Today in 1935: The first “neutrality act” is signed into law

August 31, 2012

Today in Legal HistoryAnyone who has been paying attention to foreign policy in the last 60 years knows that the United States has no problem being involved in the international community.

In fact, it’s probably no stretch to say that the U.S. has been the dominant actor on the international stage in the past half-century.

However, such conduct is a radical departure from the role played by the nation throughout the vast majority of its prior history.

In 1801, Thomson Jefferson, in his inaugural address, called for no “entangling alliances” with foreign nations.

Since this time, non-interventionism remained, with minor exception, the dominant foreign policy until World War II.

True, the U.S. was involved in World War I, but only after the revelation of the Zimmerman Note – a proposal from Germany to Mexico to wage war against the U.S. – sparked public outrage and prompted entry into the war on the side of the Allied Powers.

Actually, U.S. entry into World War II followed a similar path.

In the aftermath of World War I, the public remained strongly non-interventionist.

In the midst of rising tensions in Europe in the 1930s, the American public pushed for isolation from the conflict.

This sentiment manifested in Congress as several “neutrality acts” – laws which forbade the sale of “arms, ammunition, and implements of war” and the granting of loans or credit to “belligerent” nations.

In addition, these acts also warned American citizens that, should they choose to travel through war zones, they did so against the wishes of the U.S. government and at their “own risk.”

The first of these neutrality acts was signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt 77 years ago today – on August 31, 1935.

But just because Roosevelt signed it doesn’t mean he liked it.

Roosevelt and his administration were both wary of the dangers posed by Nazi Germany and strongly supportive of the U.S.’s European allies (Great Britain, in particular).

As such, Roosevelt initially argued against the 1935 Neutrality Act, but, in the face of strong public support for the act (and an upcoming presidential election), he conceded.

The 1935 Act was scheduled to lapse after six months, but, with public support for isolationism remaining strong, Congress renewed the Act, and added a provision that forbade Americans from extending loans to belligerent nations (the 1935 Act only forbade arms sales to belligerents).

This second act was to be effective until May of 1937, but, because of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the public pushed even harder for international neutrality when the time came to renew the Act.

Consequently, the third neutrality act broadened the export embargo beyond arms and ammunition to include “other articles and materials” identified by subsequent presidential proclamation.

In spite of the tightened restrictions, the 1937 Neutrality Act contained concessions to Roosevelt: the “cash-and-carry” provisions, which allowed the sale of U.S. goods (excluding arms) to belligerent nations so long as they immediately paid for such items and transported them on non-U.S. ships.

Since France and Britain were the only countries in the war able to meet the cash-and-carry requirements, the change helped the Allies far more than the Axis (as Roosevelt had intended).

The final neutrality act, passed in October of 1939, greatly lessened the trade restrictions established by the previous incarnations – thanks mostly to Roosevelt’s intense advocacy efforts.

The neutrality acts ended not with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, but in October of that year, thanks to repeated attacks by German U-boats against U.S. naval and merchant ships.

Of course, as we all know, the U.S. did become involved in World War II after the aforementioned Pearl Harbor attack, and has since hardly seemed hesitant to get involved in international affairs since.

Thus, the Neutrality Act of 1935 and its progeny represent the last true legal effort by the U.S. to remain uninvolved with the affairs of the world at large.