Neutrality Acts: Definition & History

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn about the Neutrality Acts of the 1930s, why they were passed, and how helpful they were in keeping the United States out of war. Then take the quiz and see how much you've learned.

Life in the 1930s

Do you remember going on road trips with your siblings? You were both in the back seat, and when one of you got bored, it was inevitable that a fight would start. Therefore, your parents made up rules - no talking, no crossing the middle point, anything to keep you from fighting. And it never worked. It didn't matter what your parents tried, you always ended up fighting about something.

The Neutrality Acts of the 1930s were a lot like that. The U.S. had been an important reason why the Allies had won World War I, but we hadn't wanted to get into the war. We didn't get anything out of it either - no land and no money. We were still isolationists at heart, happy to let the rest of the world fight its own wars, while we kept our soldiers at home.

In 1929, the world fell into the Great Depression, a time when jobs were scarce and every country had failing businesses and rising unemployment. People were angry, and they saw World War I as something they could be angry at. The rumor spread that businesses had manipulated us into the war, and books like War is a Racket and Merchant of Death supported them. When the Nye Commission came up with the same results, it was seen as a fact.

And if Americans hadn't wanted to be in World War I and had only been involved because of businesses, they wanted to make sure businesses never got the chance to bring them into a war again. Bring on the Neutrality Acts!

Neutrality Act of 1935

The first act was very broad and made it illegal to trade any war materials to a nation at war. President Roosevelt had wanted to make the embargo more selective, but Congress had seen how sending ships to just Britain and France during World War I had eventually brought them into the war. Congress also gave a warning that any citizen traveling on a ship at war did so at their own risk.

The U.S.S. Lusitania: A luxury liner sunk during World War I because it was carrying war materials, which brought the U.S. into the war

Neutrality Act of 1936

The second act kept everything from the first act, but also added that no U.S. business could loan money or give credit to a warring nation. It also worked to renew the first Neutrality Act, which expired after six months.

Neutrality Act of 1937

The act of 1937 added that any nation in a civil war was considered a warring nation. U.S. ships were also forbidden from bringing war materials to warring nations, and U.S. citizens were now restricted from traveling on the ships of warring nations instead of just being warned about it.

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