Can Impartial Neutrality Be Maintained:


By ELBERT D. THOMAS, United States Senator from Utah Broadcast over a nation-wide network of The National Broadcasting Company, arranged by The Washington Star,September 11, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. 5, pp. 743-746.

SINCE the first Neutrality Act of 1935 became a law its embargoing provisions have been invoked three times. Had the Italian-Ethiopian War continued for a long period and had the attempt to put sanctions upon Italy become general, the American embargo might have complemented the League's sanctions, giving the theory of embargo a test as a war stopper. In the Spanish Civil War some of the strongest supporters of the Neutrality Acts advocated the raising of the embargo when it seemed to be working too much to the advantage of one side. In the Italian-Ethiopian case many persons charged that the act was a "green go" right for Mussolini. But the facts do not bear this out, as the things embargoed Italy had plenty of and Ethiopia could not have purchased from us amounts of sufficient quantityand have got them in time to have affected greatly the outcome. In the Chinese-Japanese War the Neutrality Act has not been invoked. Our actual experiences, therefore, have kept the discussion about America's Neutrality Acts since 1935 in the realm of theory.

Now today America finds herself because of the major aspects of the present war, in regard to the Neutrality Act, in the realm of fact; yet there seems to be but a hazy appreciation of what the realm of fact means. For example, while the President has invoked the Neutrality Act against all of the nations at war in Europe, the act remains uninvoked against the states in Asia. And in addition to that when once war was definitely started in Europe, the President found it necessary to declare our neutrality first under theordinary rules of international law and war, and then to issue a second proclamation in accord with the provisions of the 1937 Neutrality Act. Thus the fact that America is operating as a neutral does not lessen the complications in regard to theory.

America finds herself aligned now with other neutrals, neutrals with various shades of meaning and neutrals for different reasons, each interpreting its neutral duties in a different way. For example, as of today, or I had better say as of the day I dictated this paragraph, because changes are moving so rapidly that one must speak only for the moment, Russia, Italy and Japan all have a neutral standing along with us, yet none of these three states has anything like our neutrality law. More significant even than that is the fact that all of them have or have had certain very binding agreements with Germany, agreements which now seem to lack definiteness on which to place or venture an opinion on tomorrow's stand. Then we have the neutrality of such a state as Switzerland. Switzerland's neutrality is a forced one. So essential to Switzerland's very existence is her neutrality stand that even with her neutrality recognized by all she has found that the presence of the League of Nations and its radio station are probable sources of embarrassment.

The Scandinavian states, the lowland states, the Baltic republics, along with the Balkan states, have all declared their neutrality. Certain South American states have taken action. According to newspaper reports, Argentine, Brazil and Chile seem determined to remain neutral in the European war even if the United States should become a party to that war. This is an extremely interesting declaration in the light of what certain South American states did in the last war after we entered it, when they refused to stand on their rights and duties as a neutral as far as the United States was concerned. This action, too is interesting from the standpoint of our own Neutrality Act, because in it we have declared that the Neutrality Act shall not apply to an American republic or republics unless such a republic or republics are co-operating with a non-American state in a war. For these and other reasons it is difficult indeed to put definite exactness into the meaning of "neutrality" as that word is now used in the world and for that matter in the United States.

America's Neutrality Act has behind it definite objectives and these objectives are worthy in every sense. They were expressed at their very best at the time of the discussion of the Neutrality Act of 1935 when our Democratic leader, the late Senator Joe Robinson, uttered the sentence, "We want no war, and we want no profits from war." After four years of neutrality legislation I am convinced that the American people want two things, as these wants are expressed in our present Neutrality Act. First, they desire to reduce as much as possible the danger of any war profits which might involve us in a war, for few Americans want to see America involved in war, and, second, the average American wants to see Americas economic and moral forces kept in a position so that she may not be a contributor to war or the war-maker, but so that she may be able to use her moral and economic forces for peace in the world when the time for making peace comes. There are, of course, tremendous differences of opinion about how best to accomplish these objectives. America's task today then is to produce the type of unity which will cause her to remain uninvolved and at the same time contribute to the promotion of peace and to the limitation of the war area. We shall soon see whether our Neutrality Act is an aid or a hindrance in the accomplishment of these desires.

The actual working out of the Neutrality Act will furnish the factors making for change or the retention of the actas it is. Upon these factors, too, will depend the nature of the President's recommendations in connection with a special call. Those of us who are members of the Foreign Relations Committee are asked two questions by a half a dozen reporters every day. First, "Will there be a special session?" and second, "Will you vote the same way next time as you did last?" After an actual working of the Neutrality Act the recommendations will of necessity be based upon actual facts and not upon theory as were the last suggested amendments. There is a vast difference between considering an act before the outbreak of war and before the act's invocation and after a major war comes into existence and the act has been invoked. Now Congress and the President will act in the face of facts, not of theories.

If we can remain objective at all times, unimpulsive in our thinking, if we can live down slogans and the effects of words of uncertain meanings, upon our actions America can remain out of the war regardless of how severe it may become. America can still maintain, not in the absolute, but generally speaking, all of her neutral rights, but we will maintain our neutral rights longer if we stress our neutral duties and if we sincerely live in accordance with those neutral duties that are now devolved upon us. Those duties are rather definite.

The President's two proclamations, the Neutrality Act and the President's Sunday night radio talk have all contributed to showing us what are our duties. Nothing will be gained by any one either within the United States or without if America finds herself involved in war. The good that can possibly come to the world as a result of restored peace will of necessity be the good that will come as a result of a good peace. The more neutrals there are in the world when the time for making peace comes the better will be the thinking of the world and the force of the objective thinking will be able to temper the impulses of both the victor and the vanquished.

At the end of the World War, due to the fact that all of the great nations had entered the war, the peacemakers and their peoples were caught between two emotions—one to punish and the other to build a new world order. So strong were these conflicts that it was deemed necessary to join in one document both the punishing elements and the constructive plans. This made universal support for the whole document impossible and caused those who really opposed but a part to oppose the whole. Next time may the neutral force in the world be so strong and so aloof that the victor-vanquished settlements may be confined to those limited problems and the constructive planning for world peace be left to nations at peace planning for a peace which will be upbuilding for all, not a peace made by victors.

Now, every one is interested in the test of our Neutrality Act. If it has defects and therefore needs amendment, those defects will be shown very quickly. The act implies a neutrality based upon the theory of impartiality. I have always held that, while American law always assumed this and text writers have maintained that neutrality meant impartiality, this could not be. First, because impartiality could never be obtainable. Neutrality can be proclaimed and lived up to, but try as we will impartiality, even though proclaimed, can never be lived up to. If two nations are contending and a neutral does nothing the effect of inaction is to aid the stronger of those two nations. If the neutral acts in an impartial way and treats each in exactly the same way the effect still is to aid the stronger. If the neutral takes sides he, of course, is not impartial.

Let us make our illustration even simpler: Two men are fighting to the death on a desert. One gains all the water,the other has none. You, a neutral, come along with plenty of water. You say this fight does not concern you because you are a neutral and you stand on your neutral rights and do nothing. From the standpoint of the law of neutrality you have done no wrong, but you have not been impartial. You know that the withholding of the water from the one has meant his certain death and victory for the other.

Therefore, impartial neutrality in a practical sense is utterly impossible. That which is impossible in fact is very poor substance on which to base a rule of law. To the extent that our neutral stands have been based upon impartiality they have been weak. When we have taken the position that neutrality means remaining aloof from war upon the theory that a nation that does not fight has rights in the world that belligerents or war cannot destroy, we have been strong in our neutrality and no one has made war on us because of that stand. Nations at war are busy with actual enemies. They do not deliberately attempt to turn neutrals into enemies.

Let's keep our thinking straight. Just because one nation attacks another and war begins, the warring states do not thereby gain all the rights to the whole earth. Neutrals still have rights and they still have duties. One of these rights is to protest wrong-doing and advantage-taking wherever it exists. You cannot be impartial if one combatant only commits the wrong. A referee in the prize ring must be neutral, and his neutrality makes him impartial as long as both fighters are fair, but when one fouls, the referee must still remain neutral, he has no right to take part in the fight, but he need not be impartial and declare the fight a draw just because one man fouls. Without changing one bit his neutral position he penalizes the wrong-doer. His neutrality is preserved but his impartiality has gone. The rights of both fighters and the referee are all preserved. A neutrality that demands an impartiality calls for a dulling of every moral impulse. It insists upon erasing the line between good and evil. That is asking too much. That reduces a neutral to an unbearable impotence. A neutral has a right to stand for something in the world, not for nothing. If neutrality means a crushing of world morality it is better that we take sides and fight, because fighting for a right is better than passive submission to a wrong.

Neutrality is a matter of degree. Take, for example, the different theories expressed today about Italy's neutrality— is Italy's neutrality today to the advantage of Germany, Italy's ally, or is it to the advantage of Germany's enemies? Thus, if we answer the question we discover that neutrality must rest upon some other reason than that of a desire to be impartial. That reason may be an entirely selfish one on the part of a neutral just to avoid war. It may be, as many have expressed the American neutrality to be, an action on the part of a great neutral, which will discourage war in the world. Our most consistent stand is one based on morality, a morality which recognizes that we have rights which even belligerents must respect, a morality which recognizes that even belligerents have rights, which makes it our duty to respect those rights; a morality, too, which entitles us to condemn wherever we see wrong doing and even punish that wrong doing if need be by any action short of war. That, I am sure, is the true American stand.

A condemnation of a wrong-doer has never brought war. When the nations of the world, through the agency of the League of Nations, attempted to impose sanctions on Italy in accordance with the theory that economic pressure could stop war, Mussolini started the cry that sanctions meant war. But sanctions did not mean war. Mussolini did not go to war against any state that imposed those sanctions, but Mussolini wiped out of existence the little state of Albania, whichrefused to vote sanctions. Thus, sloganized thinking and historical fact are very different propositions.

The test of the American Neutrality Act will come out of uncertainties in administration of the act, not from emotional reactions about theory. If we should ultimately find ourselves in war, that action will come as a result of emotional reaction, because of a sense of outraged justice. That is an emotional deduction. That will be action of impulse without deliberating over all the factors and weighing all the costs. I do not think that America will ever modify the Neutrality Act because she will deliberately want to take sides. If we get into that frame of mind we will go to war without modification of the Neutrality Act. But the circumstances about the administration of the Neutrality Act will furnish the stimulus for the act's modification. For example, when we see the inconsistency of not allowing the sale of a shell to a belligerent but allowing the shipment of all that goes into that shell, when we see that we cannot sell gun-cotton to a belligerent but that we can sell all the raw cotton which can be converted into gun-cotton, we will readily see these inconsistencies in the act.

When the inconsistencies are discovered the stage is properly set for a modification of the act, but immediately comes another factor which may be a controlling one and which shows how a notion of impartiality must fall. Can you change the rules of the game after the game has started? If it is to the advantage of one belligerent to change the rules, and to the disadvantage of another belligerent to change the rules, will the modification be an impartial act?

Another test of our Neutrality Act which may bring the necessity for a modification will be a changed world situation. When the Neutrality Acts were passed, America attempted to write her part for the war drama assuming that her part could fit into any stage-setting that might be brought about. It is the mandatory provision in the act that does this. Can our part be the same in a great war where the belligerents are many score and the neutrals are few, as it is in a war where the belligerents are two or three and the neutrals are many score? Can our neutrality be the same when there are two distinct wars being carried on, one in Asia and one in Europe, as it is when there is one world war? When the line-up of belligerents and neutrals is constantly changing, as it probably will, can our Neutrality Act remain static while everything it affects or is affected by it is in a state of flux? These are the types of questions which should make us thoughtful about the conditions facing us under the present circumstances.

Due the fact that there has been since 1935 much discussion about the Neutrality Acts and our remaining out of war as a result of them, persons have become confused. With a major war in Europe we would have been operating as we are today as a result of a neutrality proclamation even if there were no 1937 Neutrality Act on the statute books. We have the status of a neutral as the result of the existence of the law of nations, and the President's proclamations are in accordance with long-standing precedents and such acts as those of 1909, 1917 and 1937. If the people of the United States wish to remain neutral, they can do so as long as they wish. America remained neutral from August, 1914, to April, 1917, nearly three years, during the World War. If our ultimate entrance into the World War was a mistake, as many today insist, we should study our history from 1914 to 1917 and avoid the mistakes that led us into the war.

History viewed objectively will contribute greatly to an appreciation of the problems which will face our Nation as a neutral. It is our nature to wisecrack. Our language and

our life invite it. We say "the Constitution is what the judges say it is" and "that history is what the historians say it is." Both statements are pretty. They can be acceptably used to cover vast ignorance even though they were originally uttered by the most learned. Any one who wants to understand our Government's neutral problems today should study the history of 1914-15-16 and 17. Objective study will show that we can remain neutral, maintain our neutral rights, live up to our neutral duties if we have a mind to. Study, too, will show that America is more united in opinion today than she was in 1914, but President Wilson's neutrality proclamation received the same whole-hearted support from all our citizens in August, 1914, as President Roosevelt's did today. Even ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, who later so strongly took sides and urged in the strongest terms that America should enter the war on the side of England and France, wrote during the first weeks of the war, "Of course it would be folly to jump into the gulf ourselves, and to no good purpose, and very probably nothing that we could have done would have helped Belgium. We have not the smallest responsibility for what has befallen her." (Outlook—September 23, 1914.)

Let us review the first days of the 1914 World War and our neutrality then. We will find much that is the same; still we will see a great difference. Then we assumed a European war was, after all, not of our concern. Today we may assert that but we know it is hardly true. The real truth in each case is and was that war anywhere is of universal concern. Peace, too, must be of universal concern. Regardless of what any one may think or hope, the world is a unit in more ways than in its purely physical one.

Today no one expects any one to be neutral in mind and thought One Nation-wide poll on who is responsible for the present war shows that 82 per cent of our people hold one side responsible. That does not give great promise for impartiality.

In 1914, President Wilson, two weeks after issuing his neutrality proclamation, said: "The United States must be neutral in fact as well as in name during these days that are trying men's souls. We must be impartial in thought as well as in action, must put a curb upon our sentiments as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a prefer-

ence of one party to the struggle above another. My thought is of America—a Nation that neither sits in judgment upon others nor is disturbed in her own councils, and which keeps herself fit and free to do what is honest and disinterested and truly serviceable for the peace of the world."

But proclamations and speeches do not alter facts. They are powerless when it comes to changing men's opinions. The people of our country were not "impartial in thought." Still they remained "neutral in fact" as far as actions were concerned for nearly three years. They stood on their rights and they condemned the wrong-doer. And while standing as a neutral their condemnation of a wrong did not take them into war. Had it done so we would have fought on both sides.

American neutrality has not been an unchanging thing from Washington's first neutrality proclamation to the present. It has grown and developed or it has become weak and supine, according to the emphasis. Sometimes neutral rights have been stressed, at other times neutral duties. There is an ocean of distance both in theory and fact between Jefferson's notion that it was not the function of the Government to interfere with the economic affairs of the people and that as many people made their living in manufacturing arms their sale should not be prohibited and the 1937 Neutrality Act. From the beginning to the present the American tendency has been to interpret neutrality to mean impartiality and to withdraw all moral judgments and base our stand of neutrality upon a simple rule of law instead of upon moral actions. It is nevertheless here where our neutrality has failed and we have turned to war. Therefore let's give up the "impartial" dream which has never held when our sense of justice has been outraged and place our neutrality upon the fundamental rights of a Nation to carry on its peaceful pursuits even during war without being a party to the war. Whatever our neutrality has meant during the last 140 years the right to stay at peace has been stronger than our dream of being impartial in thought, word, speech and action.

Let us stand upon this platform—war between two or more nations cannot diminish the rights of any nation or nations that want to remain at peace. Maintain that stand of moral basis. Then American neutrality will stand and become the force in the world it should be.