President Roosevelt’s Speech Recommending Revision of the Neutrality Law Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In September 1939, the rising threat against American allies in Europe and China prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to rethink the perceived benefits of the Neutrality Acts of the early to mid-1930s. Roosevelt concluded that the language contained in the acts failed to distinguish between the aggressors and the victims of aggression in situations like the developing conflict. Such vagueness, he argued, gave a passive form of aid to aggressors such as Germany's Adolf Hitler, Italy's Benito Mussolini, and Japan's Hirohito. Roosevelt, therefore, delivered a message to a joint session of Congress in which he called for the Neutrality Acts to be repealed in favor of the much clearer tenets of international law. Such a move, he argued, would better position the United States and others to address the threats at hand and promote peace in the European and Pacific theaters of conflict.

Summary Overview

In September 1939, the rising threat against American allies in Europe and China prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to rethink the perceived benefits of the Neutrality Acts of the early to mid-1930s. Roosevelt concluded that the language contained in the acts failed to distinguish between the aggressors and the victims of aggression in situations like the developing conflict. Such vagueness, he argued, gave a passive form of aid to aggressors such as Germany's Adolf Hitler, Italy's Benito Mussolini, and Japan's Hirohito. Roosevelt, therefore, delivered a message to a joint session of Congress in which he called for the Neutrality Acts to be repealed in favor of the much clearer tenets of international law. Such a move, he argued, would better position the United States and others to address the threats at hand and promote peace in the European and Pacific theaters of conflict.

Defining Moment

In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles brought an end to what was then considered the “war to end all wars,” although it was to be only the first of two world wars in the twentieth century. The Versailles Treaty included strong punitive measures against Germany, considered to be the main aggressor of World War I. Over a decade later, Germans, weary from the heavy financial and political burdens placed on their nation by the treaty, sought change in the form of Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist, or Nazi, regime. After assuming power, Hitler began instituting social policies designed to restore national pride, but that would eventually lead to the Holocaust—a mass extermination program that ultimately claimed the lives of an estimated six million Jews—and he moved to acquire territory outside Germany in order to accommodate the growing German population.

Hitler's Nazi regime was not the only threat facing the world community during the 1930s. In 1936, civil war erupted in Spain, bringing to power fascist dictator Francisco Franco, whose rise was supported by Nazi Germany and Italy's ruling National Fascist Party. Meanwhile, Italian forces, directed by head of government and Fascist Party leader Benito Mussolini, invaded and occupied Ethiopia. In 1937, Japanese forces invaded the Chinese region of Manchuria, setting up a puppet regime and beginning an advance toward Beijing, where Chinese president Chiang Kai-shek, a close trading ally of the United States, clung to power despite an internal Communist insurrection.

With virtually the whole of the Eastern Hemisphere dominated by the specter of war, nations looked to one another for alliances, partnerships, and aid. However, in Washington, DC, leaders were still studying how the United States had been drawn into World War I and how they could keep the nation out of a future conflict. The Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry, headed by Republican senator Gerald Nye and more commonly called the Senate Munitions Committee or the Nye Committee, convened in 1934 to conduct an eighteen-month investigation into the US arms trade during World War I. The committee concluded that the weapons trade and forms of financial aid, intended to support American allies in the conflict without using American soldiers, had ultimately caused the United States to become a German target, thus drawing the nation into the war. These findings led to the passage of the Neutrality Acts of the 1930s, a series of measures that placed an embargo on supplying American money and supplies to any belligerent in an international conflict.

By the late 1930s, many leaders, Roosevelt included, had started to question the viability of the Neutrality Acts. Experts at the time argued that had the United States been allowed to support the Republican faction during the Spanish Civil War, the Republicans might have triumphed and thus been able to help repel Hitler's expansionism. Others decried the lack of consistency in the laws: Roosevelt was able to voice his support for Chiang against Japan because no declaration of war had been issued in that conflict, but he could not support the sovereign nations that Hitler and Mussolini invaded. Roosevelt felt handcuffed by the law and began advocating for changes to its language. With the balance of power shifting rapidly in Europe and East Asia, he saw the need to press for a counterweight against Germany's increasing power.

Meanwhile, in September 1939, Nazi forces invaded Poland. Great Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada all responded by declaring war on Germany. On September 21, Roosevelt took to the podium at a joint session of Congress with the goal of convincing the Senate and the House of Representatives to repeal the Neutrality Acts.

Author Biography

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born in Hyde Park, New York, on January 30, 1882. He graduated from Harvard College in 1903 and began studying law at Columbia University. Although he did not finish his law degree, Roosevelt passed the bar exam in New York and practiced law before being elected a state senator in 1910. Because of his strong leadership and organizational skills, he was appointed assistant secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson, a post he held from 1913 until 1920.

In 1921, Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio, a crippling disease that limited his mobility. Nevertheless, he was elected governor of New York in 1928 and reelected in 1930. In 1932, Roosevelt was elected president of the United States. As a presidential term limit was not instituted until 1951, he was subsequently reelected three times, making him the longest-serving president in US history. During his four terms in office, Roosevelt oversaw the country's recovery from the Great Depression and its military participation during most of World War II. He died in office on April 12, 1945, after suffering a stroke while on vacation in Georgia.

Historical Document

Since 1931 the use of force instead of the council table has constantly increased in the settlement of disputes between nations-except in the Western Hemisphere, where there has been only one war, now happily terminated.

During these years also the building up of vast armies, navies, and storehouses of war has proceeded abroad with growing speed and intensity. But, during these years, and extending back even to the days of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, the United States has constantly, consistently, and conscientiously done all in its power to encourage peaceful settlements, to bring about reduction of armaments, and to avert threatened wars. We have done this not only because any war anywhere necessarily hurts American security and American prosperity, but because of the more important fact that any war anywhere retards the progress of morality and religion and impairs the security of civilization itself.

For many years the primary purpose of our foreign policy has been that this Nation and this Government should strive to the utmost to aid in avoiding war among other nations. But if and when war unhappily comes, the Government and the Nation must exert every possible effort to avoid being drawn into the war.

The executive branch of the Government did its utmost, within our traditional policy of noninvolvement, to aid in averting the present appalling war. Having thus striven and failed, this Government must lose no time or effort to keep the Nation from being drawn into the war.

In my candid judgment we shall succeed in these efforts.

Beginning with the foundation of our constitutional government in the year 1789, the American policy in respect to belligerent nations, with one notable exception, has been based on international law. Be it remembered that what we call international law has had as its primary objectives the avoidance of causes of war and the prevention of the extension of war.

The single exception was the policy adopted by this Nation during the Napoleonic Wars, when, seeking to avoid involvement, we acted for some years under the so-called Embargo and Non-Intercourse Acts.…

Our next deviation by statute from the sound principles of neutrality and peace through international law did not come for 130 years. It was the so-called Neutrality Act of 1935-only 4 years ago-an act continued in force by the joint resolution of May 1, 1937, despite grave doubts expressed as to its wisdom by many Senators and Representatives and by officials charged with the conduct of our foreign relations, including myself. I regret that the act. I regret equally that I signed that act.

On July fourteenth of this year I asked the Congress in the cause of peace and in the interest of real American neutrality and to take action to change that act.

I now ask again that such action be taken in respect to of the act which is wholly inconsistent with ancient precepts of the law of nations-the embargo provisions. I ask it because they are, in my opinion, most vitally dangerous to American neutrality, American security, and American peace.

I seek a greater consistency through the repeal of the embargo provisions and a return to international law. I seek reenactment of the historic and traditional American policy which, except for the disastrous interlude of the Embargo and Non-Intercourse Acts, has served us well for nearly a century and a half.

It has been erroneously said that return to that policy might bring us nearer to war. I give to you my deep and unalterable conviction, based on years of experience as a worker in the field of international peace, that by the repeal of the embargo the United States will more probably remain at peace than if the law remains as it stands today. I say this because with the repeal of the embargo this Government clearly and definitely will insist that American citizens and American ships keep away from the immediate perils of the actual zones of conflict.

Repeal of the embargo and a return to international law are the crux of this issue.

To those who say that this program would involve a step toward war on our part, I reply that it offers far greater safeguards than we now possess or have ever possessed to protect American lives and property from danger. It is a positive program for giving safety. This means less likelihood of incidents and controversies which tend to draw us into conflict, as they did in the last World War. There lies the road to peace!

I should like to be able to offer the hope that the shadow over the world might swiftly pass. I cannot. The facts compel my stating, with candor, that darker periods may lie ahead. The disaster is not of our making; no act of ours engendered the forces which assault the foundations of civilization. Yet we find ourselves affected to the core; our currents of commerce are changing, our minds are filled with new problems, our position in world affairs has already been altered.

In such circumstances our policy must be to appreciate in the deepest sense the true American interest. Rightly considered, this interest is not selfish. Destiny first made us, with our sister nations on this hemisphere, joint heirs of European culture. Fate seems now to compel us to assume the task of helping to maintain in the western world a citadel wherein that civilization may be kept alive. The peace, the integrity, and the safety of the Americas-these must be kept firm and serene. In a period when it is sometimes said that free discussion is no longer compatible with national safety, may you by your deeds show the world that we of the United States are one people, of one mind, one spirit, one clear resolution, walking before God in the light of the living.

Document Analysis

In his speech, President Roosevelt endorses the United States' record in attempting to bring about peaceful, rather than military, resolutions to interstate conflicts. He argues that with the exception of World War I, the United States has been consistent in its efforts to promote peace through the process of international law and not allow itself to be drawn into the wars of other nations. The various versions of the Neutrality Act, however, created a convoluted and problematic policy that forced the United States to deviate from this sound, legal approach. Because of this unintended effect, Roosevelt is calling on Congress to repeal the embargo imposed by the Neutrality Acts.

Roosevelt first reminds Congress that since World War I, the United States has shown great discretion and care not to involve itself in the affairs of other countries. Such a policy has been difficult to maintain, he says, in light of the fact that so many other governments have been building up their respective militaries and using them to resolve their differences with other nations. Roosevelt points out that the US government has worked diligently to prevent the growing war in Europe through diplomatic means; now that the nation has failed to avert that war, he argues that it is incumbent upon the United States to do everything in its power to avoid being pulled into the war as a combatant.

Roosevelt admits that he initially endorsed the Neutrality Act; however, like the Embargo Act of 1807 and the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809, enacted in response to the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century, the Neutrality Act ultimately only limits the United States' ability to assess and intercede in international conflicts. Roosevelt argues that the United States has long proven its ability to help promote world peace while still avoiding entering into conflict through the system of international law, the purpose of which has always been to avoid war.

In order to alleviate concerns that repealing the Neutrality Acts would inevitably draw the United States into the ongoing war, Roosevelt assures Congress that it is his “deep and unalterable conviction… that by the repeal of the embargo the United States will more probably remain at peace than if the law remains as it stands today.” He states that it is the opinion of the US government that “the age-old and time-honored doctrine of international law,” bolstered by some “positive safeguards,” would be a more effective means of avoiding war than a single nation's embargo that may itself lead to international incidents and will ultimately limit that nation's own ability to respond to the belligerent actions of others.

Roosevelt concludes by saying that war is upon the world, not caused by or directly involving the United States but still affecting it, as it does all of civilization. The United States and its surrounding countries are “joint heirs of European culture,” having been born of European heritage, and thus it is the United States' responsibility to “[help] maintain in the Western world a citadel wherein that civilization may be kept alive.” While lifting the embargo imposed by the Neutrality Acts would certainly benefit the country's European allies in the current conflict, it is important to repeal the acts not just for short-term benefit but so that “the peace, the integrity, and the safety of the Americas”—and thus, by extension, the world—can “be kept firm and serene” over the long term.

Essential Themes

Despite the widespread sentiment in the United States that the war in Europe did not and should not warrant American involvement, President Roosevelt had long sought to maintain the nation's standing as a world leader, particularly in advocating for diplomacy and peace. In this speech to Congress, Roosevelt argued that the only times the United States failed to promote peace and stability during times of conflict were when it was bound by its own laws to stay out of international affairs. Now, another world war was upon humanity—one that, according to Roosevelt, was not the product of American action but would impact American interests nonetheless.

Roosevelt argued that the Neutrality Acts unnecessarily placed a ban on supporting the victims of aggression. He argued that they also worked counter to the most productive system of peacemaking: the rule of international law. The United States, Roosevelt acknowledged, rightly sought to avoid being drawn into the growing war; as president, he vowed, he was committed to preventing such a course. He argued that the United States had a long history of successfully avoiding becoming involved in conflicts that did not concern American interests, with two exceptions, both of which involved the imposition of policies that placed strict limitations on the rule of international law: the acts passed during the Napoleonic Wars, often cited as a contributing factor to the subsequent War of 1812, and the recent Neutrality Acts.

Roosevelt understood that by calling for a lifting of the embargo created by the Neutrality Acts, he was, in the minds of proponents of the acts and advocates of isolationism, threatening to undo American neutrality in Europe. He sought to allay those fears by suggesting that the rule of international law, which was designed specifically to prevent war, would act as a deterrent to any who would interfere in the war by supplying materials and money to belligerents.

Roosevelt further emphasized that as president, he would remain dedicated to keeping the United States out of the European theater. However, he concluded, war was upon the world, threatening the birthplace of American culture, and it was critical that the United States be given every opportunity to protect itself and its interests and avoid being shackled by the embargo imposed by the Neutrality Acts.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt.” Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. Natl. Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2014.
  • Burns, James MacGregor, and Susan Dunn. The Three Roosevelts: Patrician Leaders Who Transformed America. New York: Grove, 2001. Print.
  • Crawford, Kenneth G. “Goodby Neutrality.” Nation 15 Apr. 1939: 423–24. Print.
  • Freidel, Frank, and Hugh Sidey. “Franklin D. Roosevelt.” WhiteHouse.gov. White House, n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2014.
  • “Merchants of Death.” 200 Notable Days: Senate Stories, 1787 to 2002. Comp. Richard A. Baker. Washington: GPO, 2006. 141. Print.
  • O'Connor, Jerome M. “Roosevelt's Ghost Ships.” World War II Feb. 2003: 34–40. Print.
  • Taliaferro, Jeffrey W. “Strategy of Innocence or Provocation? The Roosevelt Administration's Road to World War II.” The Challenge of Grand Strategy: The Great Powers and the Broken Balance between the World Wars. Ed. Jeffrey N. Taliaferro, Norrin M. Ripsman, and Steven E. Lobell. New York: Cambridge UP, 2012. 193–223. Print.
Categories: History Content