Neutrality Acts

Four neutrality acts were passed during the first and second administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt. They were founded on the belief, widespread in America at the time, that the United States had been drawn into World War I to protect the relationships and loans of manufacturers and bankers, and the America could stay out of what was widely viewed as another inevitable European conflict.

The first neutrality act was passed by Congress in August 1935 and imposed a ban on shipments of weapons and war materiel to belligerent countries and discouraged travel by American citizens on the ships of belligerents by specifying that they did so at their own risk. It was invoked by Roosevelt in October when Italy invaded Ethiopia. The bill was a deliberate stopgap with a six-month sunset provision.

In anticipation of the end of the first neutrality act, arguments were made to strengthen it further. Senator Bennett Champ Clark, son of the prominent Democratic leader Champ Clark, represented Missouri in the Senate at the time and served on the Nye Committee, officially the Munitions Investigation Committee. Writing in Harper`s Magazine in December 1935, Clark pushed for two additional provisions. The first was to recognize that all material shipped to a belligerent in a modern war is war materiel, and the second was to distance the United States entirely from the private interests of its citizens in a war zone. With regard to the latter, he put it succinctly:

If there are those so brave as to risk getting us into war by traveling in the war zones -- if there are those so valiant that they do not care how many people are killed as a result of their traveling -- let us tell them, and let us tell the world, that from now on their deaths will be a misfortune to their families alone, not to the whole nation.

The neutrality act of 1936 was largely a renewal of the act of 1935 for another fourteen months, with a provision against making loans to belligerent. It did not, however, extend the definition of prohibited articles, so American firms were able to sell trucks and petroleum to Franco on credit.

In January 1937, the United States legislated against the arms trade to either side in the Spanish Civil War. In practice, this was a boon to the Fascists, since their main supporters and arms suppliers were not hindered by any such constraints.

The neutrality act of 1937, passed in May, extended the prohibition against trading with belligerents to include civil wars in general and strengthened the rule on belligerent ships by forbidding travel by American citizens upon them.

Roosevelt was able to insert a provision that allowed trade with the European belligerents on a cash-and-carry basis. The neutrality acts were contrary to American interests, he felt, which were definitely with the Anglo-French alliance. Cash-and-carry was an option only open, as a practical matter, to those countries and not to the Nazis.

When war broke out between Japan and China, Roosevelt chose not to designate them as belligerents because war had not been formally declared. Had he done so, the Japanese could have invoked cash-and-carry for themselves but the Chinese lacked the necessary resources. Isolationists protested that Roosevelt was violating the spirit of the neutrality acts, which was undoubtedly true.

The cash-and-carry provisions had, unlike the rest of the legislation of 1937, had a sunset provision and Roosevelt argued unsuccessfully for its renewal. Instead, it lapsed so that when war broke out on the European continent in 1939, Roosevelt was obliged to invoke its provisions. With public opinion strongly behind the Allies, Congress passed a fresh neutrality act in November 1939, repealing the previous acts and reinstating cash-and-carry sales to belligerents.

True neutrality had been dead since the adoption of cash-and-carry and the pretense was abandoned over the next two years. The "destroyer for bases" agreement signed between Britain and the United States on September 2, 1940, provided for the generous donation of land in British territories for American bases on a 99-year-lease basis. Simultaneously, the United States donated to the British 50 mothballed World War I destroyers, which the British shared with Canada.

While this transaction might have appeared to violate the neutrality acts, Roosevelt obtained an opinion from the Attorney General that it was legal and cited the precedent of the Louisiana Purchase.

In early 1941, Lend-Lease permitted the federal government to provide military equipment to belligerents that it favored. Not surprisingly, this led to increased conflict with the German navy. On October 17, a German torpedo struck the destroyer USS Kearney, resulting in the deaths of eleven sailors. In a Navy Day address ten days later, Roosevelt held the incident up as a clear example of Nazi aggression, but failed to mention that the Kearney had been shadowing the German submarine for hours in a warlike manner.

In the same speech, Roosevelt announced that he had in his position a secret map, produced by the Nazis and outlining their plans to take over South America. In all likelihood, the map was a product of British intelligence and FDR knew it, but it was an effective device to further incite war fever in Americans.

The neutrality acts had been mortally wounded and soon were discard. On October 27, he called for a total defense effort against Germany and requested changes to the Neutrality Act. Intense opposition was expressed by Robert A. Taft, who stated the following day in the Senate that, "The adoption of the resolution now before the Senate would be direct authority from Congress to the President to carry on an undeclared war against Germany, Italy, and Japan on all the oceans of the world and in all the ports into which seagoing ships may sail."

Despite the voices of Taft and others, the Senate and House accepted Roosevelt`s requests in early November; merchant ships were permitted to carry any cargoes to belligerents and to be armed. The following month, the United States was at war around the world.

---- Selected Quotes ----

Quotes regarding Neutrality Acts.

By Bennett Champ Clark
One statement needs no proof to intelligent men: You cannot finance one side of a war and remain neutral!
Harper's Monthly, December 1935
By Robert A. Taft
It is only because of the provisions of the Neutrality Act which we are asked to repeal that we are not at war today.
Speech before the Senate, October 28, 1941