On this day in 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Neutrality Act, or Senate Joint Resolution No. 173, which he calls an “expression of the desire…to avoid any action which might involve [the U.S.] in war.” The signing came at a time when newly installed fascist governments in Europe were beginning to beat the drums of war.
In a public statement that day, Roosevelt said that the new law would require American vessels to obtain a license to carry arms, would restrict Americans from sailing on ships from hostile nations and would impose an embargo on the sale of arms to “belligerent” nations. Most observers understood “belligerent” to imply Germany under its new leader, Adolf Hitler, and Italy under Benito Mussolini. It also provided the strongest language yet warning other countries that the U.S. would increase its patrol of foreign submarines lurking in American waters. This was seen as a response to Hitler’s March 1935 announcement that Germany would no longer honor the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which prohibited Germany from rebuilding her military; he had then immediately stepped up the country’s submarine production.
Although the legislation stated that the U.S. intended to stay out of foreign wars, Roosevelt insisted that the country could not foresee future situations in which the U.S. might have to amend its neutral stance. Noting that “history is filled with unforeseeable situations that call for some flexibility of action,” Roosevelt contended that the law would not prevent the U.S. from cooperating with other “similarly minded Governments to promote peace.” In other words, he left plenty of room for America to change its mind regarding the sale of arms to friendly countries and gave it the right to exercise options to protect her own safety. This came to pass in March 1941, when the passing of the Lend-Lease Act increased America’s military exports to the British in order to help them fight off Hitler’s advance toward England.