President Obama caught a lot of flak earlier this year for ordering the U.S. military to carry out airstrikes against Libya without securing congressional authorization, even after the ninety-day clock specified in the War Powers Resolution elapsed. Obama was hardly the first president to push the envelope on his foreign policy powers, essentially daring Congress to stop him. One of the most pivotal exercises of presidential prerogative came on September 2, 1940, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced the destroyers-for-bases deal with Great Britain.
The terms of the destroyers-for-bases deal are easy to state. The United States gave Great Britain fifty aging destroyers. In exchange, the United States received ninety-nine year leases on eight British bases in the Western Hemisphere. At the time the United States was still at peace, but the United Kingdom was struggling to survive the Battle of Britain and fend off a possible German invasion. It was precisely because the United States was moving away from pure neutrality in the war in Europe that the deal was so controversial.
The deal had its origins in a request that Winston Churchill made shortly after becoming prime minister in May 1940. He wrote to FDR asking for “the loan of forty or fifty of your older destroyers” to help Britain defend the English Channel against a feared German invasion. The Germans had already occupied Norway, and on the day Churchill became prime minister they attacked France and the Benelux countries. Within a month Britain was fighting Germany essentially by itself.
FDR’s response was not what Churchill hoped for. The American president wrote: “a step of that kind could not be taken except with the specific authorization of Congress and I am not certain that it would be wise for that suggestion to be made to the Congress at this moment.” FDR’s sense of the mood on Capitol Hill and in the country was spot on. And he had good reason to have his finger on the nation’s political pulse. He was seeking reelection to an unprecedented third presidential term.
Non-interventionists on Capitol Hill worried that FDR was too eager to help the British and would plunge the country into a war they didn’t want, didn’t think Britain could win, and that the United States would be wise to avoid. In June they passed legislation that forbid the president from transferring military equipment to another country unless senior military officials certified that it was “not essential to” the defense of the United States. In conjunction with laws already on the books, it seemed as if any effort to provide Britain with destroyers would require specific congressional approval.
As non-interventionists in Congress looked for ways to keep FDR from embroiling the country in war, a group of prominent Americans that included Time magazine publisher Henry Luce and columnist Joseph Alsop looked for a way that the president could somehow come to Great Britain’s aid. At a dinner at a New York country club in mid-July, the idea was floated that rather than simply giving the Royal Navy the destroyers, the United States should seek to trade the ships for access to British bases in the Western Hemisphere. Such a swap would allow FDR to make a politically appealing argument: he was acting to strengthen America’s continental defense and thereby help keep the country out of war.
The proposal intrigued FDR. Churchill had little choice but like it as well. Great Britain’s position was becoming increasingly perilous. At the end of July the prime minister put the point bluntly to FDR in a letter: “Mr. President, with great respect I must tell you that in the long history of the world this is a thing to do NOW.”
Churchill’s plea helped push FDR to action. After a pivotal cabinet meeting on August 2, the president wrote: “It was the general opinion, without any dissenting voice, that the survival of the British Isles under German attack might very possibly depend on their getting these destroyers. It was agreed that legislation to accomplish this is necessary."
But here FDR was in a bind. Although Wendell Wilkie, the Republican presidential nominee, had indicated through intermediaries that he would not oppose the transfer, Charles McNary, the Republican Senate leader as well as the Republican vice presidential nominee, let it be known that he could not support legislation permitting a transfer. He indicated that he would not object, however, if FDR could find a way to make the transfer without asking for congressional approval.
FDR’s escape from this dilemma came in the form of a legal opinion written by his Attorney General, Robert Jackson. (FDR reportedly told Jackson, perhaps jokingly, that if the legal obstacles to closing the deal weren’t cleared up, that Jackson’s “head will have to fall.") Jackson’s opinion mixed arguments for the inherent powers of the presidency with a clever (his critics would say “tortured”) reading of legal statutes to argue that FDR could in fact conclude the destroyers-for-bases deal as an executive agreement. (Jackson went out of his way to stress that his reasoning did not rest on assumptions about presidential powers alone.) The president did not, in this view, need to secure congressional approval or conclude the agreement in the form of a treaty subject to the Senate’s advice and consent. Jackson’s opinion did hold, however, that existing law barred the president from transferring twenty smaller PT boats to Great Britain. In that respect, his opinion did not mean carte blanche for the White House.
The U.S. and British governments formally concluded the deal on September 2, 1940. The next day FDR informed Congress of the deal, describing it as “an epochal and far-reaching act of preparation for continental defense in the face of grave danger.”
Wilkie reacted to FDR’s announcement by saying that “the country will undoubtedly approve.” But he criticized FDR for acting on his own initiative. “It is regrettable that the president did not deem it necessary…to secure the approval of Congress or permit public discussion prior to its adoption.” Three days later Wilkie escalated his criticism, saying that the deal constituted “the most arbitrary and dictatorial action ever taken by any president in the history of the United States.” (Wilkie later said that his “regrettable” remark was the sorriest thing he said on the campaign trail.)
Other Republicans were far harsher in denouncing FDR for not seeking congressional approval. Congressman George Tinkham of Massachusetts asserted that “there is no difference between his [FDR’s] action from either Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin.” On September 4, the America First Committee was founded. It would become the country’s leading non-interventionist organization until Pearl Harbor discredited its agenda.
Some constitutional experts also doubted the validity of what FDR had done. The most visible voice was that of Edward Corwin, who lambasted the deal: “Why not any and all of Congress’s specifically delegated powers be set aside by the President’s ‘executive power’ and the country be put on a totalitarian basis without further ado?”
Wilkie’s assessment of public reaction proved correct, however. The critics remained a vocal minority. They could not muster the votes in Congress needed to block the transfer. Within months Congress had appropriated funds to improve the bases that the United States had received in the deal, implicitly blessing it. By the end of 1940, FDR had turned to his next great project in aiding the British, the Lend-Lease Act.
In the seven decades since the destroyers-for-bases deal was concluded, critics of presidential prerogative in foreign affairs have argued that FDR usurped congressional powers and put the country on the road to an imperial presidency. In contrast, proponents of inherent presidential powers have insisted that FDR wisely acted on his constitutional powers as commander in chief. Neither side has yet to convince the other.