Foreign Policy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although a variety of matters in foreign policy arose in the 1930s, the overriding one was the question of neutrality versus war–or preparations for war–as Europe once again headed toward major armed conflict and tensions rose in the East between Japan and other nations. Neutrality proponents urged a policy of refusing to differentiate between aggressor nations and victims, arguing that both should be viewed as equal parties. Thus, the first Neutrality Act of 1935 authorized the president to declare an embargo on arms shipments to “belligerents” involved in war but did not prohibit trade in goods such as oil, food, and supplies. Additional neutrality acts in 1936 and 1937 extended bans to loans and credits and limited the activities of merchant ships and the trade in war materiel. Still, these strictures were meant to apply equally to belligerents and only came into play when a state of war was declared to exist. Thus, when in 1937 Japan attacked China, Roosevelt declined to label the act as one of war, thereby permitting continued open trade with both China and Japan. A 1939 neutrality act was even more lenient, just as Europe was becoming wrapped up in war and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, among others, was pleading with the Americans to act. So rooted was neutrality as a policy that it was only when the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941 that portions of the earlier neutrality laws were finally stripped away and the United States was put on war footing.

Although a variety of matters in foreign policy arose in the 1930s, the overriding one was the question of neutrality versus war–or preparations for war–as Europe once again headed toward major armed conflict and tensions rose in the East between Japan and other nations. Neutrality proponents urged a policy of refusing to differentiate between aggressor nations and victims, arguing that both should be viewed as equal parties. Thus, the first Neutrality Act of 1935 authorized the president to declare an embargo on arms shipments to “belligerents” involved in war but did not prohibit trade in goods such as oil, food, and supplies. Additional neutrality acts in 1936 and 1937 extended bans to loans and credits and limited the activities of merchant ships and the trade in war materiel. Still, these strictures were meant to apply equally to belligerents and only came into play when a state of war was declared to exist. Thus, when in 1937 Japan attacked China, Roosevelt declined to label the act as one of war, thereby permitting continued open trade with both China and Japan. A 1939 neutrality act was even more lenient, just as Europe was becoming wrapped up in war and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, among others, was pleading with the Americans to act. So rooted was neutrality as a policy that it was only when the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941 that portions of the earlier neutrality laws were finally stripped away and the United States was put on war footing.

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