Repeal of Neutrality Act Means War

Image: [Robert Taft, senator from Ohio]. Harris & Ewing. (c. 1939) Library of Congress.
What objections does Taft raise to Roosevelt’s exercise of executive power in his foreign policy? Which policies is he specifically criticizing? Why isn’t he concerned about shifts in public opinion?
According to Gallup poll results, how popular are Taft’s views in 1940? In 1941? What counter argument does Roosevelt present in his Greer incident speech?

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In keeping with his determination to pursue a policy of armed defense against Germany, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to modify the neutrality laws to allow US merchant ships to arm themselves and enter the war zone. Senator Robert Taft (R-Ohio) objected to these changes in this address to the Senate. Congress nonetheless complied with Roosevelt’s request in November.

—Jennifer D. Keene

Source: Senator Robert A. Taft (OH), “Repeal of Neutrality Act Means War,” Congressional Record, part 8, 87: (October 28, 1941) p. S 8283–8284.

. . . [T]he point I wanted to make is that the whole intention of the administration, every indication that a reasonable man can draw from its acts, is that it intends to go into war; and certainly, if we pass this resolution, and the administration has such an intention, we are going very shortly to become involved in war. . . .

The power to declare war rests solely in the United States Congress. If the President can declare or create an undeclared naval war beyond our power to act upon, the Constitution might just as well be abolished. The Constitution deliberately gave to the representatives of the people the power to declare war, to pass on the question of war and peace, because that was something which kings had always done, which they had done against the interests of the people themselves, and which the founders of the Constitution thought the people ought to determine. It is true there have been one or two acts of war: but if Congress will refuse to repeal the Neutrality Act, I do not believe those acts of war can be continued. I do not believe the President is prepared to defy the express action of the Congress. Up to date he has not purported to do so. He has only claimed a power which I do not think he has. I stated on the floor of the Senate that I did not think he had the power to send American troops to Iceland, because Iceland was not in the Western Hemisphere, and it was already in the war zone. There was already there a British garrison. We have undertaken a joint defense of Iceland together with the British, who are actually at war with Germany. We can withdraw from Iceland. If we are sending convoys – as we are sending them – we can stop the policy of convoying vessels to Great Britain. . . .

Mr. Roosevelt says that our Navy has been instructed to shoot on sight.1 There is no stated limitation on those orders. By what authority does Mr. Roosevelt send American youths to war – and that is what he is doing with the boys in the Navy – to prowl the ocean in quest of offensive warfare? Only Congress can constitutionally order our ships and our boys into an offensive war. Does Mr. Roosevelt contend, then, that he has assumed Hitlerian authority over the United States?

We have the President in effect admitting every charge made against him, that he was working toward war while promising peace, that he did intend to disregard Congress and the Constitution, and follow the course of dictatorship to an undeclared war.

There is just a shadow of substance to the claim that he can conduct war in defense of the United States. But defense has been stretched so thin that it cannot much longer be called anything like defense. We had first the defense of the United States. When we undertook a defense program, that is what everyone thought it meant, defense of continental United States, and the islands around it on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. . . .

Certainly the seizure of Iceland and Dakar is not defense of the United States.2 It is an aggressive policy of defending the sea lanes to Great Britain. It is the defense of Great Britain, not of the United States.

The next position of the President was that we would shoot at any place where we found a German vessel in our defense waters. What our defense waters are he did not say. Apparently our defense waters extend to Iceland and well beyond. If we enact the pending measure, of course, our defense waters are going to be every ocean and every port in the entire world, in Asia, Africa, Europe, or Australia.

The message on this measure finally contains the statement that we must fight in defense of American rights. Although we have seen fit to say that one of those rights, like the sending of our ships into belligerent ports, is a right we desire to give up, now the President says we should stand on that right, and precipitate the very kind of a conflict which brought on the World War. . . .

We have to consider here the question whether we will approve a policy of undeclared naval war, whether we will give approval to the President, who has shown his desire to forward that war, who has constantly worked toward developing the war spirit in the United States, who apparently, under every reasonable conclusion from his speeches, is in favor of outright war – whether we shall vote here to authorize such a war. . . .

Do we wish to keep our pledges to the people of the United States, pledges which practically every Senator here has made? There is no difference between the conditions of today and the conditions during the campaign of 1940. If anything, conditions today do not justify war as much as did conditions at that time. At that time Great Britain was being nightly bombarded, [and] the general feeling was that it might be successfully invaded at any moment. France had fallen. Hitler had spread over a great part of Europe, and it was obvious that he could spread over all the rest of Europe. There is no substantial difference between the conditions now and what the conditions were in 1940, when we gave our pledge. Possibly public opinion has changed, possibly it has not, but in the Senate we must decide this question on the basis of our own principles, and I say that no man who gave his pledge that we should keep out of war, who gave his pledge to do everything he could to keep the United States out of war, in November 1940 can today vote for the pending resolution without repudiating that pledge.3

  1. 1. See Roosevelt Fireside Chat on the Greer Incident.
  2. 2. Taft refers to the efforts of Great Britain and the Free French Forces to seize Dakar (in what is now Senegal) in September 1940. At the time, Dakar was part France’s African colonial empire. Dakar had the best harbor in West Africa, stored French and Polish gold reserves, and was home to elements of the French fleet. These resources were now under control of the Vichy government, the French government the Germans allowed to operate in the southern part of France (so-called because its capital was the French city of Vichy).
  3. 3. Taft refers perhaps to the pledge that Roosevelt made in 1940 that “your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” Many candidates standing for Congress or Senate echoed the pledge. See Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Campaign Address at Boston Massachusetts, October 30, 1940,”
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