(Dec. 11, 2020) This week, 80 years ago, U.S. President, Franklin D. Roosevelt held a press conference to announce the “Lend-Lease” Program. The United States and the world had passed through the greatest depression in modern history and was still very much in the throes of a difficult and painful recovery.
For some years, Europe had begun to see real danger in the rise of Fascist regimes of Germany under Adolph Hitler, and Italy under Benito Mussolini. Japan was expanding its conquests throughout east Asia.
However, the United States, just over two decades since the cessation of the “Greatest War,” World War I, was still in a significant mind-set of isolation, and Congress had passed three Neutrality Acts in 1935, 1936 and 1937 that were intended to ensure that America would keep out of war, as they each had made it illegal for the United States to sell or transport arms to either side of the warring nations, neither to aggressors nor to defenders.
However, President Roosevelt, began to formulate ways to soften American objections. So, in order to gain some easing of the prohibitions, he urged Congress to amend the Acts to allow warring nations to purchase military goods by paying cash, and to bear the risk of transporting those goods across the U-Boat infested North Atlantic in non-American ships.
He succeeded in easing the prohibition in the Neutrality Act of September 1939, which allowed such sales on a “cash and carry” basis. This was, indeed, the first step toward a change in the feelings of American citizens.
Following the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, which brought England and France into the war, Roosevelt proclaimed that while America was neutral by law, he recognized that, “... it is impossible for every American to remain neutral in thought as well.”
After the conquest of Poland, for a period of some months, the Western Front of the conflict was quiet, thus fomenting the description “The Phony War.”
That changed precipitously in the Spring of 1940, as German armies raced through the Low Countries and the north of France in the new and devastating “Blitzkrieg” (Lightning War), causing the French forces, bolstered by the British Expeditionary Force, to be overwhelmingly defeated.
Then followed the “Miracle of Dunkirk”, where a rag-tag flotilla of British Naval Vessels, fishing boats, yachts, and small craft of every description embarked from English ports and saved nearly 200,000 British and 140,000 French soldiers, from capture or death.
However, thousands of military vehicles, rifles, artillery and tons of ammunition had been left behind and lost to the armed forces safely transported to England. Also, nearly 40,00 British and more than 40,000 French troops had been left behind and were taken prisoner.
A crisis mode swiftly pervaded England and there were widespread murmurs of possible further appeasement to avoid the seemingly inevitable invasion and probable conquering of Britain by Germany.
However, one mighty voice stood firmly and forcefully against any notion of surrender — Winston Churchill, the newly elected Prime Minister of England, who had ascended to the office following the ignominious departure of Neville Chamberlain, the architect of earlier appeasement to Hitler.
In Britain’s darkest hour, he rallied the people with his soaring oratory, proclaiming, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills ... we shall never surrender ... until in God’s good time, the new world with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the old.”
Stirring words, indeed, but words alone do not win wars. Help, material help, significant help was desperately needed.
Now it was Roosevelt’s time.
During the summer of 1940, desperate for aid, Churchill wrote a personal letter to Roosevelt requesting the possible delivery of 50 surplus U.S. destroyers to bolster the Royal Navy, the waterborne bulwark against invasion across the English Channel.
The Royal Navy had been markedly reduced by U-Boat attacks, and the subjugation of France had given the German U-Boats significant ports along the French shoreline.
That resulted in the “Ships For Bases” exchange that Roosevelt engineered, by explaining that it was indeed, a defensive measure in allowing American Naval ships and Army Air Corps planes to use Caribbean and Newfoundland British bases.
Although a significant aid to the desperate needs of England, it was not enough. In December 1940, Churchill wrote to Roosevelt, advising that soon Britain’s currency and gold reserves would be depleted, and that “cash and carry” allowed by the latest Neutrality Act would be of no further help.
Roosevelt, sympathetic to the British, but still aware of American sentiment, began to formulate an idea that he had ruminated upon, using the famous analogy of the garden hose, which during a neighbor’s house fire, was not sold to the neighbor, but lent, on the condition that it would be returned after the fire was out. Thus, “Lend-Lease” was born.
On Dec. 29, 1940, in another of his “fireside chats,” Roosevelt coined the stirring phrase that America must become “The Great Arsenal of Democracy” which would involve a task of rearming, “... in the same spirit of Patriotism and sacrifice as we would show if we were at war.”
However, Congress had to be convinced. It ran into strong opposition from the isolationist members of Congress, just as had his previous efforts. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, testifying before a Congressional Committee stated, “We are buying, not lending ... we are buying our own security while we prepare.”
He noted that Germany had been preparing for six years while the U.S. had done nothing. Thus, did the U.S. begin serious preparation to manufacture the material for war.
Roosevelt’s legendary powers of persuasion soon began to take effect. In February 1941, a Gallup Poll indicated that 54 percent of Americans favored unequivocal aid to Britain and another 15 percent favored aid with only some strings attached. Only 22 percent opposed the idea altogether.
In February, the Congress voted, with the bill passing the House by a vote of 260-165 and the Senate voting “aye” by 59 to 30.
Roosevelt promptly sent his loyal aid, Harry Hopkins, to England to meet with Churchill and discern the immediate needs of that country.
Churchill, at first, was puzzled by Hopkins being the man sent by the U.S. President, as he had been a former social worker whom Churchill presumed knew nothing of military matters.
Hopkins, however, spent six weeks in England, mostly with Churchill himself. The two men became fierce advocates of the other and became close friends.
During a small dinner party before his departure to report to Roosevelt on Britain’s plight, Hopkins gave a toast and paraphrased the Bible; “You may ask what I am going to say to the President about my feelings toward Britain. I will tell him, “Whither thou goest, I will go. And where thou lodgest, I will lodge, thy people shall be my people and thy God my God.... Even to the end.” Churchill burst into tears.
Upon his arrival back in the U.S., Hopkins was promptly appointed Administrator of Lend-Lease, and thus began what Churchill later called, “the most unsordid act in the whole of recorded history”.
And, indeed, it may have well been. Its aid was soon expanded to the Soviet Union (after Hitler’s sneak attack in the summer of 1941), and later to other allies. It was a gigantic undertaking.
Over the course of the war, $50.1 billion (equivalent to $565 billion in 2018 dollars) was involved, over 11 percent of the entire cost of the war to the U.S.
Britain got $31 billion; the Soviet Union got $11.3 billion; France got $3.2 billion; China got $1.6 billion; and the rest of the Allies got $2.6 billion. Although never written down by Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, then a war-time Commissar, stated that Stalin acknowledged that the Red army and the Soviet Union could not have survived the German invasion and later win the “Great Patriotic War,” without American aid through Lend-Lease. Indeed, Stalin did state at the Tehran Conference in 1943, that without American machines, the United Nations could not have won the war.
The program mostly ended after V-E Day, and was terminated in August 1945, after the Japanese surrender. Lend-Lease had, indeed, won the war.
Following its cessation nothing other than a few unarmed transport ships were ever returned to the U.S.
For further reading: Harry Hopkins; Roosevelt’s Envoy to Churchill and Stalin; Sullivan The Borrowed Years. 1938-1941; Ketchum; Together We Cannot Fail-FDR in Years of Crisis; Golway; FDR, a Biography; Morgan
Next week: Komet
Mr. Moore writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he is a partner in the law firm of Williams, Moore, Shockley and Harrison, LLC. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.