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Neutrality Dilemmas

ISSUE:  Autumn 1936

Can we be Neutral? By Allen W. Dulles and Hamilton Pish Armstrong. New York: Harper and Brothers. $1.50.

That trade and travel dragged us into the Napoleonic and World Wars is a notion shared by many people. Implicit in this is the notion that international law’ bogged down, has not recovered, and now offers no sufficient protection to neutral trade. Add to this the fear of a major war somewhere in Europe or Asia, and the case is made for a reappraisal of our neutral status. Since we cannot protect our trade peacefully, we must be prepared to give it up. How much should we give up? And in what way?

Answers are not lacking, and plans are as numerous as answers. On one extreme are those who feel no action need be taken. They deride the notion that trade dragged us in and insist that international law properly understood and our own policy properly administered can keep us out. In short, they deny implicitly the premise on which fresh action is based. On the other extreme are those who not only admit the premise but apply it with logical severity. Since trade dragged us in, trade must be abolished, In their zeal they would embargo not only “arms, munitions, and implements of war” (which has a technical meaning), but also credit, raw materials, and even foodstuffs. Those in a middle group, more sensitive to experience than to logic, admit the desirability of embargoes on arms and credit but call a halt at raw materials and foodstuffs. They do not evade the problem but in place of an embargo suggest other expedients, ranging in severity from licensing and quota systems to a simple withdrawal of diplomatic protection. To these differences many others are added, revolving chiefly around our position vis-a-vis the League of Nations.

Messrs. Dulles and Armstrong, in “Can We Be Neutral?” are not extremists. They are more sensitive to experience than to logic, and visualize our policy in terms of its repercussions not only on the high seas but here at home-in the fields, the factories and mills. A policy which would put our people into opposition with its government, as it was put in 1807, is unworkable. Hence they dismiss the general embargo. Instead they argue for a simple withdrawal of diplomatic protection, popularly known as a “trade at your own risk” policy. They argue cogently and well. More important, they are not deluded with the notion that every war will be a world war. Hence they sound telling warnings against fitting our policy into a legislative strait jacket.

On the larger question of fitting our policy into a system for war prevention (not to be confused with neutrality), they occupy a forward looking position. Along with the most qualified thinkers, they agree this should not be done, as was once attempted (in the McReynolds bill), by giving the President power to discriminate against an “aggressor.” But they are not hopeless of future co-operation to keep the peace and, admitting its desirability, envisage the possibility of effecting it through the mechanism of the Kellogg Pact and joint executive and congressional action.

Sins of omission are not glaring, but one or two deserve mention. The authors have made a persuasive case for their trade at your own risk policy, but they have not sufficiently answered the objections to it. These objections stem from two sources. On the one hand it is described as a futile and illusory gesture; on the other, as a dangerous surrender of our traditional insistence on freedom of the seas. This divergence in views is symptomatic of current confusions, but the views need to be answered none the less. To declare the doctrine of freedom of the seas to be obsolete is not enough, not even in light of the English war-time list of contraband and our supposed acquiescence in it.

The work also suffers from a failure to discuss the much talked of possibility of a league of neutrals designed to “wage” neutrality. The Argentine Anti-War Pact of 1933 which we have recently ratified carries this possibility with it and thus challenges discussion.

These slight criticisms apart, the work commends itself as a practical and restrained appraisal of our dilemmas. It was written in anticipation of our recent Neutrality Act and will no doubt help to shape criticism of it. It is to be hoped that it will, for the authors speak not only with authority but wisely and well.


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