In this video segment adapted from American Experience, view newsreel footage, archival photos, and interviews to explore Franklin Roosevelt's efforts to help defend Great Britain from German attacks in the period before the United States entered World War II. Despite the domestic restraints of the Neutrality Acts enacted by Congress in the 1930s and strong public isolationist sentiment, Roosevelt proposed the Lend-Lease plan to provide Great Britain with necessary weapons, and used his powers of persuasion to see it through a resistant Congress.
In the year after the German invasion of Poland that marked the beginning of World War II, the Axis powers had overrun the majority of countries on the European continent. Only Britain remained to fight the Axis, and it had been significantly weakened by the loss of ships and tanks at Dunkirk in June 1940. German air attacks on British ships, ports, and urban centers began the following month and underscored British isolation in the war effort. Winston Churchill, Britain's prime minister, referred to this crisis as the Battle of Britain and sought assistance from the United States in a series of secret messages to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Roosevelt was constrained by both public sentiment and congressional legislation. America’s geographical distance from Europe and longstanding preference for neutrality in foreign affairs had been reinforced in the years since World War I by restrictive tariffs, quotas on immigration, and the argument that foreign policy should focus primarily on the defense of America's borders. The horrors of World War I and the disappointments of the peace treaty that followed, as well as the economic turmoil of the Great Depression, also influenced public opinion. These sentiments were espoused by the America First Committee, with aviation hero Charles Lindbergh as its most prominent spokesperson, and legislated in the series of Neutrality Acts that required foreign governments to pay cash for all weapons.
With the option of direct foreign aid unavailable, Roosevelt proposed to assist Britain through loans. Under this policy, known as Lend-Lease, the United States would send tanks, ships, aircraft, and munitions to Britain, while the British agreed to return these items at the war's conclusion. Roosevelt drew upon his political skills to lobby for the plan. He put his case in everyday terms by arguing that, rather than selling your garden hose to your next-door neighbor when his house is on fire, you should lend the hose and get it back once the fire has been put out. After vigorous lobbying of Congress and the public, Lend-Lease was enacted in March 1941.
The notion of returning the more than $30 billion in weaponry provided to Britain under Lend-Lease was unrealistic. The debt was renegotiated at war's end, and Congress approved several extensions over the next 60 years. Ultimately, less than one quarter of the original loan was repaid. Roosevelt saw, however, that Germany would not be satisfied with territorial gains in Europe, and that support of Britain was essential if Nazi Germany was to be deterred from controlling all of Western Europe. He acted on these feelings by secretly sending the first weapons shipments to Britain before the legislation was signed into law.
NARRATOR: September 1940, German bombs were destroying London. Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium, France had fallen. England stood alone. Prime Minister Winston Churchill desperately needed help from Franklin Roosevelt. Month after month for over a year, Churchill had been sending secret messages to Roosevelt. "It has now become most urgent for you to let us have the destroyers for which we have asked... Mr. President, with great respect, I must tell you that in the long history of the world, this is a thing to do now." Roosevelt wanted to help, but most Americans were against involvement in any war. There's no thought in the minds of the great bulk of Americans that they will ever send another land army to Europe to fight in a war again. This is the abiding feeling in the United States-- avoid involvement in any war.
NARRATOR: Roosevelt had to move cautiously.Congress had passed a series of neutrality laws forbidding the president to take sides. Whenever Roosevelt suggested that the United States play any part on the world stage, he met with violent isolationist opposition. It would take all of FDR's political genius to get Churchill what England needed to survive. "If Great Britain goes down," Roosevelt said, all of us in all the Americas would be living at the point of a gun." Congress had prohibited Roosevelt from sending weapons unless England paid in cash, and England was bankrupt. The president would have to outmaneuver the lawmakers.
ROOSEVELT: I do not recommend that we make them a loan of dollars with which to pay for these weapons.
NARRATOR: Roosevelt proposed a daring plan with an innocuous name-- lend-lease. Lend-lease was a way to give the British planes, tanks, guns, artillery, ammunition without them really paying for it. And reporters at a press conference ask him, "What does this mean? What does lend-lease mean?"
NARRATOR: Roosevelt explained that we would lend England the weapons, and when the war was over, England would return them. It was like lending a neighbor a garden hose to put out a fire, he said. After the fire was out, the neighbor would simply return the hose.
DALLEK: Well, of course it was patent nonsense. What were the British going to do? Give us the tanks back that were blown up, the planes that were shot down? But Roosevelt's invocation of this homily about the neighbor and the garden hose is a wonderful way for him to sell it to the public. And that was his political genius. That was something that he had a kind of sixth sense for. You can't understand it, you can't define it, you can't put it under any scientific rubric. It simply was something that the man had.
NARRATOR: On March 11, 1941, Congress passed, and Roosevelt signed into law, lend-lease.
ALISTAIR COOKE: There was an emergency press conference called this morning he'd signed the lend-lease bill. A reporter said, "Mr. President, have you got ships and materiel and tanks and things? Are they already, you know, left the ports and crossing the Atlantic?" Well, my British supply man had told me that there were cargoes just about to arrive in Liverpool and Southampton. And Roosevelt looked up like an innocent child and he said, "Oh," he said, "we work fast, but not that fast." And of course, I mean, if they'd known the truth, you know, the whole Atlantic was thick with all the things already on their way.
NARRATOR: The lend-lease lifeline stretched across the Atlantic. Roosevelt had bent the law, outflanked Congress and provided England with billions of dollars worth of weapons and supplies.
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