Neutrality Acts

views updated May 14 2018

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.

Neutrality Acts

views updated Jun 11 2018

Neutrality Acts

After World War I (1914–18), Americans were determined to avoid involvement with another foreign war. A policy of isolationism evolved in which the American government refused to allow foreign issues to become a domestic concern. Congress passed a series of laws between 1935 and 1939 to prevent America from becoming involved in other nations' conflicts. These Neutrality Acts defined America's limits of interacting with other nations at war.

Congress passed the first act in 1935; it had an expiration date in February 1936. It restricted the United States from either selling arms or carrying war material to nations engaged in a conflict. It also recommended that American citizens be warned against traveling on those nations’ ships. The administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–1945) was frustrated by the act's restrictions. Congress, however, passed another Neutrality Act in 1936 before the first one expired.

The Neutrality Act of 1936 extended the restrictions of the first. It also prevented third parties that became involved in a conflict on behalf of another nation from purchasing arms through the United States. Loans by American citizens to belligerent countries were forbidden. When civil war broke out in Spain later that year, Congress passed another bill. It made the Neutrality Act apply to civil conflicts too. Like the Act of 1935, those in 1936 had expiration dates.

When Congress began debates concerning the next Neutrality Act in 1937, pressure existed to allow some sales of goods, other than arms, to belligerent nations. As a result, the next bill provided the opportunity to sell supplies to belligerent nations for immediate payment in cash. Delivery of the goods was to be the responsibility of the buyer. The cash-and-carry principle was a welcome change to Roosevelt, who had concerns about evolving events in Europe. Without the cash-and-carry principle, it was nearly impossible to give any support to the European countries facing the rise of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) in Germany. The embargo on arms sales, the ban on loans, and the restrictions on travel remained the same in the Neutrality Act of 1937.

In 1937, Japan invaded China, and in 1938 Hitler annexed Austria to Germany. However foreboding these events were, Americans remained uninterested in becoming involved in other nations’ distress. Roosevelt, however, was concerned, and he was frustrated by the impartial restrictions placed by the Neutrality Acts. In 1939, he pleaded for increased authority to extend assistance to friendly nations. His first proposals were rejected.

After World War II (1939–45) began with Germany's invasion of Poland, Roosevelt finally won Congressional support. The result was that the United States could supply any belligerent country willing to pay cash. Since Great Britain and France controlled the seas and could assure transport of purchases, they were the countries to benefit from the new law.

The Neutrality Acts continued to restrict American aid to European nations engaged in World War II until March 1941. With cash payments increasingly difficult to expect from the war torn nations, Roosevelt introduced the Lend-Lease Act . By allowing loans of military supplies to allies, the Lend-Lease program effectively removed the restrictions of the Neutrality Acts.