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Neutrality Acts

Neutrality Acts

David G. Delaney

Between 1935 and 1939 Congress passed four neutrality acts to limit America's involvement in foreign conflicts. The political debate surrounding the neutrality acts reflected the evolving view of America's role in the world. Public opinion was shifting away from isolationism toward interventionism and collective security and the belief that America's best defense lay in cooperative efforts with other nations and international organizations. The acts also signify a power shift from the legislative to the executive branch in international affairs. Whereas Congress previously controlled the details of foreign policy programs, the acts increasingly granted the presidency and executive agencies leeway to implement new laws.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Neutrality Act of 1935 (P.L. 74-76, 49 Stat. 1081) into law on August 31. The act banned all arms and ammunition shipments to belligerent nations and placed America's armaments industry under federal control for six months. Following Italy's invasion of Ethiopia on October 3, 1935, Roosevelt declared the United States neutral and invoked the act to place a blanket ban on all weapons shipments to both countries and to prohibit Americans from traveling on ships registered in either nation.

The policy of American neutrality was ineffective in shaping the outcome of that conflict. Also, it disfavored Ethiopia because the act did not prohibit the significant trade in raw materials that Americans conducted with Italy. The State Department drafted broader neutrality legislation to address this imbalance, giving the president authority to implement embargoes selectively. Such authority would better reflect the administration's position toward warring countries. However, congressional isolationists rejected the measure as giving the president too much control over American trade. In the Neutrality Act of 1936, Congress simply extended the 1935 act by fourteen months and added a provision to prohibit private loans to belligerents.


The Neutrality Act of 1937 made the 1936 act permanent and included the basic provisions of its predecessors:

Whenever the President, or the Congress by concurrent resolution, shall find that there exists a state of war between foreign states, and that it is necessary to promote the security or preserve the peace of the United States or to protect the lives of citizens of the United States, the President shall issue a proclamation naming the states involved.... It shall thereafter be unlawful for any American vessel to carry any passengers or any article or materials to any state named in such proclamation ... [and] it shall be unlawful for any person to export, or attempt to export, from the United States to any other state, any arms, ammunition, or implements of war....

But the 1937 act also added a two-year "cash-and-carry" provision permitting Americans to trade with belligerents who paid cash and transported the goods on non-U.S. vessels following a declaration of neutrality:

It shall thereafter be unlawful to export or transport, or attempt to export or transport, or cause to be exported or transported, from the United States to any state named in such proclamation, any articles or materials (except copyrighted articles or materials) until all right, title, and interest therein shall have been transferred to some foreign government, agency, institution, association, partnership, corporation, or national.

Cash-and-carry gave the president the authority he had sought in 1935 to declare limited rather than blanket embargoes. The plan permitted the president to tailor the U.S. approach to the circumstances of unique conflicts and perhaps better reflect America's interests. However, critics noted that cash-and-carry would unequally benefit nations like Japan, England, and France, capable of paying cash and protecting their ships with strong navies.


In response to the Sino-Japanese War of August 1937, Roosevelt avoided the issue of cash-and-carry altogether by not invoking the Neutrality Act. U.S. trade would therefore continue unrestrained with China and Japan. This decision and the president's Quarantine Speech on October 5, 1937, are perhaps the earliest outward signs that the Roosevelt administration viewed neutrality legislation as unrealistic, ineffective prescriptions for America's involvement in closely inter-connected issues of international politics, trade, and law. If anything, neutrality legislation had encouraged Germany and Italy to pursue their political interests knowing that the United States would likely not act to stop them.

In March 1939, after Germany marched into Czechoslovakia, Roosevelt sought to revise or eliminate neutrality legislation. In response to Germany's September 1, 1939, invasion of Poland, the president declared neutrality under the 1937 act but lobbied Congress to repeal the mandatory arms embargo. Over continued isolationist opposition from Senators William E. Borah, Arthur H. Vandendurg, Gerald P. Nye, and Robert M. La Follette, Jr., the Neutrality Act of 1939 gave the president this authority and laid the groundwork for the future Lend-Lease Act.

The neutrality acts had failed to achieve their primary goal of keeping the United States out of war, but they evolved into less restrictive measures that authorized the executive branch to respond to rapidly changing global events. Following World War II, Congress largely rejected the isolationism that had spawned neutrality legislation. The United States would thereafter play a leading role in international organizations like the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the nation's foreign and defense policy would embrace an international outlook.

See also: Lend-Lease Act.


Divine, Robert A. The Reluctant Belligerent: American Entry into World War II, 2d ed. New York: Knopf, 1979.

Excerpt from Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Quarantine Speech," October 5, 1937

Without a declaration of war and without warning or justification of any kind, civilians, including vast numbers of women and children, are being ruthlessly murdered with bombs from the air. In times of so-called peace, ships are being attacked and sunk by submarines without cause or notice. Nations are fomenting and taking sides in civil war fare in nations that have never done them any harm. Nations claiming freedom for themselves deny it to others.

Innocent peoples, innocent nations are being cruelly sacrificed to a greed for power and supremacy which is devoid of all sense of justice and humane considerations. To paraphrase a recent author, "perhaps we foresee a time when men, exultant in the technique of homicide, will rage so hotly over the world that every precious thing will be in danger, every book, every picture, every harmony, every treasure garnered through two millenniums, the small, the delicate, the defenselessall will be lost or wrecked or utterly destroyed."

If those things come to pass in other parts of the world, let no one imagine that America will escape, that America may expect mercy, that this Western hemisphere will not be attacked and that it will continue tranquilly and peacefully to carry on the ethics and the arts of civilization....

If those days are not to come to passif we are to have a world in which we can breathe freely and live in amity with out fearthen the peace-loving nations must make a con certed effort to uphold laws and principles on which alone peace can rest secure.

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Neutrality Act

Neutrality Act, law passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Aug., 1935. It was designed to keep the United States out of a possible European war by banning shipment of war materiel to belligerents at the discretion of the President and by forbidding U.S. citizens from traveling on belligerent vessels except at their own risk. The demand for this legislation arose from the conviction of many Americans that U.S. entry into World War I had been a mistake. This conviction was strengthened by the well-publicized investigations by a Senate committee headed by Gerald P. Nye of American war loans to the Allies. The Neutrality Act was amended (Feb., 1936) to prohibit the granting of loans to belligerents, and later (Jan. and May, 1937) neutrality was extended to cover civil wars, a step inspired by the Spanish civil war. In Nov., 1939, the act was revised in favor of supplying warring nations on the "cash-and-carry" principle; but U.S. vessels were excluded from combat zones, and U.S. citizens were forbidden from sailing on belligerent vessels. These provisions were lifted by amendment in Nov., 1941, after the lend-lease policy had been established. The act was thus practically out of operation even before American neutrality ended with Pearl Harbor.

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"Neutrality Act." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

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