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The U.S. Neutrality Acts

(1935, 1937, 1939)

In the 1930s, the United States Government enacted a series of laws designed to prevent the United States from being embroiled in a foreign war by clearly stating the terms of U.S. neutrality. Although many Americans had rallied to join President Woodrow Wilson’s crusade to make the world “safe for democracy” in 1917, by the 1930s critics argued that U.S. involvement in the First World War had been driven by bankers and munitions traders with business interests in Europe. These findings fueled a growing “isolationist” movement that argued the United States should steer clear of future wars and remain neutral by avoiding financial deals with countries at war.

First Neutrality Act

By the mid-1930s, events in Europe and Asia indicated that a new world war might soon erupt and the U.S. Congress took action to enforce U.S. neutrality. On August 31, 1935, Congress passed the first Neutrality Act prohibiting the export of “arms, ammunition, and implements of war” from the United States to foreign nations at war and requiring arms manufacturers in the United States to apply for an export license. American citizens traveling in war zones were also advised that they did so at their own risk. President Franklin D. Roosevelt originally opposed the legislation, but relented in the face of strong Congressional and public opinion. On February 29, 1936, Congress renewed the Act until May of 1937 and prohibited Americans from extending any loans to belligerent nations.

Neutrality Act of 1937

The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and the rising tide of fascism in Europe increased support for extending and expanding the Neutrality Act of 1937. Under this law, U.S.citizens were forbidden from traveling on belligerent ships, and American merchant ships were prevented from transporting arms to belligerents even if those arms were produced outside of the United States. The Act gave the President the authority to bar all belligerent ships from U.S. waters, and to extend the export embargo to any additional “articles or materials.” Finally, civil wars would also fall under the terms of the Act.

The Neutrality Act of 1937 did contain one important concession to Roosevelt: belligerent nations were allowed, at the discretion of the President, to acquire any items except arms from the United States, so long as they immediately paid for such items and carried them on non-American ships—the so-called “cash-and-carry” provision. Since vital raw materials such as oil were not considered “implements of war,” the “cash-and-carry” clause would be quite valuable to whatever nation could make use of it. Roosevelt had engineered its inclusion as a deliberate way to assist Great Britain and France in any war against the Axis Powers, since he realized that they were the only countries that had both the hard currency and ships to make use of “cash-and-carry.” Unlike the rest of the Act, which was permanent, this provision was set to expire after two years.

Neutrality Act of 1939

Following Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia in March of 1939, Roosevelt suffered a humiliating defeat when Congress rebuffed his attempt to renew “cash-and-carry” and expand it to include arms sales. President Roosevelt persisted and as war spread in Europe, his chances of expanding “cash-and-carry” increased. After a fierce debate in Congress, in November of 1939, a final Neutrality Act passed. This Act lifted the arms embargo and put all trade with belligerent nations under the terms of “cash-and-carry.” The ban on loans remained in effect, and American ships were barred from transporting goods to belligerent ports.

In October of 1941, after the United States had committed itself to aiding the Allies through Lend-Lease, Roosevelt gradually sought to repeal certain portions of the Act. On October 17, 1941, the House of Representatives revoked section VI, which forbade the arming of U.S. merchant ships, by a wide margin. Following a series of deadly U-boat attacks against U.S. Navy and merchant ships, the Senate passed another bill in November that also repealed legislation banning American ships from entering belligerent ports or “combat zones.”

Overall, the Neutrality Acts represented a compromise whereby the United States Government accommodated the isolationist sentiment of the American public, but still retained some ability to interact with the world. In the end, the terms of the Neutrality Acts became irrelevant once the United States joined the Allies in the fight against Nazi Germany and Japan in December 1941.

Source: Office of the Historian, Foreign Service Institute, United States Department of State.