Americans like to imagine that in days long past politics stopped at the water’s edge and America spoke with one voice to the world. More often than not, however, our foreign policy debates have been rough-and-tumble affairs, more a cacophony of angry voices than a harmony of sweet ones. Nowhere was this more true than in the pitched battle over one of the most important pieces of foreign policy legislation in American history, the Lend–Lease Act, which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law on March 11, 1941.
The seeds for the Lend-Lease Act were planted in the late fall of 1940. FDR had just been elected to an unprecedented third term, a race he won at least in part by pledging to an American public worried about war with Germany: “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” (Upon learning of what FDR said, his opponent, Wendell Wilkie, erupted: “That hypocritical son of a bitch! This is going to beat me!” That’s one political prediction that turned out to be correct.)
In December 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote to FDR with the chilling news that Britain was verging on bankruptcy. The “Battle of Britain” over the previous summer and fall had taken a heavy toll. Churchill confessed that: “The moment approaches when we shall no longer be able to pay cash for shipping and other supplies.” Without supplies from the United States, Britain might not be able to hold out against the German onslaught.
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