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Gregory Salmon Hist 448 June 2, 2011
The Neutrality Acts in the 1930s?

Suppose the president had not made New Deal recovery from the Great Depression a higher priority than foreign policy during his first term and well into his second. FDR might have heeded the State Department¶s advice and vetoed the first Neutrality Act in August 1935 because it called for a mandatory arms embargo that did not differentiate between aggressors and victims. Yet he signed this bill and subsequent legislation in 1936 and 1937 in large part because Midwestern progressives in the Senate and House threatened to block key New Deal reforms, including Social Security, unless he accepted strict neutrality. Opening repudiating Woodrow Wilson¶s neutral rights policy prior to U.S. entry into World War 1, Roosevelt signed legislation that require an embargo on arms and munitions, banned private loans to belligerents, forbade travel by U.S. citizens on belligerent vessels, and limited trade with belligerents to noncontraband materials on a ³cash and carry´ basis. Historians generally agree that such neutrality laws, had they existed in 1914-1917, might well have kept the United States out of World War 1but not out of World War 11. The president himself changed his mind in late 1938 and worked to revise and repeal the neutrality laws he had so recently championed. It is unlikely, however, that different U.S. neutrality rules would have deterred Axis aggression in the 1930s.As it was, the Neutrality Act of 1935 halted U.S. arms sales to fascist Italy but had no effect on its conquest of Ethiopia. Adolf Hitler¶s commitment to military expansion was absolute, and thus any shift in policy by ³mongrel´ America elicited only his contempt. In Asia , the president pointedly did not apply the neutrality laws to the undeclared Sino-Japanese War

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after 1937, thus permitting American loans and arms to go to embattled China, but also resulting in even greater sales of petroleum and scrap metals to Japan until 1940. Nonetheless, it is possible that if FDR had spoken out more forcefully against Germany¶s occupation of the Rhineland in 1936, the takeover of Austria in 1938, and even the Munich Agreement to dismember Czechoslovakia, promises of further U.S. support might have emboldened the French, British, and possibly even the Soviet Union to stand firm against Hitler¶s demands. Instead of sacrificing his popularity with his abortive plan to ³pack´ the Supreme Court in 1937, the president might have issued a clarion call for rearmament and for hemispheric defense, much as he later asked for thousands of war planes in 1939 and two-ocean navy in 1940. Such a policy of massive military spending could have stimulated the economy, ended the depression, and encouraged potential allies. Expanded arms sales to the British and French might have prompted their military support of Czechoslovakia in September ± October 1938, in which case dissident officers within Germany¶s high command might have conspired to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime. Such as earlier turnaround would have required a different political strategy at home. Instead of wooing Midwestern isolationists such as Senators Gerald P.Nye, Robert M. La Follette, Jr., and George W. Norris, all of whom supported the New Deal but insisted on strict neutrality, FDR would have needed to cultivate Republican internationalists and Southern Democrats(several of whom he unsuccessfully tried to purge from the party in 1938 because of their opposition to the New Deal). The president belatedly adopted that very strategy in 1940 when he invited prominent Republicans Henry L. Stimson and Frank Knox into his Cabinet. By then, France had fallen, the swastika flew over most of Europe, Roosevelt was running for an unprecedented third

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term, isolationists were calling him a warmonger, and it was nearly too late for the United States to assert its influence in a world at war. President Roosevelt, sensitive to American sentiment against U.S. entanglement in Europe and sharing much of the pacifist loathing of war, responded haltingly to the ³hair-trigger time´ of the 1930s. His foreign policy at first fed appeasement. When Italy attacked Ethiopia, Roosevelt stated that the United States sought above all to avoid war. America would set a peaceful example for other nations to follow. He and Hull invoked the Neutrality Act, warned Americans not to travel on belligerent ships, and suggested a moral embargo against trade with the warring parties. Perversely, American businesses ignored the moral embargo and increased commerce with Italy, especially in oil. At the same time , European aggression in Africa sparked a ³great manifestation´ of African American protest. In addition to anti-Italian boycotts and petitions by black churchesto the pope, the black poet Langston Hughes composed a ³Ballard of Ethiopia´ in support of pan-African solidarity. In August 1936, the president gave a stirring speech at Chautauqua, New York, recalling World War 1: ³I have seen warI have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs I hate war.´ In January 1937, Roosevelt asked Congress for an arms embargo against Spain, Congress obliged, but the decision sparked considerable debate. It produced ³malevolent neutrality´ that worked against the ³Loyalists´ Republican government and in favor of Franco. In this case, many isolationists protested neutrality the sacrifice of Spanish democracy. They agonized: How can one be committed to both peace and liberty? Roosevelt and Hull chose strict neutrality, in essence backing feeble British-French efforts to contain the civil war and aligning themselves with the pro-Franco view of the Catholic hierarchy at home. Yet Roosevelt privately pondered ways to curb the aggressors.

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In July, when Japan plunged into undeclared war against China, Roosevelt favored China by not invoking the Neutrality Act, thereby permitting the Chinese government to buy and import American war goods. Then in October he delivered his famous ³quarantine´ speech, calling for the isolation of international lawbreakers. FDR also approached the British ambassador about a joint cruiser blockage against Japan and sent a naval officer to London for secret staff talks. Under Secretary of State Summer Welles also proposed a world conference on disarmament and international law in Washington, at which Roosevelt might quietly stiffen British diplomacy. Chamberlin gave FDR a ³douche of cold water´ and continued to pursue appeasement. The spectacular first-round knockout of Germany¶s Max Schmeling in June 1938 by the African boxing champion Joe Louis nonetheless temporarily thwarted Nazi plans to celebrate ³the innate superiority of the Nordic´ race. During the Czech crisis that autumn, President Roosevelt appealed for negotiations to head off war , telling Hitler that the United States had ³no political involvements in Europe and will assume no obligations in the conduct of the present negotiations.´ ³Good man,´ FDR cabled Chamberlin when he heard that the prime minister would go to Munich. Yet the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, combined with the Japanese terror in China, prompted the president to confess privately that Munich had failed and that Hitler was a ³pure unadulterated devil´ who must be stopped. Worried about the insidious effects of ³too much Eton and Oxford,´ FDR thought the British needed ³a good stiff grog, inducing not only the desire to save civilization but the continued belief that they can do it.´ In October 1938, Roosevelt asked Congress for $300 million for national defense. He encouraged the State Department and Senator Key Pittman the hard-drinking, gun-packing, incompetent chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, to lobby for the repeal of the arms

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embargo law. In November, the protest against Hitler¶s vicious persecution of the Jews, he recalled Ambassador Hugh Wilsonfrom Berlin and never let him return. That same month, FDR initiated a program to build more than 10000 warplanes per year, in order ³to have something to back up my words.´ He also secretly arranged for the French government to place orders for planes. In January 1939, Roosevelt again urged revision of the Neutrality Act so that it would not in effect ³give aid to an aggressor and deny it to the victim.´ The crash of the A-20 bomber in Los Angeles and FDR¶s garbled statement about America¶s frontier on the Rhine stalled this initiative. The president thus delayed until March the introduction of a bill specifically repealing the arms embargo, and throughout the spring he allowed the erratic Pittman to direct legislative strategy. Reluctant to fight against sizable political odds, FDR failed to lead at a critical time. In April he asked Hitler and Mussolini to refrain from attacking countries named on a list , but his request met open derision when Hitler repeated the countries one by one to a raucous Reichstag. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, by 12 to 11 vote, refused in July to report out a bill repealing the arms embargo, ³I¶ve fired my last shot,´ the president groaned, Not until November 1939- after Germany¶s conquest of Poland did Congress finally revise the Neutrality Act so that England and France, as belligerents, could purchase American arms on a cash and carry basis. Even in the fall of 1939,however, most Americans joined their president in wanting to avoid participation in World War 11.´ We cannot expectiu9 the United States to evolve quicker than we did, ³the British ambassador reported. By sending Summer Welles to Berlin, London, Paris, and Rome in the winter of 1940, FDR evidently thought there might be ³ one chance in a thousand´ of mediating a compromised peace. Hitler blitzkrieg in the west that spring killing any

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such possibility.

The Democratic Party platform of 1940, on which Roosevelt ran for an

unprecedented third term, reflected the American desire to avoid war but also to prepare for it. ³We will not participate in foreign wars, and we will not send our army, navy or air forces to fight in foreign lands outside of America except in case of attack.´ As in World War 1, because of their international interests, because U.S. power became intertwined in the war, because they gradually abandoned neutrality to aid the Allies, Americans once again found themselves risking major war. The interwar quest for world order and peace had failed; the Neutrality Acts had failed; independent internationalism had failed.(Thomas G. Paterson)

Works Cited
paterson, t. g. (2010). american foreign relation. boston: wadsworth, cengage learning.