FDR Signs the Lend-Lease Act

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FDR Signs the Lend-Lease Act

Pres. Roosevelt signs Lend-Lease Act into law; photo originally printed in the New York World-Telegram
[Image currently in the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Division, Washington DC]
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: March 11, 1941

Today's military history lesson is not about a battle, but a piece of legislation which was just as responsible for the Allied victory in the Second World War as any person or piece of equipment.


Since the start of the war in Europe in September of 1939, relentless pressure was brought to bear on the American government to either enter the war against the Axis Powers (German, Italy, and Japan), or for the U.S. to continue its announced neutrality. By 1940, German naval units began a relentless offense against Allied commerce on the world's oceans. As a result, American ships were increasingly targeted.

These attacks began to push President Roosevelt into closer cooperation with Great Britain and the Republic of China. The question was: how to circumvent the U.S. neutrality laws short of a full declaration of war on the Axis?

In September of 1940, the U.S. and Great Britain made the "Destroyers for Bases" agreement. The U.S. Navy Department transferred 50 mothballed destroyers – surplus First World War vessels – to the Royal Navy for their use against the German Navy. In return, the U.S. received 99-year leases at a number of British bases in Bermuda, the Caribbean and Canada. Many of the American-build destroyers needed extensive updating; as a result, only 30 of the original 50 ships were deployed by the Royal Navy. [In 1941, the U.S. transferred 10 U.S. Coast Guard cutters to the British, which were more up-to-date than the destroyers, and they were seamlessly integrated into the Royal Navy's anti-submarine operations.]

Roosevelt campaigned for a tradition-breaking third term in 1940. He ran against Republican nominee Wendell Willkie. The president ran on his two terms of experience, and by saying he would do everything possible to keep America out of the war. Roosevelt won the election in November by nearly 5 million votes, taking 55 percent of the electorate and winning 38 of 48 states. After the election, Congress generally began moving away from isolationism to a stance of "armed neutrality."

State-by-state electoral vote results of 1940 presidential election; Roosevelt received 27.31 million votes (449 electoral votes), Willkie 22.35 million (82 electoral)
State-by-state electoral vote results of 1940 presidential election
Roosevelt received 27.31 million votes (449 electoral votes), Willkie 22.35 million (82 electoral)

In early 1941, President Roosevelt was bombarded with messages from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, asking for U.S. assistance. England was nearly out of money to purchase war materiel from America. Finally, FDR came up with a solution that would aid the British and their allies, while still allow the U.S. to keep its patina of neutrality.

That solution was Lend-Lease. Starting shortly after his re-election, President Roosevelt began pushing for a program to allow America to "sell, transfer title to, exchange, lease, lend, or otherwise dispose of, to any such government [whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States] any defense article."

Eager to ensure public consent for this controversial plan, Roosevelt explained to the public and the press that his plan was comparable to one neighbor's lending another a garden hose to put out a fire in his home. "What do I do in such a crisis?" the president asked at a December 17, 1940 press conference. "I don't say... 'Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it' …I don't want $15 — I want my garden hose back after the fire is over."

On February 9, 1941 the House of Representatives voted 260-165 in favor of the Lend-Lease bill (H.R. 1776). A month later, the Senate voted 59-30 to send the bill on to the White House. For all intents and purposes, American neutrality in World War II ended.


Over the next 4 years, the U.S. sent $50.1 billion ($656 billion in today's value) worth of material of all kinds to the allies. The main recipients were Great Britain ($31.4 billion), the Soviet Union ($11.3 billion), France ($3.2 billion), and China ($1.6 billion), as well as other allies.

Supplies sent to Russia included: 400,000 jeeps and trucks; 12,000 armored vehicles (including 7000 tanks); 11,400 aircraft; and 1.75 million tons of food. The Russians also received 2000 locomotives and 11,000 railcars. By 1945, two-thirds of the trucks in the Russian army were American trucks, primarily the Dodge ¾ ton and Studebaker 2 ½ ton models.

Footnote #1: One of the leaders of the isolationist movement – known as "America First Committee" – was Charles Lindbergh, famed aviator. He had visited Germany between 1936 and 1938, and had been permitted to fly several German planes, including the Messerschmidt Bf 109. Lindbergh was convinced that America would be defeated should the nation enter the war on the Allied side. He made a number of speeches criticizing the British and Jewish groups, and the Roosevelt Administration for pushing the U.S. into a European war.

After reading one of Lindbergh's speeches, FDR said it sounded as if it was written by German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. The president later referred to Lindbergh as "a defeatist and an appeaser," and compared him to U.S. Representative Clement Vallandingham (1820-1871) who had been a prominent opponent of the American Civil War. After the U.S. entered the war against Germany, he became a staunch supporter of America's goals in the war.

Lindbergh address America First Committee rally in Indiana, date unknown [Lindbergh can be seen to the left of the portrait of George Washington]
Lindbergh address America First Committee rally in Indiana, date unknown
[Lindbergh can be seen to the left of the portrait of George Washington]

Footnote #2: In the aftermath of the war, Britain decided it wanted to retain the equipment lent to the country by America. The supplies were sold to the British at a 90 percent discount, but it still amounted to 1.075 billion pounds sterling. A repayment plan was devised; the final payment of $83.3 million (£42.5 million), due on December 31, 2006, was made on December 29, 2006 (the last working day of the year). After this final payment Britain's Economic Secretary to the Treasury Ed Balls, formally thanked the U.S. for its wartime support.

Footnote #3: Four days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, German Chancellor Adolph Hitler declared war on the United States. In his speech before the Reichstag, he specifically cited Lend-Lease to the British as a provocation and de facto declaration of war by America on Germany.

Editorial cartoon by Daniel Bishop supporting Lend-Lease; Appeared in the St. Louis Star-Times, date unknown; [Image courtesy of http://ww2cartoons.org/lend-lease-the-most-unsordid-act/]
Editorial cartoon by Daniel Bishop supporting Lend-Lease
Appeared in the St. Louis Star-Times, date unknown
[Image courtesy of http://ww2cartoons.org/lend-lease-the-most-unsordid-act/]

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