The Neutrality Act of 1939

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

Read all about the Neutrality Act of 1939, how the Germans inspired it and how it led to U.S. involvement in World War II. When you're done, take the quiz to see what you've learned.

A Little Background

After World War I, many Americans felt like they'd been manipulated into the fighting by businesses that had profited from the war. Several books came out over the next few years that only supported public opinion, and when the Nye Committee did an official investigation, it came to the same conclusion. The people of the U.S. didn't want to get into another war.

Beginning in 1935, Congress passed a series of Neutrality Acts. Each Act had their differences, but they were all designed to help the U.S. stay out of war by preventing the businesses from getting U.S. citizens in the line of fire. U.S. businesses were not allowed to sell to any nation at war because doing that might show favoritism. The Neutrality Act of 1937 had allowed a cash and carry policy but only because it limited the amount of arms a nation could buy and ensured that U.S. citizens would not be in danger as they shipped them. The last one came in 1939. The Neutrality Act of 1939 was the U.S.'s last attempt to keep the country neutral during World War II.

When War Gets in the Way of Neutrality

The Invasion of Poland, which inspired the 1939 Neutrality Act
Invasion of Poland

In 1939, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. Months later, it was Poland. Before the winter came, Germany had taken France and begun the Battle of Britain. With Italy as its ally in Europe and the Japanese already conquering the heavily populated cities of China, it was clear that World War II would not be the stalemate World War I had been. Without support, the British Isles would be conquered and Germany would control all of Europe while Japan might just conquer all of Asia.

The U.S. realized it had to give that support; otherwise, they would have to get involved in the war. The last Neutrality Act was an attempt to balance that support while retaining their neutrality.

The Specifics of 1939

In 1939, the cash and carry policy lapsed, and Roosevelt was unable to get it renewed. He invoked the Neutrality Act, making sure neither Germany and Japan nor Britain and France, could buy anything from the U.S. When Poland was invaded, though, Congress changed its mind. The Neutrality Act of 1939 again allowed the U.S. to sell war materials to warring nations on a cash and carry basis.

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