embargo (ĕmbärˈgō) [key], prohibition by a country of the departure of ships or certain types of goods from its ports. Instances of confining all domestic ships to port are rare, and the Embargo Act of 1807 is the sole example of this in American history. The detention of foreign vessels has occurred more often, either as an act of reprisal designed to coerce diplomatic redress, or in contemplation of war with the country to which the vessels belonged. Embargoes on goods, however, are far more common. Although an embargo can cripple a nation's economy, the use of an embargo alone has typically failed to achieve the goal its imposition was intended to secure.
The United States has used embargoes for both economic and strategic purposes. An example of the former was the prohibition of gold bullion exports in 1933, while the latter is seen in the embargo placed on certain war materials in 1940. An embargo may also be used as a political device. Thus, in 1912 the president was empowered to forbid the export of munitions to Latin America. The Neutrality Act of 1936 gave the president a similar power with regard to warring nations anywhere.
Embargoes were authorized as a form of sanction by the Covenant of the League of Nations, and were applied against Paraguay in 1934 in the Chaco dispute (see Gran Chaco) with Bolivia, and against Italy for its invasion of Ethiopia (1935–36). Article 41 of the United Nations Charter permits embargoes in cases of military aggression, and during the Korean War, the United Nations called upon its members to refrain from sending arms and strategic materials to territory controlled by the North Koreans and Chinese.
In 1960, the United States imposed an embargo of all goods, excluding food and medicine, on Cuba, and in 1962 the Organization of American States, amid great controversy, established its own Cuban trade embargo (since abandoned). Since the 1970s, economic sanctions of this sort have increasingly been used by the United States and the United Nations against nations that disturb peaceful relations, such as Iraq (imposed in 1990; exemption to sell oil in order to buy food and medicine granted in 1996) or Yugoslavia (imposed in 1992; eased in 1995 with removal tied to compliance with the Dayton Accords; new embargoes imposed by NATO during the Kosovo crisis in 1999); or against nations that have maintained white minority governments, such as Rhodesia (in the 1970s) or South Africa (in the 1980s).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.