Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

The Militant, 4 October 1941

Walter Lang

Roosevelt and Neutrality

FDR Is Now Ready to Discard Legal Fiction of Neutrality

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 40, 4 October 1941, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Roosevelt administration, which has been neutral during this war neither in word nor in deed, is moving rapidly to liquidate the last remnants of the legal fictions embodied in the Neutrality Act, signed by Roosevelt in 1935, and revised in 1939 to include the “cash-and-carry” provision.

The first formal step in this direction was made on September 25, with the introduction by Senator McKellar of a resolution to repeal the Act altogether.

This move was foreshadowed by a press interview two days previously, in which Roosevelt declared his intention of securing drastic modification or outright repeal of the Neutrality Act to permit arming of American merchant ships and the use of ships under the American flag to transport materials of war to belligerents and to sail in war zones hitherto prohibited to American ship traffic.

One day after the introduction of the McKellar resolution, Collier’s magazine (October 4 issue) appeared with a well-timed article by Roosevelt, dealing with his views on the entire question of neutrality.

In this article, Roosevelt cynically refers to “our so-called “neutrality law” and declares that:

“Although I approved this legislation when it was passed originally and when it was extended from time to time, I have regretted my action.”

Roosevelt “Regrets”

This belated “regret” is as false as the pretense of neutrality which Roosevelt attempted to convey prior to the actual outbreak of the present war and during its early months.

For at no time has the Neutrality Act interfered with Roosevelt’s war plans. Rather, up to the present, the Neutrality Act has served a useful purpose to the pro-war Administration, by providing a cloak of peaceful intent behind which it might pursue its war preparations.

To understand the true role that the neutrality legislation has played in this sense, it is necessary to review the history of that legislation since 1935.

The outbreak of the Italo-Ethiopian War aroused the fears of the American people that we might once more be dragged into war by the methods of 1917. The people clamored for reinforced neutrality legislation. It was in response to this overwhelming mass sentiment that Congress was forced to enact; and Roosevelt to sign, the Neutrality Act of August 1935.

The outstanding feature of that Act was a provision making it unlawful to sell or transport instruments or materials of war to any nation designated as a belligerent by the President.

For Roosevelt to say now that he “regrets” his support for the Neutrality Act is plain bunkum, he knows full well he would never have been re-elected had he done otherwise.

First Step to War

But, as soon as war appeared imminent, in July 1939, Roosevelt projected the idea of repealing the arms embargo section of the Neutrality Act as his first move to whittle away the entire act. He made his proposal to a meeting in the White House of Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders, who, however, hesitated to accept the idea of the time because of the powerful anti-war sentiment of the voters.

It was not until November 1939, after war was actually raging in Europe, that Roosevelt succeeded in putting over this initial step leading to war. He was able to achieve this only by arguing that repeal of the arms embargo was in the interest of “true neutrality.”

Secretary of State Cordell Hull had presented this argument of Roosevelt’s as early as May 27, 1939, in a message to the Congressional committees on international affairs, in which he urged the repeal of the arms embargo and the enactment of the “cash-and-carry” law. Hull stated:

“The problem for us is not whether we shall help any foreign country or any group of foreign countries. Nor is it that of passing judgment upon or interfering with other peoples’ controversies. Rather, it is that of so conducting our affairs ... that we shall not become parties to controversies ... International law requires that the domestic measures adopted by a neutral shall be impartially applied to the contending parties in conflict.”

“True Neutrality”

Senator Barkley, chief administration whip, in urging adoption of the “cash and carry” revision of the Neutrality Act declared:

“Whether it be wheat, or corn, or tobacco, or shoes, or typewriters or tanks ... or anything that can be recalled by mind of man, it cannot be shipped to a belligerent nation or through a danger zone anywhere in the world in an American ship ... Because I want no war I am supporting and propose to vote for a measure which involves the greatest sacrifice ever made by any nation in history of mankind in order to avoid war.”

Roosevelt must admit even today that he was able to secure repeal of the arms embargo only by arguing that it would strengthen neutrality. Thus, in his Collier’s article, Roosevelt states:

“I recommend that, as steps toward real neutrality and toward prevention of American participation in the war, legislation should be adopted carrying out the ‘cash-and-carry’ principle, that is, providing that title to the merchandise should pass on delivery on this side of the ocean, that it should be paid for in cash by the belligerent purchasing it, and it should be carried away in the ships of the belligerent at its own risk. I also recommend legislation restricting the entry of American merchant vessels into war zones, preventing American Citizens from traveling on belligerent vessels or in danger areas, forbidding war credits to belligerent nations, regulating the collection of funds in this country for belligerents, and continuing the license system of governing imports and exports of arms and ammunitions.”

It was only by surrounding the repeal of the arms embargo by the “cash-and-carry” provisions and other measures supposed to safeguard against “incidents,” that Roosevelt was able to put over his first formal move toward participation in the war.

At that stage of the game, “cash-and-carry” was all that Roosevelt could hope to get. Only when the Allies’ cash was exhausted did he then propose to open the way” for credit, through the “Lend-Lease” bill passed in March 1941.

Moreover, the supply of war materials which the United States at that time could sell to the Allies was limited. The “cash- and-carry” measure, therefore, sufficed for the purpose of making these limited supplies available.

Evading the Law

As for the “carry” part of the act. the Administration proceeded to violate the law as soon as it was passed. The U.S. Maritime Commission at once approved the “sale” of American merchant ships to dummy “foreign” companies, which operated these ships under “foreign” flags, such as Panama. Nicaragua, etc. Even ships owned by the government and operated by the U.S. Maritime Commission evaded the restrictions of the Neutrality Act by this subterfuge.

A second means of evading the intent of the Neutrality Act was contained in the provision which gave the President authority to determine the zones in which American ships might or might not travel.

Thus, it has been possible for Roosevelt to continuously extend the sea areas in which American ships may travel. The Red Sea and the waters around Greenland and Iceland, originally declared war zones, are now open to American ships. By an “interpretation” of the Attorney General’s office on August 29, American ships are now permitted to go to such key points of the British Empire as Hong Kong, Burma and Suez, and to most of Ireland.

The grand strategy of the Roosevelt administration has been to pave the way gradually for the “incident” which will lead to war. The character of that “incident” is described by Roosevelt himself in his article:

“The incidents likely to lead to war would not generally come from the sale of war supplies in this country, but would be the loss of American ships or American lives or American property while they were in neutral or combat areas of war.”

No More Need for Legal Pretense

So long as it was a question of participating merely indirectly in the war, the legal fictions of the Neutrality Act offered no obstacles to the administration. Indeed, these fictions were useful to lull the American masses into a false sense of security regarding the dangers of being dragged into the war.

Now, however, Roosevelt wants to engage in the war in the direct sense, that is, through military participation. He wishes, therefore, not merely to circumvent the Neutrality Act, but to eliminate the no longer useful pretense of neutrality.

To do this, he must destroy the last illusory legal prop on which the masses have leaned in their belief that it would prevent American entry into the war. He must eradicate every obstacle which might delay speedy action once he decides to take the irrevocable step to war, a step he now contemplates taking.

For, in concluding his Collier’s article, Roosevelt speaks in these foreboding words:

“International events have happened so quickly within the last year, within the last few months, within the last few days, that it is impossible to tell exactly what the relationship of the United States and its people to this world conflict will be next week, or tomorrow, or, indeed, even before the ink on this page is dried.”

It is possible to tell. With the repeal of the Neutrality Act, or its major sections, with the subsequent legalization of the arming of American merchant ships and the use of these ships to carry goods to belligerents, there will shortly occur that “incident” which Roosevelt anticipates.

Thus, the inevitable “relationship of the United States ... to this world conflict,” as Roosevelt has planned it from the very outset, will be war.

Top of page

Main Militant Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 23 March 2019