"How lend-lease strikes at the Axis," ca. 1940–45.
Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress (From FSA Photographs).
The Lend-Lease Act, approved by Congress in March 1941, gave President Franklin D. Roosevelt virtually unlimited authority to direct material aid such as ammunition, tanks, airplanes, trucks, and food to the war effort in Europe without violating America's official position of neutrality. By 1945 the Lend-Lease program had cost $49.1 billion, and over 40 nations had received aid in its name.
Lend-Lease, like Social Security and other New Deal programs, proposed a vastly expanded role for the U.S. government, particularly the President. As he did in advocating other programs, FDR employed fireside chats, press conferences, and the State of the Union address to gain support for Lend-Lease. After the program was implemented, he even employed the same photography unit that had documented the Farm Security Administration to provide photographs to promote the program.
This lesson shows students how broadly Lend-Lease empowered the federal government—particularly the President—and asks students to investigate how FDR promoted the program in speeches and then in photographs.
How did the Lend-Lease program increase the power of the executive branch of the federal government to act in response to world affairs?
After completing this lesson, students should be able to
This lesson presents the Lend-Lease program in the context of American domestic politics and foreign relations. It asks students to analyze the political "spin" surrounding the passage of the Lend-Lease Act, to examine photos of Lend-Lease materials sent to Allies, and to evaluate the role of America in world politics.
The legislation establishing the Lend-Lease program gave President Franklin D. Roosevelt the power to sell, transfer, exchange or lend equipment to any country to help it defend itself against Axis powers. This was an extraordinary grant of power to the President. Not only did Congress give him the power to determine who received the aid, but the act also contained a broad definition of what constituted equipment, thus allowing FDR to decide that the term included anything from advanced weaponry to food to factories. The bill also allowed the President to increase domestic production in order to meet the defense needs of foreign countries. Roosevelt used this power in a dramatic fashion.
Initially intended to help Great Britain, the Lend-Lease program was expanded within months to include China and the Soviet Union. Nazi Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 created an instant alliance between the Soviets and the two greatest powers in what the Soviet leaders had long called the "imperialist camp": Britain and the United States. Three months after the invasion, the United States began to give Lend-Lease support to the Soviet Union, ultimately contributing about $11 billion to their war effort.
Roosevelt promoted the Lend-Lease operation as he had once promoted New Deal legislation. He used folksy analogies at a press conference; he featured it in a State of the Union address; he used a fireside chat to help sell the program to the American people; and he had photographers from the Farm Security Administration turn their photographic talents toward documenting and thereby promoting the program. In support of Lend-Lease, Roosevelt coined the phrase the "Arsenal of Democracy." He asserted that the United States should not be neutral in the world, but, while still keeping U.S. troops at home, it should assume an active role in arming and supporting countries that were actively defending democracy. In this way, FDR gained the authority to extend material support to foreign nations as he chose, though with Congressional oversight.
The Lend-Lease Act dealt specifically with the Axis powers; however, it also established a precedent of expanded presidential power in international politics and the military. Future presidents, from John F. Kennedy in Vietnam to Ronald Reagan in Iraq, would continue to exercise the power to provide military and other forms of support to nations threatened by anti-democratic forces.
The following websites contain useful background on Lend-Lease:
If you're interested in learning more, this scholarly article provides some extended background information.
The complete texts of the material excerpted in Activity 2 can be found at these links:
Review the lesson plan and the websites used throughout. Student launch pads accompany activities one and two. There is a PDF for activity three.
Download or bookmark the following EDSITEment-reviewed websites:
Student can access this activity either through a LaunchPad.
This activity focuses on the expansion of executive power involved in the Lend-Lease program.
Students begin with a letter Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg wrote 10 months before Congress began deliberations on the Lend-Lease legislation. In the letter he expressed the fear that the executive branch would gain enormous power if America entered the Atlantic or the Pacific war.
Senator Vandenberg letter to constituent, April 16, 1940, from C. David Tompkins, Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg: The Evolution of a Modern Republican, 1884-1945 (Michigan State University Press, 1970):
In my opinion, if we are drawn into the world war—whether through Atlantic or Pacific hazards—we shall swiftly surrender to the equivalent of military dictatorship ourselves and we shall come from the conflict (no matter how victorious) into bankruptcy. No one can study the mobilization plans which are ready and waiting in the event of our entry into war—no one can study the vast emergency powers which the President can immediately exercise—without shuddering at their net effect upon American freedom. Meanwhile, no one can contemplate what it would mean in terms of money—if we were to add the pyramid cost of even a little war to our present debt burden which already crowds the statutory limit—without realizing that national bankruptcy would follow in the gloomy wake of our participation in any of these conflicts. All of this, furthermore, is entirely secondary and subordinate to the fact that an overwhelming percentage of the American People (regardless of their sympathies) insist that we shall never export another American soldier. I am opposed to American participation—directly or indirectly—in any of these wars; and since I do not intend to take "the last step" in this bloody direction, I also do not propose to take the "first step" or any other step which would lead in this direction—unless and until the American national interest has to fight for its own existence.
Nine months after Senator Vandenberg expressed his concerns about federal, and particularly executive, power growing out of American involvement in a war, America moved closer to involvement in the European conflict. President Roosevelt proposed helping out Britain and other foes of Germany and Italy by lending them the weapons they needed to fight the war. Here, in this press conference, he introduces what became known as the "Lend-Lease" program.
Excerpt from FDR press conference, December 17th, 1940:
Well, let me give you an illustration: Suppose my neighbor's home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose 400 or 500 feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire. Now, what do I do? I don't say to him before that operation, "Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it." What is the transaction that goes on? I don't want $15—I want my garden hose back after the fire is over. All right. If it goes through the fire all right, intact, without any damage to it, he gives it back to me and thanks me very much for the use of it. But suppose it gets smashed up—holes in it—during the fire; we don't have to have too much formality about it, but I say to him, "I was glad to lend you that hose; I see I can't use it any more, it's all smashed up." He says, "How many feet of it were there?" I tell him, "There were 150 feet of it." He says, "All right, I will replace it." Now, if I get a nice garden hose back, I am in pretty good shape.
In other words, if you lend certain munitions and get the munitions back at the end of the war, if they are intact—haven't been hurt—you are all right; if they have been damaged or have deteriorated or have been lost completely, it seems to me you come out pretty well if you have them replaced by the fellow to whom you have lent them.
I can't go into details; and there is no use asking legal questions about how you would do it . . . .
Have students read this selection and "map" the analogy fully. FDR, in this illustration, owns the garden hose. Who is his neighbor? What is the fire? What is the fire hose? Why might it get smashed up? How well does this analogy fit? What does it explain well? Does it hide anything?
Can you think of other analogies for sending tanks and battleships to England without getting money or an immediate debt agreement? Discuss some other possible analogies. (One example might be two different cities, and one has a lot of fires but not enough fire trucks. Another city has many fire trucks, but very few fires, and is worried that the fires in the city nearby will spread. The city without fires wants to lend some fire trucks to the first city.) Finally, having discussed the various analogies you've created, consider what President Roosevelt was trying to convey with his garden hose analogy.
Students can access this activity through a Launchpad.
Distribute the edited version of the "Arsenal of Democracy" Fireside Chat, Address of the President Delivered by Radio From the White House, December 29, 1940, 9:30pm, provided as a PDF.
Optional step: You may wish to play an audio file of FDR delivering a portion of the speech. Access it from a list of Audio Clips on this page from the FDR Presidential Library, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed American President.
Have students answer the following questions, aloud or on paper, to ensure comprehension of the passage.
Have students make a list of all the things America will do. Once their lists are complete, they should mark any item on the list that suggests an expansion of federal power with an E. When they've finished, they should look back over the speech, and see if any words or phrases not on their list suggest an expansion of power—they should mark those with an E in the margins of the paper. Students will use these notes in the discussion in the next step.
Lead your students in a conversation about what it meant for America to become the "Arsenal of Democracy." What role would America play in the world? What would this role mean for Americans in general? For workers? For factory owners? For consumers? Have students speculate on what it would cost to become the arsenal of democracy and who would pay for it. During the conversation, you may wish to draw out the implications of Roosevelt's speech for an expansion of federal power in terms of demanding the production of weapons rather than consumer goods, setting prices, ensuring labor disputes did not disrupt production, and in allocating weapons to different nations.
Students can download this activity as a PDF.
NOTE: All of these photographs were taken by the Farm Service Administration/Office of War Information photography unit. Some are images that can be directly linked, and some require a search on the main photo collection website. The directly linked images have captions written by historians for a web-exhibit, while the searched images have the original captions.
"In this photograph, shot in December 1941, British children, evacuated from London's East End, are receiving a meal made from American dehydrated vegetables, provided under the Lend Lease program."
Prime Minister Sees Flying Fortresses, June 6, 1941
"This photograph taken in the summer of 1941, shows Churchill's recognizable figure as he watches the arrival of the first B-17 'Flying Fortress.' Even though the U.S. was desperately trying to build up its military forces throughout 1941, Roosevelt decided to give the British models of the United States' most advanced weapons. Military aid to Britain was greatly facilitated by the Lend-Lease Act of March 11, 1941, in which Congress authorized the sale, lease, transfer, or exchange of arms and supplies to 'any country whose defense the president deems vital to the defense of the United States.'"
Prime Minister Winston Churchill, July, 1941
"This photograph taken in the summer of 1941, shows Churchill inspecting an American M-3 tank. Even though the U.S. was desperately trying to build up its military forces throughout 1941, Roosevelt decided to give the British models of the United States' most advanced weapons. Military aid to Britain was greatly facilitated by the Lend-Lease Act of March 11, 1941, in which Congress authorized the sale, lease, transfer, or exchange of arms and supplies to 'any country whose defense the president deems vital to the defense of the United States.'" (This is a stable URL and can be directly linked)
If you're comfortable assigning your students to do some additional research, you can ask students to choose a photo from the FSA/OWI collection on the American Memory site, and try to find as much information as possible about that photograph or its context. For example, students might find a photo from India or China, and drawing on other sources, describe America's relationship with this part of Asia during the period depicted in the photographs.
2 class periods