The Neutrality Acts were a series of legislation passed in the late 1930's designed to keep the United States out of "foreign" wars. They were a result of the widespread questioning of the reasons and subsequent results of America's participation in World War I. These acts, which differed from previous policy, limited the exercise of neutral rights as a way of protecting that neutrality. A basic characteristic of the acts was that they made no distinction between aggressors and victims of the aggression. Each of the sides in the dispute were labled as "belligerents."

The first of the Neutrality Acts was passed in August of 1935 after Italy attacked world renowned powerhouse, Ethiopia in May of the same year. It empowered the president, on finding a state of war, to declare an embargo on arms shipments to the belligerents and to announce that U.S. citizens travelling on belligerents ships were doing so at their own risk. The act however had no provision on the trade of materials that were useful during wartime, such as copper, steel, and oil. The act was replaced by the Neutrality Act of 1936 which added a provision that prohibited the extending of loans or credit to belligerents.

Along came the Spanish Civil War which broke out in 1936. It was not covered by the existing neutrality legislation which applied only to wars between nations.In January of 1937, Congress passed a joint resolution that banned the supplying of arms to either side. When the Neutrality Act of 1936 expired, it was replaced guessed it... the Neutrality Act of 1937.

The 1937 act included civil wars, empowered the president to add strategic materials to the embargo list and made travel by U. S citizens on "belligerents" ships unlawful. When Japan started messing around in China later in 1937, the difficulties of of maintaining neutrality became clear. Since invoking the Neutrality Act would hurt China, which was more dependent on U. S aid than Japan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided that the fighting going on was not really a "war" and aid to China could continue.

The Neutrality Act of 1939 contained what was called a "cash and carry" formula that was devised by Bernard M. Baruch. The premise was that "belligerents" would be permitted to buy American arms and strategic materials but they had to pay cash and transport the goods on their own ships. The thought was that this policy would prevent the United States from being dragged in to war since they would not be holding debt in the belligerent countries or violating blockades while transporting the supplies. In addition, the president was now empowered to designate certains area's as "combat zones" and forbid American ships and citizens to travel through said zones.

It all started to fall apart late in 1941. After repeated run ins with German submarines in the North Atlantic and the torpedoing of the destroyer Reuben James, Congress amended the act to allow merchant vessels to arm themselves and to carry cargo to belligerent ports. In December, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the rest, shall we say, is history.

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