T. Michael Ruddy

The term "neutralism" is not new to the lexicon of international relations, but in the Cold War world, divided into two competing blocs, this word assumed new meaning. For its first century and a half as a nation, the United States, under the guise of isolationism, practiced its own form of neutralism, shunning political and military involvement with the European powers and invoking its neutrality according to international law in wartime. The appeal of neutrality persisted into the 1930s, as the United States anticipated possible involvement in World War II. But those were different times. There was no Cold War, and the United States was not a superpower. While America's earlier neutralism bore a resemblance to the Cold War variety, some important distinctions set the two apart.

The Cold War, defined not only in terms of a political rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union but also in terms of a conflict between Soviet communism and Western democratic capitalism, provided the context for this new form of neutralism. This ideological rivalry dated to the time of the 1917 Russian Revolution, but during World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union put aside their ideological differences and joined in a common cause to defeat Hitler. In the aftermath of that conflict, the animosity soon resurfaced as disputes over the postwar settlement escalated. The two powers ultimately abandoned cooperation and turned to consolidating control within their respective spheres. By 1947, containment defined America's postwar policy toward the Soviet Union. The North Atlantic Treaty (1949), an alliance intended to thwart Soviet aggression, institutionalized this containment and defined the western bloc. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was consolidating its control over the eastern bloc.

Not all European states, however, presumed that their national interests would be served by associating with this alliance system. Sweden, situated on Europe's strategically important northern flank, and Austria, bordering the Soviet bloc, are notable examples. To them, neutralism had a definite appeal. Their decision to assume an independent position created complications for U.S. foreign relations. Policymakers in Washington particularly worried that neutralism might tempt America's allies and erode the solidarity of the Atlantic alliance.

Compounding their apprehension were developments in the Third World. As the former European colonial empires slowly crumbled, many newly independent states opted for nonalignment, often with the intention of exploiting the Soviet-American rivalry to secure economic assistance from both sides. The 1955 gathering of twenty-nine nonaligned nations at Bandung, Indonesia, combined with a concerted effort by the Soviet Union to curry favor with these states, underlined the necessity for the United States to follow a well-considered approach to neutralism.

In the years after World War II, an understanding of the causes, intentions, and goals of neutralism slowly evolved within policymaking circles that would guide America's relationship with these states. The administration of President Harry Truman initially resisted neutralism, considering it a hindrance to western security. Only reluctantly, after officials realized that the neutrals would not be dissuaded from their chosen course, did Washington begin to pursue an accommodation with neutralism. The administration of President Dwight Eisenhower, despite its inflammatory rhetoric, grasped the advantages and drawbacks of this third force and endeavored to implement a policy toward neutralism that would benefit Western interests. But often Cold War considerations intruded to muddle relations with the neutrals, particularly in the Third World. Despite the more sophisticated worldview of President John F. Kennedy and his advisers, and their appreciation of the unique circumstances faced by the Third World, in practice they deviated little from the approach of their predecessors. The framework for the U.S.-neutral relationship that would survive through the Cold War was in place by the 1960s.

U.S. policy toward neutralism met with mixed results. In western Europe, the neutral states, despite their aversion to alliances, shared a common political, social, and economic heritage with the United States and its European allies. U.S. policy thus successfully fostered a relationship that to a great extent accommodated neutral interests while furthering America's Cold War goals. In the case of the Soviet bloc, Yugoslavia's adoption of neutralism offered an opportunity to weaken Soviet control within its own orbit. But contrary to the hopes of policymakers, neutralism did not spread further in the Soviet bloc. Finally, Washington often misunderstood the forces of nationalism in the Third World. America's ties to many of the former colonial powers created friction with the newly independent states and opened opportunities for the Soviet Union. The United States encouraged neutralism when it fit American interests, but opposed it when it went counter to these interests. Often, this opposition was counterproductive. It antagonized Third World nationalism and drove these states closer to the Soviet Union.

By the time the expanding conflict in Vietnam consumed America's attention in the mid-1960s, neutralism had established itself as a force to be reckoned with. As Washington struggled to extricate itself from that costly Asian war and then as it tried to reduce Cold War tensions through a détente policy, the neutrals had to be factored into the equation. The neutrals exerted an important influence, often serving as political or diplomatic bridges between the competing Cold War blocs. They recognized that it was in their interest to work toward a solution to the Cold War.


Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 32 (1965). Entire volume devoted to articles on various aspects of neutralism.

Brands, H. W. "Redefining the Cold War: American Policy Toward Yugoslavia, 1948–1960." Diplomatic History 11 (1987): 41–53.

——. The Specter of Neutralism: The United States and the Emergence of the Third World, 1947–1960. New York, 1989. Essential work examining the origins of U.S. policy through case studies of three Third World nations.

——. India and the United States: The Cold Peace. Boston, 1990.

Brecher, Michael. "Neutralism: An Analysis." International Journal 17 (1961–1962): 224–236.

Deák, Francis. "Neutrality Revisited." In Wolfgang Friedmann, Louis Henkin, and Oliver Lissitzyn, eds. Transnational Law in a Changing Society. New York, 1972.

Gabriel, Jürg Martin. The American Conception of Neutrality After 1941. New York, 1988.

Gaddis, John Lewis. The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War. New York and Oxford, 1987.

Gehler, Michael, and Rolf Steininger, eds. The Neutrals and the European Integration, 1945–1995. Vienna, 2000.

Hahn, Peter L. The United States, Great Britain, and Egypt, 1945–1956: Strategy and Diplomacy in the Early Cold War. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1991.

Hakovirta, Harto. "The Soviet Union and the Varieties of Neutrality in Western Europe." World Politics 35 (1983): 563–585.

——. East-West Conflict and European Neutrality. New York and Oxford, 1988.

Hanhimäki, Jussi M. "The First Line of Defence or a Springboard for Disintegration? European Neutrals in American Foreign Policy, 1945–61." Diplomacy and Statecraft 7 (1996): 578-403. A valuable synthesis of U.S. policy toward Europe's neutrals.

——. Scandinavia and the United States: An Insecure Friendship. New York, 1997.

Hess, Gary R. "Accommodation and Discord: The United States, India, and the Third World." Diplomatic History 16 (1992): 1–22.

Karsh, Efraim. Neutrality and the Small States. London, 1988.

Kissinger, Henry. The White House Years. Boston and Toronto, 1979.

Krüzel, Joseph, and Michael H. Haltzel, eds. Between the Blocs: Problems and Prospects for Europe's Neutral and Nonaligned Countries. Washington, D.C., and Cambridge, U.K., 1989.

Laqueur, Walter. "Europe: The Specter of Finlandization." Commentary 64 (1977): 37–41.

Lees, Lorraine. Keeping Tito Afloat: The United States, Yugoslavia, and the Cold War. University Park, Pa., 1997.

Logevall, Fredrik. "The Swedish-American Conflict over Vietnam." Diplomatic History 17 (1993): 421–445.

Lyon, Peter. "Neutrality and the Emergence of the Concept of Neutralism." Review of Politics 22 (1960): 255–265. A brief synthesis of the theory and meaning of neutralism.

——. Neutralism. Leicester, U.K., 1963. A useful work defining neutralism and its roots.

Maurer, Pierre. "The United States-Yugoslav Relations: A Marriage of Convenience." Studia Diplomatica (1985): 429–451.

McMahon, Robert J. The Cold War on the Periphery: The United States, India, and Pakistan. New York, 1994.

Merrill, Dennis. Bread and the Ballot: The United States and India's Economic Development, 1947–1963. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1990.

Papacosma, S. Victor, and Mark R. Rubin, eds. Europe's Neutral and Nonaligned States: Between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Wilmington, Del., 1989.

Shrivastava, B. K. "The United States and the Non-Aligned Movement." In K. P. Misra, ed. Non-Alignment Frontiers and Dynamics. New Delhi, 1982.

See also Cold War Evolution and Interpretations ; Cold War Origins ; Foreign Aid ; Isolationism ; Neutrality .

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