Friday, March 20, 2015

The International Incident of the "I'm Alone"

Image of the I'm Alone from Newfoundland Shipwrecks
On this date in 1929, the U.S. Coast Guard spotted a Canadian vessel approximately 10½ miles off the coast of Louisiana. The I'm Alone was a notorious liquor-smuggling schooner, whose history was well known to the Coast Guard's Wolcott crew. After the I'm Alone crew ignored orders to stop for inspection, the Wolcott fired two warning shots (one of which pierced the Canadian ship's sails), and then pursued the ship for two more days in open water. A second Coast Guard vessel, the Dexter, joined the chase on March 22, lending additional firepower since the Wolcott's gun had jammed after its second warning shot. The Dexter's commanding officer again ordered the I'm Alone to stop, warning that the Coast Guard would sink the ship if crew did not comply.

According to State Department correspondence, the master of the I'm Alone responded "that he would be sunk rather than stop," and allegedly "waved a revolver in a threatening manner indicating that he would resist forcibly any attempt to board his vessel." The Dexter fired more than a dozen shots, piercing the ship's rigging and hull. The I'm Alone sank at 9:05 a.m. on March 22, 1929; one crew member drowned before the Coast Guard could recover him from the water.

The sinking of the I'm Alone caused a six-year diplomatic incident. While international law did allow hot pursuit to continue into the open seas, the government of Canada disputed that the I'm Alone ever ventured close enough to U.S. territorial waters to warrant Coast Guard involvement. Specifically, a 1924 treaty, Convention between the United States and Great Britain for the Prevention of Smuggling of Intoxicating Liquors, 43 Stat. 1761, gave the Coast Guard the right to seize ships suspected of smuggling alcohol into the Prohibition-era U.S., but only if the offending ship was within one hour's distance from the coastline. U.S. Attorney General William Mitchell examined the evidence and reassured Secretary of State Stimson that the Coast Guard's pursuit and sinking of the I'm Alone was justified.

The two governments agreed to submit the matter to international arbitration, with Supreme Court Justice Willis Van Devanter serving as arbiter for the U.S., and Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Lyman Poore Duff appointed by Canada. The two Commissioners examined briefs and affidavits from each party (including an engaging detour into decrypted telegrams which were related to the liquor-smuggling operations of I'm Alone, below) and submitted a joint interim report in June 1933. The Commissioners held that the U.S. might "use necessary and reasonable force" to apprehend a suspected smuggling vessel, but that "the admittedly intentional sinking of the suspected vessel was not justified by anything in the Convention." The final report, filed in January 1935, added that the sinking was likewise unjustified "by any principle of international law." 

Decrypted telegram related to I'm Alone operations

The Commissioners also determined that the Canadian-registered ship had been owned and operated at the time of its destruction by primarily United States citizens, factoring into its recommendation that the United States pay nothing to Canada for the cost of the vessel or its cargo. However, the Commission did recommend that the United States formally acknowledge its wrongdoing in sinking the ship with an apology to the government of Canada and a $25,000 payment. Additional compensation was recommended for the I'm Alone captain and selected crew members, including the family of the crewman who drowned during the Coast Guard recovery operation. (Read the reports, reprinted in the United Nations publication Reports of International Arbitral Awards.)

For more information about the fascinating history of the I'm Alone, and its impact on international law, start with Joseph Anthony Ricci's "All Necessary Force": The Coast Guard and the Sinking of the Rum Runner the "I'm Alone", a master's thesis in history submitted to the University of New Orleans in 2011. Ricci follows the tale of the I'm Alone all the way to the eventual sinking of the Dexter, the Coast Guard vessel whose shots had destroyed the Canadian schooner. Renamed the MV Buccaneer after its decommissioning from the Coast Guard, the former Dexter found new life as a party boat on Lake Michigan before a scuba diving company turned it into an undersea attraction in 2010 (see video of the sinking).

Primary documents from the I'm Alone arbitration can be found in the Goodson Law Library’s Documents collection under the title "I'm Alone" Case; this State Department publication collection has also been digitized in HeinOnline's World Trials Library. Legal analysis of the arbitration can be found in Index to Legal Periodicals Retrospective, or HeinOnline's law journal and foreign/international law libraries. For help with locating historical background on the I'm Alone case, or for information on international arbitration more generally, be sure to Ask a Librarian.