Revise the Neutrality Act


By TOM CONNALLY, United States Senator from Texas

Delivered over radio from Washington, D. C., September 29, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 15-17.

THE cruel and brutal war now raging in Europe and Asia, though its land battles are thousands of miles from our shores, has more and more affected our people and their interests as its bloody chapters have unfolded. The threat to our national security, to the safety of our territory, to the integrity of our institutions and to the preservation of our international rights has become clearer and more imminent with each new conquest, with each new enslavement of a once free people.

Moved by the devotion of the American people to peace and their abhorrence of war, the Congress, in 1935, years prior to the invasion of Poland, enacted an arms embargo resolution, mistakenly called a neutrality act. It prohibited the shipment of arms and munitions from the United States to any nation at war. It was passed upon the theory that such a course would discourage armed conflict abroad and prevent our involvement therein. That act was not in truth a neutrality act. It limited our rights as a neutral nation. It denied to our citizens rights to which they were entitled by immemorial international sanctions. We laid upon our citizens prohibitions against the exercise of rights guaranteed to them by international law. It was soon revealed that theoriginal act was unsound and, in 1936, it was amended. In 1937, Congress again modified its provisions.

"Premium to Conquerors"

After Hitler hurled his Nazi legions into Poland in September, 1939, it became amazingly apparent that the arms embargo operated to deny to peaceful nations and to peoples, who had not armed to the teeth and who had not built up great military machines, the securing of arms and munitions from neutral nations for their necessary self-defense. The continued existence of such an act gave a premium to conquerors, to totalitarian masters who had, through the years, been carefully arming in order to overwhelm and subjugate nations who felt secure in their neutral and peaceful lives. The Nazi powers, equipped with all of the modern weapons of war and all of the mechanized equipment which ingenuity and genius could devise for the destruction of human life, did not need to acquire arms or munitions from America. The peaceful and unoffending nations of Europe, who were unarmed and defenseless, did need arms and munitions from the United States and other neutral nations. Under international law, they had a right to procure, andthe United States had a right to supply, war materials and munitions for the defense of their homes and their lives.

In the fall of 1939 the Congress enacted the arms embargo repeal resolution. It removed the prohibition against the sale and shipment of arms to nations at war. However, still in the interest of peace, motivated by an extreme anxiety to preserve the peace and to protect the safety and the lives of the American people, the act laid limitations upon the freedom of our shipping and upon the rights of our citizens. It was required that nations at war purchasing arms in the United States should acquire title to the arms and munitions secured before the same should leave our shores. American ships were denied the right to transport arms and munitions. American ships were prohibited from carrying on commerce with any nation at war. The President was authorized to establish combat zones in belligerent areas into which American ships could not sail and into which American citizens were not permitted to travel except under unusual circumstances.

Cites Attacks on Neutrals

These regulations were established in the hope and belief that if American ships did not sail to the ports of belligerent nations and were not permitted within combat zones, they would not be attacked or sunk upon the high seas where they had a right to sail under international law accepted and recognized by all civilized nations. That hope and belief have proven illusory. The brutal Nazi philosophy, which on land conquered and subdued neutral and peaceful Holland, Denmark and Norway and Belgium, who had committed no wrong, unless the love of home and the desire to live in peace be wrong, with its swarming submarines and surface raiders upon the seas, sank the ships and murdered the citizens of neutral nations. The same defiant and truculent and ruthless spirit that dominated the German government during the World War, enhanced and brutalized by the Nazi doctrines of Hitler, has recently attacked and sunk American merchant ships, and a Nazi submarine attacked a United States naval destroyer. These attacks were not made upon ships within combat zones. They were not made upon ships trading with or sailing to nations at war. They were made upon American ships on the roadways of the high seas, where international law says they had a right to be and where the laws of the United States say they had a right to be.

Hitler has decreed the death of our citizens and the destruction of our ships wherever his armed vessels may find them—wherever his skulking assassins of the seas, lying in wait for them, may shoot them in the dark and send them to graves in the watery deeps. Unrestricted submarine warfare means unrestricted murder, unrestricted assassination, unrestricted defiance of, and contempt for, all law or humanity and of civilized nations.

Reviews Growing Peril

When Hitler, in September, 1939, first hurled his Nazi legions into Poland, we entertained the fatuous hope that the war in Europe was over the Polish corridor and Danzig. We eagerly pressed to our bosom the hope that it would be localized—that it was a war of boundaries and territorial arrangements between Germany and Poland. Still entertaining that hope, the provisions of the embargo repeal act, which limited our shipping and established combat zones, and prohibited the arming of merchant vessels, were adopted.

However, when Denmark was crushed—when Holland, peacefully sailing upon its canals was brutally bludgeoned—when Belgium, daring to stand upon its own soil, unoffending and neutral, was attacked by all the cruel weapons of might and murder—when Norway, living amidst its mountains and fjords, believing that it was distant from the bloody area of war, was assailed from the sea and upon the land and from the air, by millions of missiles of death, the world began to see and the United States began to realize that Hitler's war was not to be a localized war—that it was not to be a war to secure the rights of the Nazis to Danzig or to a crossing of the Corridor.

We began to see that it was a war to destroy the rights of all other nations, wherever their boundaries might reach, however peaceful their conduct, however innocent their lives, however guileless their behavior. We began to see that the Hitler ambition, that the Nazi terror, paused at no boundary, hesitated at no sea, halted before no mountain range, but, with an ambition greater than Lucifer's, with a savage lust for power surpassing that of Ghengis Khan, with a bestial appetite for loot and plunder and mastery superior to that of Attila the Hun, hurled their swarming armies upon their neighboring nations in a campaign of world conquest and world dominion. If the classic examples of Poland, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Norway, Yugoslavia, Greece and other nations are not convincing, the astounding case of Russia removes all doubt. Russia, a supposed sympathizer, though not a participant in the war, without pretext and without warning, was barbarously and suddenly attacked by all of the might and terror of the Nazi armies. Russia, living upon her own soil, having no part in the war, guilty of no aggression against Hitler, was made the victim of unexpected and murderous assault.

That same ruthless and relentless spirit; that same overmastering ambition, that same cruel and barbarous purpose animate the fleets of submarines and of surface raiders that Hitler has sent out upon the seas, that belong, not to him, but belong to all the nations of the earth, to master them, to drive from them the ships of all nations that do not fly the Nazi flag, to murder the citizens of all other nations that do not accept his rule and that do not bow the knee to his monarchy of military might.

Points to Spy Trials

But there are those who say that Hitler has no designs to attack or to conquer the United States or the nations of Central and South America. To these credulous minds I would point to the trials in the courts of the United States in New York of a horde of Nazi spies. If Hitler has no designs upon the United States; if he broods no injury to our people; if he contemplates no hostile action against us, why does he fill our land with spies to practice their espionage and sabotage, and to poison the minds of those of our citizens who may be unsuspecting and credulous. I point to Nazi infiltration into the countries of South America. The press has lately informed the world of the discovery of Nazi intrigue and Nazi conspiracy against a number of the republics of the western hemisphere. These republics, vigilant and jealous of their sovereignty, have discovered these plots and these nests of treason, and have taken steps to extirpate them. If Hitler has no designs upon the sovereignty, upon the security and upon the territory and institutions of Latin-America, why does he set up foci of infection to spread his poisonous doctrines throughout the constitutional systems and the life of our Latin-American friends and neighbors?

All of these revelations, this unmasking to our gaze of the stark and naked menace of Hitler and his Nazi terrorism, have convinced civilized men who love their country, who hate conquest and oppression, to determine that Hitler and his Nazi terrorism must be destroyed.

Hitler seeks to dominate both the land and the sea. His denial of the right of other nations to sail the seas is a challenge to our undeniable rights and a threat to overthrow and destroy them. The restrictions in the arms embargo repeal against the arming of merchant ships and the sailing of our vessels in combat zones or to nations at war were in derogation of our rights. They were domestic regulation of our citizens in the hope that our ships would not be attacked. As has already been seen, that hope was futile. Under Hitler's decree, our ships cannot sail upon any sea which he can reach with his submarines, with his surface raiders, or with his aircraft.

Hugo Grotius, the celebrated authority on international law, as early as 1608, laid down the rule "every nation is free to travel to every other nation and to trade with it." He there enunciated the doctrine of freedom of the seas. He exploded the theory that the seas were the property of the nation with the longest sword. By the nineteenth century, it was universally accepted that the seas were the common property of all nations.

The United States, since its foundation, has adhered to the doctrine of freedom of the seas. Under the Presidency of John Adams, France depredated upon our commerce, and in 1798, the House of Representatives, in an address to the President, stated that France had proclaimed "predatory warfare against the unquestionable right of neutral commerce, which, with our means of defense, our interests and our honor, commanded us to repel." Congress authorized armed vessels to resist the armed vessels of the French.

The case of the Barbary pirates is a classic example of our insistence upon the freedom of the seas. The United States Navy was dispatched to the Mediterranean, the pirates were subdued, and levies upon our commerce were terminated.

The War of 1812, in its essence, was in defense of freedom of the seas. The doctrine was maintained by Madison when he was Secretary of State in 1806. Van Buren, in 1830, in his instructions to ambassadors, asserted the doctrine.

It will be recalled that before and during World War 1, our rights upon the seas were attacked by the German submarine campaign. In April, 1916, the government of the United States warned the Imperial German government against the violation of our rights. The warning was disregarded and our ships were sunk and our citizens were murdered. During the entire period of the world war, and in all of the years that followed, the government of the United States has steadfastly maintained its right to the freedom of the seas. It is true that there are those who claim that by the enactment of the arms embargo repeal, the United States surrendered its right to the freedom of the seas. That is an erroneous assumption. While that act would restrict freedom of citizens and our shipping, the act expressly provided in its preamble that the United States surrendered none of its rights under international law. It was so specifically stated in the preamble to that act, which was in the form of an amendment offered by the Senator from Texas, now speaking. It was specifically provided that the restrictions contained in that act were domestic regulations for the control of our citizens and that "the United States waives none of its own rights or privileges or those of any of its nationals under international law." It was further specifically provided that "the United States reserves the right to repeal, change or modify this joint resolution, or any other domestic legislation in the interest of the peace, security and welfare of the United States and its people."

In the light of our historic and traditional maintenance of the doctrine of freedom of the seas, a doctrine that isessential to our continued growth and development as a great maritime and commercial nation, a doctrine not limited to our own selfish interests, but one essential not alone to the safety of our own shipping and of our citizens upon the high seas, where they have a right to be, but essential to the safety of the ships of other peaceful and neutral nations that may carry on commerce with the United States, we should now reassert and re-ordain our adherence to the doctrine of freedom of the seas by modifying and amending the so-called neutrality act. We are now building a two-ocean Navy, a Navy that will be superior to any that floats upon the oceans. It shall be dedicated to the protection of our people; to the protection of our citizens upon the sea as well as upon the land; to the security and to the sanctity of our territory, our institutions and our soil. Shall we, at the ukase of a would-be master of the world, abandon the sea? Shall we, at the edict of a would-be Napoleon, cringingly, withdraw our commerce and our ships from the seas where all civilized nations for centuries have said they have a right to be? The establishment of combat zones has failed. Hitler recognizes no combat zones. He sinks our ships wherever they may be. He sends his lurking submarines into our defensive waters. He defies us. He murders our citizens. He assassinates our ships.

The repeal of the so-called neutrality act would not be unneutral. After its repeal the United States would be a neutral under international law. That act prohibits the arming of our merchant ships. I favor the repeal of that provision. It is my view that merchant ships that are now being ruthlessly attacked upon the high seas, while on lawful business, ought to be allowed to arm for their necessary self-defense—for the defense of human lives upon their decks—for the defense of their property and their rights.

Must Deliver Aid

In the interest of our own safety, for the preservation of free government and democracy in the world, the Congress of the United States enacted the lease-lend act, to extend aid in the form of arms, munitions and ships to the nations fighting against Hitler and his doctrines. That aid to be effective requires the delivery of arms, munitions and implements of war where they can be successfully employed. It takes ships, it requires cargoes, to deliver weapons to the embattled democracies. Whatever the original views of any citizen may be with respect to the lease-lend act, it has become a national policy. It is our country's policy. We should support it in unity, and with vigor.

It is, therefore, my further view that the so-called neutrality act should be amended with respect to the freedom of our ships to sail wherever they are permitted to sail under international law. I favor the removal of the ban against their entering combat zones or going on lawful missions to the ports of nations at war. These are our undeniable rights under the law of nations. We have, in years that are gone, in glorious fashion, shed our blood for their maintenance and for the protection of the rights of our citizens. Shall we surrender them? Shall we cringingly abandon them? Shall we succumb before this wild and fantastic plot of Adolf Hitler for world empire and world dominion? Shall we tremble because the conqueror stretches forth his sword?

Our forefathers chose our way of life. Their sacrifices, their sufferings and their service fashioned it and built it and fortified it. Our system, our way of life, our institutions, our love of law and of liberty, must, and shall be, maintained. All the terrors and taunts, all the cruel contempt for law and for the dictates of humanity, of Hitler and his Nazi minions shall not prevail against us.