March 11, 1941 – Roosevelt Signs the Lend-Lease Act
Between 1935 and 1937 Congress passed three “Neutrality Acts” that tried to keep the United States out of war, by making it illegal for Americans to sell or transport arms, or other war materials to belligerent nations. Supporters of neutrality, called “isolationists” by their critics, argued that America should avoid entangling itself in European wars. “Internationalists” rejected the idea that the United States could remain aloof from Europe and held that the nation should aid countries threatened with aggression.
In the spring of 1939, as Germany, Japan, and Italy pursued militaristic policies, President Roosevelt wanted more flexibility to meet the Fascist challenge. FDR suggested amending the act to allow warring nations to purchase munitions if they paid cash and transported the goods on non-American ships, a policy that favored Britain and France. Initially, this proposal failed, but after Germany invaded Poland in September, Congress passed the Neutrality Act of 1939 ending the munitions embargo on a “cash and carry” basis.
The passage of the 1939 Neutrality Act marked the beginning of a congressional shift away from isolationism. Over the next 2 years, Congress took further steps to oppose fascism. One of the most important was the 1941 approval of Lend-Lease, which allowed the United States to transfer arms to nations vital to the national defense.
On December 7, 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote what he titled as “The most important letter I have ever written” to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In that letter, he describes Britain’s dire military and economic situation and reveals that his country will soon be unable to pay cash for American supplies. FDR received this letter during a post-election ocean cruise. Within days, he would formulate the concept of Lend Lease.
After a decade of neutrality, Roosevelt knew that the change to Allied support must be gradual, given the support for isolationism in the country. Originally, the American policy was to help the British but not join the war. During early February 1941, a Gallup poll revealed that 54% of Americans were in favor of giving aid to the British without qualifications of Lend-Lease. A further 15% were in favor with qualifications such as: “If it doesn’t get us into war,” or “If the British can give us some security for what we give them.” Only 22% were unequivocally against the President’s proposal. When poll participants were asked their party affiliation, the poll revealed a political divide: 69% of Democrats were unequivocally in favor of Lend-Lease, whereas only 38% of Republicans favored the bill without qualification. At least one poll spokesperson also noted that “approximately twice as many Republicans” gave “qualified answers as … Democrats.”
Opposition to the Lend-Lease bill was strongest among isolationist Republicans in Congress, who feared the measure would be “the longest single step this nation has yet taken toward direct involvement in the war abroad”. When the House of Representatives finally took a roll call vote on February 9, 1941, the 260 to 165 vote was largely along party lines. Democrats voted 238 to 25 in favor and Republicans 24 in favor and 135 against.
The vote in the Senate, which occurred a month later, revealed a similar partisan difference: 49 Democrats (79 percent) voted “aye” with only 13 Democrats (21 percent) voting “nay”. In contrast, 17 Republicans (63 percent) voted “nay” while 10 Senate Republicans (37 percent) sided with the Democrats to pass the bill.
President Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease bill into law on March 11, 1941. It permitted him 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.” In April, this policy was extended to China, and in October to the Soviet Union. Roosevelt approved US$1 billion in Lend-Lease aid to Britain at the end of October 1941.
This followed the 1940 Destroyers for Bases Agreement, whereby 50 US Navy destroyers were transferred to the Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy in exchange for basing rights in the Caribbean. Churchill also granted the US base rights in Bermuda and Newfoundland for free, allowing British military assets to be redeployed.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States entering the war in December 1941, foreign policy was rarely discussed by Congress, and there was very little demand to cut Lend-Lease spending. In spring 1944, the House passed a bill to renew the Lend-Lease program by a vote of 334 to 21. The Senate passed it by a vote of 63 to 1.
Without that vital assistance at the moment, the length and perhaps even some of the outcomes might have been very different. But on March 11, 1941, the die was cast that would settle the question of tyranny or freedom in the world.