At a June 1956 news conference, when the topic of neutralism came up, President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded by noting that for 150 years the United States itself had been neutral. He then declared that "neutral" now meant avoiding any attachment to military alliances, and that "this [did] not necessarily mean… neutral as between right and wrong or between decay and decency." In equating America's past tradition with the neutral stance of 1956, the president exhibited a sympathy and understanding of this "third force" not always associated with his administration. The 150-year commitment to which he referred evoked two distinct but interrelated facets of how the United States defined its neutrality in the past—first, the legal status of a neutral state in time of war, and, second, the response to George Washington's admonition in his Farewell Address to "avoid entangling alliances." The traditional legal concept of neutrality, which had evolved in international law during the past century through treaty, court cases, and precedent, was codified in the Hague Conventions of 1907. These conventions recognized the legal status of a nonbelligerent state in time of war and prescribed the rights and obligations of a nation in its relations with belligerent states. During its formative years, the United States adhered to—indeed, became a champion of—these principles of neutrality. The principles of freedom of the seas and the right to trade with belligerents in time of war appealed to a fledgling nation focused on establishing its economic stability, which was so important to ensuring its viability as a nation. Even as the United States was becoming a major power in the twentieth century, it was hesitant to abandon neutrality. For three years before its 1917 entry into World War I, President Woodrow Wilson asserted America's neutral rights. And during the 1930s, encouraged particularly by a Congress and a public intent upon staying out of another conflict emerging in Europe, once again the United States declared its neutrality until events inexorably brought the country into the conflict at the end of 1941.
Besides this neutrality defined by international law, Eisenhower in his remarks also referred to another aspect of America's earlier policies that was more akin to postwar neutralism. In 1796, President George Washington in his Farewell Address warned Americans to avoid entangling alliances. At the time, war threatened to engulf Europe. The United States, which had signed an alliance with France in 1778, feared being drawn into a European conflict that did not serve its national interests. It abrogated that treaty by 1800, and for a century and a half thereafter assiduously avoided political and military entanglements with Europe.
In international affairs, America entered a period of what many historians describe as isolationism. In effect, the United States assumed a neutralist position. Yet this neutralism was not a total rejection of international involvement. The United States pursued opportunities for trade, protected in time of conflict by the neutral rights supposedly guaranteed by international law, and the independence its neutral position afforded, provided opportunities to exploit the rivalry among the European powers to America's benefit.
America's status changed dramatically after World War II. As a major power, it could not return to its former neutral position. In fact, it now confronted a neutralism, first in Europe and then in the Third World, that exhibited many of the characteristics of the neutralism it had practiced for so many years.
After World War II, the legally defined neutrality in wartime was irrelevant in the new environment of the Cold War. The more traditional European neutrals, such as Switzerland and Sweden, had used this neutrality as a basis for their status. But like earlier U.S. neutralism, this new neutralism was more political than legal. In most cases, nations that espoused neutralism did so freely. In a few notable cases, however, external pressure influenced their choice. All neutrals refused to commit to alliances and distanced themselves from the power blocs dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union. As Peter Lyon notes in his study Neutralism, "By neutrality is meant non-involvement in war, while by neutralism is meant non-involvement in the Cold War." Neutralism was a state of mind shared by a segment of Europe's and the world's population. Neutral sentiment existed in nations allied with the United States as well as in the neutral states themselves. As was the case with the United States during its early history, neutralist states determined that their national interest would best be served by not choosing sides in the great power conflict.
But Cold War neutralism, unlike that of the United States in the nineteenth century, was not isolationist. It was what political scientists call positive neutralism. Neutral states consciously exercised their status as a third force between the power blocs to further their national interests. Like the United States in the nineteenth century, this included promoting their economic and commercial cause. But positive neutralism went further. Through political involvement, especially in international organizations, neutrals exerted an influence on international affairs. They played a role as bridge-builders to span the gap between the Cold War rivals.
Neutralism presented an appealing option for those who had misgivings about subordinating their nation's sovereignty to the policies of the United States or the Soviet Union. Concern that the North Atlantic Treaty might just lead to such an eventuality at times fueled an attraction to neutralism even among some of America's traditionally closest allies. As late as 1948, political factions in Great Britain considered pursuing a "third way," which they defined as a bloc of western European states and their former colonies that would assume an independent position between the United States and the Soviet Union, to reduce British dependence on the United States. The term "neutralism" itself first came into vogue in the late 1940s in France, where it signified a state of mind that questioned whether French national interests would be served by subordinating French independence to American leadership.
The desire for U.S. economic assistance and a growing apprehension about the Soviet political and military threat ultimately trumped neutralism's appeal in Britain and France. But some of Europe's smaller states did embrace neutralism. Each of these states constructed its own distinct style of neutralism, defined in terms that served its own national interests. Switzerland and Sweden had a long tradition of neutrality that they had maintained throughout World War II and firmly guarded in the Cold War. Finland and Austria to differing degrees represented neutralism coerced. Finland, defeated and forced to deal with its victorious Soviet neighbor, tried to preserve as much of its independence as possible by signing the 1948 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, which bound it to resist any attack on the Soviet Union. Austria, like Germany occupied by the Allies after World War II, accepted the status of neutrality as a prerequisite for the 1955 Austrian State Treaty that ended the occupation of its territory and restored its autonomy.
The Soviet bloc was not immune to the appeal of neutralism. Josip Broz Tito established a communist regime in Yugoslavia, but bristled at Stalinist interference in the internal affairs of his country. When Yugoslavia was expelled from the Cominform in 1948, Tito charted a course independent of both blocs.
As neutralism took root in Europe, the dissolution of Europe's colonial empires in Africa and Asia gave rise to newly independent nations, many of which adopted a policy of nonalignment. In certain respects, nonalignment was synonymous with neutralism, for the nonaligned states eschewed commitments to either of the global power centers. But not all members of the nonaligned movement took a neutral position vis-àvis the two blocs. Many of the twenty-nine states that attended the first meeting of the nonaligned at Bandung in 1955 tilted to one side or the other. B. K. Shrivastava, in a 1982 article titled "The United States and the Non-Aligned Movement," identified three categories of nonaligned states that had become clearly delineated by 1970: the extremists, consisting largely of Marxist and proSoviet countries; the conservative friends of the United States and the West; and the moderates, who wanted to maintain their distance from both the United States and the Soviet Union. Moderates, such as India and Egypt, wary both of the Soviet Union and of Western capitalist powers, their former colonial overlords, represented the true neutrals of the Third World.
As neutralism established itself in Europe and spread to Asia and Africa, U.S. policymakers had to decide whether to oppose or to pursue accommodation with that movement. Certain aspects of this phenomenon, from their viewpoint, were clearly contrary to American interests, especially the tendency for neutralism to impede the establishment of a unified opposition to Soviet advances. But neutrals, in their distrust of Soviet doctrine, also offered opportunities.