All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


Thom M. Armstrong

The term "neutrality" is generally used to designate the legal status under international law of a sovereign state that seeks to avoid involvement in an armed conflict between belligerent states, protect its rights, and exercise its responsibilities as a neutral. Consequently, a neutral state under international law or practice asserts that it has the right to remain at peace and prohibit sovereign acts by belligerents within its jurisdiction, and also a responsibility to treat belligerents impartially. Customary international law, treaties, and relevant domestic legislation confirm such rights and responsibilities. A nation's sovereignty extends to its territory, its ships on the high seas, and the air space above its territory. These principles were, for the most part, reconfirmed in the late twentieth century by the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III) from 1972 to 1982. After reviewing the entire historical body of law related to maritime issues, the conference produced the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Among other things, the convention established the breadth of territorial seas and economic zones and guaranteed traditional rights of navigation on the high seas as well as overflight.

Neutral states may engage in all legal international intercourse; therefore, neutrality is not synonymous with isolation, nor should it be confused with neutralism or nonalignment, terms that refer to peacetime foreign policies of nations desiring to remain detached from conflicting interests of other nations or power groups. This concept of neutrality has its origins in western Europe after the rise of independent states following the Peace of Westphalia at the close of the Thirty Years' War in 1648.

Respect for, and acceptance of, neutrality as having any bearing in international law or practice developed slowly during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At the time, Europe was in a state of anarchy and neutrals' rights were limited to what was acceptable to belligerents. The little advancement that did occur was largely the result of rivalry among states for trade and territory in the New World. Spain and Portugal's attempts to divide the New World between themselves, establish a monopoly of trade and colonization there, and close the seas to other nations was soon challenged by early writers on international law. In 1608 Hugo Grotius advanced the doctrine that since the seas could not be occupied, they could not become the property of any person or nation. Like the air, the seas were therefore the common property of all men. Although Spain and Portugal accepted this doctrine somewhat begrudgingly, it was firmly established by the end of the seventeenth century, and the notion of neutrality started to evolve among nations.

In general, restraints on trade revolved around the laws of blockade, the definition of contraband of war, the principle that free ships make free goods, and the right of neutrals to trade between the ports of belligerents. In all of these situations, the restraints on neutrals resulted from the obvious desire of belligerents to prevent their enemies from receiving war materials or other goods that may be needed in war. The law of blockade was an outgrowth of the law of siege in land warfare. Governments acknowledged the practice that a city or a place effectively besieged could be legally cut off from all outside help. When this principle was applied to ports, a blockade had to be effective in order for it to be legal; however, it was difficult, particularly during the age of sail, to seal a port completely. No precise definition of effectiveness was ever found, although an attempt was made in some commercial treaties to establish that a blockaded port had to be sufficiently guarded so as to render a ship "in imminent danger of capture" if it attempted to run the blockade.

The laws governing contraband of war have a long history. Under a late medieval code, Consolato del Mare, all goods destined for an enemy, in belligerent or other ships, were subject to seizure. Early in the seventeenth century, commercial treaties started to distinguish between contraband and noncontraband. The earliest example of this was the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of Southampton in 1625. Ordinarily, such treaties contained lists of goods under both categories, but uniformity in such lists was difficult, except that obvious materials of war were always considered contraband. The idea that free ships make free goods was associated with the issue of contraband. In essence, the concept meant that a ship's nationality determined the status of its cargo, and that enemy goods on a neutral ship, excepting contraband, would not be subject to capture on the high seas.


By the time of the American Revolution, a considerable body of customary law existed relative to the rights of neutrals, derived from European commercial treaties and the writings of jurists. Although the law was quite nebulous because it lacked uniformity in practice or means of enforcement, it nonetheless provided a basis for American policy.

A basic tenet of early American foreign policy was to remain free from European conflicts. Known as the Doctrine of the Two Spheres, the Massachusetts Bay Colony had indirectly asserted it in 1644. There were two aspects to this doctrine. One was that a European nation might restrict the trade of its colonials to the mother country although allowing trade between its metropolitan citizens and other metropolitan areas. The other was that wars in Europe between colonial powers would not extend to their colonials and, conversely, those conflicts between their colonies would not spread to Europe. The doctrine failed, for all practical purposes, under the pressures of colonial wars, but the Doctrine of the Two Spheres (the belief that the United States' destiny could be separate from Europe's) was advanced in the Continental Congress's debates over the question of independence. Clearly, this argument is evident in Thomas Paine's influential pamphlet Common Sense (1776) Americans saw themselves as victims of British mercantile policy. As long as the colonies were linked to the mother country, they would be drawn inevitably into Britain's wars, ones in which the colonies had no real interest. If they had been allowed to trade freely without restrictions, they would have flourished.

In June 1776 the Continental Congress appointed a committee to draft a declaration of independence and one to develop a plan of government, while also appointing a third committee, chaired by John Adams, to pen a model treaty for the conduct of foreign relations. The committee that worked on the model treaty studied the commercial treaties of Europe and drew from them the provisions on neutral rights that were most likely to be accepted by European nations in commercial relations with the United States.

The Model Treaty of 1776 represented a liberal interpretation of neutral rights. The list of contraband was restricted and short. The treaty called for free trade between countries at war and acceptance of the principle that free ships make free goods. The subsequent treaty of amity and commerce with France, a companion to the treaty of alliance of 1778, contained provisions that Americans had espoused in the model treaty. The United States then sought to make similar treaties with other European nations. When Catherine the Great of Russia issued a declaration of the rights of neutrals in 1780 and called for the formation of the Armed Neutrality to enforce those rights, Americans were optimistic. Although in principle Spain, Holland, and other neutral nations accepted the tenets of the declaration, Holland was the only other country with whom the United States signed a formal treaty during the Revolutionary War. Following the end of the war, the United States signed treaties of amity and commerce with Sweden in 1783, Prussia in 1785, and Morocco in 1787.

Although the United States signed commercial treaties with several nations following the Treaty of Paris (1783), it did not succeed in concluding similar treaties with Britain or Spain, two major maritime powers. Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, Britain had recognized the independence of the United States, even though she treated the fledgling nation with disdain and did not even fully respect the commercial provisions of the treaty to which she had agreed. Although subjected at times to inconveniences, annoyances, and insults, American trade with Great Britain was nonetheless lucrative. No serious problems arose until the outbreak of war between Britain and France in 1793. The wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon would seriously threaten America's ability to remain neutral, although the United States sought measures to ensure against becoming involved militarily while at the same time promoting its commercial interests.

The American desire to remain free from European affairs and to stay neutral in European wars was associated with the goal of protecting American neutral rights. One of the reasons for the establishment of a stronger central government under the Constitution of 1787 was a desire to retaliate against British restrictions on American trade. This desire increased as Britain seized enemy goods on American ships and impressed sailors, alleged to be British citizens, serving on American merchant and naval vessels. Both practices violated the principle that free ships make free goods, that a nation's sovereignty applied also to its ships on the high seas. The official nationality of an impressed seaman was irrelevant. The fact that Congress would most likely retaliate against high-handed British measures in defense of national honor alarmed many who felt that the United States might be drawn into the war on the side of revolutionary France.

The American position during the French revolutionary wars was complicated by the fact that the United States had treaties of commerce and alliance with France dating back to 1778. In a technical sense, these treaties violated the Doctrine of the Two Spheres, as well as the principle of impartial treatment of a neutral toward a belligerent. However, the treaties had been consummated during the desperate days of the American Revolution, when doctrine was expendable if necessary to gain alliances that might help secure independence from Great Britain. Under the treaty of alliance, the United States guaranteed to France its territories in America, a provision that the French might invoke if their possessions were attacked. Under the treaty of commerce, the United States would allow French warships and privateers to enter American ports and sell their prizes, something denied to France's enemies. From the French perspective, this enabled them to outfit privateers in American ports. Concerned that the terms of the French alliance might drag the fledgling republic into the European conflagration, President George Washington, with the encouragement of his anti-French secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, sought to pursue a neutral course. This was much to the chagrin of the president's pro-French and anti-British secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson. On 22 April 1793 the president issued his Neutrality Proclamation. In doing so, Washington advised that the United States should "with sincerity and good faith adopt and pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers." Although the federal courts already had jurisdiction under an act of 24 September 1789 to deal with cases involving international law, Congress nonetheless passed the Neutrality Act of 5 June 1794, giving the courts additional authority.

A test of the terms of the Franco-American treaties came in 1793, when "Citizen" Edmond Genêt, minister to the United States of the French Girondin revolutionary government, arrived in the country in April and was warmly received by the American people. Genêt's activities, however, soon caused the Washington administration considerable consternation. The terms of the 1778 treaty with France, Genêt argued, allowed for the outfitting of French privateers in American ports in order to prey upon British merchant ships. Having arrived in the United States with little money, Genêt also had been instructed to prevail upon the Washington administration for repayment of the American revolutionary war debt owed to France. This money would be used in recruiting American sailors and in funding privateering operations against British shipping. Washington and Hamilton both opposed payment and viewed the outfitting of French privateers as a violation of American neutrality. Even Jefferson, while sympathetic to the French, believed that the United States had to prohibit them from using American ports for hostile purposes.

Ultimately, Genêt's activities convinced Washington to request his recall, and in February 1794 Genêt's successor, Joseph Fauchet, arrived in Philadelphia. A change in the French government that brought the Jacobins into power caused Genêt, who would probably have been executed upon his return to France, to request political asylum from Washington, who granted it. Washington's demand for Genêt's recall had prompted the French government to ask for the corresponding recall of the American minister to France, Gouverneur Morris, whose involvement in French politics had irritated the French revolutionary government. Washington had sent U.S. Supreme Court chief justice John Jay on a special mission to England, causing the French to fear an Anglo-American rapprochement in spite of the 1778 Franco-American treaty. In an attempt to allay French fears and suspicions, Washington appointed James Monroe of Virginia, a well-known pro-French Jeffersonian, to replace Morris as American minister to France.

In seeking to reduce tensions between the United States and Great Britain, Jay's mission to London secured a treaty of commerce and navigation. Jay's Treaty of 19 November 1794 was, in some ways, more remarkable for what it did not contain than what it included. For the first time, Great Britain had signed a commercial treaty, though limited in scope, with an independent United States. Most lacking in the treaty, however, was any reference to the British practice of impressing American seamen. On the principle that free ships make free goods, Jay conceded an important neutral point. When terms of the treaty leaked out, Americans, especially Jeffersonian Republicans, denounced it. To many, including the French, the treaty was viewed as a betrayal of the French alliance and a pro-British move by a Federalist administration. In response, the French renewed their seizure of American merchant vessels, intervened in American politics, and laid the groundwork for the reestablishment of a French empire in North America. Despite the treaty's limitations, and with mixed feelings, President Washington signed it. One of the indirect consequences of the treaty was a new settlement with Spain in the form of Pinckney's Treaty of October 1795. Fearing that Jay's Treaty foreshadowed an Anglo-American alliance that would threaten Spanish territories in North America, Spain acquiesced to most American demands. It agreed to a narrowed list of contraband, the right to trade with belligerents except under conditions of an effective blockade, and acceptance of the principle that free ships make free goods.

Jay's Treaty not only had a significant impact on American foreign relations; it was also important to American domestic politics. Reaction to the treaty contributed to the development of formal political parties in the United States: Republicans, who were basically pro-French, and Federalists, who were basically pro-British. When details of Jay's Treaty became known to the French, they were convinced that the Federalist administration was pro-British and was repudiating its obligations to its revolutionary war ally. On 2 July 1796 the French government announced that it would treat neutral powers the way the British treated them; namely, France would renew its seizure of American merchant vessels. When Republican James Monroe, who had replaced Gouverneur Morris as minister to France, suggested that Federalists like Washington and Adams would be thrown out of office in the election of 1796, the president recalled him. The Directory, the new French government, determined that it would not receive another American minister plenipotentiary until its grievances had been resolved.

Efforts to resolve the issues between the two countries produced the notorious XYZ Affair, in which French officials sought to bribe an American delegation for the mere privilege of meeting with them. In response to this perceived insult Congress, during the summer of 1798, declared all treaties with France abrogated. President John Adams, who had succeeded George Washington, was authorized to employ the navy to protect American merchant ships from French spoliation in the Atlantic Ocean. Additionally, American merchant vessels were authorized to arm themselves for defensive purposes and to seize French armed vessels if attacked. On 2 March 1799, Congress created the Department of the Navy.


The so-called Quasi-War with France lasted until 1801. President Adams wisely took advantage of a change in the French government and negotiated the Convention of 1800, destroying his chances at reelection in 1796. Many Federalists, including Hamilton, who sought a war with France and an Anglo-American rapprochement, felt betrayed by Adams. The convention abrogated the 1778 alliance with France, but retained the commercial provisions and liberal definition of neutral rights characteristic of the earlier commercial treaty. This agreement, together with the Peace of Amiens (1802) that temporarily ended the European war, enabled the United States to pursue a course independent of the European conflict while at the same time maintaining its neutral rights. Under the provisions of the Convention of 1800, the interdiction on American trade pertaining to all countries except Great Britain and France was removed, and the president was authorized to permit trade with the two great powers if they should cease violating the neutral trade of the United States. However, with the resumption of war between Great Britain and France, and its expansion by 1805 with the formation of the Third Coalition against Napoleon, each side sought to gain advantage by shutting off the other's trade. In this deadly duel between the leading belligerents, neutral rights were once again neither recognized or respected.

In 1805, in the case of the Essex, a British admiralty court ruled that the practice by which American ships carried goods from French colonies to France, with only a brief stop in an American port, did not constitute a broken voyage but, in reality, was a continuous voyage. Thus, French goods were not neutralized and were therefore subject to seizure. Consequently, Britain passed a series of orders in council designed to impose a blockade of all ports controlled by France, thereby forcing American vessels to go first to Great Britain, pay fees, and allow their goods to be subject to search and seizure. France retaliated with its Berlin and Milan Decrees, placing an embargo on all trade with Britain, and ordering the seizure of all ships that had paid the fees demanded by the Orders in Council, arguing that neutral vessels which did so were no longer neutral but British, and thus liable to seizure. Subsequent decrees also allowed for the arrest of American ships in ports controlled by France and the confiscation of their cargoes. These and subsequent acts and other retaliatory measures by both belligerents, although primarily directed toward each other, nonetheless violated American rights and severely threatened American trade with Europe and its colonies. Lacking effective military and naval power to protect its shipping, the United States attempted through negotiations with Britain, and peaceable economic coercion directed at both Britain and France, to force both belligerents to respect American neutral rights. The Monroe-Pinkney Treaty (1806) with Britain failed to achieve guarantees for American neutral rights. In fact, so unsatisfactory was the treaty that President Thomas Jefferson refused even to submit it to the Senate for ratification.

Calculating that American trade was essential to the British, and to a lesser extent to the French, the United States employed coercive measures, beginning with the Non-Importation Act of 1806. This measure prohibited certain British manufactures from being exported to the United States. In 1807 Jefferson imposed the Embargo Act, a measure that prohibited American ships from leaving American ports. Although many American merchant vessels failed to adhere to the embargo, particularly as time elapsed and it failed to achieve its objectives, the embargo still severely restricted American trade, caused a depression, and produced intense political and sectional feelings in the country. In 1809 British minister David Erskine negotiated the Erskine Agreement with the United States, and President Madison prematurely lifted the embargo. When the treaty reached England, it was repudiated by the British government and Madison, somewhat humiliated, was forced to reimpose the embargo.

In 1809, under severe economic and political pressures, the Madison administration replaced the Embargo and the Non-Importation Act with a watered-down version of the embargo known as the Non-Intercourse Act. This measure opened trade to the world, except for Britain, France, and their possessions. In 1810 the Non-Intercourse Act was replaced by Macon's Bill No. 2, which reopened trade with even Britain and France, but stipulated that if one belligerent rescinded its restrictive measures, the United States would then impose nonintercourse against the other. When Napoleon's government implied that it was rescinding the Continental Decrees against American commerce, Madison jumped at the promise on face value when, in reality, France continued to seize American ships and cargoes. As Britain refused to rescind its orders in council when evidence confirmed that France had not actually stopped violating American neutral rights, Madison issued a proclamation, backed by the Non-Importation Act of 1811, prohibiting British goods from being imported into the United States.

Although the United States resented both Great Britain and France, the issues with the British were more long-standing and had greater impact. Many factors contributed to the War of 1812 with Britain, but certainly violation of American neutral rights, impressment of American seamen, and defense of national honor were major contributing factors. The war ended with neither belligerent achieving its expressed purposes. However, the establishment of peace and the conclusion of an Anglo-American treaty of commerce, as well as an agreement to limit naval armaments on the Great Lakes and to settle boundary and fisheries disputes, launched a new relationship between the two nations. After the Treaty of Ghent of 1814, which ended the war with Britain, and the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, there were no major maritime wars for the rest of the century. Thus ended an epoch in the American struggle for neutral rights.

A new phase in the American policy of neutrality was brought about by revolutions in the colonies of Spanish America. Officially, the United States did not play a role in these revolutions and was not particularly concerned about them until such time as any had established permanent governments and therefore warranted recognition as independent states. However, when it looked like one or more European powers might assist Spain in restoring its American empire, President James Monroe in 1823 issued a message to Congress, largely written by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, that came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine. In essence, Monroe's message was a reaffirmation of the Doctrine of the Two Spheres. It also announced that while the United States would refrain from involvement in European affairs, it opposed any further European colonization of the Western Hemisphere, an extension of Europe's political systems to American states, or efforts to interfere in their internal affairs. Although Congress did not confirm the Monroe Doctrine and there was no occasion that developed immediately to test it, it became a cornerstone of American foreign policy and a justification for future acts that attempted to establish U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere in the decades to follow.

From 1823 until the American Civil War, the United States had no serious problems regarding neutrality. It officially maintained a neutral position during the Texas War for Independence (18351836) and the Canadian Uprising of 1837. During the Mexican War (18461848) the United States was able to establish an effective, and therefore legal, blockade of Mexican ports. When the Crimean War broke out in 1854, Britain and France agreed to a set of principles that were later codified and proclaimed by the leading European nations as the Declaration of Paris of 1856. This declaration acknowledged the long-standing American position that free ships make free goods, and that a blockade must be effective to be legal. It also contained the principles that noncontraband goods on enemy ships should be free from capture and that privateers should not be commissioned. As the United States was unwilling to surrender its right to commission privateers, and as it hoped to secure an additional agreement that all private property except contraband would be free, it failed to endorse the declaration. Ironically, after the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, the United States agreed to adhere to the declaration if its provisions were applied to the Confederacy. This offer was rejected by such nations as Britain and France.

The beginning of the Civil War saw the United States in an anomalous situation regarding its position on neutrality. War was not declared against the Confederacy, nor was belligerent status accorded it. Rather, the administration of Abraham Lincoln considered Union military operations to be a police action against rebellious citizens. Given this view, when Lincoln proclaimed a blockade of Confederate ports on 19 April 1861, it was a domestic action and did not have to be effective in order to be legal. However, when Britain declared neutrality on 13 May 1861, it in effect granted the Confederacy belligerent status that, among other things, meant Britain would consider a blockade of Confederate ports subject to the usual rules of international law. Since the United States did not have sufficient naval power to make the blockade effective until later in the war, the Confederate government, while also pursuing diplomatic recognition, hoped that European nations would challenge the blockade's legality. This did not occur, however, largely because Great Britain concluded that its long-term interests would be best served by accepting the Union interpretation of a blockade's effectiveness. Before the end of the war, Confederate trade with Europe was almost completely stifled because of superior Union naval strength and the capture of major Confederate ports.

In addition to its position on blockade, the United States adopted the doctrine of continuous voyage, a principle taken from British prize law: a ship carrying contraband goods for a belligerent could be captured on the high seas in voyage from a neutral port to another neutral port whenever such a port was only a way station and not the ultimate destination of the cargo. The adoption and use of this doctrine by the United States established a precedent in American policy that was useful to Britain and the Allies in their conflict with the Central Powers when the United States was still a neutral state prior to its entry into World War I.

One incident occurred during the Civil War that caused the British to assert their rights as a neutral. This was the Trent affair of 8 November 1861, when an American naval vessel on the high seas stopped a British mail steamer, the Trent. On board were two Confederate diplomats on their way to England. The ship was boarded and the two diplomats were arrested and sent to prison in Boston. News of this violation of British neutral rights produced an immediate response from the British government, which demanded the release of the Confederates and an apology. For a short time there was even talk of war as the British undertook preparations. On the American side, with no desire for war with Britain given its pre-occupation with the challenges of civil war, Secretary of State William H. Seward acquiesced to British demands and conflict was averted.

Aside from the Trent affair, the most significant conflict over neutral rights and duties during the Civil War was the construction and outfitting of warships (designed to be commerce raiders). This was significant primarily in relations between the United States and Britain, whose laws permittedas did international lawthe sale of merchant ships to belligerents, but prohibited the sale of warships. The Confederacy sought to circumvent this prohibition by having vessels built ostensibly as merchant ships, but constructed in such a way so as to be easily converted into warships at sea or in a Confederate port. The most notorious case, albeit not the only one, was the Confederate cruiser Alabama. The United States contended that Great Britain had failed to live up to its obligations as a neutral by allowing the Alabama to leave British waters. The British government asserted that the Alabama was a merchant vessel until it was significantly altered and equipped with naval armament in a Confederate port. This controversy continued throughout the Civil War, and was not resolved until the Treaty of Washington in 1871. In addition to the United States being awarded $15.5 million by an international tribunal, the significance of the treaty was in the concession by Great Britain that a neutral had an obligation to use "due diligence" in preventing a ship from being built "in whole or in part" as a warship for a belligerent. Although only signatories were bound by the treaty, the principle was subsequently incorporated in a convention on the rights and duties of neutrals at the Second Hague Conference (1907), the difference being that the imprecise rule of "due diligence" was changed to the obligation of a neutral to use the "means at its disposal."


During the years between the American Civil War and the outbreak of World War I, the United States experienced no serious problems connected with its own neutral rights. While promoting its strategic interests, the United States failed in one situation to adhere strictly to its obligations as a neutral nation and to live up to its treaty obligations. During the Panamanian Revolution of 1903, the United States departed from its neutral position by preventing the landing in Panama of Colombian troops attempting to suppress the revolution. In the same action, the United States violated its treaty obligations with Colombia in a 1846 treaty that pledged the United States to guarantee the "rights of sovereignty and property" of Colombia over the Isthmus of Panama. In 1921 the United States compensated Colombia for its loss of Panama.

At the Second Hague Conference, the United States sought to secure an agreement on the rights and duties of neutrals that included the principle that had been advocated by the United States since 1784: that noncontraband neutral private property was exempt from capture. Although the conference adopted a convention on neutral rights, so many significant issues remained unresolved, such as the one of private property, that a separate meeting of the major maritime powers was organized to consider those issues. They met in London in 1908, and the following year issued the Declaration of London. The declaration provided for the most extensive and, as far as neutrals were concerned, the most liberal rules governing neutral trade that had ever been achieved. Although they did not prohibit the capture of private property, they did enumerate an extensive list of free goods and limited the principle of continuous voyage to absolute contraband. Universal acceptance of the declaration would have benefited neutral trade with belligerents, and it would have assisted those belligerents who would have profited from such trade. However, it would have restricted other belligerents in the exercise of rights previously recognized under generally acceptable rules of international law. Consequently, Britain rejected the Declaration of London, and as universal ratification was not achieved, the United States did not ratify the treaty, although the Senate had consented to it.

When World War I began the United States, under President Woodrow Wilson, issued a declaration of neutrality on 4 August 1914. Issues concerning American neutral rights arose most seriously with Britain and Germany. The British did not establish a traditional close blockade of German ports. Rather, it gradually expanded the contraband list to include goods that could be used to manufacture war materials and those that would be of significant value to the German war effort. The British also made extensive use of the doctrine of continuous voyage. The United States protested British maritime practices; however, Britain possessed a basis in international law for its policies. No precise lists of contraband had ever been universally accepted. The idea that some materials on a free list might become contraband had been a feature of treaties since the seventeenth century. During the American Civil War, the United States had added naval stores and "articles of like character with those specifically enumerated" to the contraband list. The doctrine of continuous voyage was also firmly based in international practice and had been sanctioned by the United States during the Civil War. Even under the Declaration of London (1909), in which the principle of continuous voyage was limited to absolute contraband, the legal extension of such contraband was admitted. Although the United States might have protested the extremes to which Britain carried its maritime policies, it had no solid basis in international law to deny their validity, nor did it grant to the Allies rights prohibited to the Central Powers. General American sympathy for the Allied cause, plus ties of culture and economics, precluded the United States from forcefully defending its neutral rights, or engaging in retaliation as it had during the Napoleonic Wars. Furthermore, Germany's reliance upon the submarine, which caused not only property damage but also the loss of lives, came for most Americans to overshadow any actions by Great Britain.

The conflict between the United States and Germany stemmed largely from German insistence upon the use of unrestricted submarine warfare. The United States did not oppose a German blockade of Allied ports if the blockade were proclaimed and effective, nor did it deny the right of Germany to stop neutral ships on the high seas and to seize both the cargo and the ship if it carried contraband. In an attempt to break the tightening of the British blockade and deny the British supplies from across the Atlantic, Germanyin a proclamation of 4 February 1915declared a war zone in the waters around Britain, including the English Channel. Germany threatened to sink all merchant vessels, including neutrals, without warning or providing for the safety of passengers and crew. The United States replied on 10 March 1915 that if American ships were so destroyed or American lives lost, this would be "an indefensible violation of neutral rights" and that it would "take any steps it might be necessary to take to safeguard American lives and property."

Although early attacks on American ships prompted protests from the United States, it was not until the sinking of the British liner Lusitania on 7 May 1915, with the loss of 1,198 lives, including 128 Americans, that the American government vehemently protested. In the first Lusitania note from the Wilson government to Germany, the United States insisted that German submarines stop firing on merchant vessels. In a second Lusitania note, the United States threatened direct action if Germany did not stop its unrestricted use of the submarine against merchant vessels. In a conciliatory reply and an offer for compensation, Germany sought to defuse the situation with the United States. However, on 19 August 1915 the British liner Arabic was sunk, claiming two Americans. To stave off possible American retaliation, Germany issued the socalled Arabic Pledge, a promise that submarines would not attack passenger ships without providing warning and making provisions to rescue passengers and crews. In March 1916 a German submarine torpedoed the French liner Sussex, resulting in the injury of two Americans. From the American perspective, this appeared to be a violation of the Arabic Pledge and Wilson threatened to break off diplomatic relations. The German government once again tried to assuage the Americans by reaffirming the Arabic Pledge.

Germany had failed to achieve military victory by the summer of 1916. With serious political and social problems developing at home, and the German high command concerned about the will of the German people to continue the war, a last major all-out offensive on the western front was planned for the spring of 1917. In a desperate gamble designed to deprive the Allies of vital foodstuffs and materials, the German government resumed unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February 1917, fully aware that this was likely to bring the United States into the war on the side of the Allies. The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Germany. Following the sinking of several U.S. ships by German submarines in March, the United States declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917. Several factors contributed to American entry into the war, but preservation of neutral rights was a key one.

By the end of World War I, President Wilson had determined that in the interests of humanity, as well as national security, a new approach to world peace was necessary. He was able to convince most of the major statesmen in the world to accept this need and the Covenant of the League of Nations was the outcome. The signatories to the covenant agreed "to preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League." If a member of the league resorted to war in disregard of its obligations under the covenant, then members of the league would prohibit all trade and financial relations with the covenant-violating state. Furthermore, nonmembers of the league would also be required to abide by these sanctions. Thus, the traditional rights of neutrals to trade with belligerents would be prohibited. However, when Japan violated the Covenant in 1931 by invading Manchuria, and Italy followed in 1935 with its invasion of Abyssinia, the league failed to impose sanctions at all in the first case, and only partially and ineffectively in the second. The league system of collective security collapsed. The extent to which American refusal to join the league contributed to the failure of the League of Nations failure is debatable.

In the twenty years after World War I, the United States rejected the League of Nations, pursued nationalistic economic policies, promoted naval arms limitations, and signed feeble and useless pacts, such as the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 and the London Naval Treaties of 1930 and 1936. At the same time it focused overwhelmingly on domestic affairs and displayed apparent indifference to the moral and political disintegration of world order. When the specter of another world war arose, the nation naively sought to isolate itself from world affairs and pursued safety in the abandonment of its once-cherished neutral rights, for which it had fought two foreign wars. American neutrality had never meant simply noninvolvement in world affairs. Rather, it meant the determination to support the rights of its people under rules of international law that, in turn, would contribute to the civilized conduct of nations.

This reversal of America's traditional policy was accomplished through a series of congressional neutrality acts commencing in 1935 and reaching their most comprehensive form in the Neutrality Act of 1937. Believing that American insistence upon its historical defense of neutral rights, along with the greed of bankers and arms merchants, had helped to suck the United States into World War I, Congress passed legislation that in essence repudiated traditional American views of neutral rights. Under these acts, if the president determined that a "state of war" existed among two or more foreign states, American citizens were prohibited from exporting arms, munitions, or implements of war to belligerents or to neutrals for transshipment to belligerents, or to a state where civil strife existed. The selling of securities or making of loans was prohibited, as was travel by American citizens on belligerent ships. American merchant vessels were not to be armed, and they were prohibited from carrying materials of war. Nonprohibited goods could be sold to belligerents, provided the title to them was transferred before being transported abroad. By renouncing its historical interpretation of neutral rights, so the thinking went, the United States could hope to escape being drawn into another foreign war.

Commensurate with this "new neutrality" policy, the United States moved to strengthen relations with Latin American nations. The Neutrality Act of 1937 specifically exempted Latin American states from its application in case of war between one or more of them and a non-American state. In a series of conferences between the United States and Latin America, beginning at Buenos Aires in 1936, the American republics agreed to preserve their neutrality and to act in concert in the event of any threat to their safety or independence. However, when war broke out in Europe and the United States began to alter its neutrality policies, it acted independently of its Latin American neighbors. During World War II some Latin American states that remained neutral referred to their status as "nonbelligerency," a term without precise meaning in international law, but in reality an extension of commercial rights to the United States not accorded to other belligerents.

The "new neutrality" policy failed for many reasons. In actuality, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt the United States was not about to stand idly by and let the world be dominated by the aggressors who had signed the Tripartite Pact. Presidential acts as well as congressional measures eroded the new policy. President Roosevelt refused to recognize that a state of war existed between Japan and China, or between Russia and Finland. In the destroyers-for-bases deal of 1940, he sold or traded World War Ivintage warships to Great Britain, and extended the Monroe Doctrine to include the mid-Atlantic. In 1939 Congress repealed the arms embargo provisions of the Neutrality Act of 1937, cut trade with Japan, and passed the Lend-Lease Act of 1941, which in effect made the United States an unofficial ally of the nations opposing the Axis. By the end of October 1941, a virtual state of war existed between Germany and the United States, with President Roosevelt convinced that formal war would break out over some incident in the Atlantic between the two countries. However, as Japan was bent upon establishing its "greater East Asia co-prosperity sphere," Rooseveltin an effort to pressure the Japanese to relinquish their conquests in China and Southeast Asiaultimately cut off all exports to Japan. Convinced that the United States meant to strangle Japan, its government in 1941 undertook plans to attack and, if possible, destroy the American Pacific fleet. When the attack on Pearl Harbor came on 7 December 1941, followed in quick succession with an American declaration of war on the Japanese Empire and German and Italian declarations of war on the United States, history witnessed the end of the United States as a neutral nation, at least in a traditional sense.

Prior to the formal conclusion of World War II, the United States reversed its traditional policy for the second time since 1920 by playing the leading role in establishing the United Nations. While the Charter of the United Nations differed significantly from the Covenant of the League of Nations, its impact on the concept of neutrality was basically the same. The Security Council of the United Nations was assigned the primary responsibility for world peace and for taking action against a state deemed to have threatened the peace of the world. Such action could be in the form of economic sanctions, which have had the effect of eroding the historical rights of neutrals.

Because of the preeminent political, economic, and military position of the United States in world affairs since the end of World War II, the nation was involved in numerous armed conflicts, some of which, like Vietnam, were protracted, even though war was never declared. The United States intervened, covertly and overtly, throughout the world where it felt its interests, or its vision of a desirable world order, was threatened, with little regard to concepts of neutral rights. In other situations, such as in the Korean War or the Persian Gulf War, the United States operated under the umbrella of the United Nations. Neutrality, a cornerstone of American foreign policy since before the establishment of the republic, was no longer relevant. Although there were some in the United States who hoped the country could once again return to an independent, neutral position in the world, President Harry S. Truman and other policymakers pursued international economic and military policies that were essential for the promotion of international trade, expansion of democratic ideals, prevention of another postwar depression, and stopping the spread of communism.

The wartime conferences at Yalta and Potsdam, followed by a series of Council of Foreign Ministers' meetings, were characterized by mutual suspicion and mistrust, and foreshadowed the rivalry that would come to be called the Cold War. Although the Western powers were already skeptical of Soviet intentions in territories they had liberated in Eastern Europe, the issue over Iran gave cause for Western alarm. In late 1945 a communist-orchestrated revolution broke out in the oil-rich region of Azerbaijan in northern Iran, particularly when the Soviets sent troops and arms to assist the revolutionaries. In addition, the Soviets failed to pull out of Iran in March 1946, as they had agreed previously. Although the Soviets withdrew in May after receiving minor concessions from Iran, their actions in the Near East, commensurate with increasing tensions in Eastern Europe, helped convince Truman that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin meant no good. Winston Churchill's Iron Curtain speech in March 1946, a United States decision against a loan to the Soviets, the termination of German reparations to the USSR from the American occupation zone in Germany, American promotion of the Baruch Plan to control atomic weapons testing and development, and other issues concerning Germany heightened the feelings of mistrust between the Western powers and the Soviets.

The United States was anything but neutral in the Greek civil war and was extremely concerned about Soviet pressure on Turkey. If successful there, the Soviets would gain access to the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean, and the oil-rich Middle East. Western Europe would most likely collapse and the British Mediterranean barrier to Soviet expansion and influence would be breached if Greece and Turkey fell.

Fighting had broken out in Greece in December 1944 between rightists, who tended to support the return of the monarchist government in exile, and communists. Under the terms of an uneasy truce reached at Varkiza in February 1946, an election was to be held to determine the form of government, and then another election was to take place for a constituent assembly. However, in the days before the election the conservative government repressed the opposition to the monarchy. By the time the election was to occur in March, both the British and the Americans had reneged on the procedures agreed to at Varkiza. Although a general election and plebiscite were held, the communists boycotted them. The results seemingly indicated support for the return of the king. These actions set off a civil war that was largely internal in origin. Many Americans, however, assumed it was Soviet coordinated, and by the spring of 1947 the situation seemed critical.

The gravity of the Greek situation, coinciding as it did with Soviet demands on Turkey and the notification by Britain in the fall of 1947 that it could no longer afford to maintain its commitments to Greece and Turkey, compelled President Truman to act. The result was what became known as the Truman Doctrine, the provisions of which were enumerated before a joint session of Congress on 12 March 1947. In addressing Congress, Truman stated "that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." The Truman Doctrine, although initially directed at Greece and Turkey, had as its primary goal the "containment" of communism. The Truman Doctrine represented a watershed in American history. This policy it represented became the justification for American intervention, covertly and overtly, in the internal affairs of nations throughout the world, and it formed the basis for the establishment of regional security treaties that were directed against the Soviet Union and its perceived allies. The United States sought to contain communism in Europe through such measures as the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the formation of NATO, and virtually every other part of the world witnessed American interventions calculated to stop communism's spread.

In Asia the United States' major concern was China. As World War II came to an end, civil war in China between the nationalist armies under Chiang Kai-shek, and the communists under Mao Zedong, resumed. Each side hoped to secure territory and supplies by accepting the surrender of Japanese troops in China and Manchuria. Although outwardly encouraging talks between the two rival factions, the United States nonetheless moved its troops and transported nationalist soldiers into key eastern and northern Chinese cities in order to accept the Japanese surrender. In northern China and Manchuria, fighting broke out between the two groups. The communists were assisted by the Soviets in Manchuria, and the nationalists were assisted by the Americans. Although American lend-lease assistance to its other allies had ended, it was continued in the case of China. In January 1946 it seemed that there was a glimmer of hope when President Truman sent General George C. Marshall to China as a special envoy to get the two sides to talk. The truce, however, proved illusory as each side maneuvered to gain the upper hand. The resulting civil war was one of the most bitter and devastating in modern history. In the end, Chiang Kaishek could not command the same level of popular support as Mao and the communists proclaimed victory in October 1949, with Chiang fleeing to Taiwan. The "loss" of China subjected the Truman administration to severe political criticism for not doing enough for China. In the final analysis, short of an all-out effort to support the Nationalists, nothing could have been done to prevent their defeat. Also, for Truman the most important foreign policy priority was shoring up Europe against Soviet threats. The thirty-year treaty of alliance negotiated by Mao and the Soviet Union in 1950 was further evidence to many Americans that worldwide communism was being orchestrated by the Soviets. As far as China was concerned, American efforts to contain communism had failed.

For the United States, intervention in Asian affairs would prove extremely frustrating. Under the umbrella of the United Nations, the Cold War suddenly became a hot war with the eruption of the Korean conflict in 1950, and at the beginning of the twenty-first century the peace between North and South Korea remained precarious. In Vietnam, the United Statesinfluenced by the domino theory and convinced of its ability to impose an outcome because of its superior strengthfoolishly involved itself in what was essentially a civil war in Vietnam. For two decades the United States was caught up in a quagmire that, in the end, witnessed consolidation of the country by the communists. What the United States had tried so hard to prevent came about anyway.

In the Western Hemisphere, the United States did not hesitate to intervene in the internal affairs of governments closer to its borders than those of Asia, Europe, the Middle East, or Africa. In countries such as Nicaragua, the United States supported right-wing dictators including General Anastasio Somoza. In Chile the Central Intelligence Agency played a significant role in a coup that saw the overthrow and subsequent death of the popularly elected Marxist president Salvador Allende, who was succeeded by the anticommunist and repressive General Augusto Pinochet. The United States openly intervened in Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and other countries because of the belief that American interests were greatly threatened by governments that included communists or suspected communists. However, the stakes were never so high as they were in Cuba, first with the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, then with the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, which saw the world come to the brink of nuclear war as the Americans and Soviets stared down each other.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, the United States did not hesitate to continue intervening in the internal affairs of numerous nations around the word. However, there have been occasions where it sought to maintain the outward appearance of neutrality, particularly in the case of the Iran-Iraq War (19801988). This war threatened to drag in other nations in a geopolitically sensitive part of the world. Passage through the Persian Gulf was threatened, which in turn posed a serious threat to oil interests. While the Soviet Union shrewdly tried to cater to both sides, the United States claimed it was neutral in the conflict. Clearly there was no love lost with Iran, what with the Iran hostage crisis still fresh in Americans' minds, and relations with Iraq had only recently improved after the State Department removed Iraq from the official list of nations that sanctioned terrorism. Although publicly opposed to arms sales to Iraq, the United States nonetheless sent a large quantity of arms and supplies to Iraq's ruler, Saddam Hussein. As the administration of President Ronald Reagan became more involved in the Middle East, its preference for Iraq over Iran became evident. Ironically, in the subsequent Gulf War of 1991, the United States under President George H. W. Bush put together a United Nations coalition of forty-eight countries against Hussein.

It may be premature to suggest that the concept of neutrality has come full circle since the Treaty of Westphalia and that the historical rights of neutrals under international law no longer exist. Conceivably, a war could take place in which the United Nations would not interfere and belligerents and neutrals would assert their traditional rights. However, given the realities of the modern world, particularly since the end of World War II, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, this does not seem to be a likely prospect. In the years since 1941, the traditional concept of American neutrality seems to have been irreversibly transformed.


Bernath, Stuart L. Squall Across the Atlantic: American Civil War Prize Cases and Diplomacy. Berkeley, Calif., 1970. A superb monograph that examines the doctrine of continuous voyage.

Borchard, Edwin M., and William P. Lange. Neutrality for the United States. 2d ed. New Haven, Conn., 1940. Focuses on the issues involving American neutrality during the 1930s.

Bowman, Albert Hall. The Struggle for Neutrality: Franco-American Diplomacy During the Federalist Era. Knoxville, Tenn., 1974. An excellent account of the early problems with France, particularly from the French perspective.

Dallek, Robert. Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 19321945. New York, 1979. In this comprehensive account of Roosevelt's diplomacy, the president fares well given the constraints under which he operated.

DeConde, Alexander. Entangling Alliance: Politics and Diplomacy Under George Washington. Durham, N.C., 1958. One of the standard works on politics and diplomacy during the Washington administration, it examines European-American conflicts over neutrality.

. The Quasi-War: The Politics and Diplomacy of the Undeclared War with France, 17971801. New York, 1966. The most authoritative work on the subject.

Devlin, Patrick. Too Proud to Fight: Woodrow Wilson's Neutrality. New York, 1975. Considerable attention is given to the legal problems of neutrality.

Divine, Robert A. The Illusion of Neutrality. Chicago, 1962. A scholarly survey of the origins and consequences of the Neutrality Acts of 1935 to 1939.

Drummond, Donald F. The Passing of American Neutrality, 19371941. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1955. A good overview of the history of American neutrality, with an emphasis on the forces and events that transformed American policy between 1937 and 1941.

Fenwick, Charles G. International Law. 4th ed. New York, 1965. A good general survey of the principles of international law.

Gilbert, Felix. To the Farewell Address: Ideas of Early American Foreign Policy. Princeton, N.J., 1961.

Horsman, Reginald. The Causes of the War of 1812. Philadelphia, 1962.

Jessup, Philip C., et al. Neutrality: Its History, Economics, and Law. 4 vols. New York, 1936. The most authoritative and detailed study on the history of neutrality up to its publication date.

Link, Arthur S. Wilson. 5 vols. Princeton, N.J., 19471965. The most comprehensive study of Woodrow Wilson, whose neutrality policies are explored in volumes 3 through 5.

May, Ernest R. The World War and American Isolation, 19141917. 2d ed. Chicago, 1966.

Meecham, J. Lloyd. The United States and Inter-American Security, 18891960. Austin, Tex., 1961. Includes accounts of American efforts to secure a unified neutrality policy and hemispheric security with Latin America prior to and during World War II.

Ørvik, Nils. The Decline of Neutrality, 19141941. Oslo, Norway, 1953.

Pares, Richard. Colonial Blockade and Neutral Rights, 17391763. Oxford, 1938. Although an older work, it has relevance for understanding eighteenth-century maritime law.

Perkins, Bradford. Prologue to War: England and the United States, 18051812. Berkeley, Calif., 1961. A fine study of Anglo-American conflicts that led to the War of 1812.

. Castlereagh and Adams: England and the United States, 18121823. Berkeley, Calif., 1964. Examines the Anglo-American conflict over neutral rights.

Porter, David L. The Seventy-sixth Congress and World War II, 19391940. Columbia, Mo., and London, 1979. Examines the role of Congress in enacting neutrality revision.

Savelle, Max. The Origins of American Diplomacy: The International History of Anglo-america, 14921763. New York, 1967. The most detailed examination of European treaties and agreements that helped shape early American foreign policy relative to the Doctrine of the Two Spheres.

Trefousse, Hans J. Germany and American Neutrality, 19391941. New York, 1951. A study of the German response to American neutrality policies prior to U.S. entry into World War II.

See also Armed Neutralities; Blockade; Civil War Diplomacy; The Continental System; Doctrines; Embargoes and Sanctions; Freedom of the Seas; International Law; Naval Diplomacy; Treaties .

views updated


NEUTRALITY is the principle of classical international law and politics that allows a nation-state to remain friendly with both sides in a war. Neutrality and the international law of war from which it derives have been significant at times in U.S. history, but at the close of the twentieth century neutrality was less central than doctrines of the United Nations Charter, customary notions of state responsibility, and new concepts of individual criminal liability.

State neutrality is an invention of early modern Europe. Ancient states frequently forced other states to abet their wars or to suffer the consequences, although the ancient Greeks did recognize the neutrality of temples, the Olympic Games, and, sometimes, states. Still, the notion of a claim protected and enforceable by law that could be asserted by a state demanding that other states respect its neutrality awaited the development of the modern law among nations.

The Dutch jurist and ambassador Hugo Grotius published On the Law of War and Peace in 1625. The third book of this influential work set forth two rules of state neutrality: Neutral states should do nothing to strengthen a belligerent whose cause is unjust or to impede the cause of a belligerent whose cause is just. When there is no clear view as to the justice or injustice of a war between two states, a third state should treat each alike, offering both or neither the passage of troops over its territory, supplies or provisions, or assistance to the besieged. Despite considerable discussion of this approach, seventeenth-century states tended toward customs of neutrality with no regard for just or unjust wars. Instead states applied a Machiavellian notion that war is a supreme right of the state, and that there is no customary right of neutrality.

In the eighteenth century the foreign policy of the newly formed United States encouraged a custom of neutrality based on impartiality. Its weak military, coupled with economic ambition, led the new state to seek to "avoid foreign entanglements" and yet to profit from both sides. In 1793, as France once again declared war on England, George Washington's administration declared the United States to be neutral and forbade the French recruitment of soldiers on American soil. The American declaration of neutrality was based on the sovereign rights of states to control such matters as the raising of armies, and Congress passed laws forbidding U.S. citizens to participate in foreign wars without government orders.

This position of neutrality was not easily maintained, and the United States found itself in a quasi-war with France over neutral rights between 1798 and 1800. Thomas Jefferson sought in 1807 to protect American neutral rights through embargoes against belligerents who consistently violated those rights. The embargoes, attempted for two years, seem not to have been successful, in part owing to violations by American smugglers and in part to the availability of alternative markets. They did, however, establish a principle of economic embargo as a tool of enforcement of national rights without armed attack One tool by which U.S. merchants attempted to circumvent both embargo and the possibility of seizure by the belligerents was by transshipping goods through neutral ports to ports controlled by a belligerent. American merchants complained when the British naval blockade seized ships as prizes for carrying cargo from the French West Indies to France via U.S. ports. Over U.S. objections British courts applied a doctrine of "continuous voyage," and ruled that such cargoes were intended for a belligerent power, notwithstanding the period in the neutral port or lands, and the voyages were not neutral.

Further, the unavailing protests against the British practice of impressing American seaman into the British navy was a leading cause of the War of 1812. The war itself, something of a sideshow to the Napoleonic Wars (1799–1815) between France, and Britain and its allies, was inconclusive.

Two events in the mid-nineteenth century led to a strengthened international resolve in favor of neutrality and to a weakened recognition of it by the United States. First, the diplomatic convention leading to the Declaration of Paris in 1856 was a turning point in the law of neutrality. The United States sought, but failed to achieve, recognition of the rights of private neutral property aboard neutral ships subject to search for war contraband bound for a belligerent, and therefore did not sign the declaration. Despite this failing, the agreement did abolish privateering, the commissioning of private ships so as to give them belligerent status to raid enemy shipping.

The position of the United States regarding neutrals changed abruptly with the declaration of a blockade and embargo on all Southern ports during the Southern rebellion of the 1860s. The newly muscular U.S. Navy adopted many of the practices the United States had complained of only a decade earlier, particularly the seizure of British ships with commercial cargoes. The United States adopted the doctrine of continuous voyage and seized supplies bound for the Confederacy that were being transshipped through British and French possessions and Mexico.

Even after the war American policy regarding neutrality was contradictory and self-serving. On the one hand America complained of British violations of its neutrality. In the Alabama Claims Arbitration of 1871, the United States sought compensation from Great Britain for losses to U.S. shipping caused by Confederate raiders outfitted and based in British territory. The result was a precedent of continuing importance, because Great Britain agreed that neutral territory may not be used as a base for belligerent operations, thus establishing the principle of state responsibility for the use of its territory as a base for civil war, terrorism, subversion, or other kinds of indirect aggression. On the other hand the general position of the United States in demanding its claims of neutrality be honored by other states contradicted some of its specific foreign policies, such as the Monroe Doctrine (1823), the Open Door policy in China, and the military opening of Japan to U.S. trade. These difficulties, as well as the U.S. positions during the 1860s, would be used against American arguments for neutrality in World War I.

One important step toward recognition of neutrality in U.S. interpretations of international law arose when the United States took some fishing packets as prize vessels during the Spanish-American War (1898). In The Paquet Habana (1900) the U.S. Supreme Court held that international law arising from custom, not just treaty, applied in the United States, and that by custom nonbelligerent coastal fishing vessels were neutral, and so could not be taken as prizes of war.

Despite such steps in one nation or another, World War I commenced with little international agreement on the nature of war and neutrality. The Hague conferences of 1899 and 1907 were unsuccessful in defining neutrality at sea, although there were agreements as to the treatment of neutrals on land at the conference of 1907.

For the first years of World War I, the United States vainly attempted to maintain a policy of neutrality and to protect its neutral rights. To the Central Powers it appeared that the Allies' heavy dependence on U.S. trade and financial support made the United States biased, and its policies injurious, particularly to Germany. Of course, U.S. corporations were turning a vast profit from the war, predominantly from supplying the Allies, which, along with effective Allied propaganda and ham-fisted German diplomacy, led to even greater American support for the Allies. As German submarines increasingly violated U.S. claims to neutral rights, the United States declared war on Germany and its allies, citing these violations as the dominant cause.

After the war isolationist sentiment and policy grew increasingly powerful in the United States. Congressional investigations of the munitions industries in the 1930s fueled suspicion of industrial instigation of U.S. entry into the war. U.S. diplomats attempted through bilateral treaties and conventions, such as the unenforceable Kellogg- Briand Pact for the Renunciation of War (1928) outlawing war as a matter of policy, and the abortive Geneva Conference of 1932, to establish not only neutrality but also peace, or at least disarmament—or, failing that, mutual defense with a broad array of states. In addition to these international efforts, a domestically framed policy of isolationism was written into neutrality acts, reflecting Congress's worries over war in South America and the increasing threat of war in Europe, in 1935, 1936, 1937, and 1939 that were unevenly enforced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The most ambitious American neutrality law of this period was a treaty enacting U.S. policy, the Declaration of Panama (October 1939), which, quite ineffectually, banned belligerent action within a security zone covering much of the Western Hemisphere.

The 1930s also saw an increased attempt to use trade sanctions as a mechanism for state policy short of war. The United States and other nations enacted sanctions against Japan after its takeover of Manchuria in 1931–1932 and against Italy during its conquest of Ethiopia in 1935–1937. Neither effort was successful.

America proclaimed its neutrality during the first years of World War II, in accord with statute and widespread sentiment. But from September 1939 until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt provided increasing aid to the Allies, both by authorizing and funding private arms sales and by direct supply of ships and materiel. The most famous of these neutral but supportive acts was the Lend- Lease Act, proposed by Roosevelt in 1940 and enacted in March 1941, authorizing the president to aid any nation whose defense he believed vital to the United States and to accept repayment "in kind or property, or any other direct or indirect benefit which the President deems satisfactory." Lend-lease sales to Great Britain, and then to China, to the Soviet Union, and ultimately to thirty-eight nations, eventually amounted to nearly $50 billion in aid.

World War II left few states untouched, yet it is important to note the willingness of both the Allies and the Axis to respect the neutrality of Switzerland and of Spain. In part these nations were left alone for lack of strategic necessity—and, indeed, the strategic benefit of some neutral spaces during war. In part their claims to neutrality were respected owing to the costs of invasion. Still, fundamentally their claims to neutrality and their relative impartiality were successes of the international framework established at the Hague Conference of 1907.

On the other hand World War II was a total war in which combatants attempted to destroy their opponents' means of production, and so brought war to civilian populations and agriculture. Total war was particularly manifested in the German attacks on London, in British and U.S. destruction of cities by bombing and firestorm, and U.S. use of nuclear weapons to destroy the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II. The power and number of such weapons increased, making possible a global holocaust. In this age of thermonuclear war, neutral countries are as liable to destruction as combatant states.

The concept of state use of war, and therefore the idea of neutrality in war, fundamentally altered with the adoption of the United Nations Charter in 1945. The charter enshrines the idea of the Kellogg-Briand Pact that aggressive war is a crime against all nations, although it allows for a state's self-defense and for its defense of another state. Thus it establishes much of the principle of just war envisioned by Grotius as a matter of international law. This idea was underscored in indictments by the international military tribunals in Nuremberg and Tokyo, which convicted individuals for causing states to wage wars of aggression.

In an international legal climate that distinguishes states waging a war of aggression from those engaged in self-defense, the presumption of state neutrality is also changed, although it is not obsolete. The Cold War, from the 1950s through the 1980s, established standing alliances in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pact states. Many states, particularly European states such as Switzerland and Austria, and Third World states with more to gain as clients than as players, proclaimed themselves nonaligned with either alliance, despite pressure against such neutrality from the United States.

In one of the most protracted hot wars during the Cold War, the U.S. intervention in the Vietnam War (1955–1975), U.S. policy toward neutrals generally recognized both neutrality and the limits of neutrality for states supporting a belligerent. According to the Final Declaration of the Geneva Accords of 1954, Cambodia claimed neutrality in the struggle between North and South Vietnam. Both of those states accepted the claim and agreed to refrain from establishing military bases on Cambodian territory. In 1957 Cambodia's National Assembly enacted its neutrality into domestic law. Although the United States never signed the 1954 Geneva Accords, it agreed to abide by its terms and did so even though, throughout the 1960s, North Vietnam used Cambodian territory to move troops and supplies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, established military bases there, and staged offensive operations from it. In the spring of 1970 U.S. forces bombed and invaded Cambodia, sparking increased domestic opposition to the U.S. intervention, which ended in 1975, two years after America ended its war with Vietnam by signing the Paris Peace Accords (1973).

A major U.S. initiative of the late twentieth century was the assurance of the neutrality of Antarctica, outer space, and the Moon. Ratified in 1961 after a U.S. initiative to draft and adopt it, the Antarctic Treaty specifies that Antarctica shall be used only for peaceful purposes, and prohibits "any measures of a military nature, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications, the carrying out of military maneuvers, as well as the testing of any types of weapons." The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, another American initiative, entered into force in 1967; it bars claims of states to sovereignty over the Moon or other celestial bodies, decrees that the Moon shall be used for peaceful purposes, bars the same military acts barred in Antarctica, and decrees that no satellite shall carry weapons of mass destruction. In the year 2000 there were 2,671 artificial satellites in Earth's orbit, of which 741 were registered to the United States, 1,335 to Russia, and the remainder belonging primarily to smaller countries and international organizations but often under the control of corporations. It is believed by most intelligence observers that many of these are armed, and that some are capable of intersatellite warfare, but that none are capable of destroying terrestrial targets.

In 2001 terrorists apparently sheltered in Afghanistan hijacked commercial airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., killing thousands of people. The U.S. response included the bombardment of Afghanistan, the de facto government of which proclaimed itself uninvolved in the dispute between the terrorists and the United States, but refused to surrender the terrorists. The legal disputes arising from these actions will continue for decades, and the significance both for claims of neutrality and for the conception of states will likely be profound.


Bauslaugh, Robert. The Concept of Neutrality in Classical Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Bemis, George. American Neutrality: Its Honorable Past, Its Expedient Future. A Protest Against the Proposed Repeal of Neutrality Laws, and a Plea for Their Improvement and Consolidation. Boston: Little, Brown, 1866.

Borchard, Edwin, and William Potter Lage. Neutrality for the United States. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1937, 1940.

Crabb, Cecil V., Jr. The Elephants and the Grass: A Study in Nonalignment. New York: Praeger, 1965.

Morris, Gouverneur. An Answer to "War in Disguise," Or, Remarks upon the New Doctrine of England, Concerning Neutral Trade. New York: Hopkins and Seymour, 1806.

Ogley, Roderick, comp. The Theory and Practice of Neutrality in the Twentieth Century. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970.

Tucker, Robert W. The Law of War and Neutrality at Sea. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1957.


See also"Alabama" Claims ; Geneva Conferences ; Hague Peace Conferences ; Impressment of Seamen ; Lend-Lease ; andvol. 9:The Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary ; Washington's Farewell Address .

views updated

Neutrality was among the predominant principles of U.S. foreign policy from the Revolutionary War until 1941, reflecting a national determination to avoid involvement in other nations' wars. In the twentieth century, and particularly since U.S. entry into World War II, rigid neutrality has been seen as bad, even “immoral,” as the United States has sought to exercise world leadership. The definitions of neutrality have varied as the United States has sought to integrate it with other policies.

The first English settlers in North America found themselves constantly at war under the doctrine of “no peace beyond the line,” a diplomatic principle that allowed European states to remain at peace to the east of a north‐south line 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, while placing no restrictions on military action to the west of that boundary. Those engaged in Spanish, French, and Dutch privateering held that the English colonies were fair game even when their nations were officially at peace. When King William's War began in 1689, many colonists were indifferent to whether William III or James II ruled England, but reciprocal raids made neutrality difficult. There were local live‐and‐let‐live agreements, the most successful between New York and Canada during Queen Anne's and King George's Wars. Generally, however, the colonists rallied to king and country as war followed war in Europe from 1689 to 1763.

Benjamin Franklin was among the first to note that the British North American colonies had developed common interests distinct from those of London. The colonists hardly objected to fighting: when the Seven Years War began officially in Europe in 1756 it had been going on for two years in the Ohio Valley. But Americans, who saw every reason to destroy the French empire in America, saw no reason to fight so that Prussia could rule Saxony in Europe.

Thus, a decade before independence, the colonists had developed a concept of neutrality in regard to European wars. This idea had many roots: a realpolitik definition of national interest; a commitment to trade; a notion of American exceptionalism; a legalist view of the rule of law among nations. Yet these emerged from the central idea that Americans, while ready to fight in causes that concerned them, should recognize that most world disputes did not. Instead, America would benefit by detachment from such conflicts while trading under a broad definition of neutral shipping rights.

By 1775, neutrality was a fundamental assumption of revolutionary ideology. The Continental Congress's Model Treaty of 1776 called for commerce and neutral rights without political commitments. Congress abandoned this ideal to sign an alliance with France in 1778, but the goal of isolation from European conflicts remained. When Russia organized an “armed neutrality” in 1780, the United States failed to join only because a belligerent, by definition, would not join a league of neutrals.

International recognition of U.S. independence in 1783 after the Revolutionary War left the new nation with contradictory commitments to neutrality and to France. This contradiction became critical in 1793, when Europe again went to war. On 22 April, President George Washington proclaimed neutrality, then set out to define it. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton favored restricting neutral rights to ease relations with Britain, while Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson favored strict enforcement of neutral rights, which would aid France.

Washington tried to navigate between belligerents, publicly claiming to honor the French alliance while violating its definitions of neutrality by concluding Jay's Treaty in 1795. He insisted that the United States had a right to noncontraband trade despite friction with Britain. In his farewell address of 1796, Washington argued that Europeans had interests distinct from those of the United States: the proper policy of which was to trade widely, have as little political connection to Europe as possible, and grow strong by avoiding Europe's inevitable quarrels.

Washington's advice guided his successors. John Adams fought the Undeclared Naval War with France; Thomas Jefferson conducted economic warfare while warning against “entangling alliances”; and James Madison fought the War of 1812. Each showed tactical flexibility, but upheld the principle of neutrality. Adams allowed British and American warships to cooperate, but rejected high Federalist demands for an Anglo‐American alliance to conquer a Caribbean Empire. Jefferson threatened a British alliance, but purchased Louisiana instead. Madison went to war with Britain, but refused alliance with Napoleon. Even when they used force, they did so to defend American neutrality.

James Monroe redefined this policy in 1823 with a doctrine that divided the world into an eastern hemisphere, where European rules would apply, and a western hemisphere, where American rules would prevail. America's rules included an end to European colonization and interference. The United States welcomed trade with the Old World, but not political ties with it. In Europe's conflicts the United States would remain neutral, trading with all according to its broad definition of neutral rights.

The American Civil War caused some rethinking for a United States concerned not with avoiding involvement in the wars of other nations but rather with preventing European intervention in its own internal conflict. President Abraham Lincoln initiated a blockade of the South that disregarded a century of maritime rights precedents. The success of the blockade played a major role in preservation of the Union.

The end of the Civil War left the United States reunited, still committed to neutrality in the abstract, and eager to forget its recent enforcement of broad belligerent rights. The nation maintained its neutrality through Europe's late‐nineteenth‐century wars, but found itself drawn into great power rivalries in East Asia as its economic interest in China conflicted with its determination to avoid political entanglements. Annexation of Hawaii and the Philippines in 1898 carried the American flag across the Pacific, and Secretary of State John Hay's “open door” notes of 1899 and 1900 reaffirmed U.S. policies of commerce with all, political involvement with none. But with U.S. troops helping Europeans and the Japanese to suppress the Boxer Rebellion in China, the strains between neutrality and reality were obvious.

These strains became even more evident under President Theodore Roosevelt. His definition of U.S. neutrality during the Russo‐Japanese War favored Japan. His personal intervention with German Kaiser Wilhelm II helped to determine the outcome of the 1906 Moroccan crisis in favor of France. Roosevelt talked of neutrality but believed a balance of power in Europe and Asia served the national interest, and he acted on that belief even when it violated traditional policies.

This pattern of neutral rhetoric but unneutral action continued under President Woodrow Wilson. Though he proclaimed U.S. neutrality in August 1914, Wilson's policies favored Britain over Germany in World War I, allowing sales of munitions, credits to belligerents, and travel on belligerent ships, but restricting German submarine warfare. Wilson protested but did not take similar action against British violations of U.S. neutral rights, such as the illegal seizure of food, cotton, and other American exports to the central powers and European neutrals. By recognizing the British blockades but not those of Germany, Wilson placed the United States from 1914 to April 1917 in legal limbo, as a non‐neutral nonbelligerent.

World War I left the United States caught between two visions of the world. One was its traditional policy: trade with all but political entanglement with none outside the Americas. Wilson presented another: the United States must lead a new international order in which neutrality would be inconceivable. The heart of this order would be the League of Nations, which Wilson wrote into the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

The American people received the League's covenant with deep ambivalence. Many were simply confused. The popular groundswell the administration counted on to push the treaty through a partisan Senate never developed. Wilson himself killed any compromise. The Senate defeated the treaty and the people sealed its defeat in the 1920 election.

The Republican administrations of 1921–33 publicly reaffirmed their commitment to neutrality, repudiating the League in favor of a policy of commercial expansion and political nonintervention. Yet they found themselves caught in a web of existing commitments. Commerce and politics were not so easily separated in an increasingly interdependent global economy.

While the difficulties of returning to neutrality were becoming evident to American statesmen, the demand for such a return was growing among the American people. By the 1930s, many Americans believed that participation in World War I had been a mistake. To avoid a repetition, many supported congressional passage of neutrality laws. Wars in Spain, Ethiopia, and the Far East raised moral questions about U.S. neutrality, however, and disagreement between those who favored a return to traditional definitions of neutral rights and those who favored abandonment of neutrality altogether divided the movement, allowing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to eliminate many objectionable provisions. But the Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936, and 1937 nevertheless represented a repudiation of Wilsonianism.

Although Roosevelt publicly supported these acts, he complained privately that they limited his authority. In November 1939 he secured passage of a modified Neutrality Act, which allowed him to begin supplying arms to nations fighting Germany and Japan in World War II. Over the next two years he eroded neutrality by trading surplus destroyers to the British, providing massive amounts of equipment under the Lend‐Lease Destroyers‐for‐Bases Agreement, and using the U.S. Navy to convoy Allied ships in the North Atlantic. By 1940, U.S. policy was again in a legal limbo, neither belligerent nor neutral.

World War II saw the end of neutrality as a principle of U.S. foreign policy. President Roosevelt forged a bipartisan coalition behind U.S. membership in the United Nations. Under the UN charter, the major powers have an obligation to maintain or restore peace, by collective force if necessary. In the postwar world, the United States emerged as the major economic and military power. During the Cold War confrontation with communism, particularly in the Soviet Union and China, the U.S. government abandoned neutrality for an active policy of containment. In pursuit of that policy, it ended the century‐old policy of avoiding prewar military alliances by organizing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and pledging U.S. military forces to defend Western Europe and, through other commitments, numerous regions of the globe in defense of U.S. national security in the nuclear age.
[See also Isolationism; Truman Doctrine.]


John Bassett Moore , A Digest of International Law, 8 vols., 1906.
Philip C. Jessup, ed., Neutrality, 4 vols., 1935–36.
Ernest R. May , The World War and American Isolation, 1914–1917, 1959.
Max Savelle , The Origins of American Diplomacy, 1967.
Stephen E. Ambrose , Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy Since 1938, 1971; 7th rev. ed., 1993.
Charles DeBenedetti , The Peace Reform in American History, 1980.
John W. Coogan , The End of Neutrality, 1981.
Lawrence S. Kaplan , Entangling Alliances with None, 1987.
J. M. Gabriel , The American Conception of Neutrality After 1941, 1989.

John W. Coogan

views updated


Irish neutrality is one of the most misunderstood features of Irish foreign policy. It has been elevated into a sacred doctrine by its most avid domestic supporters and simultaneously criticized by pro-Western analysts in Europe and North America, especially as it was practiced during World War II and the Cold War. The reality is subtler than these diametrically opposed interpretations would suggest. Irish neutrality, for starters, is not legally based: It is enshrined neither in domestic law nor in international treaties and substantially departs, therefore, from the Swiss model. Instead, it has been a strategic and tactical tool that Irish political leaders have, depending on the circumstances, utilized in the pursuit of Irish national interests. The Irish electorate has consistently backed government officials and policymakers in how they have wielded neutrality. It has, accordingly, proved to be an essential component of Irish statecraft.

World War I

Neutrality was actually mooted as a foreign-policy option even before Ireland gained independence. On the eve of World War I, Roger Casement envisioned Ireland being transformed into "a neutralised, independent European state under international guarantees." During the negotiations leading to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, Arthur Griffith asserted that "Ireland would want to be free to be neutral in the event of war declared by Britain." Future Irish leaders agreed. As storm clouds gathered on the European horizon during the 1930s, Eamon de Valera, taoiseach (Irish prime minister) and minister for foreign affairs, initially entrusted hopes for international peace to the League of Nations and collective security. But when the League failed to enforce sanctions against Japan for its invasion of Manchuria, and Italy for its aggression against Ethiopia, de Valera, wishing to sidestep a debilitating conflict that might do irreparable material and political harm to the new, nearly defenseless Irish state, made a crucial geostrategic decision: In any future war involving the great powers Ireland would, he insisted, "be neutral."

World War II

De Valera transformed this diplomatic preference into a realistic alternative by signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1938, which, inter alia, returned to Ireland the "treaty ports" of Cobh, Lough Swilly, and Berehaven, which had remained under British military control since 1922. On 2 September 1939, the day after World War II began, de Valera declared Ireland's neutrality, introduced the necessary legislation into Dáil Éireann and instructed the Department of External Affairs to notify all the belligerents in the conflict. The Irish government soon came under tremendous pressure to jettison neutrality from the United Kingdom, which feared, especially early in the war, that Nazi Germany might use Ireland as a staging ground for an invasion of the British mainland. The promise of a British commitment to a united Ireland in exchange for joining the Allies was even dangled before de Valera. He refused the offer. Across the Atlantic, neutrality strained relations between the Irish and American governments. In April 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was doing all he could to support Great Britain's war effort, brusquely dismissed a request by Frank Aiken, minister for the coordination of defensive measures, to sway the British in favor of Irish unity. The American envoy in Dublin, David Gray, developed a particular disdain for Irish neutrality and tried to undermine it by utilizing his direct family connections to President Roosevelt.

Yet the American representative, like so many commentators since then, overlooked a critical dimension of Irish neutrality during the war: It was a powerful manifestation, only two decades since achieving independence, of Irish sovereignty. Ronan Fanning has noted that neutrality was conceived "not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end: the means whereby the end of sovereignty might be freely expressed in the form of an independent foreign policy—a policy independent, above all, of British policy." F. S. L. Lyons has defined neutrality as "the ultimate expression of Irish independence." Indeed, this aspect of it may partially account for de Valera's decision at the end of the war, for which he has rightly been excoriated, to pay his condolences at the German embassy in Dublin upon learning of the death of Adolf Hitler. It certainly accounts for de Valera's famous reply to a passage in Winston Churchill's May 1945 victory speech that was highly critical of Irish neutrality: "Even as a partitioned small nation, [Ireland] shall go on to play our part in the world, continuing unswervingly to work for the cause of true freedom and for peace and understanding between all nations."

The tendency of some Irish proponents of neutrality to transform de Valera's quasi-idealistic public interpretation into smug self-righteousness has been tempered by scholarship of the 1990s that has conclusively demonstrated how Irish neutrality in practice was heavily tilted in favor of the Allies during World War II. Irish officials shared intelligence and planning information with their Allied counterparts, granted overflight rights to Allied aircraft, and returned downed Allied pilots to their respective authorities. Indeed, when the United States entered the war, de Valera said "We can only be a friendly neutral." This high level of official cooperation, combined with the support of thousands of Irish men who joined the British army, outweighed the pro-Nazi sympathies of hard-core Irish republicans like Sean Russell and Frank Ryan, who collaborated with German agents in Ireland and across Europe during the conflict.

The Cold War

Neutrality remained a feature of Irish foreign policy throughout the Cold War. It became entwined with Northern Ireland in 1949 when the first interparty government turned down an invitation to join NATO on the grounds that while Ireland remained partitioned, it could not be a member of a military alliance that included the United Kingdom. This policy was championed by Seán MacBride, Irish minister for external affairs and leader of the junior member of the coalition, the staunchly republican party Clann na Poblachta. A former Irish diplomat has argued; however, that a majority government led by Fine Gael (the senior partner in the interparty government) would have brought Ireland into NATO. Party politics thus became a component of the postwar debate over neutrality.

The Irish government differentiated between economic and military alliances, and, ironically, when the United Kingdom applied for membership in the European Economic Community in 1962, Ireland did likewise. During the application process, the taoiseach, Seán Lemass, repeatedly stressed Ireland's pro-Western credentials and the narrow limits of neutrality in the context of the Cold War: its absence from NATO did "not mean that we are indifferent to the great issues which divide mankind today, much less that we are neutral in regard to them." Indeed, "while Ireland did not accede to the North Atlantic Treaty, we have always agreed with the general aims of that Treaty." Neutrality, therefore, could be tactically downgraded in favor of economic or other interests as the government determined. Ireland did not join the European Economic Community until 1973, but in the interim its neutral status qualified it for numerous United Nations peacekeeping missions. Still, throughout the Cold War, Ireland, unlike many other neutral countries that participated in peacekeeping operations, was neither "neutralist" nor a member of the Third World-dominated nonaligned movement. It is best compared during this period to other European neutrals such as Sweden, Finland, and Austria.

In the post–Cold War era neutrality has remained a strategic and tactical option for the Irish government. Ireland permitted Allied aircraft to refuel at Shannon airport during the Persian Gulf War in 1990 to 1991 since the war was sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council, but it did not send troops to the region. In 1999, Ireland became one of the last European nations to join NATO's Partnership for Peace. The government stipulated that it will participate only in Partnership for Peace humanitarian and peacekeeping operations authorized by the United Nations Security Council, and within this framework it has contributed troops to NATO-led, UN-approved missions in Bosnia and Kosovo. Some Irish politicians have recently called for full membership in NATO.

The Irish government is committed to the European Union's emerging Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). It has concluded that humanitarian and rescue operations, peacekeeping missions, and crisis management efforts (the Petersberg Tasks), some of which will be conducted by the European Union's developing Rapid Reaction Force (RRF), pose no threat in principle to Ireland's military neutrality. Irish forces will participate only in European missions authorized by the UN and on a case-by-case basis. The Irish government has stressed that the CFSP and the RRF do not constitute a mutual-defense commitment. Yet growing popular apprehension that they do indeed pose a threat to neutrality, support for which has always been quite resilient among some sectors of the Irish electorate, contributed to the defeat of the Nice Treaty in a referendum in June 2001, even though the treaty is primarily concerned with the reform and enlargement of the European Union's political institutions and not with defense policy per se.

SEE ALSO de Valera, Eamon; European Union; Politics: Independent Ireland since 1922; United Nations; Primary Documents: "German Attack on Neutral States" (12 May 1940); "National Thanksgiving" (16 May 1945); Speech to Ministers of the Governments of the Member States of the European Economic Community (18 January 1962)


Dwyer, T. Ryle. Strained Relations: Ireland at Peace and the USA at War, 1941–1945. 1988.

Fanning, Ronan. "Irish Neutrality: An Historical Perspective." Irish Studies in International Affairs 1, no. 3 (1982): 27–38.

Fisk, Robert. In Time of War: Ireland, Ulster, and the Price of Neutrality, 1939–1945. 1983.

Keatinge, Patrick. European Security: Ireland's Choices. 1996.

Keogh, Dermot. Twentieth-Century Ireland. 1994.

Lee, Joseph. Ireland, 1912–1985: Politics and Society. 1989.

O'Halpin, Eunan. Defending Ireland: The Irish State and Its Enemies since 1922. 1999.

Salmon, Trevor. Unneutral Ireland. 1989.

Joseph M. Skelly

views updated


The state of a nation that takes no part in a war between two or more other powers.

Since the nineteenth century, international law has recognized the right of a nation to abstain from participation in a war between other states. In an international war, those taking no part are called neutrals. This means that a neutral state cannot provide assistance to the belligerents, the principal hostile powers, or to their allies, who cooperate and assist them.

The law of neutrality that emerged from the nineteenth century was codified in several of the Hague Conferences of 1907, including No. 3, Convention Relative to the Opening of Hostilities (requiring notice to neutrals of a state of war); No. 5, Convention Respecting Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers and Persons in Case of War on Land; and No. 11, Convention Relative to Certain Restrictions with Regard to the Exercise of the Right of Capture in Naval War.

Once a state decides on a position of neutrality, it must take steps to prevent its territory from becoming a base for military operations of a belligerent. It must prevent the recruiting of military personnel, the organizing of military expeditions, and the constructing, outfitting, commissioning, and arming of warships for belligerent use. A neutral state is under no obligation to prevent private persons or companies from advancing credits or selling commodities to belligerents. Such sales are not illegal under the international law of neutrality. A neutral state may, if it chooses, go beyond the requirements of international law by placing an embargo upon some or all sales or credits to belligerents by its nationals. If it does so, it has the obligation to see that legislation, commonly referred to as neutrality laws, is applied impartially to all belligerents. Once enacted, neutrality laws are not to be modified in ways that would advantage one party in the war.

For most of its history, the United States tried to remain neutral during the wars among European states. President george washington issued a neutrality proclamation in 1793 after the outbreak of war between France and the European allies. Congress enacted its first neutrality law in 1794 (1 Stat. 381), which prohibited private individuals from accepting a foreign military commission, outfitting military vessels for a foreign state, or enlisting or hiring persons for the service of a foreign state.

This legislation proved generally effective in accomplishing its objectives, but it did not deter citizens who wished to support revolutionary belligerent or insurgent movements in South and Central America during the nineteenth century. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the counterrevolution that followed led to the trafficking in arms and ammunition across the border. In response, Congress enacted, in 1912, its first arms embargo (37 Stat. 630), a prohibition not required by international law. It authorized the president, upon finding that conditions of violence in an American country were promoted by procurement of arms or munitions of war in the United States, to prohibit further export of them.

With the rise of international conflicts around the world in the 1930s, Congress passed the Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936, and 1937 (49 Stat. 1081, 49 Stat. 1152, 50 Stat. 121). These laws required registration and licensing by a National Munitions Control Board of all persons trading in munitions and a mandatory embargo on the export of arms, ammunition, and implements of war, and on loans and credits to all belligerents or to neutrals for transshipment to belligerents. An embargo would take effect when the president found a state of war to exist.

The desire of the United States to remain neutral has been called isolationism. During the 1930s the U.S. public did not want the United States entangled with the international strife perpetrated by Italy, Germany, and Japan. In 1935, President franklin d. roosevelt invoked the arms embargo provision after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and the consequent war. With the outbreak of the European war in 1939, limiting the conflict by an arms embargo was no longer possible. Although isolationist sentiment was strong, there was also a growing feeling that the Allies needed support against Nazi aggression. The Roosevelt administration, with some difficulty, secured the repeal of the arms embargo in the Neutrality Act of 1939 (22 U.S.C.A. § 441). Because this repeal could work to the advantage only of Great Britain and France, it was a deliberately non-neutral act.

The United States remained a neutral state before its entry into world war ii in December 1941, yet it took actions that undermined its status. In 1940, the United States entered into an agreement for the transfer of 50 old destroyers to Great Britain in exchange for leased naval and air bases in British islands off the Atlantic coast of the United States. Congress took a further step in the lend-lease act of 1941 (55 Stat. 31) by agreeing to provide munitions, food, machinery, and services to Great Britain and the other Allies without immediate cost, thus eliminating their difficulty in finding dollar credits for purchases. Later repayment could be made in kind or property or other acceptable benefits. Under the Lend-Lease Act, the United States made huge shipments before and after entering the war.

Following the passage of the Lend-Lease Act, the United States became increasingly involved in direct military assistance, permitting U.S. merchant ships to transport war materials to the Allies, using U.S. pilots to deliver bombers to Canada and Britain, and using naval vessels for a "neutrality patrol" in the Atlantic that assisted in protecting belligerent convoys against submarines.

Much of the 1939 act remains in force (22 U.S.C.A. §§ 441–457), including the president's authority to find and proclaim a state of war, prohibition of travel by citizens in belligerent ships, and prohibition of financial transactions by persons in the United States with belligerents or solicitation or collection of contributions for a belligerent except for humanitarian purposes. The authority for an arms embargo, which was revoked in 1941, has not been reinstated. Sales by U.S. individuals and companies are governed by the international law of neutrality, unless Congress enacts a specific embargo provision.

In the post–World War II era, the U.S. government has committed several neutrality violations. Its conduct was less than disinterested and neutral in the overthrow of the Guatemalan government in 1954, in its sponsorship of the Bay of Pigs military expedition against Cuba in 1961, in its intervention in the civil war in the Dominican Republic in 1965, and in its aid to those who overthrew the Salvador Allende government in Chile in 1973.

Congress did enact the Arms Export Control Act of 1976 (22 U.S.C.A. §§ 2751–2796c [1989 Supp.]), which was designed to restrict the transfer of arms to nations that support international terrorism. The iran-contra affair that emerged as a political scandal in President Ronald Reagan's administration involved violations of this act. The transfer of arms to Iran, a nation that supported terrorism, and the financial and military support of a right-wing revolutionary group in Nicaragua violated congressional legislation and, in the case of Nicaragua, thwarted the desire of Congress to remain neutral in the conflict.

further readings

Chadwick, Elizabeth. 2002. Traditional Neutrality Revisited: Law, Theory, and Case Studies. New York: Kluwer Law International.

Gabriel, Jurg Martin. 2002. The American Conception of Neutrality After 1941. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Havel, Brian F. 2000. "An International Law Institution in Crisis: Rethinking Permanent Neutrality." Ohio State Law Journal 6 (February).

Politakis, George. 1998. Modern Aspects of the Laws of Naval Warfare and Maritime Neutrality. London, New York: Kegan Paul International.

Vagts, Detlev F. 1999. "The Traditional Legal Concept of Neutrality in a Changing Environment." American University International Law Review 14 (January-February).

views updated

neutrality, in international law, status of a nation that refrains from participation in a war between other states and maintains an impartial attitude toward the belligerents. Neutrality is not to be confused with neutralism, or nonalignment, under international law.

At the opening of hostilities, a nonbelligerent state generally issues a proclamation of neutrality. It is then the duty of the neutral power to observe strict impartiality in its relations with the warring nations. However, absolute neutrality is not always the reality, and the terms benevolent and hostile imply the sympathy of a neutral for one or other of the belligerents. The duty of the belligerent is to respect neutral territory (land and air) and neutral territorial waters (see waters, territorial). Switzerland, neutralized by the Congress of Vienna (1815), has stood as an example of a perpetually neutral state. Temporary neutrality flows from the unlimited sovereignty of the state, which allows it freely to decide its position in time of war and voluntarily to abstain from participation.

Neutral duties and rights were codified or incorporated in treaties and thus became part of international law. The Declaration of Paris (1856) standardized certain laws of neutrality (see Paris, Declaration of); the Declaration of London (1909) codified certain principles of neutrality with regard to maritime law (see London, Declaration of). At the Second Hague Conference (1907), neutral rights and obligations were defined in two conventions. The general neutrality convention, after declaring neutral territory inviolable, laid down regulations for neutral states and listed acts that should not be regarded as favoring one of the belligerents. The convention on neutrality in naval war, which was fuller, elaborated upon the duties of neutrals but did not incorporate rules for contraband and blockade.

In World Wars I and II, violations of neutrality by both sides were frequent, and attempts were made to justify the action by assertions that changed methods of warfare warranted changes in the observance of international law. When the League of Nations was established, it was generally recognized that member states could not be neutral in any dispute in which the League called upon them to intervene. The United States, which was not a member, asserted its intention to remain aloof from all wars and adopted (1935) the Neutrality Act. The United Nations, unlike the League, includes all the major world powers. Their obligations under the charter to restore and maintain the peace preclude neutrality, and neutral states, such as Switzerland, cannot become active members. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 provide a role for neutrals in the administration of prisoner-of-war agreements.

The 1794 Neutrality Act forbids U.S. citizens from taking part in military action against any country with which the United States is not at war. Enforcement of the act has been highly selective, however, with technical reasons usually offered for failure to prosecute. The United States has not declared war on anyone since World War II and has thus been legally neutral throughout such episodes as the Korean War, the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba (1961), and the Vietnam War. U.S. citizens have also often fought under the flags of other nations.

See E. Karsh, Neutrality and Small States (1988); J. M. Gabriel, The American Conception of Neutrality After 1941 (1989).

views updated

neutrality Policy of non-involvement in hostilities between states. It is recognized by international law, mainly in the Declaration of Paris of 1856, and the Hague Conventions V and XIII of 1907. A state proclaiming its neutrality must be wholly impartial and refrain from helping or hindering any side.