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This Day In History

This Day In History

FDR urges repeal of Neutrality Act embargo provisions

On this day in 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appears before Congress and asks that the Neutrality Acts, a series of laws passed earlier in the decade, be amended. Roosevelt hoped to lift an embargo against sending military aid to countries in Europe facing the onslaught of Nazi aggression during World War II.

In 1936 and 1937, the Neutrality Acts had been expanded to restrict the sale of arms and war materials during a period of isolationist sentiment. However, in 1939, the rising threat to democracy in Western Europe–and pro-democratic forces in China–spurred Roosevelt to ease these restrictions. FDR warned Congress that Europe was on the verge of descending into a second global conflict. During the address, Roosevelt described how countries such as Germany built up “vast armies and navies and storehouses of war…with growing speed and intensity,” while the U.S. had tried to remain neutral doing “all in its power to encourage peaceful settlements.” However, by 1939, Roosevelt had begun to weigh the benefits of American neutrality against the nation’s obligation to help democratic nations defend themselves against fascist, expansionist Germany and Italy. In his speech before Congress, Roosevelt said that American neutrality laws as they stood in 1939 may actually give passive “aid to an aggressor” while denying help to victimized nations.

Although the language of the proposed amendment technically stated that any country would be allowed to purchase arms and goods from a still neutral U.S., Roosevelt’s primary goal was to make it easier for the U.S. to supply arms to democratic Britain and France. The new provision prohibited American ships from transporting arms or war material, gave the president power to identify combat zones (primarily Atlantic sea lanes) from which American citizens would be restricted and made it illegal for U.S. citizens to travel on vessels from belligerent nations.

Congress finally agreed to the proposed changes on November 4, 1939. A year later, with Britain standing as the last bastion against Nazi aggression in Europe and with German U-boats threatening American shipping, the Neutrality Act was again amended to allow the arming of merchant vessels. In December 1941, the act was rendered moot by the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s subsequent entry into World War II.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

General Interest

1938

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General Interest

1989

Powell becomes Joint Chiefs’ chairmanThe Senate Armed Forces Committee unanimously confirms President George H. Bush’s nomination of Army General Colin Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell was the first African American to achieve the United States’ highest military post.Powell was born in 1937 in …read more

General Interest

1792

Monarchy abolished in FranceIn Revolutionary France, the Legislative Assembly votes to abolish the monarchy and establish the First Republic. The measure came one year after King Louis XVI reluctantly approved a new constitution that stripped him of much of his power.Louis ascended to the French throne in …read more

World War II

1942

The Superfortress takes flightOn this day in 1942, the U.S. B-29 Superfortress makes its debut flight in Seattle, Washington. It was the largest bomber used in the war by any nation.The B-29 was conceived in 1939 by Gen. Hap Arnold, who was afraid a German victory in Europe would mean the United States would …read more

World War I

1917

Central Powers respond to Papal Peace NoteOn this day in 1917, Austria-Hungary and Germany make separate replies to the proposal issued by Pope Benedict XV at the beginning of the previous month calling for an immediate armistice between the Allied and Central Powers in World War I.Since being named to the papacy in …read more

Vietnam War

1967

Thai troops arrive in Saigon

Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam, welcomes 1,200 Thai troops as they arrive in Saigon. By 1969, Thai forces in Vietnam would number more than 12,000. The effort to get additional “Free World Military Forces” to participate in the …read more

Vietnam War

1961

5th Special Forces Group is activated at Fort BraggThe U.S. Army’s 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces, is activated at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The Special Forces were formed to organize and train guerrilla bands behind enemy lines. President John F. Kennedy, a strong believer in the potential of the …read more

Sports

1981

Carlton gets 3,118th strikeoutOn September 21, 1981, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Steve Carlton strikes out the 3,118th batter of his career to break Bob Gibson’s National League record for career strikeouts. Despite Carlton’s 10 shutout innings and 12 strikeouts, the Phillies lost the marathon game to the …read more

Presidential

1939

FDR urges repeal of Neutrality Act embargo provisionsOn this day in 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appears before Congress and asks that the Neutrality Acts, a series of laws passed earlier in the decade, be amended. Roosevelt hoped to lift an embargo against sending military aid to countries in Europe facing the …read more

Old West

1904

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Literary

1866

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Music

1968

Jeannie C. Riley is the first woman to top the Country and Pop charts simultaneously

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Hollywood

1985

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Disaster

1999

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Crime

1983

A 13-year-old’s dead body turns upThe mutilated body of 13-year-old paperboy Danny Joe Eberle is found in his hometown of Bellevue, Nebraska. Eberle had been stabbed multiple times, bound with rope andtortured to death.FBI investigators called in to help catch the vicious killer found only one clue that could …read more

Cold War

1949

Mao Zedong outlines the new Chinese governmentAt the opening of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Peking, Mao Zedong announces that the new Chinese government will be “under the leadership of the Communist Party of China.” The September 1949 conference in Peking was both a celebration of the communist …read more

Civil War

1820

Union General John Reynolds is BornOn this day, Union General John Fulton Reynolds is born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.One of nine children, Reynolds received his education at private academies before Senator James Buchanan, a family friend, secured him an appointment at West Point in 1837. He graduated in 1841, 26 …read more

Automotive

2002

Nils Bohlin, inventor of the three-point seatbelt, dies at 82

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More History

Why Were the Rosenbergs Executed?

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were the only spies executed during the Cold War and some question whether their sentence was fair.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were executed after having been found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage. The charges were in relation to the passing of information about the American atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. 

Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Few death-penalty executions can equal the controversy created by the electrocutions of spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953. Accused of overseeing a spy network that stole American atomic secrets and handing those over to the Soviet Union, the couple were the only spies executed during the Cold War.

But were they guilty? For some, that has been in dispute for more than half a century.

Julius Rosenberg was almost certainly guilty.

By most accounts, Julius Rosenberg was an enthusiastic Communist. His job at the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories made him an enticing recruit for Soviet spies, who approached him on Labor Day, 1942.

Late in 1944, Julius became a recruiter for the Russians and oversaw several spies himself, including the one who would cause Julius’ downfall: his brother-in-law David Greenglass. Greenglass worked on the Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

After the ring was uncovered, Greenglass was arrested on June 15, 1950. He named his wife as a co-conspirator, along with Julius. Greenglass originally denied his sister Ethel was involved, but later changed his story.

Ethel Rosenberg was arrested on the courthouse steps.

Soon after, the FBI raided the Rosenberg home and arrested Julius. Ethel was later arrested while leaving a federal courthouse in New York City after testifying she had no knowledge of espionage efforts. The FBI hoped her arrest would force Julius to name names of other Communist sympathizers.

Greenglass later told New York Times journalist Sam Roberts that he had entered into a deal with the government, implicating his sister in exchange for his wife’s immunity.

The Rosenbergs and Greenglass were all found guilty.

Sentencing guidelines gave the judge two choices for Julius and Ethel: 30 years imprisonment or execution. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover suggested a 30-year sentence for Ethel, believing she would eventually name names in jail.

But Judge Irving Kaufman chose death for both Rosenbergs. David Greenglass got a 15-year sentence, serving just over nine years.

The Rosenbergs were executed by electric on June 19, 1953, at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York.

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