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President Franklin Delano Roosevelt saw the writing on the wall…and it said something like, "Hitler's a monster and must be stopped, and it's going to take the United States to stop him."
Which: yes. That's correct.
Unfortunately, for much of the 1930s, most people in the United States—and even many in Europe—thought it would be better not to get involved in European conflicts again after the mayhem that was WWI. This ostrich-with-head-in-sand mentality is known as "isolationism."
Fearing WWII would cross the pond to American soil, FDR spent his first two terms chipping away at the support for isolationism, both in Congress and in the public-at-large. However, the U.S. government and its people were stubborn—it wasn't until the fall of France and the Battle of Britain (a.k.a. "the Blitz"), that a change took place in the form of the Lend-Lease Act.
You know: the doc that you're reading about right now.
This act allowed FDR to direct military aid to nations fighting against the Axis Powers…without the isolationist restrictions of the Neutrality Acts of the '30s.
Some might think that the U.S. didn't care about what was happening in Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but that wasn't quite the case. The United States had actually been selling military equipment to, and otherwise supporting, the United Kingdom's war efforts under the terms of the Neutrality Acts, specifically an agreement known as "cash and carry," which sounds like the name of a convenience store, but was more about war materials and less about Big Gulps and Family Size packs of Twizzlers. It necessitated cash up-front and required the customer country to transport the goods themselves.
The beauty of the Lend-Lease Act was that it allowed the President to "lend" or otherwise give away military equipment and information, as well as supplies in any way related to the war, to any country they thought needed them. (This is pretty different from, say, the kind of lending that goes on at a bank.)
The United Kingdom, in particular, benefitted from these terms, as their cash reserves (based in gold) were heavily depleted from spending it on war supplies. Lend-Lease would eventually significantly support another wartime ally, the Soviet Union. By the end of the war, the U.S.S.R. would receive huge amounts of material support as it strained to repel the enormous Nazi invasion of their Eastern borders.
Under the terms of the Lend-Lease Act, the supplies of war goods were to be repaid, in part, by the leasing of military bases around the world to the United States, a component to the law that mostly just formalized the United States logistical entry into the war and set the stage for future troop and intelligence movements.
In other words, the Lend-Lease act was a) what helped halt Hitler's dreams of world domination and b) secured the U.S.'s future as a superpower. Both of these are pre-tty important when it comes to shaping the 20th century.
The United States remained officially neutral until the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, nine months later. But in reality, all pretense to neutrality ended when "cash and carry" upgraded to "locked and loaded" with the successful passage of the Lend-Lease Act.
Some wise guy once said, "neither a borrower nor a lender be." Sage advice, for sure, if you're living in the luxury of peacetime.
But "all's fair in love and war," which pretty much means that that sage-but-dusty advice takes a trip to the circular file. With WWII on like Donkey Kong, nations like the U.S.A. and the U.K. (along with their allies) basically had no choicebut to become both borrowers and lenders. The other option was just straight up taking...but that's what the Germans were doing, and nobody was happy about it (except the Germans).
The Lend-Lease Act is a sneaky thing. On the face of it, it doesn't sound like a military declaration of war. Which is because technically it wasn't—it sort of sidestepped the issue because isolationism was still fairly popular in the U.S. come 1941.
However, FDR and his administration knew that Great Britain couldn't sustain a long-term war with Germany without, at the very least, significant material support from the United States. As for FDR and his administration, they surely knew about the inevitability of the American military getting drawn into the fray.
Lend-Lease was the next step in a soft preparation for possible entry into war (it wasn't exactly a "take the plunge" kind of scenario). Prior to the passing of the act, FDR had negotiated changes to the Neutrality Acts in the late 1930s that allowed for the "cash and carry" sale of hardware to allies who could pay cash up-front and provide for the transport themselves.
It's like buying a used refrigerator online—it's kind of a good deal, but also kind of inconvenient.
The Lend-Lease Act replenished British airplane hangars and supplied them with everything the American industrial base could produce as fast as they could make them. When the Soviet Union was invaded by Germany, the United States brought them into the fold and began shipping life-saving supplies and weapons. Hundreds of thousands of American trucks were critical to keeping the Soviet defensive lines supplied, as well as enabling faster Soviet advances once the tide turned against the Nazis after 1942.
So yeah: who knows what would have happened in terms of WWII—and, you know, modern world history—if the Lend-Lease Act hadn't been around.
The Lend-Lease Act created the possibility for an Allied victory against the Axis powers, and it effectively (and literally) gave nations like the U.K. and the U.S.S.R. a power boost at a point in time when Germany was gaining ever more control over Europe.
Without this American aid, it's likely that Great Britain would have fallen, and a Fascist domination of the continent made possible. It's chilling to think about the possibility of a Nazi victory, and even more incredible to consider that something as straightforward as a simple text could lead its prevention.
The Expert Word
Hear it (or read it) from those who know best: the historians and custodians of the FDR library. Their online database is chock full of details about the Lend-Lease Act, as well as just about anything and everything FDR under the sun.
Winny the Church
We're talking about the events leading up to and following the enactment of Lend-Lease from a particularly American-centric point of view, and we're giving a lot of attention to FDR. To be fair, he totally earned it, but he wasn't the only major international figure during the war (and, no, we're not talking about Hitler). Winston Churchill was actually just as instrumental in developing the Lend-Lease Act as FDR. His efforts, before, after, and during WWII are remembered by the International Churchill Society.
One More Pull on the Stogie
Just in case you haven't had enough of Churchill (and frankly, who has?), you can check out his war speeches, which have been conveniently uploaded for us all.
Great President, Room to Improve as a Husband
Eleanor and Franklin appears to be a television series from the 1970s that chronicles the remarkably soap-opera-like personal lives of America's 32nd First Family with remarkably low production values.
Is it Pronounced "Bi-opic" or "Bio-pic"?
The lives of great leaders make for great stories—especially when their lives are super intense or completely crazy. It's little surprise that Churchill shows up fairly often on screens large and small. This rendition of his life, aptly titled Churchill, delves into the conscience of a man in charge of a nation at war.
It's Robert Duvall...
As Stalin! In the made-for-TV movie Stalin. Clocking in at just under three glorious hours of early 1990s period drama, this tale covers the Soviet dictator's whole biographic shebang. If it doesn't, then, well, there isn't enough time in our lives to watch the whole thing.
FDR and Churchill were both a couple of talkers, and they were good at it, shootin' out one-liners like spitballs. The problem with famous quotes, however, is that very often they get twisted or misappropriated. Such is the case with Churchill and his description of Lend-Lease as "the most unsordid act in the history of nations." Read all about the mix up here.
You Can See Russia From There
After the Cold War, it is difficult to imagine diplomatic and cultural relations between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R./Russia as ever having been super tight, but the Lend-Lease Act did form this kind of bond—at least for a while. Check out this article that describes the friendship between the two nations in the 1940s and what some pilots are doing to remember it so many years later.
It Really Is That Close
The Russian foreign minister visited the U.S. in May 2017 during a time of political controversy, in which the Trump Administration was under scrutiny for possible unofficial ties to the former Soviet world power. In the context of Lend-Lease, this visit is particularly charged, highlighting how frequently the relationship between the two countries shifts. Minister Sergey Lavrov made a point to visit the Lend-Lease Memorial in Alaska before he returned home, further underscoring the complexity of U.S.-Russian postwar diplomacy.
Castle Film Newsreel
In the 1930s and 1940s people didn't really have televisions (they were more of a 1950s-bored-housewife-postwar thing) so people got their news and entertainment from the radio and from movies. In those days, going to the movies was a big "to do," and the experience came with a lot of extra stuff (not unlike today). Often, films were preceded by newsreels that reported on current events, like this one here about the cheery topic of Nazi Germany invading Austria. That probably didn't make for the most relaxing matinee.
A Tally That is Hard to Visualize
This jaw-dropping animation breaks down the number of deaths during World War II with unforgettable infographics. If you had any doubt as to the magnitude of WWII, this will settle the issue for you.
World War II in Europe and the Pacific: One Day at a Time
Sometimes it's difficult to grasp which armies were where at any given time during the war. There was so much back and forth, and this front and that front, and what's all this talk about theaters? To help us get our bearing on the military movements in the eastern hemisphere, this map changes to reflect battle lines for every day of WWII. Very cool (and convenient).
Radio (and Television) for Europe
With the help of some fancy talk (which he was known for), FDR used his public presence and emphatic rhetoric to convince the United States citizens and members of Congress to accept and approve Lend-Lease. The moment was quite an American Experience, one that PBS's This American Experience highlights in the clip provided here.
FDR gives Lend-Lease the ol' John Hancock
Here we have a somewhat famous, and no doubt staged, photograph of FDR signing the Lend Lease Act—making it official.
Please Sir, Can I Have Some More?
Prior to Lend-Lease going into effect, the U.K. was in short of supply of just about everything, from bullets to britches and even to food. Everything was rationed. Lend-Lease helped relieved much of that hardship when it supplied not just military equipment, but daily essentials to Brits in need. This image, which depicts school children holding their food for a photograph when they probably just wanted to eat it, is evidence of Lend-Lease's far reaching impact.
Jalopies in Polska
Not what you might call a "chick magnet," the Willys Jeep was used widely by allied troops in the European Theater during WWII. These jeeps, one of which is pictured here, were among the war materials supplied by the U.S. (again, it wasn't just all bombs and explosive stuff).