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

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

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.” 

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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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/30/2015 - 10:54 am.

    I like it

    The “teaser” sentence is misleading. Saying, “…Rather, it seems to me that in the 70 years since World War I, 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.” leads the casual reader to conclude that “…the vast bulk…” likely includes World War II, which would be quite inaccurate. World War II would surely have turned out MUCH differently (see “The Man In The High Castle,” currently showing on a cable channel that I don’t get, but I read the book it’s based on…) had the U.S. not been involved and/or ramped up its military capability astonishingly during World War II itself. I’d argue there was nothing indecisive about either Germany’s or Japan’s defeat. If the sentence had said “…since World War II” instead of “…since World War I,” I’d have no problem with it.

    That said, however, I’m inclined to agree with the rest of the piece. Eisenhower’s warning, flagrantly ignored, about the corrosive power of the military-industrial complex seems more relevant and true every time I pick up a newspaper. Armaments sales not only drive our foreign policy in far too many cases, it’s simply unconscionable that weapons made in the U.S. – from NATO-sized bullets to F-15 fighter planes – have been sold, the profits pocketed by stockholders and careers made by employees whose function has been to design and build even better weapons, and have been all too quickly turned around and used AGAINST our own troops.

    Reinstating some form of the Neutrality Acts is not a bad idea. Of course, phrased as it is, with (I would hope) huge fines eviscerating the profits made by the sale of some weapons to countries and armed forces not at all friendly to our interests, adopting a form of the Neutrality Acts with the kind of teeth described is such a political non-starter that the laughter of various members of Congress, not to mention lobbyists for so-called “defense” contractors, would likely be heard all the way from Washington, D.C. to the west coast. It’s a great idea, but I don’t expect to live long enough to see any useful form of it put into practice.

    To supplement it, however, and as long as we’re dealing with the politically unlikely, I’d also like to see the “Defense” Department renamed to eliminate the Orwellian overtones it currently enjoys. Since the end of World War II, our wars have virtually never involved anything that normal citizens would recognize as defense. They’ve been offensive wars, fought overseas by volunteer forces against either minor states or, more recently, stateless forces we don’t even recognize as legitimate governments. Ordinary citizens have not been involved except through their wallets – to pay for the massive expense of overseas operations, logistics and technology (not to mention corporate profits) necessary to fight them. It ought to be called the War Department, as it was prior to and during World War II.

    Frankly, I’m all for going back to referring to armament manufacturers as “merchants of death.” Many thousands of innocent citizens in numerous countries would certainly agree, if they were still alive to do so.

  2. Submitted by Jeffrey Kolnick on 11/30/2015 - 11:55 am.

    You found a typo Ray

    I indeed meant in the 70 years since WWll.

  3. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/30/2015 - 12:11 pm.


    Mr. Schoch’s comment is spot on. I’d add that FDR devised “Lend-Lease” with Great Britain negotiating with JM Keynes, as a means of circumventing the Neutrality Act. Outright sales of the equipment and supplies needed by GB in 1940 were illegal under the Neutrality Acts, but not, as FDR put it, “lending your neighbor a hose to put out a fire.”

    It’s my understanding though that there is an existing Neutrality Act which prohibits people from the US “making war” against any country with the US is at peace. (Like the Abraham Lincoln Brigade did in the Spanish Civil War). The US was also officially a “neutral country” prior to entering the First World War. It was because Germany engaged in hostile acts of war against the US ships (and trying to foment Mexico into a war against the US) that the US declared War on Germany in 1917. I believe this policy of neutrality came from President George Washington’s policy of avoiding foreign entanglements. It was the basis for US isolationism too.

    But we are not living in the 1790’s or the 1930’s anymore and making it illegal for US manufacturers to sell armaments which often find their way into the hands of hostile parties is an entirely worthwhile proposition. Not that it will ever fly with our government which uses such arms sales as a primary component of foreign policy.

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