Criticism of the Neutrality Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As political tensions rose throughout Europe in the mid-1930s, the United States sought to retain its neutrality. Critics believed that the United States' entry into World War I in 1917 was fueled by diplomatic mistakes and the financial interests of bankers and arms dealers, which helped sway public opinion toward isolationism by the 1930s. In 1935, the United States Congress passed the first of several Neutrality Acts, which prohibited trade of arms, ammunition, and other “implements of war” to any nation involved in a war. A majority of legislators believed the act was necessary to avoid repeating past mistakes, but a vocal minority, including Texas senator Thomas Connally, believed it placed too many restrictions on the president's ability to authorize such a trade if he deemed it to be a sound foreign policy decision or otherwise necessary to protect US commercial interests and national security.

Summary Overview

As political tensions rose throughout Europe in the mid-1930s, the United States sought to retain its neutrality. Critics believed that the United States' entry into World War I in 1917 was fueled by diplomatic mistakes and the financial interests of bankers and arms dealers, which helped sway public opinion toward isolationism by the 1930s. In 1935, the United States Congress passed the first of several Neutrality Acts, which prohibited trade of arms, ammunition, and other “implements of war” to any nation involved in a war. A majority of legislators believed the act was necessary to avoid repeating past mistakes, but a vocal minority, including Texas senator Thomas Connally, believed it placed too many restrictions on the president's ability to authorize such a trade if he deemed it to be a sound foreign policy decision or otherwise necessary to protect US commercial interests and national security.

Defining Moment

In 1935, the United States was still struggling to recover from its worst financial crisis since the Civil War. As political conflict rose again in Europe, the United States focused on bolstering its own failing economy, feeding its starving population, and stemming the tide of home and farm foreclosures, failing businesses, and collapsing financial institutions.

Additionally, opinion on US involvement in World War I had shifted over time. The United States had initially tried to remain neutral in the conflict, but in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany, and Americans were swept up in a wave of patriotism. But in the years after the war, many came to suspect that the business interests of bankers and arms manufacturers had motivated the country's involvement far more than the desire to make the world, in Wilson's words, “safe for democracy.”

Together, these two factors fueled the isolationist mood within the United States during the 1930s. As war in Europe came to seem imminent, public opinion broadly supported laws and policies that would maintain US neutrality in armed conflicts between other countries. Legislators believed that doing so required prohibitions on trade and financial dealings with warring nations in order to avoid the appearance of support for any country involved in conflict, thus preventing US territories and vessels from becoming targets, and to remove the financial incentive for bankers and munitions traders to encourage entry into the war.

To this end, the Seventy-fourth United States Congress passed three Neutrality Acts between 1935 and 1937. The first, the Neutrality Act of 1935, prohibited the trade of “arms, ammunition, and implements of war” with countries involved in an armed conflict. It also required any merchant dealing in these goods to register with the secretary of state and authorized the president to establish stronger restrictions as necessary to protect US interests and security. Initially, President Franklin D. Roosevelt opposed the act, but legislative influence and public opinion were strongly in favor of policies that would keep the United States out of the developing conflict in Europe, so he eventually conceded. The Neutrality Act of 1936 renewed the terms of the first act and extended them to include a prohibition on loans to belligerent nations. The Neutrality Act of 1937 extended those terms indefinitely, and added a provision that permitted the sale of supplies other than armaments to belligerent nations at the president's discretion, provided they were sold on a “cash-and-carry” basis, meaning the purchasing nation had to pay for the goods immediately and transport them on its own ships.

Congressional opinion on the first Neutrality Act was split, although obviously most lawmakers favored its passage. Aside from suspicion about financial motives, supporters believed that allowing passenger ships and merchant vessels to carry supplies to and from warring countries would contribute to US involvement in war, and they considered the act necessary to prevent such mistakes. Critics of the law, however, believed that the blanket trade prohibition established by the Neutrality Act was not really neutral at all; because aggressor nations have the advantage in wars of their own creation, they argued, refusing to trade arms and ammunition with a country that needs to defend itself is tantamount to supporting the aggressor nation.

A fourth Neutrality Act was passed in 1939, repealing the previous acts and extending the cash-and-carry provision to cover weaponry as well as other supplies. The US policy of neutrality came to an end with the passage of the Lend-Lease Act in 1941, and many of the Neutrality Act's provisions were revoked in October and November of that year, although the provisions banning the unlicensed import or export of arms remained in effect.

Author Biography

Thomas Terry Connally was born near Hewitt, Texas, on August 19, 1877. He graduated from Baylor University in 1896 and received his law degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1898. He was admitted to the bar the same year. Connally moved to Waco, Texas, to begin a private law practice. He served in the Texas Volunteer Infantry during the Spanish-American War and was an infantry brigade captain in the US Army during World War I. In 1904, he married Louise Clarkson, with whom he had a son. Seven years after Louise's death in 1935, he married Lucile Sanderson Sheppard, the widow of fellow Texas senator Morris Sheppard.

Connally began his political career in the Texas House of Representatives, where he served from 1901 to 1904, after which he was the prosecuting attorney for Falls County, Texas, from 1906 to 1910. As a member of the Democratic Party, he was elected to the House of Representatives six times between 1917 and 1928, then served in the Senate from 1928 until 1953. During his legislative career, Connally sat on several committees, including the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds and the Committee on Foreign Relations. In 1946, he represented the United States at the first and second sessions of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Connally died on October 28, 1963, in Washington, DC.

Document Analysis

In Senator Tom Connally's criticism of the Neutrality Act of 1935, he argues that when two nations are at war, with the aggressor country having “ambitions for territorial conquest” and the attacked country being “unprepared” for conflict and simply “trying to pursue its own destiny,” it is not a truly neutral position to refuse to assist either party, since the practical effect of such refusal increases the likelihood of victory for the aggressor. Specifically, he claims that because of the imbalance of power between the aggressor country and the attacked country, the Neutrality Act's blanket prohibition on arms trade cannot truly be neutral. Rather, it means the United States is effectively supporting the aggressor country, which will inherently be better prepared for an armed conflict of its own creation. The United States might not want to lend its support to the aggressor, but the prohibition on arms trade with attacked countries will inevitably have this effect.

Additionally, Connally is concerned that the Neutrality Act's prohibition on arms sales to warring countries under any circumstances would prevent the president of the United States from making sound decisions about arms sales based on the facts of a particular circumstance. He points out that a time could arise when “sound American policy” would require the president to allow the United States to provide aid to a country involved in a war. He criticizes the Neutrality Act for placing the nation in an “international strait jacket” in the false belief that such a prohibition “will fit all future occasions and solve all future problems.”

Essential Themes

Between the domestic economic crisis and increased cynicism regarding the United States' reasons for entering World War I, public opinion in the 1930s leaned strongly toward isolationism. In 1930, Congress had passed to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which placed high tax barriers on imported goods in an effort to protect US domestic production from foreign competition. By the mid-1930s, tensions ran high across all of Europe, and many Americans wanted the United States to stay as far away as possible from the growing conflict. They supported the Neutrality Act because they believed it would avoid the appearance of taking sides and remove the financial incentives for US companies to become involved in the war.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not support these isolationist tendencies. From the beginning of his term, he sought to overturn the import tariffs and restore balance to international trade. He initially opposed the Neutrality Act as well, but he ultimately relented in the face of strong public opinion and legislative support. Senator Tom Connally of Texas provided one of the few strong voices within the legislature against isolationist policies. Perhaps because of his strong interest in international relations, he advocated making decisions about wartime trade based on individual circumstances rather than a blanket mandate.

Revisions of the Neutrality Act in 1936 and 1937 further tightened the original restrictions. The 1936 renewal prohibited US financial institutions from extending loans to nations involved in armed conflicts, while the 1937 act prohibited Americans from traveling on ships that belonged to nations engaged in war. However, the Neutrality Act of 1937 also loosened restrictions somewhat, introducing the cash-and-carry provision for goods other than arms and munitions. After the Neutrality Act of 1939 expanded the cash-and-carry policy to include arms and munitions, the United States began providing military supplies directly to Allied nations in Europe. Ultimately, the United States' decision to provide support to the Allies trumped the desire for neutrality.

In the end, despite efforts to remain neutral, the United States officially joined World War II in December 1941, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces. Connally maintained his interest in foreign policy throughout World War II and beyond, serving as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1941 to 1947, helping devise the United Nations and create its charter, and participating in the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Ferraro, Vincent, comp. “Documents of the Interwar Period.” Resources for the Study of International Relations and Foreign Policy. Mount Holyoke Coll., n.d. Web. 10 June 2014.
  • Kennedy, David M. “The Great Depression and World War II, 1929–1945.” Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Gilder Lehrman Institute, n.d. Web. 10 June 2014.
  • McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941. 25th anniv. ed. New York: Three Rivers, 2009. Print.
  • United States. Dept. of State. Office of the Historian. “Milestones: 1921–1936.” Office of the Historian. US Dept. of State, n.d. Web. 10 June 2014.
Categories: History Content