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A Special Session to Revise U.S. Neutrality Law

September 21, 1939
A Special Session to Revise U.S. Neutrality Law Image courtesy of Library of Congress Representative Hamilton Fish of New York was one of four men of the same name to serve in Congress. The family’s non-consecutive service spanned from 1843 to 1995.
On this date, less than three weeks after the outbreak of European hostilities in World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed a Joint Session of Congress to open a Special Session which he had called to revise U.S. neutrality law. Reflecting the beliefs of many Americans and a determined group of isolationists in Congress that U.S. banks and munitions-makers had embroiled the country in World War I, Congress had passed a series of neutrality acts in the 1930s aimed at keeping the U.S. out of another conflict. These laws prohibited the sale and transportation of war munitions and armaments, and eventually the extension of loans, to belligerent countries. In his address, Roosevelt assured Congress and the American public that he sought to keep the country out of the war but that he believed efforts to “legislate” neutrality ran counter to American interests. “Destiny first made us, with our sister nations on this hemisphere, joint heirs of European culture,” Roosevelt waxed. “Fate seems now to compel us to assume the task of helping to maintain in the Western World a citadel wherein that civilization may be kept alive.” Weeks of pitched debate ensued between allies of the Roosevelt administration and isolationists such as Representative Hamilton Fish of New York. On November 2, the House repealed provisions of the 1935 act by a vote of 243 to 181. Roosevelt signed the measure into law on November 4. Marking the erosion of U.S. neutrality, the new law provided for the sale of U.S. armaments and munitions to belligerent nations on a “cash and carry” basis, allowing allies such as Great Britain to purchase war materials in cash, so long as they were transported on non-American ships.

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