In the mid-1930s, the rise of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party in Germany threatened to drag Europe into another world war. The United States, meanwhile, had taken an isolationist turn, with Americans refusing to send more young men to die on foreign battlefields. More than 100,000 American soldiers were killed in World War I, sacrifices that many Americans believe were made to line the pockets of the American arms industry.
When Hitler marched on neighboring Czechoslovakia, Austria and Poland, it prompted joint declarations of war from two of America’s closest allies, Britain and France. But the United States remained stubbornly neutral, bound by Congress not to render aid or assistance to any “belligerent” in the European conflict.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt understood, however, that the best way to keep American troops out of World War II was to help the British and French defeat Hitler without us. This required money, ammunition and equipment – foreign aid explicitly prohibited by neutrality laws.
Through a series of shrewd political maneuvers, FDR was able to circumvent Congressional isolationists and find ways for America to contribute to the war effort long before December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor forced the United States to stand aside. and officially in the war.
FDR “bypasses” neutrality laws at the Canadian border
Congress passed the first Neutrality Act in 1935, prohibiting the export of “arms, munitions, and implements of war” to any foreign nation at war. With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Congressional isolationists amended the Neutrality Laws in 1937 to include even more restrictions on foreign aid and civilian involvement in overseas conflicts.
“Roosevelt didn’t like the neutrality legislation,” says Warren Kimball, professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University and author of Forged in War: Roosevelt, Churchill and the Second World War. “He saw the direction things were going in Europe and it took away his ability to act.”
In 1938, Hitler defied the Munich Agreement – which Britain and France hoped would appease Hitler’s imperialist impulses – and invaded Czechoslovakia. Then Germany annexed neighboring Austria, making a wider war with France and Britain almost inevitable.
“From that point on, Roosevelt began to gently but firmly bend the rules of neutrality,” Kimball explains. “He and his people found legal ways to supply the French with arms, but that took creativity.”
Under the Neutrality Acts, for example, warplanes could not leave the United States to be sold to foreign governments. The FDR administration therefore discreetly found a solution. They flew First World War planes to the Canadian border, parked them a few feet from a border crossing, and let Canadian officials tow the planes over the border with ropes.
“Cash and Carry” Arms Sales to Britain and France
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In 1939 Hitler invaded Poland in a direct provocation to Britain and France, which immediately declared war on Germany. FDR knew it would take more than a few planes over the Canadian border to keep the United States out of this war, so he persuaded Congress to change the neutrality laws to allow the unrestricted sale of supplies and arms to European allies on a “cash and carry” basis.
Cash and carry meant that foreign governments could buy US-made munitions and aircraft, but they had to pay cash and transport the equipment on their own ships. American politicians did not want a repeat of what happened in World War I.
“Some Americans were ‘traumatized’, if you will, by the fact that our World War I allies had borrowed a lot of money from the United States to buy weapons and food, and never paid it back. “, says Kimball. “And they also wanted to avoid the problem of American ships carrying war material across the ocean. After all, the sinking of the Lusitania – a British ship carrying American passengers – was one of the events that caused the States United in the First World War.
Just three days after the Neutrality Act was amended to allow cash and take-out sales, the British government set up the British Purchasing Commission in New York to expedite sales of US-made ammunition for export immediately to Europe.
Lend-Lease program opens floodgates for US war aid
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill took office in 1940 and watched in horror as the Nazis invaded and occupied France within weeks. Britain was now fighting Germany essentially alone, and it seemed very possible that Adolf Hitler would win.
Churchill wrote to FDR asking for a “loan” of 50 American naval destroyers, but Roosevelt knew that Congress would never approve it. So FDR’s attorney general came up with a creative legal workaround that allowed the president to dispatch the ships using executive action. In what is known as the “destroyers-for-bases contract”, FDR traded World War I destroyers in return for 99-year leases on selected British bases in the Western Hemisphere.
In December 1940, as the British were being pounded by German night bombardments, Churchill again wrote to FDR saying that “[t]The time is approaching when we will no longer be able to pay cash for shipping and other supplies.
With the situation becoming increasingly dire for Britain, FDR and his Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau responded with another ploy called Lend-Lease. Instead of acting alone, Roosevelt tried to persuade Congress to loan war material to the British with the hope, but not the assurance, that it would be repaid. At a press conference, FDR compared it to lending a garden hose to a neighbor whose house is on fire. You might not get the pipe back, but at least your house didn’t burn down either.
Congress, sensing that this might be America’s last chance to stay out of the war, defeated isolationist opposition and passed the Lend-Lease Act (subtitled “An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States”) in the spring of 1941, establishing the Office of Lend-Lease Administration.
As part of congressional debates, some senators wanted to explicitly bar the Soviet Union from receiving any Lend-Lease aid, but Kimball says FDR supporters “planning” struck that language. The allies might never have defeated Hitler had it not been for the Soviet Union, and the Soviets depended heavily on Lend-Lease aid in the form of raw metals, explosives, and fuel.
Winston Churchill called the Lend-Lease program (not the Marshall Plan) “the most sordid act in all recorded history”.
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