“Never again let us hear the taunt that money is the ruling power in the hearts and thoughts of the American democracy. The Lease-Lend Bill must be regarded without question as the most unsordid act in the whole of recorded history.”- Winston Churchill , 1941
As Germany marched across western Europe in 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt struggled to find a way to help the countries fighting the Axis –but he faced significant obstacles. The United States military was opposed to sending arms to Great Britain, fearing that the U.S. might need them to defend the Western Hemisphere from Adolf Hitler . Further, U.S. law prohibited the president from extending credit to countries–including Great Britain–that had not repaid loans made during World War I. The law also restricted the purchase of U.S. war matériel by belligerents, allowing it only on a “cash and carry” basis. And, after World War I, the American public did not want to be involved in another European war.
In December 1940, after Prime Minister Winston Churchill informed Roosevelt that Great Britain could not pay for supplies, the president crafted a new initiative. The U.S. would “lend” Great Britain matériel and Britain would repay the United States through various means to be determined later. This program, known as Lend-Lease, became law on March 11, 1941.
The Lend-Lease act allowed the U.S. to manufacture and transfer (by loan, lease, or sale) items needed for national defense, particularly aircraft, tanks, ships, trucks, jeeps, munitions, fuel, food, and services, to countries whose defense was crucial to the United States. Until the United States was strong enough to enter the war, Roosevelt planned to use Lend-Lease to aid Great Britain, China, and the Soviet Union, but he also used the program to benefit his country and the Allied war effort in other ways. For example, in exchange for a $200 million Lend-Lease agreement, Brazil, a key base for German spies, allowed the U.S. to establish a radio monitoring unit on its soil. In 1942, Brazil also arrested over 80 Axis spies in the first roundup of German intelligence agents in Latin America. Eventually, more than forty nations that actively helped U.S. war efforts participated in the program.
Three main routes were developed to get Lend-Lease matériel to the allies of the United States:
The North Atlantic – Even before the U.S. entered the war, Roosevelt used Navy convoys to protect Lend-Lease shipments crossing the North Atlantic to Great Britain or the Soviet Union. Many American seamen lost their lives to German U-boats on this particularly perilous route.
The Persian Corridor – About seventy percent of the aid reached the Soviet Union via this route through Iran.
The Pacific – Some matériel traveled by ship across the Pacific to Vladivostok in eastern Russia, while thousands of aircraft were flown from Alaska to Siberia by Soviet and American pilots. Of the 15,000 airplanes delivered to the Soviets, half were flown in from Alaska.
The Lend-Lease program was stunningly successful in getting much-needed supplies to the Allies and keeping them in the war. In 1941 alone, more than 1,000,000 tons of food were shipped overseas. Great Britain received almost $700,000,000 worth of goods including munitions, raw materials, tools, fire-fighting equipment, food, vitamins for children, medical supplies, and tractors in just the first three months of 1943. From 1942 to September 1945, the Soviet Union received 9,000 tanks or self-propelled guns, 362,000 trucks, 47,000 jeeps, 131,633 submachine guns, 3,000 rocket launchers, 14,000,000 boots, 532,000 tons of U.S. sugar, 485,000 tons of canned meat (i.e., Spam) and hundreds of other items. Twenty percent of the Lend-Lease supplies the Soviets received were military, while the rest were food, metals, chemicals, petroleum products, and factory machinery.
In all, from March 1941 to July 1946, the program cost the United States almost $51 billion, with the majority going to the British Empire ($31 billion), the Soviet Union ($11 billion), Free France and its possessions ($3.2 billion), China ($1.5 billion), and Brazil ($322 million). The U.S. also received billions of dollars worth of goods through reverse lend-lease, including several hundred million dollars’ worth of food and supplies from Australia and New Zealand for American troops.