Two telegrams about the sale

In 1916, Denmark and the USA conducted negotiations about the sale of the West Indian islands partly through telegrams that crisscrossed the Atlantic. But to the great frustration of the political opposition in Denmark, great secrecy surrounded the talks.
Picture of telegram.
Telegram in plain text about the impending sale of the Danish West Indies for 25 million dollars (Danish National Archives)

Both parties were interested in the sale. The First World War had broken out and the USA feared that Germany could take over the islands and establish a naval base there. As far as Denmark was concerned, it was difficult to handle the great social problems on the islands and the growing unrest.

Talks in Washington

The sales negotiations were mainly conducted in Washington between the State Department and the Danish ambassador, Constantin Brun. The ambassador kept the Ministry of Foreign Affairs updated concerning the negotiations, and he often received instruction back from Denmark.

Intense negotiations by telegram

The Americans were now in a hurry to complete the negotiations, and many telegrams were sent over the Atlantic. At the telegraph office, the long strips of paper from the telegraph were cut up and carefully glued to forms. They were then sealed with a wafer and immediately delivered to the recipient by messenger. Two telegrams are described below.

The telegram confirming the sale         

Reuters, the news agency, sent the above telegram telling that the American authorities had confirmed the purchase of the West Indian islands. The telegram was sent to Ritzau’s news agency in Copenhagen on 26th July 1916. The sales negotiations could no longer be kept secret at that point in time. Both the American and the British press had got wind of the sale. Reuters was correct in that the negotiations were now completed and that the sales price was to be 25 million dollars. However, the treaty was not signed until 4th August 1916, and not – as assumed in the telegram – already on 26th July.

The telegram about the secret documents

On 26th November 196, Ambassador Brun in Washington sent the telegram below to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Copenhagen, where it was decoded. It concerns which documents from the secret sales negotiations between the Danish and American governments could be published.

The opposition makes demands

The political opposition in Denmark was displeased that the negotiations had been conducted in strict secrecy and that it had not been consulted. Therefore, it demanded full openness about the talks.

The Americans had clearly been consulted, and the telegram says that that the Secretary of State Robert Lansing agreed to the publication of, among other things, ”the various Draft Treaties with accompanying memorandums and of the declaration about Greenland”. On the other hand, Lansing vetoed the publication of certain telegrams and of other documents from the diplomatic negotiations.

Transfer to the USA

As we know, the sale went through, and the price was higher than at previous negotiations. On 31st March 1917, the islands were officially transferred at a ceremony on St. Thomas. The Social-Liberal government averted the political crisis at home by including three ’control ministers’ without portfolio from the three big opposition parties in Denmark: the Liberals, the Conservatives and the Social Democrats.     

Picture of telegram from Ambassador Brun in Washington.
Coded telegram from Ambassador Brun in Washington about the documents that could be published (Danish National Archives).