Undeclared Naval Warfare

October 2, 1941

Report Outline
Neutrality Act Changes and Risk of War at Sea
Undeclared Naval War of 1798 with France
Naval Action Against the Barbary Powers
Piracy and the Arming of Merchant Ships

Neutrality Act Changes and Risk of War at Sea

If congress, pursuant to what is now believed to be the administration's desire, removes provisions of the Neutrality Act which forbid the arming of American merchant ships and prohibit their sailing to belligerent ports, it may be confidently anticipated that some of the vessels thus released to carry war materials to England will be attacked by German submarines. Such a step in furtherance of the policy of aiding Britain might thus be expected to hasten the development of what, to all intents and purposes, would be an undeclared naval war with Germany.

The risk of such an eventuality has been present ever since the President issued the order, disclosed in his radio address of September 11, directing American naval vessels and planes to fire at sight upon Axis submarines and surface raiders encountered in “our defensive waters.” Roosevelt was at pains to point out that “it is no act of war on our part when we decide to protect the seas that are vital to American defense,” and that “there will be no shooting unless Germany continues to seek it.” However, there is a strong chance that the Nazis will take up the challenge. The provocation to do so will be so much the greater if American merchant ships re-enter the sea lanes to Britain, and if these armed ships are given orders, as was the case in March, 1917, and as would necessarily now be the case, to fire at submarines on sight.

Present Situation and Undeclared Wars of the Past

Roosevelt observed that “this situation is not new.” He recalled that President Adams had ordered the Navy, in 1798, to clear the Caribbean of European privateers and ships of war which were destroying American commerce, and that Jefferson had ordered the Navy to end attacks upon American ships by the corsairs of North Africa. At a press conference May 16, 1941, just after Germany had declared the northern portion of the Red Sea a zone of military operations, and when fears were prevalent that the Nazis might obtain use of French West African bases to menace the Western Hemisphere and prey upon American shipping bound for the Red Sea, the President observed significantly that the United States had successfully fought two undeclared naval wars in defense of freedom of the seas.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
U.S. Navy
Jul. 23, 1976  Navy Rebuilding
Mar. 06, 1968  Sea Power and Global Strategy
Oct. 06, 1945  Army-Navy Consolidation
Oct. 02, 1941  Undeclared Naval Warfare
Oct. 25, 1939  Naval Blockades and Submarine Warfare
Nov. 20, 1935  American Naval Policy
Nov. 19, 1934  Naval Limitation and Pacific Problems, 1921–1936
Oct. 27, 1931  The Proposed Naval Holiday
Jul. 25, 1930  Military and Naval Expenditures
Jan. 16, 1930  The London Naval Conference
Sep. 28, 1929  The Anglo-American Naval Situation
Feb. 13, 1928  The 1928 Naval Building Program
International Law and Agreements
U.S. at War: World War II
War and Conflict