Public circular issued by the Secretary of State October 15, 1924, regarding neutrality and trade in contraband 1

The Department of State has received numerous inquiries from American merchants and other persons as to whether they could sell to governments or nations at war contraband articles without violating the neutrality of the United States, and the Department has also received complaints that sales of contraband were being made on the apparent supposition that they were unneutral acts which this Government should prevent.

In view of the number of communications of this sort which have been received it is evident that there is a widespread misapprehension among the people of this country as to the obligations of the United States as a neutral nation in relation to trade in contraband and as to the powers of the Executive branch of the Government [Page 574] over persons who engage in it. For this reason it seems advisable to make an explanatory statement on the subject for the information of the public.

In the first place it should be understood that, generally speaking, a citizen of the United States can sell to a belligerent government or its agent any article of commerce which he pleases. He is not prohibited from doing this by any rule of international law, by any treaty provisions, or by any statute of the United States. It makes no difference whether the articles sold are exclusively for war purposes, such as firearms, explosives, etc., or are foodstuffs, clothing, horses, etc., for the use of the army or navy of the belligerent.

Furthermore, a neutral government is not compelled by international law, by treaty, or by statute to prevent these sales to a belligerent. Such sales, therefore, by American citizens do not in the least affect the neutrality of the United States.

It is true that such articles as those mentioned are considered contraband and are, outside the territorial jurisdiction of a neutral nation, subject to seizure by an enemy of the purchasing government, but it is the enemy’s duty to prevent the articles reaching their destination, not the duty of the nation whose citizens have sold them. If the enemy of the purchasing nation happens for the time to be unable to do this that is for him one of the misfortunes of war; the inability, however, imposes on the neutral government no obligation to prevent the sale.

Neither the President nor any executive department of the Government possesses the legal authority to interfere in any way with trade between the people of this country and the territory of a belligerent. There is no act of Congress conferring such authority or prohibiting traffic of this sort with European nations, although in the case of neighboring American Republics Congress has given the President power to proclaim an embargo on arms and ammunition when in his judgment it would tend to prevent civil strife.

For the Government of the United States itself to sell to a belligerent nation would be an unneutral act, but for a private individual to sell to a belligerent any product of the United States is neither unlawful nor unneutral, nor within the power of the Executive to prevent or control.

The foregoing remarks, however, do not apply to the outfitting or furnishing of vessels in American ports or of military expeditions on American soil in aid of a belligerent. These acts are prohibited by the neutrality laws of the United States.

Department of State,
  1. This circular was printed by the Department for public information and was enclosed, together with copies of the proclamations of the belligerent governments on contraband, in letters replying to inquiries by American business men concerning their rights, duties, and risks in foreign trade. (See the section on correspondence with American citizens, ante, p. 270