How the 1935 Neutrality Act Failed to Keep the U.S. Out of WWII

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the 1935 Neutrality Act on August 31 of that year, it was in the effort to keep the U.S. from repeating the errors of the First World War. In the end, Roosevelt would go down as the second president to make promises he couldn’t keep about world wars.

Before the end of 1937, Congress would pass a total of three such acts. None of them would stop the Japanese from bombing Pearl Harbor.

When the First World War began, the United States was not involved, not in the trenches, not with American soldiers. There were, however, munitions headed to the front lines.

Even way back then, the business of war was a money-maker, and the U.S., being a nation of capitalists, couldn’t resist.

World War One

When the Germans bombed the civilian ship, the RMS Lusitania, it was 1915. It was en route from New York to the U.K. at the time. The Lusitania sank in minutes off the coast of Ireland after the Germans torpedoed it.

The Germans insisted the ship carried munitions for the war. The U.S. denied the accusation, but they’d lied. Years later, the discovery of the wreck would prove this lie.

Despite killing 128 Americans aboard the Lusitania, the U.S. stayed neutral. It took two more years, the sinking of the Housatonic, and two other U.S. merchant ships for the U.S. to act.

In April 1917, President Wilson pressed Congress for a declaration of war under the auspices of defending democracy. Had the United States stayed truly neutral, meaning no arms supplied to the front, they might have avoided the conflict altogether.

This fiasco is what the United States, mostly Congress and the people, but eventually Roosevelt too, hoped to accomplish in 1935.

World War Too Much

From the time World War One ended, the voices in the United States in favor of isolation grew louder. It wasn’t only the people. Congress supported the president take action too.

The accusation on the table was that the greed of banks and munitions traders was what dragged the U.S. into that war.

Roosevelt didn’t initially support the act. After all, the U.S. was in a depression. Commerce was commerce. Money moving into the United States was exactly what he needed.

Still, public opinion mattered. Cooperation with Congress mattered too. Roosevelt had long-term plans for the recovery so he found his way onboard.

The Act

In plain English, these were the terms of the 1935 Act:

“Providing for the prohibition of the export of arms, ammunition, and implements of war to belligerent countries; the prohibition of the transportation of arms, ammunition, and implements of war by vessels of the United States for the use of belligerent states; for the registration and licensing of persons engaged in the business of manufacturing, exporting, or importing arms, ammunition, or implements of war; and restricting travel by American citizens on belligerent ships during war.”

Violation of the Act came with heavy fines, $10,000 or imprisonment. That’s almost $200-thousand in today’s money, a pittance for a large contractor today. Still, the dam held.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1937, Congress tightened the screws on the 1935 act, forbidding American from even traveling on ships carrying weapons, even non-U.S. ships.

The ’37 update also allowed the President to make exceptions for non-munitions to what they called “belligerent nations.” That way the United States could still profit from war without enraging the Germans.

Of course, it was all for naught once the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. For all the arguments between Roosevelt and Congress, the U.S. would still go to war.

Sources: history.state.govdigitalhistory.uh.edu