On September 21, 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appears before Congress and asks that the Neutrality Acts, a series of laws passed earlier in the decade, be amended. Roosevelt hoped to lift an embargo against sending military aid to countries in Europe facing the onslaught of Nazi aggression during World War II.
In 1936 and 1937, the Neutrality Acts had been expanded to restrict the sale of arms and war materials during a period of isolationist sentiment. However, in 1939, the rising threat to democracy in Western Europe—and pro-democratic forces in China—spurred Roosevelt to ease these restrictions. FDR warned Congress that Europe was on the verge of descending into a second global conflict. During the address, Roosevelt described how countries such as Germany built up “vast armies and navies and storehouses of war…with growing speed and intensity,” while the U.S. had tried to remain neutral doing “all in its power to encourage peaceful settlements.” However, by 1939, Roosevelt had begun to weigh the benefits of American neutrality against the nation’s obligation to help democratic nations defend themselves against fascist, expansionist Germany and Italy. In his speech before Congress, Roosevelt said that American neutrality laws as they stood in 1939 may actually give passive “aid to an aggressor” while denying help to victimized nations.
Although the language of the proposed amendment technically stated that any country would be allowed to purchase arms and goods from a still neutral U.S., Roosevelt’s primary goal was to make it easier for the U.S. to supply arms to democratic Britain and France. The new provision prohibited American ships from transporting arms or war material, gave the president power to identify combat zones (primarily Atlantic sea lanes) from which American citizens would be restricted and made it illegal for U.S. citizens to travel on vessels from belligerent nations.
Congress finally agreed to the proposed changes on November 4, 1939. A year later, with Britain standing as the last bastion against Nazi aggression in Europe and with German U-boats threatening American shipping, the Neutrality Act was again amended to allow the arming of merchant vessels. In December 1941, the act was rendered moot by the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s subsequent entry into World War II.