The state of a nation that takes no part in a war between two or more other powers.
Since the nineteenth century, INTERNATIONAL LAW has recognized the right of a nation to abstain from participation in a war between other states. In an international war, those taking no part are called neutrals. This means that a neutral state cannot provide assistance to the belligerents, the principal hostile powers, or to their allies, who cooperate and assist them.
The law of neutrality that emerged from the nineteenth century was codified in several of the Hague Conferences of 1907, including No. 3, Convention Relative to the Opening of Hostilities (requiring notice to neutrals of a state of war); No. 5, Convention Respecting Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers and Persons in Case of War on Land; and No. 11, Convention Relative to Certain Restrictions with Regard to the Exercise of the Right of Capture in Naval War.
Once a state decides on a position of neutrality, it must take steps to prevent its territory from becoming a base for military operations of a belligerent. It must prevent the recruiting of military personnel, the organizing of military expeditions, and the constructing, outfitting, commissioning, and arming of warships for belligerent use. A neutral state is under no obligation to prevent private persons or companies from advancing credits or selling commodities to belligerents. Such sales are not illegal under the international law of neutrality. A neutral state may, if it chooses, go beyond the requirements of international law by placing an embargo upon some or all sales or credits to belligerents by its nationals. If it does so, it has the obligation to see that legislation, commonly referred to as neutrality laws, is applied impartially to all belligerents. Once enacted, neutrality laws are not to be modified in ways that would advantage one party in the war.
For most of its history, the United States tried to remain neutral during the wars among European states. President GEORGE WASHINGTON issued a neutrality proclamation in 1793 after the outbreak of war between France and the European allies. Congress enacted its first neutrality law in 1794 (1 Stat. 381), which prohibited private individuals from accepting a foreign military commission, outfitting military vessels for a foreign state, or enlisting or hiring persons for the service of a foreign state.
This legislation proved generally effective in accomplishing its objectives, but it did not deter citizens who wished to support revolutionary belligerent or insurgent movements in South and Central America during the nineteenth century. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the counterrevolution that followed led to the trafficking in arms and ammunition across the border. In response, Congress enacted, in 1912, its first arms embargo (37 Stat. 630), a prohibition not required by international law. It authorized the president, upon finding that conditions of violence in an American country were promoted by procurement of arms or munitions of war in the United States, to prohibit further export of them.
With the rise of international conflicts around the world in the 1930s, Congress passed the Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936, and 1937 (49 Stat. 1081, 49 Stat. 1152, 50 Stat. 121). These laws required registration and licensing by a National Munitions Control Board of all persons trading in munitions and a mandatory embargo on the export of arms, ammunition, and implements of war, and on loans and credits to all belligerents or to neutrals for transshipment to belligerents. An embargo would take effect when the president found a state of war to exist.
The desire of the United States to remain neutral has been called isolationism. During the 1930s the U.S. public did not want the United States entangled with the international strife perpetrated by Italy, Germany, and Japan. In 1935, President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT invoked the arms embargo provision after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and the consequent war. With the outbreak of the European war in 1939, limiting the conflict by an arms embargo was no longer possible. Although isolationist sentiment was strong, there was also a growing feeling that the Allies needed support against Nazi aggression. The Roosevelt administration, with some difficulty, secured the repeal of the arms embargo in the Neutrality Act of 1939 (22 U.S.C.A. § 441). Because this repeal could work to the advantage only of Great Britain and France, it was a deliberately non-neutral act.
The United States remained a neutral state before its entry into WORLD WAR II in December 1941, yet it took actions that undermined its status. In 1940, the United States entered into an agreement for the transfer of 50 old destroyers to Great Britain in exchange for leased naval and air bases in British islands off the Atlantic coast of the United States. Congress took a further step in the LEND-LEASE ACT of 1941 (55 Stat. 31) by agreeing to provide munitions, food, machinery, and services to Great Britain and the other Allies without immediate cost, thus eliminating their difficulty in finding dollar credits for purchases. Later repayment could be made in kind or property or other acceptable benefits. Under the Lend-Lease Act, the United States made huge shipments before and after entering the war.
Following the passage of the Lend-Lease Act, the United States became increasingly involved in direct military assistance, permitting U.S. merchant ships to transport war materials to the Allies, using U.S. pilots to deliver bombers to Canada and Britain, and using naval vessels for a "neutrality patrol" in the Atlantic that assisted in protecting belligerent convoys against submarines.
Much of the 1939 act remains in force (22 U.S.C.A. §§ 441–457), including the president's authority to find and proclaim a state of war, prohibition of travel by citizens in belligerent ships, and prohibition of financial transactions by persons in the United States with belligerents or solicitation or collection of contributions for a belligerent except for humanitarian purposes. The authority for an arms embargo, which was revoked in 1941, has not been reinstated. Sales by U.S. individuals and companies are governed by the international law of neutrality, unless Congress enacts a specific embargo provision.
In the post–World War II era, the U.S. government has committed several neutrality violations. Its conduct was less than disinterested and neutral in the overthrow of the Guatemalan government in 1954, in its sponsorship of the Bay of Pigs military expedition against Cuba in 1961, in its intervention in the civil war in the Dominican Republic in 1965, and in its aid to those who overthrew the Salvador Allende government in Chile in 1973.
Congress did enact the Arms Export Control Act of 1976 (22 U.S.C.A. §§ 2751–2796c [1989 Supp.]), which was designed to restrict the transfer of arms to nations that support international TERRORISM. The IRAN-CONTRA AFFAIR that emerged as a political scandal in President Ronald Reagan's administration involved violations of this act. The transfer of arms to Iran, a nation that supported terrorism, and the financial and military support of a right-wing revolutionary group in Nicaragua violated congressional legislation and, in the case of Nicaragua, thwarted the desire of Congress to remain neutral in the conflict.