*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
In the wake of World War I, the United States took drastic steps to isolate itself from other nations and avoid entry into another global conflict. On March 11, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt effectively ended American neutrality by signing the Lend-Lease Act, a bill to “Further Promote the Defense of the United States.” By allowing the federal government to provide aid of all kinds to Allied countries, Roosevelt brought American military hardware into the conflict nine months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Struggling through the Great Depression from late 1929 on, some Americans seized on a conspiracy theory defining bankers and weapons manufacturers as the cause of the worldwide upheaval of the First World War. Though the theory could be generously classified as thin, the fact remained intervention in the conflict had cost the US billions of dollars and thousands of lives. By the 1930s, the generation that lost its innocence fighting along the Western Front closed the country off.
Repulsed by the thought of being forced to enter another battle on foreign soil, an influential group of senators advocated for deep restrictions on the nature of American military action. Essentially, the US would defend home soil and leave the rest of the world to fight on its own. As other nations launched new offensives — Italy on Ethiopia, Japan against China, Germany into Czechoslovakia — the attitude of isolation became law with four Neutrality Acts between 1935 and 1939.
The strict definitions of these new statutes left Roosevelt maneuvering to provide support to fulfill long-honored alliances, often relying on legal definitions to make his case for aiding one side over the other, if he even could. When it came to the Second Sino-Japanese War, for example, the President used the fact neither country had officially declared war to his advantage, offering weapons and advisers to the Chinese. Members of Congress called Roosevelt on the carpet for subverting the intent of the Neutrality Acts, to which he replied in his Quarantine Speech of October 1937 that American policy should center on containing aggressive nations.
The shift preceded a larger change in the perceptions of the public. Running for re-election in 1940, the President faced a much different situation than four years before. Nazi Germany had run through much of central Europe and, in the months leading up to Election Day, launched a vicious bombing campaign against Britain. After retaining his office, Roosevelt took to the radio in December 1940 for an address that changed the course of American involvement: the US would transform into the “Arsenal of Democracy.”
The President famously made the case in this way:”Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four 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…I don’t say to him before that operation, ‘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. ”
No longer blind to the realities of the war in Europe, most Americans agreed with Roosevelt, so long as the aid amounted only to financial and material. Without any evidence of a threat to the US mainland, the public was unwilling to commit men to fight on the other side of the globe. Those who opposed the idea altogether — namely isolationists in Congress — believed the policy amounted to an “everything but” involvement in whatever wars Roosevelt felt necessary.
During voting in both the House of Representatives and Senate on February 9, 1941, the final tally amounted to little more than a straight political split: Democrats were largely for the bill and Republicans were generally against it. A month later, Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease Act into effect on March 11, 1941 to “sell, transfer title to, exchange, lease, lend, or otherwise dispose of” military equipment as he saw fit for the protection of American interests.
Ostensibly written to benefit the British — Prime Minister Winston Churchill had already granted rights to his country’s Caribbean bases in order to borrow 50 US Navy destroyers the previous September — China and the Soviet Union would be authorized to receive materiel under the Lend-Lease Act by the following April and October, respectively.
With victory in World War II assured more than four years later, the final tally of aid came to more than $50 billion spread around 44 countries from Britain to Brazil. The variety of equipment — airplanes, tanks, telephone cable, clothing, etc. — proved invaluable to the Allied war effort. During the Tehran Conference in 1943, Joseph Stalin declared, “Without American production the United Nations could never have won the war.”
As the world rebuilt, the Lend-Lease Act continued to be a key part of US foreign policy even after its official termination on September 2, 1945. Elements of the law formed the basis of the Marshall Plan, which provided aid for reconstruction to European nations — and, eventually, any country in the world — in order to prevent the spread of Communism after World War II.
Also On This Day:
222 – Roman Emperor Elagabalus and his mother are assassinated by Praetorian Guards, who drag the bodies through the streets
1702 – The Daily Courant, the first national newspaper in England, is printed for the first time
1851 – Giuseppe Verdi’s signature opera Rigoletto hits the stage for the first time
1872 – Japan annexes the island of Okinawa
1917 – A British-Indian force under General Stanley Maude takes Baghdad
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