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In the aftermath of WWI (or as it was known then, the Great War) and especially after the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, the American public was not interested in getting involved in foreign wars again. Even as Hitler came to power, American popular opinion and a majority of Congress were strongly non-interventionist.
There were four Acts, passed in 1935, '36, '37, and '39, with the first two banning arms and "materiel," or war supplies, to "belligerent" nations, and the second two allowing an exception for nations that could pay cash up front and ship the supplies themselves (mostly Britain and France).
The Neutrality Acts complicated the social and political landscape of the U.S. for FDR, who was stuck between the hard place of American isolationism (with its lingering cultural trauma of WWI) and the rock (read: crashing boulder) that was the threat of the Axis powers.
Most significantly, the Neutrality Acts created a legal roadblock for much of the preventative measures that FDR wanted to take in order to protect the American people from enemy military aggression. They existed as a legal and historical precedent for those who opposed his preemptive measures, making it very easy for his detractors to conjure arguments against any sort of U.S. involvement in the war. All they had to do was point to the laws.
This is why FDR had to be so crafty when it came to implementing the programs of the Lend-Lease Act. He was maneuvering within a framework that was, in a way, working against him and his best intentions for the country.
At the end of his first term in office, FDR attended a grand ceremony celebrating the opening of a bridge in Chicago. In typical fashion, he took the opportunity to give a speech about world events. Which is to say, the ascent of fascism and Japanese imperialism.
Delivered on October 5th, 1937, the "Quarantine speech" as it's called, is an early instance of what would become FDR's main concern as president in the coming decade—the threat of military aggression by the Axis powers of WWII against the United States.
At this time, the Neutrality Acts were pretty fresh, and there was still one yet to come in 1939, but already FDR knew that the political sea change occurring in Europe and Asia was going to bring on the ugly in a major way. Lend-Lease was far off, considering, but the urgency that motivated FDR to initiate its complex diplomatic arrangements in 1941 was very much present in the rhetoric of this speech.
Interestingly, FDR takes the notion of "isolationism," which was so popular among the American people at the time, and flips it around, suggesting that it's the anti-democratic fascist nations that should be isolated instead.
However, notice how he chose his words carefully. "Quarantine," with its suggestion of contagious disease, is much, much nastier.
Sly move FDR, very sly indeed.
On the 29th of December, 1940, FDR gave one of his many radio addresses, in which he used the now famous phrase "arsenal of democracy," saying the United States would supply Britain with whatever war supplies they would need to resist Hitler, whose Blitzkrieg (lightning war) had easily defeated France, leaving the entire continent of Europe occupied by fascist forces.
Looking ahead to the coming year, FDR began to prepare the United States citizens for the very real possibility of war. Knowing many were still squeamish about international military involvement following WWI, he couldn't just slap the reality of the situation down of the table like a raw piece of meat. Instead, he had to feed it to people in small bits.
If this analogy is starting to get kind of gross, well, war is gross, so get over it. Basically, FDR broke it to them gently, and "arsenal of democracy" was an early step in this process.
By referring to the U.S. with this famous phrase, FDR did two important things to advance his quiet campaign for crumbling isolationism. The first was that he identified the country as a major world power and the forceful leader of the free world. The second was that he characterized the U.S. as the protector of democracy itself—an idea he would return to in depth during this State of the Union address a month later, a speech known for its presentation of the "Four Freedoms."
Lend-Lease is the outcome, in the form of foreign policy, of the foundation political work done by FDR in the "Arsenal of Democracy" radio broadcast, which can be considered an early step in his preemptive measures of defense against the Axis powers of WWII.
This was the 1941 State of the Union Address, but is commonly known as, "The Four Freedoms Speech." In it, FDR laid out his vision for what the Allies stood for against Germany, Italy, and Japan.
The four freedoms he wanted to fight for were: 1) freedom of speech, 2) freedom of religion, 3) freedom from "want," or material deprivation and poverty, and 4) freedom from fear of national invasion and dictatorial regimes.
"Four Freedoms" precedes the Lend-Lease act by about three months, and one can already see the inklings, the sparkles, oh, the basic sentiments that point to FDR's intentions for foreign policy in the near future. In this SotU Address, he is basically prepping the public for what is to come by appealing to their sympathies for moral goodness, coupled with American-style freedom, while warning them of the threat to this wholesome way of life.
In this way, no one's forced to deny isolationism, but everyone is made to consider how much they value the benefits of democracy and recognize the necessity of defending it. As a result, FDR created a scenario in which Lend-Lease could actually come into being with successful implementation and an understanding, if not full approval, of the American people.
FDR gave this speech on December 8th, 1941 in urgent response to the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Air Force. Maybe his most memorable phrase described the day of the attack, December 7th, 1941, as "a date which will live in infamy" (grammar sticklers might wish he had used "that" instead of "which," but it sounded good and there's no changing it now).
While everyone was surprised by the attack and its effectiveness, FDR was more mentally prepared for something like it than much of the public. Shortly after giving the speech, the United States officially declared war on Japan, with only one vote between the two houses of Congress opposed to the declaration. A few days later, the U.S. declared war on Germany and Italy.
As an historical document with political and legal implications, FDR's "Pearl Harbor" speech basically supplanted the Lend-Lease entirely. Instead of the tiptoeing, verbose song-and-dance that makes up the context of Lend-Lease as a means of working around the sensitivities of isolationist sympathizers, "Infamy" was all about bringing the smackdown in the most overt way. The speech itself is now nearly as famous a declaration of war as the terrible acts of violence the sparked its pronouncement.