Neutrality Act of 1935 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Despite attempts to remain neutral during World War I, the United States was drawn into the conflict by 1917. In hope of avoiding the same fate as a second European war came to seem inevitable in the mid-1930s, the US Congress passed the Neutrality Act of 1935. The act prohibited US merchants from trading arms, munitions, and other “implements of war” with any nation involved in an armed conflict and restricted the movement of American merchant vessels carrying those types of goods. It also established a federal register to allow the US Department of State to keep records of any US merchant engaged in sale or transport of arms and munitions and authorized the president to impose additional restrictions necessary to promote peace and protect US security. But even with the neutrality acts in place, the United States eventually joined World War II in December 1941, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Summary Overview

Despite attempts to remain neutral during World War I, the United States was drawn into the conflict by 1917. In hope of avoiding the same fate as a second European war came to seem inevitable in the mid-1930s, the US Congress passed the Neutrality Act of 1935. The act prohibited US merchants from trading arms, munitions, and other “implements of war” with any nation involved in an armed conflict and restricted the movement of American merchant vessels carrying those types of goods. It also established a federal register to allow the US Department of State to keep records of any US merchant engaged in sale or transport of arms and munitions and authorized the president to impose additional restrictions necessary to promote peace and protect US security. But even with the neutrality acts in place, the United States eventually joined World War II in December 1941, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Defining Moment

After years of attempting to remain neutral in World War I, the United States entered the conflict in 1917. President Woodrow Wilson declared that the United States must protect its interests and help make the world “safe for democracy,” and a wave of patriotism swept the nation. However, in the years that followed, critics suspected that American entry into the war was primarily driven by business interests, rather than by the need to protect US security.

Following the war, the United States experienced a financial boom. But the economy spiraled quickly at the end of the 1920s, and by the early 1930s, the country was in the throes of the Great Depression. Nearly one-quarter of workers came to be unemployed, farms and homes went into foreclosure, companies went out of business, and financial institutions become insolvent. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal established federal programs to provide publicly funded jobs in public works and infrastructure projects; those seemed to help, but full recovery was a long way off.

Taken together, these circumstances inspired isolationist laws and policies to maintain US neutrality during any future wars. In the mid-to-late 1930s, the US Congress passed several neutrality acts to prohibit financial dealings and munitions trading with countries at war. The issue became pressing as political unrest in Europe and the Far East made another war appear increasingly likely. Public opinion swayed so strongly in support of isolationist policies that Roosevelt, despite private reservations, ultimately signed each of these acts.

Opinion on the first Neutrality Act was divided in Congress, although most representatives favored the restrictions. Some believed that US actions, such as allowing merchant ships to carry arms and supplies to warring European countries, had needlessly drawn the country into World War I. Neutrality Act supporters believed that prohibiting such actions would protect US passenger and merchant vessels from aggressor nations and help keep the country out of war. Others, such as H. C. Englebrecht and F. C. Hanighen, contended that US involvement was encouraged by munitions dealers and bankers, who stood to make an enormous profit supplying and financing war efforts. With the prohibition on arms trading, American businesses would have no vested interest in pressuring the United States to join a war in which it did not have a true safety or security interest.

Critics, including Roosevelt, primarily argued that refusing to trade with nations on the receiving end of aggression was not a truly neutral position. The aggressor nation would be better prepared for the armed conflict of their own creation, so refusing to provide arms, ammunition, and other supplies to countries trying to defend themselves from a hostile takeover was tantamount to supporting the aggressor nation.

Author Biography

The Seventy-fourth Congress sat in Washington, DC, from 1935 to 1937. During the 1934 elections, widespread public support for Roosevelt's New Deal plan for economic recovery increased the Democratic majority. The Seventy-fourth Congress began its session with 322 Democratic, 103 Republican, 7 Progressive, and 3 Farmer-Labor congressional representatives, as well as 13 Democratic and 1 Farmer-Labor freshman senators.

During its two-year session, the Seventy-fourth Congress passed many reform initiatives, including Social Security and regulation of public utilities, as well as several neutrality acts designed to keep the United States out of foreign wars by prohibiting arms trade and financial dealings with countries involved in armed conflicts. Some of that legislation was later declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court, but many of the initiatives brought significant social and economic changes to American society during the 1930s and beyond.

Document Analysis

Section 1 of the Neutrality Act of 1935 establishes that, if the president proclaims that two foreign countries are engaged in a war in which the United States is neutral, it is unlawful to export “arms, ammunition, or implements of war” from any US territory to any country involved in the war. The president determines which goods fall under the prohibition and may extend the provisions to regulate the trade of any other type of goods–or name any additional “belligerent countries”–whenever necessary to protect US interests. Any violation of the act would be punishable by a fine of up to ten thousand dollars, imprisonment of up to five years, or both. Seized goods would be turned over to the secretary of war for use by the United States or disposal as directed by the president.

Section 2 establishes the National Munitions Control Board, which consists of the US secretaries of state, treasury, war, navy, and commerce. Administration of the act is vested in the Department of State. Any business that manufactures, exports, or imports any arms, ammunition, or implements of war must pay five hundred dollars and register with the secretary of state, who will issue a license for trade, without which it will be illegal to export or import arms, ammunition, or implements of war. Licenses will be renewable every five years. The board will dictate what records licensees must keep and then report data on trade activities and provide a list of licensees to Congress annually. The president may, following the recommendations of the board, proclaim additional items to be prohibited, and the secretary of state has the authority to create additional rules and regulations deemed necessary to enforce this section.

Section 3 prohibits American vessels from carrying arms, ammunition, or implements of war to the port of a country at war or to a neutral port for further transfer to a country at war. Section 4 allows the United States to demand the posting of a surety bond if a merchant or vessel is suspected of transporting troops or cargo to any “warship, tender, or supply ship of a foreign belligerent nation,” but no proof is found of an actual violation. The president can restrict movement for the duration of a war of any vessel that has been found in violation of the act.

Section 5 authorizes the president to place additional restrictions on US ports and territorial waters, particularly on foreign submarine activity, if the president deems it necessary to maintain peace, protect US commercial interests, or promote US security. Sections 6 through 9 establish basic enforcement provisions, including penalties for violations not otherwise specified in the act, and the appropriation of $25,000 from the US Treasury for enforcing the act.

Essential Themes

By the mid-1930s, political tension ran high throughout Europe and between China and Japan, and the American public largely believed that isolationism was the best approach for keeping the United States out of existing or impending wars. The US Congress passed several neutrality acts between 1935 and 1939, hoping to not become targets of hostilities, to avoid the appearance of “taking sides” in the growing conflicts, and to remove financial incentives for munitions dealers and bankers to encourage involvement in war.

The Neutrality Act of 1935 addressed such concerns directly by prohibiting the sale of arms, ammunition, or any other item that could be considered an “implement of war” to any country involved in armed conflict. This was a blanket prohibition: for the purpose of the act, it did not matter whether the purchasing country was the aggressor or the defender. Public opinion favoring isolationism led to legislative support for the Neutrality Act, although some critics, including Roosevelt, worried that the act bound the president too tightly. While it appeared to give the president some decision-making and enforcement flexibility, the Neutrality Act really only provided authority to proclaim the existence of a war, set punishments for violations of the law, and establish further restrictions. Thus, the president could not lift the restrictions, even if he believed it would best serve US interests to provide support to a nation involved in an armed conflict.

Congress renewed and revised the Neutrality Act nearly every year until the United States joined World War II. The act's 1936 revision further prohibited US financial institutions from extending loans to nations at war. By 1937, the renewed act included civil wars in its definition of international conflict; Americans were prohibited from traveling on ships that belonged to belligerents, invoking a proviso in section 6 of the 1935 law; and US merchant ships could not transport arms manufactured outside the United States to nations involved in a war.

However, later Neutrality Act revisions showed the tide turning. In 1937, President Roosevelt pushed a provision called “cash-and-carry,” which allowed warring countries to purchase, with cash, goods other than arms and munitions from the United States, if they transported the goods home on their own ships. That allowed the United States to provide indirect support to nations defending themselves from aggressors (namely, Britain and France) by selling them fuel and other raw materials, while still officially maintaining a neutral stance. By late 1939, the cash-and-carry provision had been expanded to include all trade goods, even arms, and the following year, the United States began to “lend” military supplies to the Allied nations, which by then were having difficulty paying in cash. In the end, despite its efforts to remain neutral, the United States officially became part of World War II in December 1941, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the neutrality acts became obsolete.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Kennedy, David M. “Great Depression & WWII, 1929–1945.” Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Gilder Lehrman Institute, 2014. Web. 11 June 2014.
  • McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941. New York: Times, 1993. Print.
  • “The Neutrality Acts, 1930s.” Milestones: 1921–1936. US Department of State, Office of the Historian, n.d. Web. 11 June 2014.
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