Roosevelt Signs the Lend-Lease Act

The Lend-Lease Act authorized President Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow other nations to “borrow” war supplies from the United States, to be either returned or replaced only after the war in Europe was concluded. It represented a means for the United States to support Great Britain against Germany while technically maintaining its official neutrality.

Summary of Event

Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, plunged Europe into its second major war in 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 American sentiment weighed heavily toward Great Britain and France. With memories of World War I still fresh in the minds of most Americans, isolationist Isolationism, U.S. views prevailed. Lend-Lease Act (1941)[Lend Lease Act]
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For six years prior to Germany’s move against Poland, the United States had 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.

Keenly aware of these developments, the U.S. Congress in 1935 passed the first in a series of neutrality laws Neutrality Act (1935) . A six-month renewable act, the legislation prohibited the United States from selling arms or transporting munitions to belligerent nations. When it was renewed, a ban against making loans to warring nations was added. Congress and the president believed such a foreign policy would prevent the United States from being dragged 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 Neutrality Act (1937) of 1937, which retained the principal features of the 1935 act but, at the urging of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, allowed the president 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. 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 State of the union address;1939 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 the United Kingdom. If Hitler’s enemies were unable to acquire sufficient material for defense, Germany would find the western nations unable to halt Nazi aggression. Surely, the president hinted, the United States could devise methods short of war to aid British and French military defense preparations.

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 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 Nazis in June, 1940. The United Kingdom was the sole surviving power in Europe. Many thought that the United States should provide direct military aid to the British, the United States’ front line against Germany. If Britain collapsed, they believed, the United States would become Hitler’s next target. Others contended that the United States needed to strengthen its own defenses in preparation for Nazi 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 Churchill informed Roosevelt that the cash-and-carry system needed modification. Roosevelt understood that Britain could not withstand further Nazi attacks without direct U.S. aid and that the United States’ own security was largely dependent on British resistance to Hitler. In mid-December, Roosevelt conceived the idea of “lend-lease”: War goods could be provided to Britain with the understanding that they would be 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 United Kingdom. Every step short of war should be taken to help the British Empire defend itself. Britain’s inability to pay cash for U.S. supplies should not relegate the empire to Nazi conquest. To lend or lease the necessary goods would provide for Britain’s immediate war needs and indirectly benefit the United States by making Britain the United States’ 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 Nazi expansion.

To secure permission and funding to aid Great Britain, the House of Representatives introduced 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 the United States’ own 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 was directly attacked first.

After two months of congressional debate, the Lend-Lease Act was passed on March 11, 1941; its official name was An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States. Roosevelt signed it the same day. The law permitted the president to lend or lease war materiel to any nation whose defense was deemed critical to the United States, up to a maximum value of $1.3 billion. In June, following Germany’s invasion of Russia, 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.


Over the course of World War II, the ceiling of $1.3 billion in aid specified in the act was vastly exceeded. By the end of the war, the United States had appropriated slightly more than $50 billion under the lend-lease program. Great Britain received $27 billion worth of aid, the Soviet Union was provided $10 billion worth, and the remaining funds supplied goods to other Allied nations. Without this aid, especially the aid provided before the United States entered the European theater in force in 1942, Britain and the Soviet Union would have been much weaker in their resistance to Hitler, and it is conceivable that one or both might have fallen to the Nazis.

President Roosevelt’s contemporaries and postwar scholars have questioned the president’s prewar direction of U.S. policy, particularly with regard to the Lend-Lease Act. Some have argued that Roosevelt desperately wanted U.S. entry into the war long before the Japanese attack on 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 was a practical method for the United States to aid the Allies while remaining a nonbelligerent nation. Regardless of Roosevelt’s motives, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, sealed the United States’ fate, as war came to the United States. Lend-Lease Act (1941)[Lend Lease Act]
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];early U.S. involvement
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Further Reading

  • Crabb, Cecil V., Jr., Glenn J. Antizzo, and Leila E. Sarieddine. Congress and the Foreign Policy Process: Modes of Legislative Behavior. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000. Study of congressional participation in U.S. foreign policy; includes a chapter on the Lend-Lease Act. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Dobson, Alan P. U.S. Wartime Aid to Britain, 1940-1946. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Investigates the economic relationship between the United States and Great Britain.
  • Herring, George C., Jr. Aid to Russia, 1941-1946: Strategy, Diplomacy, the Origins of the Cold War. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973. While U.S. aid to the Soviet Union was meager and a slow process initially, it came to symbolize the cooperative Allied spirit in war.
  • Jones, Robert Huhn. The Roads to Russia: United States Lend-Lease to the Soviet Union. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969. Asserts that lend-lease aid was critical to Soviet survival but, at war’s end, became a central issue in decaying Soviet-United States relations.
  • Kimball, Warren F. The Most Unsordid Act: Lend-Lease, 1939-1941. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969. Shows the slow legislative process involved in securing passage of the Lend-Lease Act. Examines the issue of whether the act made United States entry into the war inevitable.
  • Langer, William L., and S. Everett Gleason. The Undeclared War, 1940-1941. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1968. Chapters 8 and 9 are centered on the origin and enactment of lend-lease.
  • Van Tuyll, Hubert P. Feeding the Bear: American Aid to the Soviet Union, 1941-1945. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. Examines U.S. lend-lease aid to the Soviet Union and its promises of continued aid following the war.
  • Weeks, Albert L. Russia’s Life-Saver: Lend-Lease Aid to the U.S.S.R. in World War II. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2004. Argues that the Soviet Union would not have survived the war without the aid from the United States made possible by the Lend-Lease Act. Bibliographic references and index.

World War II: Pacific Theater

World War II: European Theater

Bombing of Pearl Harbor