President Roosevely when war broke out in Europe (September 1939) requested that Congress ease the arms embargo required by the Neutrality Act so that war material could be sold to the democracies (Britain and France) opposing Hitler. The debate over the repeal of the embargo provissions of the Neutrality Act was one of the most bitter since the gret debates over slavery in the 19th century. Roosevelt charged that the words of isolationists like Borah, Johnson, and Fish were being reported on the font pages of the NAZI press. Borah charged, "Our boys would follow our guns into the trenches." [Freidel, p. 323.] After the debate and arm twisting by Roosevelt, the embargo provision was repealed by a new Neutrality Act signed by the President on November 4, 1939. The Neutrality Act still had severe limitations. The Act permitted belligerents to purchase materials of war on a strictly cash and carry basis, but prohibited credit and banned American merchant ships from travelling in war zones designated by the President. Although worded neutrally, "cash and carry" at the time favored Britain and France. Their financial resources and control of the seas enabled them to buy war materials in the United States and transport them in their own ships. It was a marked a shift from isoloation to pro-Allied neutrality and extrenely dangerous politically for FDR withan election only a year away. The conditions were very strict, were to be no U.S. ships in war zone around British Isles, no loans to belligerents, no travel on belligerent ships, and no armed merchant ships. This was the best FDR could do for the Allies at the time. At least arms and munitions as well as other supplies could now be provided the Allies. Hitler hoped that the allies could be defeated before American supplies could make a difference. Here Hitler almost proved right.
The Congress passed the Neutrality Act and President Roosevely signed it into law August 31, 1935. It provided for a mandatory arms embargo "... upon the outbreak or during the progress of war between, or among, two or more foreign states, the President shall proclaim such fact, and it shall thereafter be unlawful to export arms, ammunition, or implements of war to any port of such belligerent states." It was passed for a 6-month period, but Congress continued to renew it. Thus the Act is generally referred to in the plural as the Neutrality Acts. It was first invoked against Italy when Musolini invaded Ethiopia (1936). It was not at first invoked in the Spanish Civil War until an aviation builder (Glen Martin) began to supply planes to the Spanish Nationalists (Franco). The law was made permanent in 1937, but an exemption was made for "cash and carry" purchases, meaning orders paid in cash and not transported on American vessels. As war loomed in Europe, a September 23, 1938, Gallup poll showed 73 prcent of Americans were in favor of maintaining a mandatory arms embargo.
A Douglas DB-7 bomber crashed in California on January 23, 1939. When it was revealed that a Frenchman injured, press reports reveal that FDR planed to sell advanced U.S. aircraft to England and France. One journalist charged that the U.S. frontier was now "on the Rhine".
Administration attempts to change provision of the Neutrality Acts run into Congressionl opposition, but public opinion polls show that American public opinion was beginning to change in 1939.
Adolf Hitler launched World War II by invading Poland (September 1). It is unclear to what extent he thought Britain and France would honor their commitments to Poland. They had backed down when Hitler threatened war over Czechoslovakia the previous year. There is rvery reason to believe that had he more respect for the Allies that it would have deterred him. It is known that he felt cheated at Munich. He saw himself as a great war leader and he did not get his war at the time. British and French diplomats attempted to disuade the NAZIs, but failed. As a result both coynties declared war on Germany (September 3).
President Roosevelt on September 5, 2 days after the British and French declaration of war, issued the neutrality proclamation required by the Neutrality Acts. He then imposed an embargp on all arms sales to beligerant powers also as required by the Nutrality Acts. The delay was an effort to allow arms to be shipped th Canada ans Allied ships laoded with arms to leave American ports. He had hoped to delay the proclamation a few more days, but complaints from isolationosts in Congress forced his hand. This meant American arms could not be shipped to the Allies as was done in World War I.
The isolation movement in America was still very strong, The national debate over neutrality and isolationism that had been raging since the mid-1930s reached its height during the 1940 election. The isolationists persisted after the election, bu the 1940 election was their best chance of defeating the President and reshaping American foreign policy. There were powerful spokesmen on both sides. Isolationist groups, such as the American Fist Committee, opposed any risks that could lead to war and shaply attacked the President's policies. International groups and an increasing number of average citizens demanded more active aid to Britain. When the year began, the merican public were still strongly isolationist. After the NAZI victories in the West, first Denmark and Norway (April); then the Netherlands, Luxenboutg, and Belgium (May); and finally France (June)--American public opinion began to significantly shift. Americans were not prepared to enter the War yet, but measures to strengthen national defense and aid Britain thatt the isolaionists had opposed were now being viewed much more favorably.
The outbreak of the War gave President Roosevelt added clout in his effort to repeal or modify the Neutrality Act. The President requested Congress to ease the arms embargo required by the Neutrality Act so that war material could be sold to the democracies (Britain and France) opposing Hitler. The President convened a special sesion of Congress (September 21). The day before he met with a bi-partisan group of 15 Congressional leaders. He explained to them, "The German press, if you have been following it day by day as I do, is displaying on the front page--this is in the family, there is no reason for not talking about it--every remark that Bennett Clark makes, that Borah makes, that Hiram Johnso makes, that Hamilton Fish makes ... and they display these statements ... as being pro-German. .... They are assuming that these statements ... are a definite recognition of the purity of German motives. .... And the things they are saying about the peoplevthat want to repealthe embargo is almost unprintable. We wouldn't put them even in a Hearst paper in this country." [Morgan, p. 512.]
President Roosevelt also told Congressional leaders on September 20, "This morning I got word that the Soviets sent word to the Communist Party in this country ... to do evrything in their power to prevent repeal of the embargo. Now that is straight from Moscow." [Morgan, p. 512.] The Soviets had been harassing American diplomats. An American public health surgeon refused to submit his personal affects to custms inspection and was not allowed to depart. U.S. officials refused to let a Soviet ship transit the Panama Canal. The Soviets denined long distance telephone assistance to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Diplomats had to go to the Moscow central telephone station. The President was for matching these inconviences. [Morgan, p. 512.}
The fight over the Neutrality Act unflolded over a month. The President focused his enenegy on the legislation. He met with undecided legislators, cojoling them to support modification. Vice President Garner was fully with the President on this issue and added his considerable legislative skills. The basic strategy was to shut down the Congress for anything except the Neutrality Act amendments. The President carefully crafted it to ensure that he could win Congressional passage. As always he was atuned to what could be achieved. Asking for more might have meant defeat. If the isolationists had retained two more senators, a filibuster would have been possible.
The debate over the repeal of the embargo provissions of the Neutrality Act was one of the most bitter since the gret debates over slavery in the 19th century. Some of the best known isolationists were Congressional Republicans, many well known senators. Roosevelt charged that the words of isolationists like Borah, Johnson, and Fish were being reported on the font pages of the NAZI press. Borah charged, "Our boys would follow our guns into the trenches." [Freidel, p. 323.] The isolationists repeated their caharge over and over that the President planned , "to send the boys of American mothers to fight on the battlefields of Europe". At the time the debate swirled around the President's contention that the best way to stay out of the War was to support the Allies. This seems unrealistic to us today, but before the defeat of the French Army (June 1940), this was still a possibility. The isolationist argument was that the President policies would lead American into the War. Some even argued that this was the President's plan all along. There is no evidence of this. In the long run, one of the isolationists was probably correct, "My quarrel is with this notion that America can be half in and half out of this war. .... I hate Hitlerism and Naziism and Communism as completely as any person living. But I decline to embrace the opportunistic idea--so convenient and so popular at the moment--that we can stop these things in Europe without entering the conflict with evcerything at our command, including men and money. There is no middle ground. We are either all the way in or all the way out." [Morgan, pp. 513-514.] What was clear to the President and unclear to the isolantionists was that if the Allies did not defeat the NAZIs, that America would eventually have to fight. And fighting the NAZIs without at least Britain and the Royal Navy would have been almost unthinkable.
An extensive national debate on the Neutrality Act ensued. The isolationists launched a major public opinion campaign. One sourse charges that it was partly financed by the NAZIs. I have no details on this. We do know that letters flooded into the Congress. The wording of many resembled the radio broadcasts of Father Coughlin. One of the most effective spokesman for the isolations was aviator Charles Lindbergh. He gave major addresses September 15 and October 13.
There were efforts to amend the law to weaken or slow down the measure. The isolationists had their best shot in the Senate because the powerful isolationist Senators might be able to block the measure with only one-third of the members. After the debate and arm twisting by Roosevelt, the embargo provision was repealed by a new Neutrality Act. Finally the Senate voted 63 to 30 to modify the Neutrality Act and delete the embargo on beligerents (October 27). [Morgan, p. 513]. The vote is not as lopsided as it seems. It was was just slightly over two-thirds, enough to defeat a fillibuster. The House follewed suit a few days later. The bill was signed by the President on November 4, 1939.
The Neutrality Act still had severe limitations. The Act permitted belligerents to purchase materials of war on a strictly cash and carry basis, but prohibited credit and banned American merchant ships from travelling in war zones designated by the President. Although worded neutrally, "cash and carry" at the time favored Britain and France. Their financial resources and control of the seas enabled them to buy war materials in the United States and transport them in their own ships. It was a marked a shift from isoloation to pro-Allied neutrality and extrenely dangerous politically for FDR withan election only a year away. The conditions were very strict, were to be no U.S. ships in war zone around British Isles, no loans to belligerents, no travel on belligerent ships, and no armed merchant ships. This was the best FDR could do for the Allies at the time. At least arms and munitions as well as other supplies could now be provided the Allies.
Historians debate the extent to which Hitler appreciated the potential threat from the United States. His statements suggest that he thought America to decadent and wakened by racial mixing to play an important role. It is unclear to what extent he really believed this. We suspect that he did think this way, but we note that until Pear Harbpr he exhibited considerable caution in dealing with the United States. He hoped that the Allies could be defeated before American supplies could make a difference. Here Hitler almost proved right.
This was annachievement of monumental proportions. There would be other fights with the isolationists. But this was a critical one. The Allies could now by arms and munitions in America. This had numeous advantages. It gave the Allies acces to America's vast industrial capacity. Allied purchases would also help expand America's war industry and thus expand American military preparations. It also placed America squarely in the Allied camp. There were also dangers. While not an act of war, supplying the Allies and not the Germans was a significant step toward war. The repeal was just a first step.
Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Rendezuous with Destiny (Little Brown: Boston, 1990), 710p.
Morgan, Ted. FDR: A Biography (Simon & Schuster: New York, 1985), 830p.
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