What are the Neutrality Acts of the 1930’s?
The Neutrality Acts of the 1930’s were a series of laws passed by Congress to subside the growing turmoil in Asia and Europe—feuds that eventually led to World War II. The Neutrality Acts ultimately spawned out of America’s willingness to practice non-interventionism and isolationism. This passive view on foreign policy stemmed from the United States’ involvement in World War I—The Neutrality Acts were passed to ensure that the United States would not entangle itself in foreign conflicts.
The Neutrality Acts, as the name suggests, was a series of laws that affirmed the United States’ inclination to sit on the sidelines during times of war. Ultimately, the legacy of the Neutrality acts proved somewhat futile, because they failed to make a distinction between victims and aggressors during times of conflict. The United States, through the Neutrality Act, treated all countries engaged in violence as “belligerents” or aggressors and thus deemed all clashes as unworthy for intervention. The failure to elaborate on international conflicts and label opposing sides as either “friendly” or “aggressive” initially limited the United States’ ability to aid Great Britain and other European allies against Nazi Germany. The Neutrality Acts were repealed in 1941, in the face of Pearl Harbor and the German submarine attack on U.S. naval ships.
Background of the Neutrality Acts:
The Neutrality Acts of the 1930’s were spurred from the United States’ entry into World War I—an entry that many Americans believed was orchestrated by American arms dealers and bankers for the purpose of increasing profits. This sentiment eventually gained enough momentum to influence America’s stance on isolationism.
Prominent members in the United States Congress pushed for strong Neutrality Acts, were the basis for Republican foreign policy. That being said, support of non-interventionism was not limited to the right.
Democratic President, Franklin Roosevelt and his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, were skeptical of the Neutrality Acts because they feared the legislation would restrict the United States from supporting its allies in times of crisis.
Even with a largely democratic House and Senate, ample support was realized to pass the Neutrality Acts. In response to the passing, President Roosevelt declined to veto the Neutrality Act—he had no interest in angering the public in the light of the upcoming Presidential election of 1936. When signed into law, the Neutrality Acts were perpetually revised and agglomerated with provisions—in total, the Neutrality Act is a grouping of 4 separate Neutrality Acts. Below is a description of each Neutrality Act:
The Neutrality Act of 1935:
President Franklin Roosevelt’s State Department lobbied for a series of embargo provisions that would enable the President to impose sanctions on the Neutrality Acts. This request was rejected by Congress.
The Neutrality Acts of 1935 was officially signed into law in August of 1935 to impose a general embargo on arms trading and the delivery of war materials between all parties in a conflict or war. Furthermore, the Neutrality Acts of 1935 declared that citizens of the United States who were to travel on warning shops did so at their own risk—the government would not partake in any retribution for attacks or causalities on said vessels.
The Neutrality Acts of 1935 also declared a “moral embargo” on any belligerent nation (again this proved ambiguous) who actively covered trades under the provisions of the Neutrality Act.
The Neutrality Act of 1936:
Passed in February of 1936, The Neutrality Act of 1936 effectively renewed the provisions of the Neutrality Act of 1935 for a 14-month period. Additionally, the Neutrality Act of 1936 forbade any forms of financing, including all loans of forms of credit supplied to belligerent nations. The Neutrality Act of 1936; however, made no mention of civil conflicts, such as those in Spain during the late 1930’s. In response, a number of American companies (such as Standard Oil, General Motors, Ford and Texaco) used the loophole of the Neutrality Act of 1936 to sell various items to Don Francisco Franco (the Head of State of Spain) on credit. By the latter portion of 1939, Franco owed these American companies over 100 million dollars.
The Neutrality Act of 1937:
In January of 1937, the United States Congress passed a joint resolution that outlawed the sale of all arms with Spain. The Neutrality Act of 1937, which was passed in May, included several provisions of its predecessors, only without expiration dates attached. Furthermore, the Neutrality Act of 1937 included isolation practices for all international civil wars.
The Neutrality Act of 1937 also prohibited U.S. ships from transporting any passenger or military article to belligerent nations. U.S. citizens were forbidden from travelling, via waterways, to belligerent nations.
The Neutrality Act of 1937 included a “cash and carry” provision which was formally devised by Roosevelt’s top advisor, Bernard Baruch. The cash and carry provision stated that the President may authorize the sale of supplies and materials to belligerent nations in Europe, so long as the recipient arranged for the transport of said goods and provided payment immediately in cash. This provision was included in the Neutrality Act of 1937 because it was believed that due to the immediacy of liquid payment, the United States would not be drawn into conflict. Roosevelt viewed the provision as a means to aid Great Britain and France in the event of a war with Nazi Germany. France and Britain were the benefactors of the provision because of their geographic location and naval powers—they were the only two nations that controlled the seas and were thus able to take advantage of such transactions.
The Neutrality act of 1937 was put to the test when Japan invaded China in July of 1937 (the start of the Sino-Japanese War). Roosevelt, who supported China, chose not to invoke the provisions of the Neutrality Acts since the parties never declared a formal war. By refraining, Roosevelt ensured that China’s efforts to defend itself would not be impeded by the Neutrality act. China relied on arms imports and only Japan could take advantage of the cash and carry provision. This maneuver outraged isolationists in the government who believed that the Neutrality Acts were being undermined. In turn, Roosevelt exclaimed that American ships were prohibited from transporting arms to belligerents, but British ships were able to transport American arms to China. This flow of arms marked the beginning of the “quarantine phase” where America shifted from neutrality towards a foreign policy that was set on eliminating all aggressors.
Neutrality Act of 1939:
In the beginning of 1939 (following the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia), Roosevelt lobbied Congress to renew the cash and carry provision. Roosevelt was ultimately rejected, as the provision lapsed and the mandatory arms embargo remained active.
After Germany had invaded Poland in September of the same year, France and Great Britain declared war on the Nazi regime. In response, Roosevelt invoked the provisions of the Neutrality Acts but stated that the acts may provide passive aid to aggressive nations. Roosevelt eventually prevailed over isolationism supporters and in November the Neutrality Act of 1939 was passed, which allowed arms trade with belligerent nations (only on a cash and carry basis) to be enacted. This ended the arms embargo and repealed the Neutrality Acts of 1935 and 1937.
American ships and citizens were outlawed from entering war zones (specifically designated by Roosevelt) and the National Munitions Control Board was responsible for issuing licenses for all arms transactions as specified under the Neutrality Act of 1939. Any arms transaction that was fortified without a license carried a penalty of up to two years in federal prison.
The End of the Neutrality Acts:
The passing of the Lend-Lease Act, in March of 1941, marked the dissolution of Neutrality police. America, through the Lend-Lease Act, was able to lend, sell or give war supplies to allied nations.
Following German attacks on U.S. vessels, Roosevelt announced on September 11th of 1941, that he ordered the U.S. Navy to attack Italian and German war vessels overseas. The United States formally declared war on japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor and later declared war on Italy and Germany 3 days later, on December 11 of 1941.