March, 1941: Lend-Lease Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, plunged Europe into a second major war within twenty-five years–a war that would prove to be the worst in human history. As in the beginning of World War I, the United States hoped to remain neutral, although popular sentiment weighed heavily toward Great Britain and France. With memories of World War I still fresh in the minds of most Americans, isolationist views prevailed. For six years prior to Germany’s move against Poland, the United States watched developments in Europe with concern. Adolf Hitler, whose Nazi Party governed Germany, made no attempt to conceal his intentions to break with the Treaty of Versailles, rearm Germany, and expand Nazi control throughout Europe. At the same time, Italy’s Benito Mussolini advanced aggressively against Ethiopia, and Japan continued military operations in China.

Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, plunged Europe into a second major war within twenty-five years–a war that would prove to be the worst in human history. As in the beginning of World War I, the United States hoped to remain neutral, although popular sentiment weighed heavily toward Great Britain and France. With memories of World War I still fresh in the minds of most Americans, isolationist views prevailed. For six years prior to Germany’s move against Poland, the United States watched developments in Europe with concern. Adolf Hitler, whose Nazi Party governed Germany, made no attempt to conceal his intentions to break with the Treaty of Versailles, rearm Germany, and expand Nazi control throughout Europe. At the same time, Italy’s Benito Mussolini advanced aggressively against Ethiopia, and Japan continued military operations in China.

Neutrality Laws

Keenly aware of these developments, the U.S. Congress in 1935 legislated the first in a series of neutrality laws. A six-month renewable act, the legislation prohibited the United States from selling arms or transporting munitions to belligerent (warring) nations. When it was renewed, a ban against making loans to warring nations was included. Congress and the president believed such a foreign policy would prevent the United States from slipping into another European war, should one arise.

The following year, developments in Europe proved peace to be but an illusion. Hitler’s forces moved unopposed into the Rhineland, a French territory; in 1937, Germany involved itself in the Spanish Civil War and sealed the Rome-Berlin alliance. The United States responded with the Neutrality Act of 1937, which retained the principal features of the 1935 act but, at Roosevelt’s urging, allowed presidential discretion to sell military goods to belligerents on a “cash and carry” basis, provided the material was not transported on U.S. ships. The altered policy pleased manufacturers who wanted to profit while the nation remained officially neutral and apart from the European crisis. The new policy also pleased those in the United States who thought it essential to aid the country’s traditional allies.

Germany’s expansion continued, and in his state of the union address, on January 4, 1939, President Roosevelt announced his dismay over the course of European affairs and his dissatisfaction with existing neutrality laws. He believed that the 1937 act benefited Hitler more than it did France or Great Britain. If Hitler’s enemies were unable to acquire sufficient material for defense, Germany would find the Western nations unable to halt German aggression. Surely, the president hinted, the United States could devise methods short of war to aid British and French military defense preparations.

Answering Britain’s Appeal

Early that summer, the British government made a direct appeal to Roosevelt for military supplies, and in June, the president suggested revision of the Neutrality Act of 1937 to broaden the cash-and-carry provision. Fearful that such a program of support for Great Britain would cast the United States in an image of cobelligerent, isolationists in Congress blocked Roosevelt’s efforts. Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, and the British-French declaration of war that followed, changed the congressional mood. By year’s end, revisions to the 1937 act were sanctioned, making it easier for Britain to obtain needed supplies.

France fell to the Germans in June, 1940. Great Britain was the sole surviving power in Europe. Many thought that the United States should provide direct military aid to the British, the U.S. front line against Germany. If Britain collapsed, the United States would become Hitler’s next target. Others contended that the United States needed to strengthen its own defenses in preparation for German actions in the Western Hemisphere. Roosevelt chose to follow both courses. He gained approval from Congress to appropriate funds for U.S. rearmament and for a peacetime compulsory military training law. In June, using executive authority, Roosevelt authorized the supply of outdated aircraft and rifles to Great Britain; in September, he arranged with Britain the exchange of fifty U.S. naval destroyers for leases of British naval bases.

Great Britain’s financial reserves dwindled as autumn faded. In December, Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill informed Roosevelt that the cash-and-carry system needed modification. Roosevelt understood that Great Britain could not withstand further German attacks without direct U.S. aid and that the security of the United States was largely dependent on British resistance to Hitler. In mid-December, Roosevelt conceived the idea of lend-lease: War goods would be provided to Allied nations and either returned or paid for at war’s end.

In both a press conference and a radio “fireside chat,” Roosevelt stated that the best defense for the United States was a strong Great Britain. Every step short of war should be taken to help the British Empire defend itself. Great Britain’s inability to pay cash for U.S. supplies should not relegate the empire to German conquest. To lend or lease the necessary goods would provide for Great Britain’s immediate war needs and indirectly benefit the United States by making Great Britain the U.S. front line of defense. Roosevelt presented an analogy to clarify the proposal: “Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four hundred or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire.” If the hose survived the fire, it would be returned. Should it be damaged, the neighbor would replace it. Military aid would be treated in the same way. The United States must become the “arsenal of democracy” and provide the goods necessary to halt German expansion.

The Lend-Lease Bill

To secure permission and funding to aid Great Britain, Roosevelt introduced into the House of Representatives the lend-lease bill. The bill generated intense debate. Opponents said the measure would move the United States from neutrality to the status of active nonbelligerent and risk war with Germany. They believed that it would be more logical to plan to build up the U.S. defenses. Supporters argued that Hitler posed a real, direct threat to the United States, and that aiding Great Britain would make U.S. entry into the war less likely. Public opinion favored the president. Although 82 percent of Americans believed war was inevitable, nearly 80 percent opposed entry unless the nation were directly attacked.

After two months of congressional debate, the Lend-Lease Act was passed on March 11, 1941. It permitted the president to lend or lease war materiel to any nation whose defense was deemed critical to the United States, and it authorized an immediate appropriation of seven billion dollars for Great Britain. In June, following Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Roosevelt extended lend-lease to the Soviet Union. The Lend-Lease Act retained official U.S. neutrality, but the measure also placed the United States more squarely in opposition to Nazi Germany. In March, 1941, the United States teetered on the brink of war.

By war’s end, in 1945, the United States appropriated slightly more than fifty billion dollars under the lend-lease program. Great Britain received twenty-seven billion dollars in aid, the Soviet Union was provided ten billion dollars, and the remaining funds supplied goods to other Allied nations.

Roosevelt’s contemporaries and postwar scholars have questioned the president’s prewar direction of U.S. policy, particularly with regard to lend-lease. Some have argued that Roosevelt desperately wanted U.S. entry into the war long before Pearl Harbor but was restrained by popular opinion and political realities. Therefore, they argue, Roosevelt worked within the system to place the United States on an ever-advancing course toward war by molding public opinion, relaxing neutrality laws, and securing lend-lease. Others contend the president hoped to avoid intervention in Europe’s war. Lend-lease thus was a practical method for the United States to aid the Allies while remaining a nonbelligerent. Regardless of Roosevelt’s motives, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, sealed U.S. fate. War came to the United States.

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