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Summary Article: Lend-Lease Act (1941)
from The American Economy: A Historical Encyclopedia

Strategy calling for the United States to funnel armaments to the Allied powers to support Britain’s struggle against Germany after the outbreak of World War II in Europe.

In late December 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt championed a strategy calling for the United States to funnel armaments and other materials to Great Britain, which was in a life-or-death struggle with Nazi Germany following the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Roosevelt’s persuasion led Congress to pass the Lend-Lease Act—officially entitled “An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States, and for Other Purposes”—in March 1941. This act anticipated the full use of America’s industrial resources and military in World War II.

Roosevelt’s lend-lease plan appeared as a resourcefully veiled reversal to a foreign policy of noninvolvement that Washington had been pursuing since the mid-1930s, when the Axis nations—militarist Japan, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany—intensified efforts for conquests in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Buttressed by a strong isolationist sentiment nationwide, the neutrality acts passed by Congress between 1935 and 1939 had kept the United States from being dragged indiscriminately into international crises or military conflicts regardless of circumstances. The U.S. propensity for neutrality remained firm even when the Nazi Germany regime, egged on by the British and French desire for appeasement and a Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact, invaded Poland in September 1939 and catalyzed the eruption of World War II. In 1940, after France had capitulated to German aggression, Britain became the last line of defense against the Nazis. Preparing for its own national defense, a sympathetic U.S. government fine-tuned the neutrality acts to permit the supplying to Britain of arms essential for its survival. Given rampant domestic fear of war, however, the sale of arms to Britain was to be on a cash-and-carry basis. Despite its desperate situation, London depleted its U.S. dollar reserves for American purchases by fall 1940.

Because Britain needed more direct help than the cash-and-carry policy permitted, President Roosevelt contemplated a strategy of conveying armaments and goods to the British on a lend-lease basis. In a fireside chat broadcast December 29, 1940, Roosevelt explained to the American public that British survival was vital to America’s own defense in view of the aim Nazi Germany and its allies had to achieve world domination. In his state of the union message on January 6, 1941, Roosevelt officially asked Congress for a lend-lease bill that would help ensure America’s own national security as “an arsenal of democracy.”

After much animated debate about whether this initiative would lead the United States toward war, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act on March 11, 1941, and the president signed it the same day. The act authorized the president to implement when necessary immediate transfer—to a value of $1.3 billion—of war supplies (including weapons, munitions, aircraft, vessels, machinery, tools, materials, or any agricultural or industrial commodity) to any countries whose defense he considered critical to the safety of the United States. Altogether, the act appropriated $7 billion and stipulated the recipient nations’ obligation to yield reciprocal (either military or commercial) advantages to the United States. The act also empowered Roosevelt to demand of the recipient governments’ payment or repayment in forms convenient or favorable to the United States.

As a foreign aid program, lend-lease assistance quickly enlarged American responsibility toward countries (at this point, Great Britain and the Soviet Union) fighting the Axis powers and soon led the United States toward direct participation in this international conflict. But the program also served American interests by upgrading Washington’s role in influencing the course and direction of World War II and ultimately by helping to forge a postwar international order.

See also: Volume One: Roosevelt, Franklin D. (1882-1945); World War II (1939-1945).

  • O’Neill, William L. A Democracy at War: America’s Fight at Home and Abroad in World War II. New York: Free Press, 1993.
  • Guoqiang Zheng
    Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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