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Neutrality Patrols

1935 – 1941

With war clouds looming in Europe and saber rattling in the Pacific, the four Neutrality Acts of the late 1930s represented an effort to keep the United States out of “foreign” wars, an effort resulting in part from widespread questioning of the reasons for and results of America’s participation in WWI. A characteristic of the acts was that they made no distinction between aggressor and victim; both sides were simply characterized as “belligerents”.

The first Neutrality Act (August 1935), passed after Italy’s attack on Ethiopia in May 1935, empowered the president, on finding a state of war, to declare an embargo on arms shipments to the belligerents and to announce that American citizens traveling on belligerents’ ships did so at their own risk. This act set no limits on trade in materials useful for war, such as copper, steel, and oil. The 1935 act was replaced by the Neutrality Act of 1936 (February 29), which added a prohibition on extending loans or credits to belligerents.

The Spanish civil war, which broke out in July 1936, was not covered by existing neutrality legislation, which applied only to wars between nations; accordingly, Congress by joint resolution on 6 January 1937, forbade supplying arms to either side. When the 1936 law expired, the Neutrality Act of 1937 (May 1) included civil wars, empowered the president to add strategic materials to the embargo list, and made travel by American citizens on belligerents’ ships unlawful. The practical difficulties of maintaining neutrality became clear, however, when Japan’s incursions into China led to the outbreak of fighting there on 7 July 1937. Since invoking the Neutrality Act would penalize China, which was more dependent than Japan on American assistance, President Franklin D. Roosevelt chose not to identify the fighting as a state of war.

The Neutrality Act of 1939 (4 November) contained a “cash and carry” formula devised by Bernard M. Baruch. Belligerents were again permitted to buy American arms and strategic materials, but they had to pay cash and to transport the goods in their own ships. This provision, it was believed, would prevent the United States from being drawn into war either by holding debt in some belligerent countries or by violating blockades while transporting supplies. In addition, the president was empowered to designate a “combat zone” in time of war, through which American citizens and ships were forbidden to travel.

The 17 November 1941, after repeated confrontations with German submarines in the North Atlantic and the torpedoing of the destroyer Reuben James, Congress amended the act to permit merchant vessels to arm themselves and to carry cargoes to belligerent ports. But three weeks later, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States was at war.

The Coast Guard was instrumental in enforcing these acts. Once a Coast Guard aircraft spotted a belligerent vessel in U.S. waters, Coast Guard personnel boarded and inspected it. The inspectors were looking for weapons, since armed belligerent vessels were not cleared to enter port. Since belligerent vessels were also not allowed to transmit radio messages in U.S. ports, inspectors sealed radio transmitters. Almost 13,500 vessels were boarded between 1939 and 1941. Once the U.S. entered the war, a number of belligerent ships were interred in U.S. ports. In an unusual but legal move, the U.S. commandeered these vessels for use in local trade routes. Coastguardsmen boarded the vessels, removed their crews, and took charge of them.