Domestic concerns in the United States, including unemployment and national security, combined with prevalent antisemitism and racism, shaped Americans’ responses to Nazism and willingness to aid European Jews. The economic devastation of the Great Depression, combined with isolationist attitudes and deeply held prejudices against immigrants, limited Americans’ willingness to welcome refugees. Many issues that the American public perceived as having a critical impact on their livelihoods, security, and core values vied for public attention during this time and affected the manner in which Americans responded to events at home and abroad.
After the fall of France and the evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk, Nazi Germany controlled western Europe. Great Britain stood largely alone in the summer of 1940, facing isolation and possible defeat. The fall of Britain could have resulted in German control of the north Atlantic. The need to rapidly rebuild the British armed forces was imperative, but Britain no longer had the financial resources needed to acquire vital war materiel or the means to get it safely to its destination.
Acting without prior announcement to the US Congress, in September 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the Royal Navy 50 outdated US destroyers in an effort to assist British convoys that were transferring war materiel acquired in the United States through the north Atlantic Ocean. In return, Britain gave the US a number of long-term leases for naval and air bases in various British colonies in the Caribbean, Newfoundland, Bermuda, and elsewhere.
On December 17, 1940, Roosevelt proposed a bill to allow the United States to "manufacture, sell, lend, transfer, lease, or exchange" weapons with any country that "the President deems vital for the defense of the United States." The bill, introduced in Congress on January 10, 1941 as HR 1776, raised a storm of controversy between supporters of intervention and isolationists, who saw this as a first step toward US participation in the war. Knowing that Americans were leery of being drawn into another European conflict, British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill famously exclaimed, "give us the tools and we shall finish the job." Despite strong protests from isolationists, including Father Charles E. Coughlin, the Lend-Lease Act passed both houses of Congress by wide margins, clearing the Senate on March 8, 1941. President Roosevelt signed it into law on March 11.
The program was repeatedly renewed by Congress throughout the war and cemented the role of the United States as the arsenal of democracy. US industrial strength proved to be the decisive weapon of World War II.
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Learn More about this Historical Event
- Lend-Lease (Encyclopedia Article)
- FDR Proclaims America “Arsenal of Democracy,” December 29, 1940 (Historical Film Footage)
- Lend-Lease Act (1941) (National Archives and Records Administration, Our Documents)
- The Lend-Lease Program, 1941–1945 (FDR Presidential Library & Museum)
- Lend-Lease and Military Aid to the Allies in the Early Years of World War II (Office of the Historian, US Department of State)
Warren F. Kimball. Forged in War: Roosevelt, Churchill and the Second World War. New York William Morrow and Co., 1997.
The Most Unsordid Act: Lend-Lease, 1939–1941. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969.
Stettinius, Edward R. Lend-Lease: Weapon for Victory. New York: Macmillan, 1944.