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.
FDR wanted to help, but the American public’s fear of war constrained what he could do and how fast he could do it. So he proceeded to build support to help Britain. Ten days after he received Churchill’s message, he used a run-of-the-mill press conference to broach the idea of lending supplies to Britain. He equated it with lending a garden hose to a neighbor whose house was burning, with the expectation that when the fire is out the neighbor “gives it back to me and thanks me very much for the use of it.” At the end of December, FDR went further. He used one of his famed “fireside chats” to argue that events overseas threatened Americans at home, and he called on the United States to become “the great arsenal of democracy.”
In January 1941, FDR unveiled the proposal for a Lend-Lease Act. It was sweeping in scope. It authorized him, "when he deems it in the interest of national defense…to sell, transfer title to, exchange, lease, lend, or otherwise dispose of" war materiel to the “government of any country whose defense the president deems vital to the defense of the United States.” This grant of discretionary authority to the president was unprecedented in American history.
The administration and its supporters on Capitol Hill went out of their way to make the proposed legislation sound as American as apple pie. The bill was titled ”Bill to Promote the Defense of the United States.” That title didn’t satisfy Democratic Majority Leader John McCormack of Boston, who introduced the bill in the House. He worried that any legislation to help the British would anger his heavily Irish-American constituency. So he arranged for the bill to be designated as House Resolution 1776, giving it an extra whiff of patriotism.
These cosmetic touches did not mollify McCormack’s constituents. After a constituent lambasted the bill, he responded: “Madam, do you realize that the Vatican is surrounded on all sides by totalitarianism? Madam, this is not a bill to save the English, this is a bill to save Catholicism.”
McCormack’s wit did little to defuse tempers back in Washington. Some critics objected that the bill had been drafted by the White House rather than by a member of Congress. Congressman Karl Mundt (R-S.D.) grumbled:
We find this piece of legislation—surreptitiously conceived, individually disclaimed, of unknown parentage—placed before us, like a baby in a basket on our doorstep, and we are asked to adopt it.
Rep. Dewey Short (R-Mo.), who once cracked that “Mr. Jefferson founded the Democratic Party and President Roosevelt dumbfounded it,” went further:
You can dress this measure up all you please, you can sprinkle it with perfume and pour powder on it, masquerade it in any form you please . . . . but it is still foul and it stinks to high heaven. It does not need a doctor, it needs an undertaker.
Other critics denounced the bill for implicitly allying the United States with Britain and thereby making war with Germany inevitable. Sen. Hiram Johnson (R-Calif.) complained: “Like the dog gone back to his vomit, the country has become English again.” Sen. Burton K. Wheeler (D-Mont.) dismissed the idea that helping Britain was the best way to keep the United States out of war: “You can’t put your shirt tail into a clothes wringer and pull it out suddenly when the ringer keeps turning.” The so-called Mother’s Movement protested Lend-Lease with signs reading: “Kill Bill 1776, Not Our Boys.”
The lend-lease-give program is the New Deal’s triple-A foreign policy: it will plow under every fourth American boy.
FDR was unsparing in his public response. He castigated Wheeler’s comment as:
the most untruthful, the most dastardly, unpatriotic thing that has ever been said. Quote me on that. That really is the rottenest thing that has been said in public life in my generation.
For two months the Lend-Lease Act was, as FDR put it, “argued in every newspaper, on every wave length, over every cracker barrel in all the land.” In the end, the votes broke his way as lopsided majorities in both the House and Senate passed the bill. FDR carried the day in good part because he presented it to Americans as a peace measure, and he adroitly finessed the question of how the United States could help Britain without antagonizing Germany. FDR was helped by the fact that Democrats held lopsided majorities in both houses. He also got support from his vanquished rival, Wendell Wilkie, who endorsed Lend-Lease on the grounds that for Americans it represented the only “chance to defend liberty without themselves going to war.”
Congress would eventually go on to appropriate more than $50 billion in lend-lease funds; Britain would receive $31.6 billion of that. Churchill called it “the most unsordid act,” which became the title of Warren F. Kimball’s history of the Lend-Lease Act.