Defense of the Neutrality Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As political unrest swept across Europe in the 1930s, American public opinion overwhelmingly favored a policy of neutrality. These strong isolationist feelings resulted from cynicism about the true motives for US involvement in World War I, combined with overwhelming preoccupation with the financial effects of the Great Depression. In August 1935, Congress passed the first Neutrality Act, designed as a temporary measure to keep the United States out of any conflict while lawmakers crafted a more comprehensive plan to enforce American neutrality; three more Neutrality Acts would be passed over the following three years. Supporters of this first act, including Missouri senator Bennett Champ Clark, believed legislation preventing US sales of arms and ammunition to belligerents was necessary to keep the United States from needless involvement in foreign conflicts. However, he argued that the act was not strict enough and that it should include a prohibition on lending money to countries at war, as well as a more encompassing embargo on any goods that could possibly aid a belligerent nation during a war.

Summary Overview

As political unrest swept across Europe in the 1930s, American public opinion overwhelmingly favored a policy of neutrality. These strong isolationist feelings resulted from cynicism about the true motives for US involvement in World War I, combined with overwhelming preoccupation with the financial effects of the Great Depression. In August 1935, Congress passed the first Neutrality Act, designed as a temporary measure to keep the United States out of any conflict while lawmakers crafted a more comprehensive plan to enforce American neutrality; three more Neutrality Acts would be passed over the following three years. Supporters of this first act, including Missouri senator Bennett Champ Clark, believed legislation preventing US sales of arms and ammunition to belligerents was necessary to keep the United States from needless involvement in foreign conflicts. However, he argued that the act was not strict enough and that it should include a prohibition on lending money to countries at war, as well as a more encompassing embargo on any goods that could possibly aid a belligerent nation during a war.

Defining Moment

After years of attempting to remain neutral during World War I, President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany in April 1917. Upon this change of policy, Americans who previously supported non-intervention suddenly rallied in favor of the war effort as a wave of patriotism swept the nation. But in the years that followed the costly conflict, many of those same people came to suspect that US involvement in World War I was driven more by the business interests of bankers and arms traders than by the need to preserve democracy and national security.

By the early 1930s, the United States was in the throes of the Great Depression: nearly one-quarter of workers were unemployed, banks foreclosed on numerous farms and homes, and financial institutions were failing. The combination of the domestic financial crisis and skepticism about the true motives for US involvement in World War I led to widespread isolationism: the public both wanted the United States to stay out of conflicts that did not directly affect its interests and security and supported laws and policies that would maintain neutrality in future wars.

To this end, Congress passed the Neutrality Act of 1935. By this time, political unrest in Europe made another great war seem increasingly possible, and Americans overwhelmingly favored keeping the United States out of any conflict. The Neutrality Act sought to accomplish this by prohibiting the trade of arms, munitions, and other “instruments of war” with any country involved in an armed conflict.

Most legislators supported the Neutrality Act. They shared the public's opinion that financial institutions and munitions traders influenced the United States' decision to enter World War I, and some believed that actions during the war–such as allowing passenger vessels and merchant ships to transport war materials to Europe–needlessly made the United States a target for aggression. However, the Neutrality Act had its detractors, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Critics argued that refusing to trade with all warring nations, including those on the receiving end of aggression, is not a truly neutral position. According to this perspective, since the aggressor nation is better prepared for an armed conflict of its own creation, refusing to trade arms and ammunition with countries trying to defend themselves is tantamount to supporting the aggressor nation, even if that is not the intent.

Congress passed the Neutrality Act in August 1935, at the end of its first session. However, many of the act's trade embargo provisions did not take effect until the following year. While delivering his defense of the first Neutrality Act in December 1935, Senator Bennett Champ Clark cited reports that companies believed to manufacture war-related supplies were hiring workers and increasing their production rates. Although no direct proof existed, he said these reports raise the suspicion that companies were working hard to profit from the European conflicts as much as possible before the embargo took effect.

Author Biography

Joel Bennett Clark (later known as Bennett Champ Clark) was born on January 8, 1890, in Bowling Green, Missouri. His father, James Beauchamp “Champ” Clark, was a prominent Democratic congressman, so young Bennett grew up surrounded by politics.

Clark attended the University of Missouri and George Washington University School of Law. He joined the US Army in 1917, becoming the youngest person to achieve the rank of colonel in the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. Upon his return, he and several other officers founded the American Legion. He practiced law for several years, and, in 1932, undertook an extensive campaign tour to secure his first term in the US Senate. He was reelected in 1938 and, during this second term, became the principal author and sponsor of the GI Bill. Bennett failed to win a third term in the 1944 election, and he briefly practiced law before being appointed a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Bennett served in the judiciary until his death on July 13, 1954.

Document Analysis

In his defense of the Neutrality Act of 1935, Senator Clark reiterates that Americans did not initially want the United States involved in World War I: even as late as November 1916, President Woodrow Wilson won his reelection campaign largely because of his neutrality position. Yet only five months later, the United States declared war on Germany and was fighting to “save the world for democracy.” Clark observes that, once again, public opinion presently favors keeping the United States out of the conflicts unfolding across Europe. In light of the abrupt turn of events during World War I, the United States must firmly establish its neutrality policy well before any war fully breaks out.

Clark reports that the Senate Munitions Investigation Committee carefully analyzed the circumstances that led to US involvement in World War I, to learn from past mistakes and identify how the country can avoid another foreign conflict. Clark says that the Neutrality Act passed at the end of the last congressional term in August of 1935 is only temporary legislation. As written, the act expires on February 29, 1936, so the current congressional session must establish a more comprehensive plan for maintaining neutrality.

After briefly describing the terms of the Neutrality Act of 1935, Clark states that two important provisions were left out of the act: a prohibition on loans and credits to “belligerent nations” and an embargo on the sale to belligerents of relevant materials beyond weapons and ammunition. With respect to the trade embargo, Clark contends that essentially any supply sent to a warring country, including food, clothing, lumber, leather, and even luxury items that might improve morale, could be seen by one warring party as aid to its enemy, and therefore open US shipping to attack. He also says a broader prohibition is necessary to maintain true neutrality because otherwise US policy will inherently favor whichever country can afford to trade.

Regarding loans and credits, Clark says that “there can be no true neutrality when our nation is allowed to finance one side of a foreign war.” Private companies reaped great profits by providing loans to European nations during World War I, and theorists believe these financial gains combined with increased agricultural and manufacturing production led to the US economic boom of the 1920s. But Clark observes that every major war was followed by an economic depression and that, for many reasons, war should not be used to provide a temporary boost to the economy. Clark concludes by asserting that the United States' “national honor” does not demand that it needlessly enter foreign wars, since such actions place the nation's youth in harm's way for the financial benefit of a few.

Essential Themes

After serving in the US Army during World War I, Senator Clark had no illusions about the glories of war. And like much of the public during the 1930s, he believed that US involvement in World War I was driven by the merchants and manufacturers who reaped the financial rewards, rather than by a greater need to preserve worldwide democracy and protect US national security.

In his defense of the Neutrality Act of 1935, Clark specifically noted that Americans opposed entering World War I for most of its duration, and in 1935, they overwhelmingly opposed US involvement in any of the conflicts brewing in Europe. Clark felt the United States had a tendency to meddle in international affairs and believed that lax trade and shipping policies during World War I needlessly made the United States a target for German hostilities. Because of this tendency, Clark argued in favor of establishing a strong, clear Neutrality Act well in advance of full-blown war in Europe. But since war seemed imminent because of the pervasive unrest across the continent, Clark willingly supported a weaker, “stop-gap” measure to establish a basic policy of US neutrality, and then he pushed in earnest for additional trade restrictions upon the act's renewal in 1936.

One of Clark's additional restrictions was a full embargo of almost any trade with nations at war, as nearly any supply sent to a warring country could be considered by another belligerent to aid the “enemy army.” Full adoption of Clark's proposal would have effectively cut off all trade with any country involved in an armed conflict, but it was never enacted as he envisioned. The “cash-and-carry” provision of the 1937 Neutrality Act–promoted by President Roosevelt–limited trade to goods other than arms and munitions that countries could pay for in cash and carry home on their own vessels. While this imposed heavy trade restrictions, it implicitly permitted the trade of non-war-related goods. By 1939, the cash-and-carry provision expanded to include “instruments of war,” including arms and munitions, intended to aid Britain and France. By 1940, despite the attempts at neutrality, the United States was supplying arms and munitions to European Allied forces.

While Clark initially opposed US involvement in the increasingly global conflict, he and many Americans changed their position following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The United States officially entered World War II shortly thereafter.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “Bennett Champ Clark.” The Champ Clark House. Champ Clark House, n.d. Web. 12 June 2014.
  • “Great Depression & WWII, 1929–1945.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Gilder Lehrman Institute, n.d. Web. 12 June 2014.
  • McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941. 25th anniv. ed. New York: Three Rivers, 2009. Print.
  • “Milestones: 1921–1936.” Office of the Historian. US Dept. of State, n.d. Web. 12 June 2014.
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