The Secretary of State to the Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations (Pittman), United States Senate, WASHINGTON, May 27, 1939.


In harmony with the conversations I have had during recent weeks with you and other members of the appropriate committees of the two houses of Congress with regard to pending legislative proposals for modifying existing peace and neutrality legislation, I wish to offer the following comment.
These proposals are intended to aid in keeping the United States from becoming involved in war. They contemplate, primarily, a state of affairs in which relations in the world have ceased to be peaceful.

Our purpose must be, at all times, to endeavor to foster that state of relations among nations which will maintain the fabric of world peace. In pursuance of that aim we have done, and must do, everything possible within the limits of our traditional policy of noninvolvement in overseas affairs.
In considering the present proposals for legislation, we must keep in mind that, no matter how much we may wish or may try to disassociate ourselves from world events, we cannot achieve disassociation. The simple fact of our existence as a great nation in a world of nations cannot be denied; and the substance of the legislation adopted in this country inevitably influences not only this country, but also other countries. 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 in other people's controversies. Rather, it is that of so conducting our affairs and our relations with other peoples, both before and after the outbreak of war elsewhere, that we shall be more, and not less, secure; so that we shall not become parties to controversies; and so that our attitude and actions will encourage other people to avoid, rather than to become engaged in, controversy.

Because of troubled conditions with which we are all familiar, the Congress rightly is now considering the situation which might obtain were a state of war to develop between other nations. In such case the first concern of the United States is its own safety as well as the desire and intent, which all of us resolutely follow, to remain at peace.

In the event of a foreign war, we would be immediately faced with the problem of maintaining our neutrality.

When a war begins, that body of rules for the regulation of international relations which applies in time of peace becomes impaired. Under international law, the belligerent states then acquire certain rights which do not appertain to states at peace; and at the same time states which remain at peace become affected by a body of rules under which they have the rights and obligations of neutrals.

In considering whether legislative restrictions upon our freedom of action can advantageously be maintained or adopted to ensure against our being drawn into war, we should, in my opinion, avoid the error of assuming that provisions which are at the same time rigid and of universal application, will serve our interests satisfactorily in every situation which may arise. The course of world affairs is unpredictable. What we should try to do for the purpose of keeping this country out of war is to enact measures adapted to the safeguarding of our interests in all situations of which we can conceive and at the same time imposing a minimum of abnormal and unnecessary burdens upon our nationals and a minimum of disruption of our peaceful economic life.

I believe it is important that the legislation which may be enacted should conform, so far as possible, to traditional concepts of international law adhered to by this Government. International law requires that the domestic measures adopted by a neutral shall be impartially applied to the contending parties in conflict. It does not require that a neutral nation shall embargo any articles destined for belligerents.

If we go in for embargoes on exports, for the purpose of keeping ourselves out of war, the logical thing to do would be to make our embargo all-inclusive. Modern warfare is no longer warfare between armed forces only: it is warfare between nations in every phase of their national life. Lists of contraband are no longer limited to arms and ammunition and closely related commodities. They include not only those items which contribute toward making warfare possible, but almost every item useful in the life of the enemy nation. A nation at war is no less anxious to keep cotton or petroleum, or, indeed, any useful product, from reaching an enemy nation than it is to keep guns and airplanes from reaching the enemy's armed forces. I doubt whether we can help ourselves to keep out of war by an attempt on our part to distinguish between categories of exports. Yet a complete embargo upon all exports would obviously be ruinous to our economic life. It therefore seems clear that we should have no general and automatic embargo inflexibly and rigidly imposed on any class or group of exports.

Our conclusion that embargo on export of arms is undesirable is not new, and experience has confirmed our belief.

On August 31, 1935, on the occasion of his signing the Neutrality Act of 1935, the President made the following statement:

"The latter section (providing for an embargo of export of arms) terminates at the end of February 1936. This Section requires further and more complete consideration between now and that date. Here again the objective is wholly good. It is the policy of this government to avoid being drawn into wars between other nations, but it is a fact that no Congress and no executive can foresee all possible future situations. History is filled with unforeseeable situations that call for some flexibility of action. It is conceivable that situations may arise in which the wholly inflexible provisions of Section I of this Act might have exactly the opposite effect from that which was intended In other words, the inflexible provisions might drag us into war instead of keeping us out. The policy of the government is definitely committed to the maintenance of peace and the avoidance of any entanglements which would lead us into conflict. At the same time it is the policy of the government by every peaceful means and without entanglement to cooperate with other similarly minded governments to promote peace."

On November 6, 1935, I made the following statement with respect to neutrality legislation:

"Any discussion of the avoidance of war, or of the observance of neutrality in the event of war, would be wholly incomplete if too much stress were laid on the part played in the one or the other by the shipment, or the embargoing of the shipment, of arms, ammunition and implements of war.... To assume that by placing an embargo on arms we are making ourselves secure from dangers of conflict with belligerent countries is to close our eyes to manifold dangers in other directions. ... we cannot assume that when provision has been made to stop the shipment of arms, which as absolute contraband have always been regarded as subject to seizure by a belligerent, we may complacently sit back with the feeling that we are secure from all danger.

Our involvement in controversies is more likely to arise from destruction of American lives. In this regard we can effectively diminish our risks by keeping our nationals and ships out of areas in which there is special danger. The rights of our nationals under international law may properly be restricted by our own legislation along certain lines for the purpose of avoiding incidents which might involve us in a conflict. In indicating certain restrictions upon the exercise of our rights as a neutral I do not wish to be considered as advocating the abandonment of these, or indeed of any, neutral rights; but there is reasonable ground for restricting at this time the exercise of these rights.

For the reasons heretofore stated, it is my firm conviction that the arms embargo provision of the existing law should be eliminated. I furthermore believe that the most effective legislative contribution at this time toward keeping this country out of war, if war occurs, would be made by enacting or reenacting provisions on lines as follows:

To prohibit American ships, irrespective of what they may be carrying, from entering combat areas;
To restrict travel by American citizens in combat areas;
To provide that the export of goods destined for belligerents shall be preceded by transfer of title to the foreign purchaser;
To continue the existing legislation respecting loans and credits to nations at war;
To regulate the solicitation and collection in this country of funds for belligerents;
To continue the National Munitions Control Board and the system of arms export and import licenses.

Provisions on the suggested lines would, I think, help to keep this country out of war and facilitate our adherence to a position of neutrality. They would make easier our twofold task of keeping this country at peace and avoiding imposition of unnecessary and abnormal burdens upon our citizens.

Sincerely yours,


Source: U.S., Department of State, Publication 1983, Peace and War: United States Foreign Policy, 1931-1941 (Washington, D.C.: U.S., Government Printing Office, 1943, pp. 461-64

Return to Vinnie's Home Page

Return to Interwar Period Page