The Lend-Lease Act of 1941 stated that the U.S. government could lend or lease (rather than sell) war supplies to any nation deemed “vital to the defense of the United States.” Under this policy, the United States was able to supply military aid to its foreign allies during World War II, while still remaining officially neutral in the conflict. Most importantly, passage of the Lend-Lease Act enabled a struggling Great Britain to continue fighting against Germany virtually on its own until the United States entered World War II late in 1941.
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Neutrality in Wartime
In the decades following World War I, many Americans remained extremely wary of becoming involved in another costly international conflict. Even as fascist regimes like Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler took aggressive action in Europe the 1930s, isolationist members of Congress pushed through a series of laws limiting how the United States could respond.
But after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, and full-scale war broke out again in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that while the United States would remain neutral by law, it was impossible “that every American remain neutral in thought as well.”
Before passage of the Neutrality Act of 1939, Roosevelt persuaded Congress to allow the sale of military supplies to allies like France and Britain on a “cash-and-carry” basis: They had to pay cash for American-made supplies, and then transport the supplies on their own ships.
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Great Britain Asks for Help
But by the summer of 1940, France and much of northern Europe had fallen to the Nazis, and Britain was fighting virtually alone against Germany on land, at sea and in the air. The London Blitz and other German offenses had taken a serious toll on British morale and military strength.
After the new British prime minister, Winston Churchill, appealed personally to Roosevelt for help, the U.S. president agreed to exchange more than 50 outdated American destroyers for 99-year leases on British bases in the Caribbean and Newfoundland, which would be used as U.S. air and naval bases.
That December, with Britain’s currency and gold reserves dwindling, Churchill warned Roosevelt that his country would not be able to pay cash for military supplies or shipping much longer. Though he had recently been re-elected on a platform promising to keep America out of World War II, Roosevelt wanted to support Great Britain against Germany.
After hearing Churchill’s appeal, he began working to convince Congress (and the American public) that providing more direct aid to Britain was in the nation’s own interest.
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Arsenal of Democracy
In December 1940, Roosevelt introduced a new policy initiative whereby the United States would lend, rather than sell, military supplies to Great Britain for use in the fight against Germany. Payment for the supplies would be deferred, and could come in any form Roosevelt deemed satisfactory.
“We must be the great arsenal of democracy,” Roosevelt declared in one of his signature “fireside chats” on December 29, 1940. “For us, this is an emergency as serious as war itself. We must apply ourselves to our task with the same resolution, the same sense of urgency, the same spirit of patriotism and sacrifice as we would show were we at war.”
Lend-Lease, as Roosevelt’s plan became known, ran into strong opposition among isolationist members of Congress, as well as those who believed the policy gave the president himself too much power. During the debate over the bill, which continued for two months, Roosevelt’s administration and supporters in Congress argued convincingly that providing aid to allies like Great Britain was a military necessity for the United States.
“We are buying...not lending. We are buying our own security while we prepare,” Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “By our delay during the past six years, while Germany was preparing, we find ourselves unprepared and unarmed, facing a thoroughly prepared and armed potential enemy.”
Finally, in March 1941, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act (subtitled “An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States”) and Roosevelt signed it into law.
Impact of the Lend-Lease Act
Roosevelt quickly took advantage of his authority under the new law, ordering large quantities of U.S. food and war materials to be shipped to Britain from U.S. ports through the new Office of Lend-Lease Administration.
The supplies dispersed under the Lend-Lease Act ranged from tanks, aircraft, ships, weapons and road building supplies to clothing, chemicals and food. By the end of 1941, the lend-lease policy was extended to include other U.S. allies, including France, China and the Soviet Union.
Through the end of World War II the United States would use it to provide a total of some $50 billion in aid (equal to $690 billion in 2020 dollars) to more than 30 nations around the globe, from the Free French movement led by Charles de Gaulle and the governments-in-exile of Poland, the Netherlands and Norway to Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Paraguay and Peru.
For Roosevelt, Lend-Lease was not motivated primarily by altruism or generosity, but was intended to serve the interest of the United States by helping to defeat Nazi Germany without entering the war outright—at least not until the nation was prepared for it, both militarily and in terms of public opinion.
Through Lend-Lease, the United States also succeeded in becoming the “arsenal of democracy” during World War II, thus securing its preeminent place in the international economic and political order once the war drew to a close.
Ukraine Lend-Lease Act
In 2022, President Joe Biden signed into law the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act. Much like Roosevelt’s 1941 program, this act allowed the U.S. government to lend or lease a wide range of military equipment to Ukraine and other Eastern European countries.
Resulting from the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the current Lend-Lease Act exempted the Biden administration from provisions of law that govern the loan or lease of military equipment to foreign countries. The act was designed to expire in 2023.
Lend-Lease Act, 1941. OurDocuments.gov.
Mark Seidl, “The Lend-Lease Program, 1941-45.” Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.
Lend-Lease and Military Aid to the Allies in the Early Years of World War II. Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State.
Biden Signs Lend-Lease Act to Supply More Security Assistance to Ukraine. U.S. Department of Defense.