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. 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.
Before Roosevelt’s second term was well under way, his domestic program was overshadowed by the expansionist designs of totalitarian regimes in Japan, Italy, and Germany. In 1931 Japan had invaded Manchuria, crushed Chinese resistance, and set up the puppet state of Manchukuo. Italy, under Benito Mussolini, enlarged its boundaries in Libya and in 1935 conquered Ethiopia. Germany, under Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, militarized its economy and reoccupied the Rhineland (demilitarized by the Treaty of Versailles) in 1936. In 1938, Hitler incorporated Austria into the German Reich and demanded cession of the German-speaking Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. By then, war seemed imminent.
The United States, disillusioned by the failure of the crusade for democracy in the Great War, announced that in no circumstances could any country involved in the conflict look to it for aid. Neutrality legislation, enacted piecemeal from 1935 to 1937, prohibited trade in arms with any warring nations, required cash for all other commodities, and forbade American flag merchant ships from carrying those goods. The objective was to prevent, at almost any cost, the involvement of the United States in a foreign war.
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.
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.
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.
As the crisis in Europe ripened from 1938 on, more Americans became convinced that the aggressive states were also ideologically repugnant. All but a handful despised Hitler, though not, perhaps, until Munich and the vicious anti-Jewish outrages of late 1938 was this dislike strong and active. Japan was as unanimously, if somewhat less intensively, unpopular. But Munich was widely construed in the United States as simply an example of Anglo-French shortsightedness and faintheartedness. Surely they could have brought Hitler to book if they wanted. That they had not done so meant that they were either cowardly or devious or perhaps both. Many people, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy observed to Lord Halifax, "well-intentioned, but not well-informed, believed that there was somewhere a perfect plan" that would stop Hitler without war—"but which the European democracies were either too short-sighted or too faint-hearted to put into operation."
At the same time, hostility to Communism and the Soviet Union was a partial counterpoise. The best friend and most enthusiastic supporter of collective security between 1936 and 1939 was Maxim Litvinov; in the United States, Eugene Lyons, a publicist of note, declared in the conservative magazine American Mercury that collective security was nothing but Communist propaganda. Ex-President Hoover and such distinguished senators as Taft of Ohio and Brewster of Maine argued that the defeat of Nazi Germany would throw Europe into the arms of Russian Communism and asserted flatly that, bad as Hitler was, he was much to be preferred to Stalin. This was, basically, the logic that led to Munich, and it could hardly have been without its converts in America. Senator Hiram Johnson, totally unconverted from his 1919 irreconcilability, ironically added Russia to the list when witnesses urging repeal of the neutrality law spoke of helping "the democracies" against the dictators.
Americans were slow to appreciate the rapidity with which Hitler changed the military balance. So, indeed, in some measure were the British. In 1937, a popular commentary asked, "How can the rulers of the impoverished, browbeaten peoples of Germany and Italy hope to wage successful war against any major power?" In 1939, Herbert Hoover preached that "the democracies of west Europe have the resources to defend themselves." Japan was similarly underestimated, and Charles A. Beard spoke for a great many skeptics when he ridiculed Roosevelt's insinuations that "the Fascist goblins are going to get us." Only a month before the Panzers struck through the Ardennes in 1940, some 90 percent of the American people were confident of Anglo-French victory over Germany. They were also confident of an "impregnable America" regardless of what happened in Europe. The belief that no threat to American security was involved in the disturbances abroad deeply conditioned the American attitude.
In May 1939, Ickes reported Roosevelt and Hull as doubting that Hitler and Mussolini were strong enough to risk war with England, France, and their allies. The evidence is that, until the summer of 1939, any idea of bringing the United States into a European alliance or collective-security system was far from the thoughts of the President, the Secretary of State, and their chief advisers. Talking to Roosevelt May 28, Eduard Benes found Roosevelt agreeing with him that war was imminent. Joseph E. Davies indicated that, on July 18, the President had queried him about the imminence of war. It would appear that the urgency of the European situation dawned on the President only in the late spring or summer 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. With the Nazi conquest of Poland in 1939 and the outbreak of World War II, isolationist sentiment increased, even though Americans clearly favored the victims of Hitler’s aggression and supported the Allied democracies, Britain and France. Roosevelt could only wait until public opinion regarding U.S. involvement was altered by events.
When, in the spring and summer of 1939, the battle took place involving revision of the Neutrality Act—which seemed to be the most helpful thing that might be accomplished for the anti-German side—witness after witness before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee cited the Kellogg Pact, with its abolition of neutrality and its injunction to penalize the aggressor, as the proper foundation of American policy.
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.
Under cover of the Pact, the United States was soon to enter a curious stage of unneutral nonbelligerence: "all aid short of war" or "the undeclared war." The report of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on the Lend-Lease Act cited the Pact as the legal buttress for this complete desertion of traditional neutrality. The curious posture of "belligerence short of war" adopted by the United States in 1940-41 with such crucial results depended on the Kellogg Pact formally and would possibly not have been adopted without it. The new philosophy of international relations assisted a pacifistic people to slide gradually down the slope to war rather than take the sudden plunge.
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