Contraband of War

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CONTRABAND OF WAR, a term in international law that refers to a belligerent's right to prevent an enemy from receiving goods of value in waging war and to seize and condemn any cargo shipped by a neutral nation to a warring power, usually on the high seas. The term has been important in United States military history since the late eighteenth century. In the 1790s Britain and France tried to limit sea imports to and from each other and arbitrarily seized hundreds of American ships for contraband violations. Consequently, the U.S. Navy waged an unofficial war on France between 1798 and 1800 to defend its right to transport noncontraband cargoes. During the Civil War, U.S. cruisers captured British ships transporting goods to the Confederacy and seized their cargo, whether it was contraband or not. The U.S. Supreme Court later upheld the seizure of these blockade-running, British-owned ships. The Court's decision did little to ease tensions between the British and Americans. In 1872 the Geneva Tribunal met to arbitrate a dispute between the two nations over damages perpetrated by British-built Confederate warships on Union shipping. The tribunal held that, under international law, a neutral country must accept responsibility for any citizens who ship contraband to a belligerent nation, and Britain agreed to pay the United States $15.5 million in damages. (See Alabama Claims.) Contraband continued to be a significant legal issue throughout the twentieth century.

During World War I Great Britain imposed broad categories of contraband on neutral shipping and virtually ended American trade with Germany. The Germans' desperate attempt to break the British blockade through unrestricted submarine warfare hastened American entry into the war. The issue of contraband also shaped the course of World War II. On 21 May 1941, when a German submarine torpedoed an American merchant ship allegedly carrying goods to British South Africa, the two nations began fighting an undeclared war in the Atlantic. In November 1941 Congress took a step toward entering the war on the side of the Allies when it partially repealed the Neutrality Act of 1939 and permitted American merchants to carry any cargo, including contraband, through war zones to and from Great Britain. Since merchant ships were privately owned and operated, this decision allowed the United States to provision Britain without technically abrogating international restrictions on contraband.

After World War II the 1949 Geneva Convention tried to alter the rules of contraband and called for free passage of medical supplies and religious objects, as well as food, clothing, and tonics for children and maternity cases. Yet, meticulous observance of the law of contraband remained almost impossible in the Cold War. During the Yom Kippur War of 1973, for example, the Soviet Union transported supplies to Egypt and Syria, while the United States shipped arms to Israel. Under international law, Arab forces had a legal right to stop American aircraft carrying goods to Israel, while the Israeli army had the same right to intercept Soviet ships loaded with contraband. The realities of a geopolitical world transformed by long-range missiles and airpower, however, prevented either side from stopping American or Soviet contraband shipments.


Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Kaufman, Burton I. The Arab Middle East and the United States. New York: Twayne, 1996.

LaFeber, Walter. The American Age. New York: Norton, 1994.

Pyke, Harold Reason. Contraband and the War. London: Oxford University Press, H. Milford, 1915.

Eric J.Morser

Paul B.Ryan

See alsoBlockade ; International Law ; Navy, United States ; Neutral Rights ; Neutrality .