Neutrality Acts Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the 1930’s, strong isolationist sentiment across the United States prompted legislation to prevent the nation from becoming involved in foreign entanglements.

Summary of Event

During the early 1930’s, foreign policy was of secondary importance in the estimation of most people in the United States, as the nation was preoccupied in the struggle to recover from the Depression. By 1935, however, a congressional movement had been initiated to formulate legislative safeguards that would prevent the United States from becoming involved in foreign entanglements. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull supported such safeguards, so long as the chief executive retained discretionary power in their application. Ignoring the president’s wishes, Congress passed a series of neutrality acts in 1935, 1936, 1937, and 1939 that limited presidential options. [kw]Neutrality Acts (Aug. 31, 1935-Nov. 4, 1939) [kw]Acts, Neutrality (Aug. 31, 1935-Nov. 4, 1939) Neutrality acts Isolationism, U.S. [g]United States;Aug. 31, 1935-Nov. 4, 1939: Neutrality Acts[08980] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Aug. 31, 1935-Nov. 4, 1939: Neutrality Acts[08980] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Aug. 31, 1935-Nov. 4, 1939: Neutrality Acts[08980] Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;neutrality acts Hull, Cordell Nye, Gerald Prentice Borah, William E. Johnson, Hiram Warren

Passage of the neutrality laws stemmed, in large part, from a reevaluation of the reasons for U.S. entry into World War I. Noteworthy in this regard was Senator Gerald Prentice Nye, a North Dakota Republican, who chaired the committee investigating the munitions industry and seeking evidence of possible economic pressures leading to the nation’s involvement in World War I. Supported by a vigorous peace lobby in 1934, Nye dramatically publicized the thesis that the United States had been duped into entering World War I to assist unscrupulous armaments producers and bankers, so-called merchants of death, who stood to profit financially by an Allied victory. This conclusion strengthened an existing feeling that some kind of neutrality legislation, which included an arms embargo, was needed to prevent such a catastrophe in the future.

In March, 1935, with American public opinion staunchly against involvement in any future war, Roosevelt asked the Nye Committee Nye Committee to study the neutrality question and formulate appropriate legislation. Entrusted with this new task, Nye and his colleagues proposed several resolutions, one of which prohibited the export of arms and ammunition to all belligerents. Because Nye’s resolutions did not give the president the authority to distinguish between aggressors and victims or to embargo the sale of arms to aggressors exclusively, Roosevelt had the Department of State draft legislation that did so. The State Department measure was lost when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, dominated by two isolationist senators, William E. Borah of Idaho and Hiram Warren Johnson of California, produced its own bill.

The Foreign Relations Committee measure, approved by both the Senate and the House of Representatives, was to last six months. It provided for an impartial arms embargo to nations engaged in a conflict recognized by the president, prohibited U.S. ships from carrying war materiel to belligerents, and recommended that U.S. citizens be warned against traveling on belligerent ships. Roosevelt opposed the mandatory embargo and objected that the act did not apply to nonmunitions war materials. Nevertheless, he accepted the bill on August 31, fearing that failure to do so would adversely affect domestic reforms then under consideration in Congress and believing that he could persuade the legislators to revise the act by the time it expired on February 29, 1936.

Unfortunately for Roosevelt, a State Department neutrality resolution of January 3, 1936, which gave the president discretionary authority to limit the sale of raw materials to belligerents, ran into serious opposition from Nye, Borah, Johnson, and other isolationists. With the expiration date of the 1935 measure fast approaching, Congress passed a new act slightly more stringent than the first in mid-February. Extending the basic provisions of the first act, the Second Neutrality Act Second Neutrality Act (1936) also required the president to extend the arms embargo to any third party that became involved in a conflict and forbade loans by U.S. citizens to belligerents. Recognizing that there was no chance for the State Department measure and wary of creating an antiadministration issue in an election year, Roosevelt signed the Second Neutrality Act on February 29, 1936.

Like its predecessor, the Second Neutrality Act carried an expiration date: May 1, 1937. When Congress began to debate a new measure in early 1937, neither the wisdom of the basic principle of keeping the United States out of war nor the implementation of this goal through an arms embargo was questioned. As the nation emerged from the Depression, however, pressure mounted for some kind of compromise that would permit business as usual with Europe, even in wartime. Bernard Mannes Baruch, Baruch, Bernard Mannes a noted financier, suggested that a practical solution would be a cash-and-carry formula. He reasoned that if U.S. businesses could sell goods, with the exception of arms, on the basis of immediate delivery and payment by the buyer, the risk of U.S. involvement in war would be minimized. Both Roosevelt and the advocates of strict neutrality favored the cash-and-carry plan, Cash-and-carry plan[Cash and carry plan] the president believing it would favor Great Britain, the European state controlling the sea. The new, permanent neutrality bill that emerged in April retained the mandatory embargo on arms, the ban on loans, and the prohibition on travel, but it gave the president discretion, until May 1, 1939, to place all belligerent trade except arms under the cash-and-carry formula. On May 1, the Third Neutrality Act, Third Neutrality Act (1939) having passed both the House and the Senate, was signed by Roosevelt.

Two months later, in the first test of this act, the futility of legislating for unforeseen diplomatic contingencies was revealed. In July, 1937, without a declaration of war, Japan launched a full-scale attack against China. American adherence to the Neutrality Act would work to the advantage of the aggressor, Japan, whose powerful navy dominated the seas off the coast of China. Therefore, Roosevelt made no official recognition of the conflict, and the provisions of the Neutrality Act were not implemented in East Asia.

In the months that followed, Roosevelt had little reason to suspect that isolationism was losing strength. Public reaction to his call for collective security, given in his Chicago “Quarantine Speech” of October 5, 1937, was mixed. The Ludlow Amendment, requiring a favorable national referendum before a declaration of war, was only narrowly defeated in the House on January 10, 1938. Alarm in the United States at the ominous trend of events in Europe and the Far East must be attributed to the nation’s relaxation of its policy of strict neutrality. In March, 1938, Adolf Hitler’s Germany annexed Austria and began to make demands on Czechoslovakia. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prewar period Meanwhile, the Japanese extended their aggression in China.

By the beginning of 1939, Roosevelt had concluded that the Neutrality Act of 1937 needed revision. On January 4, in his state of the union address, the president warned of increasing threats to peace and pointed out that U.S. neutrality laws could operate unfairly, giving aid to aggressors and denying it to victims. Although he knew that Congress would not agree to a discretionary arms embargo, Roosevelt hoped it might agree to modify the law allowing for the sale of arms on a cash-and-carry basis. Although Germany and other aggressors would be eligible, the administration anticipated that Great Britain and France would benefit most, because of their control of the sea. In April, with the president’s approval, Senator Key Pittman of Nevada introduced a resolution providing for the repeal of the arms embargo and the placing of all trade with belligerents on a cash-and-carry basis. Congress, under the influence of Borah, Johnson, and Nye, who were adamant in their opposition, rejected the proposal.

Attitudes in Congress toward a revision of the 1937 law changed after Germany’s assault on Poland on September 1, 1939. When he learned from discussions with a number of legislators that a repeal of the arms embargo might be possible, Roosevelt called Congress into special session on September 23. Reiterating his belief that the existing law aided aggression, the president requested that the sale of all goods, including arms, be placed on a cash-and-carry basis. By shrewdly courting southern conservatives, dispensing patronage, and securing indefatigable public relations work by internationalists, the president succeeded in pushing his revision through Congress by a close vote. On November 4, 1939, Roosevelt signed the Fourth Neutrality Act, Fourth Neutrality Act (1939) and the United States took its first step toward becoming the “arsenal of democracy,” as Roosevelt would later describe it.


The neutrality acts of the 1930’s demonstrated the strength of isolationist sentiment among Americans that was stimulated by such factors as bitterness concerning U.S. involvement in World War I and the deprivations of the Great Depression. Despite the public’s desire for isolationism, however, the acts were unsuccessful in keeping the United States out of a second world war. Because the neutrality laws made no distinction between aggressor nations and those they aggressed against, viewing both only as “belligerents,” they prevented the United States from providing substantial support to Great Britain in its war with Nazi Germany until the formal American declaration of war in 1941. Neutrality acts Isolationism, U.S.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cole, Wayne S. Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 1932-1945. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983. Discusses the relationship between Roosevelt and the isolationists from the perspective of the latter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dallek, Robert. Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945. 1979. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Defends Roosevelt’s foreign policy, showing the president as a master politician who had to consider both domestic and diplomatic objectives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Kenneth S. FDR: The New Deal Years, 1933-1937. 1986. Reprint. New York: Random House, 1995. Second volume in a multivolume biography covers the period in Roosevelt’s administration during which the first of the neutrality acts was passed. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. FDR: Into the Storm, 1937-1940. New York: Random House, 1993. Third volume in a multivolume biography brings to life the people and issues involved in the passage of the neutrality acts. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Divine, Robert A. The Reluctant Belligerent: American Entry into World War II. 2d ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1979. A valuable source of information about the neutrality acts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kennedy, David M. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Describes how Americans responded to the deprivations of the Great Depression and the recovery period of the New Deal. Chapters 13 and 14 address the isolationist sentiments and neutrality laws of the 1930’s. Includes maps and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rhodes, Benjamin D. United States Foreign Policy in the Interwar Period, 1918-1941: The Golden Age of American Diplomatic and Military Complacency. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001. In-depth examination of American diplomacy during the period covered includes discussion of the neutrality laws passed in the 1930’s. Features selected bibliography and index.

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