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Given what’s happening to U.S. weapons abroad, maybe we should reconsider the Neutrality Acts

It seems to me that since World War II, the vast bulk of wars that the U.S. has been directly involved in have either ended indecisively or have not been decided at all by a preponderance of military power.

In May 2015, ISIS captured more U.S. weapons in Ramadi, including at least 100 M1A1 tanks.
REUTERS/Saad Shalash

We have commemorated many anniversaries in 2015, not the least of which were the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the 150th commemoration of the end of the Civil War, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the dawn of the nuclear age, and the 50th anniversaries of the Voting Rights Act and the escalation of the American War in Vietnam. It was also the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, and the start of the first Gulf War. Significantly, 2015 also marks the 100th anniversary of a year of savage fighting during World War I. In that year we saw more than 1 million killed, the introduction of poison gas and unrestricted submarine warfare, and the start of the Arminian Genocide.

Jeff Kolnick

In this year of significant anniversaries I wish to focus on a lesser known event: It was 80 years ago that Congress passed the first Neutrality Act. There were three Neutrality Acts in all. The first prohibited, as the State Department’s Office of the Historian puts it, “the export of ‘arms, ammunition, and implements of war’ from the United States to foreign nations at war and requiring arms manufacturers in the United States to apply for an export license.” This act was renewed and extended to prohibit loans to belligerent nations. The second Neutrality Act, passed in 1937, forbade Americans “from traveling on belligerent ships, and American merchant ships were prevented from transporting arms to belligerents even if those arms were produced outside of the United States.” And the third, passed in 1939, “put all trade with belligerent nations under the terms of ‘cash-and-carry.’ The ban on loans remained in effect, and American ships were barred from transporting goods to belligerent ports.” 

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Those unfamiliar with the Neutrality Acts might be surprised by their scope, popularity, or simply that they became law. After all, the United States is the No. 1 arms dealer in the world, and after our own military, among our best customers are nations that are at war. Perhaps even more surprising, the Neutrality Acts were the last of a series of peace measures that followed the horror of World War I. In 1921-1922, in an effort to reduce tensions in the Pacific, the United States joined in the Washington Naval Conference that called on the U.S. to reduce the size of its Navy and stop the construction of capital ships. In 1928, the U.S. Secretary of State and Minnesotan Frank B. Kellogg led the way in developing the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which renounced war as an instrument of national policy. 

The Nye Committee

One of the high points of this anti-war activity was the Senate Munitions Committee. Better known as the Nye Committee, after North Dakota Republican Sen. Gerald Nye, the hearings began in 1934. With the spread of militarism and anti-democratic regimes in Europe and elsewhere, Americans feared a new war was brewing. A 1934 book by H.C. Engelbrecht and F.C. Hanighen, called “Merchants of Death,” became a catch phrase for the committee’s findings. Believing that the combinations of loans and arms sales to the British and French helped give the United States a stake in who won The Great War, thus leading to the U.S. entry in 1917, Nye promised that “when the Senate investigation is over, we shall see that war and preparation for war is not a matter of national honor and national defense, but a matter of profit for the few.”  To a large degree, the Neutrality Acts followed from the finding of the Nye Committee.

Many people look back at these peace initiatives as misguided. They point to the rise of Japanese militarism in the Pacific and fascism in Europe as evidence that the U.S. should have been more engaged with the world and also as proof that only a ready military and armed allies can keep American safe from a violent world. Setting aside the rather robust diplomacy that characterized U.S. foreign policy in the 1920s and 1930s, we are left with a track record of war since 1918 that calls into question this assumption.

The entire rejection of the peace movement of the interwar years is premised on the tragedy of World War II. It is important to remember that the United States and its Allies won that war, and it is hard to imagine the war going much differently had the U.S. not agreed to the Kellogg Briand Pact or signed on to the Washington naval agreements or rejected the Neutrality Acts. Rather, it seems to me that in the 70 years since World War II, the vast bulk of wars that the U.S. has been directly involved in have either ended indecisively or have not been decided at all by a preponderance of military power. Indeed, recently, U.S. weapons have been turned against American service men and women, making this an opportune time to reconsider some of the ideas behind the Neutrality Acts.

Often weapons end up in wrong hands

The U.S. decision to arm “moderate” forces around the world, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or elsewhere has not turned out well. Often, U.S. allies take our weapons and then abandon them or simply hand them over to terrorist groups. In 2014, when ISIS overran the Iraqi city of Mosul, they came into possession of some $656 million of armored Humvees, tanks, howitzers, machine guns and ammunition. In May 2015, ISIS captured more U.S. weapons in Ramadi, including at least 100 M1A1 tanks. In response to this, the U.S. is sending more U.S. weapons to Iraq. For our present-day merchants of death, this seems like a pretty good business.

In light of this, I have a modest proposal based on the Neutrality Acts. In the event that U.S. weapons fall into the hands of terrorists or known enemies of the United States, I propose that all of the revenue generated from selling and shipping the weapons (including the cost of production) will be reclaimed by the U.S. government and used to improve veteran’s benefits. In the event that any U.S. weapons are used against American service men and women or are used in a terrorist attack that leads to the death of an American citizen, any U.S. companies involved in the manufacturing and shipping of those weapons will pay a fine equal to the value of all of the weapons captured and the cost of shipping. The fines collected will be used rebuild American public infrastructure with a hiring preference for U.S. veterans.

Fifty-two years ago, Minnesotan Bob Dylan recorded his masterpiece “Masters of War.” Dylan’s song remains relevant today and so do the Neutrality Acts. 

Jeff Kolnick is a professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minnesota.

Correction: In an earlier version of this commentary, “World War II” was intended in the paragraph reference “in the 70 years since …, ” not World War I.


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