the opinion delivered by Chief Justice Fuller: "In short, all the world knew that it (the Isle of Pines) was an integral part of Cuba, and in view of the joint resolution of April 20, 1898, it seems clear that the Isle of Pines was not supposed to be one of the 'other islands' ceded by Article II." Considering Mr. Justice Day's intimate connection with the origin of the words in question it is difficult to imagine that he was not consulted by the Chief Justice when this opinion was framed.
Following the war, Cuba and the Isle of Pines were for several years under American military occupation, during which time the island in dispute was combined with Cuba for purposes of administration. It was during this occupation that the conflicting claims concerning the island's status began to be made. In 1899 prospective investors and homeseekers directed numerous letters to the governmental departments asking about the land, products and climate of the Isle of Pines. These letters frequently inquired as to the political title to the island. On August 14, 1899, John J. Pershing, then Assistant Adjutant-General, in reply to a letter of inquiry stated: "I am directed by the Assistant Secretary of War to advise you that this island was ceded by Spain to the United States and is therefore a part of our territory." This same language was used on several subsequent occasions by the Assistant Secretary of War, G. D. Meikle-john, and constituted what is probably the only direct claim to the Isle of Pines ever put forward in writing by any of the branches of the federal administration. The War Department had no authority, of course, to commit the United States on such a question. Furthermore, the statement was made by the Assistant Secretary without the knowledge of his chief, Elihu Root, Secretary of War, who subsequently wrote: "I have since learned that a former Assistant Secretary of War had previously, without my knowledge or authority, directed an Assistant Adjutant General to say that the island belonged to the United States. I never thought so." Thus the statement contained in the Pershing letter was only the personal guess of a subordinate; but it was sufficient for the promoter, who seized upon it and made wide use of it.
Meanwhile a number of American citizens had gone to the Isle of Pines to establish homes, while many others had made investments. Land companies had been formed for the purpose of buying land at an extremely low figure in order to reap the profit that was sure to come should the United States take over the island and admit its products duty free. On January 29, 1923, the Secretary of State estimated that 10,000 Americans owned property which constituted 90 percent of the island and that 700 Americans were residing there permanently. Among the lands held by Americans were 10,470 acres of citrus fruit groves valued at $1,000 per acre. General Crowder, however, estimated the total value of lands held by Americans at not more than $15,000,000.
In anticipation of the withdrawal of its forces from Cuba the United States sought to secure promises from Cuba safeguarding American interests. These were enacted in the form of an amendment to the Army Appropriation Bill of 1901 as a condition precedent to withdrawal, and were later added as an appendix to the Cuban constitution and incorporated in the treaty of 1903 between the United States and Cuba. Article VI of the Platt Amendment provided: "That the Isle of Pines shall be omitted from the proposed constitutional boundaries of Cuba, the title thereto being left to future adjustment by treaty." Upon withdrawal of American troops the island was left de facto under the government of Cuba.
The Platt Amendment also provided that Cuba would lease or sell to the United States lands necessary for coaling or naval stations at points to be agreed upon with the President of the United States. On July 2, 1903, the American Minister and the Cuban Acting Secretary of State drew up two documents, one a lease to the United States of coaling and naval stations at Guantanamo and Bahia Hondo, and the other a treaty providing for the relinquishment of all American claims of title to the Isle of Pines in favor of Cuba. The treaty specifically states in Article II: "This relinquishment, on the part of the United States of America, of claim of title to the said Isle of Pines is in consideration of the grants of coaling and naval stations in the Island of Cuba heretofore made to the United States of America by the Republic of Cuba." The transaction was thus on the face of it a bargain.
The lease of coaling and naval stations went into effect as an executive agreement upon prompt ratification by the Presidents of the United States and Cuba. Thus we secured Guantanamo, our chief naval base in the West Indies and a vitally important part of the defenses of the Panama Canal. The treaty relinquishing claim of title to the Isle of Pines went before the Senate, failed to secure a favorable vote and was replaced by another treaty in 1904 which was identical with it. The second treaty remained before the Senate for twenty-one years longer.
During the closing weeks of the 68th Congress the treaty was placed upon the calendar and considered in open executive session. All of the old legal arguments in favor of giving Cuba a clear title were reviewed. In addition, the point was stressed that as Cuba had been in de facto control of the island since the withdrawal of American troops it was, as a practical matter, impossible for us to negotiate a treaty with her to relinquish her claims. The wisest course lay in agreeing to the treaty and thus putting an end to an impasse which had caused much criticism of the United States and had endangered the success of a genuine Pan-American program.
The 68th Congress came to a close without a vote upon the treaty; but it was immediately brought up again in the special session of the Senate of the 69th Congress. After a considerable discussion, during which an attempted filibuster against the treaty by Senator Copeland of New York failed, the treaty came to a vote and the resolution advising ratification passed on March 13 by a vote of 63 to 14. Immediately the beneficial effect of this action upon our international relations became evident. The Senate and Chamber of Deputies of Cuba each hastened to send to the United States Senate resolutions of thanks for this act of justice and good friendship. The President and also the President-elect of Cuba expressed in complimentary terms their gratitude to the United States. In other countries of Latin America highly favorable comments have been made. It is reasonable to believe that in relinquishing its title to this relatively unimportant island the United States, apart from the satisfaction of acting as it should act, has gained something intangible but valuable.