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The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Military and Diplomatic History
Justus D. Doenecke


The concept of neutrality as a legal status applies to a nation that seeks to avoid military involvement in an armed conflict between belligerent states. Under international law, a neutral power is permitted to engage in all legal international trade and transactions.

The early American republic grappled with issues of neutral rights in a world roiled by European conflicts that disrupted trade. As a commercial nation, the United States embraced the concept of “free ships, free goods” as the cornerstone of its definition of neutral rights. This formulation held that the nationality of a ship determined the status of its cargo and that only contraband (forbidden goods) on neutral ships could be subject to capture. The widely unpopular Jay's Treaty of 1794 violated the free ships, free goods doctrine, however, conceding to Britain the right to seize goods on American ships bound for an enemy port. France's 1797 declaration that neutral vessels even partly laden with enemy property were legitimate prizes led to the so-called Quasi-War with France. During the Napoleonic wars, France and Britain both illegally seized American ships, and Congress in 1808–1809 passed several embargo acts to force them to alter their policies. In 1810, France informed the United States that it would stop such practices if the British ended their blockade of the French-dominated European continent. Although France continued its illegal captures, the United States ignored such behavior while continuing to hold Britain accountable for seizures of cargo and impressment of seamen. The British on 23 June 1812 revoked the orders-in-council that had initiated such practices, but the United States—unaware of this action—had declared war on Britain five days earlier. Issues of neutral rights thus led to the War of 1812, but, at the war's end, the United States still obtained no British guarantee of free ships, free goods. Only in 1856 did the European powers agree to apply the American tenet of free ships, free goods to neutral powers in wartime.

When World War I began in 1914, Britain vastly expanded its contraband list and sought to enforce a “continuous voyage” doctrine under which a ship en route from one neutral port to another could be seized by a belligerent if its cargo were ultimately destined to an enemy. President Woodrow Wilson protested these and other British actions as violations of neutral rights. Germany also violated American notions of neutrality by declaring the waters around Britain a war zone in which even neutral merchant ships could be sunk without warning. Wilson threatened war if Germany sank American merchant ships without warning or without provision for the safety of passengers and crew. Germany initiated unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, and the United States declared war in April. Wilson identified violations of U.S. neutral rights as his major reason for entering the war.

To avoid such entanglements arising from neutral-rights grievances, politicians, international activists and lawyers, and the burgeoning transnational peace movement pushed for heightened neutrality legislation. Congress in the 1930s passed a series of so-called neutrality acts that in effect abandoned traditional definitions of neutrality and neutral rights. These acts sought simply to preserve American impartiality by restricting loans and trade to belligerents along the lines of preventing the conditions that many argued led to World War I. A series of high-stakes political battles ensued from 1939 to 1941 to keep the United States from relinquishing a stance of neutral rights and intervening in the war. After World War II, issues of neutral rights largely faded as a theme of U.S. foreign policy.

[See also Early Republic, U.S. Military and Diplomatic Affairs during the; Embargo Acts; Gilded Age and Progressive Era, U.S. Military and Diplomatic Affairs during the; Internationalism; Interventionism; Interwar Period, U.S. Military and Diplomatic Affairs during the; Isolationism; Jay's Treaty; Neutrality Acts; Quasi-War with France; Root, Elihu; War of 1812; Wilson, Woodrow; World War I (1914–1918); and World War II (1939–1945).]


Bartlett, Ruhl J. “Neutrality.” In Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. 3 vols., pp. 679–687. Edited by Alexander DeConde. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978.Find this resource:

    Doenecke, Justus. The Battle against Intervention, 1939–1941. Malabar, Fla.: Krieger Publishers, 1996.Find this resource:

      Jessup, Philip C., et al. Neutrality: Its History, Economics, and Law. 4 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936.Find this resource:

        Justus D. Doenecke

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