National Archives and Records Administration
Palais de Bruxelles.
Dear Mr. Hoover,
You have not only taken a deep and efficient interest in the maintenance of the very existence of Belgium during the war, but as is known by all in Belgium, you have not looked with indifference at the great efforts made by her to ensure her economic restoration after peace. Of these efforts none deserves more support than those made towards the creation of a national mercantile marine, in which I have taken a special interest because I consider it essential to the future of our Country.
Belgium can live only by exportation. The war was for her, in this respect, a terrible blow. During the German occupation, as you know, our exports were practically annihilated, and other countries – Japan in a large part – took our place in overseas markets. Since the liberation of Belgium, the material ruin of many of her factories, and the increase in cost of production (higher compared with pre-war conditions than anywhere else) have placed our industry in a situation extremely disquieting.
We shall probably never recover our situation of the past, but if we desire to avoid complete ruin, one of the few remedies in our power is to provide the possibility of transporting in Belgian vessels, Belgian goods to foreign markets. We had practically no mercantile marine before the war. In the altered circumstances it was essential that it be organized – the opportunity is exceptionally favourable, now that Antwerp is liberated from the German control which was felt heavily by all the shipping business in that city before the war and which blocked the success of more than one attempt to start Belgian shipping companies in the past.
It seemed inconceivable that what has been done by other small countries: Holland, Norway, Denmark, Greece, Portugal etc. could not be done by Belgium, with a port like Antwerp. For her it is a question of life or death; to renounce it would mean in fact abandoning control of her transports and exportations to competitors, mostly English, and probably before long, German. Particularly in the beginning, this branch of human activity is exceptionally difficult and I have considered my duty, as Chief Executive of this Country, to help as far as I can, the efforts of private Belgian shipping enterprise.
An opportunity of exceptional importance has presented itself, in which I hope you may perhaps give us most valuable assistance, and I do not hesitate to take the liberty of begging this new token of friendship towards a country which is already so heavily indebted to you.
As you are undoubtedly aware, a group of Belgian citizens, in the last period of the war, laid the foundation of a Belgian shipping company. This corporation, under the name of “Lloyd Royal Belge” had for object, as soon as the war was over, to provide in the largest possible measure the needs in maritime transport of Belgium for the import of food and raw material, and for the resumption of her exports. The Belgian Government, has given his full support to this enterprise, and personally, I have taken a very strong interest in it.
In order to fulfil their programme, the L.R.B. had for primary object the hasty constitution of a fleet, and to accomplish this they took what was probably the only step at that juncture the purchase of an important number of ships (22 ships, with a total of about 84,500 tons) from the U.S. Shipping board. The price was extremely high: $200 per ton, but the L.R.B. had before them this alternative: either to abandon the chance of starting a Belgian Mercantile Marine, under favourable circumstances, when the Germans had been wiped out from Antwerp, and everything was to be rebuilt in Belgium, or to risk a big effort and a heavy expenditure in the hope that it would be possible to amortize a large proportion of the high prices paid for the ships before freights would come down. The ships were bought from the shipping board, but the crisis in freights came much sooner than was anticipated. On the other hand, the rise in dollar made the payments more and more onerous for the Lloyd.
Under the circumstances, the situation of this company is very difficult, as is, I am informed, the case of some of the American Companies that also bought ships from the Shipping Board. We are told that the United States Government contemplate the possibility of granting to American buyers a very important reduction in the original price per ton and offering to them especially easy terms of payment. If such be the case, may I ask you, dear Mr. Hoover, if the American Government could not be induced to grant, in the largest possible measure, the same favour to our Belgian Company?
There is no question of arguing about the price originally fixed, it was proposed and accepted on both sides with complete good faith. The question is only this: Might a Belgian enterprise, of primary national importance for the restoration of our Country, hope from the U.S. Government generous treatment which might save her from a most grave situation.
After the war, the Belgian Government signed contracts with various firms – some American – for certain commodities. The prices agreed upon when the contracts were signed were found afterwards to be completely inadequate, owing to the abnormal and unexpected universal rise in prices.
The Belgian Government taking these circumstances in account, and as an act of equity, consented to increase the prices originally agreed upon. The case of the Lloyd Royal Belge is in a certain measure similar, with the situation reversed.
All the concrete facts and details concerning the request which the Lloyd Royal Belge has formally made to the U.S. Shipping Board are explained in a note which has been sent to my Ambassador, Baron de Cartier.
I have taken the liberty, relying upon your friendship, to explain to you the case only in its broad lines. I know that nothing which concerns the restoration of Belgium is indifferent to you, and I am confident that if you can see your way to help my countrymen in this particular circumstance, we may be sure you will do so.
Believe me always, dear Mr. Hoover
Brussels the 20th of April 1921