How Was the Idea Turned into the Law of the Land?

On January 10, 1941, such a law, H.R. 1776,—popularly called the “Lend-Lease Bill”—was introduced into Congress.

The Chief Executive under the proposed act could provide for the production of weapons, munitions, aircraft, and ships. He was authorized to secure the necessary machinery, tools, materials, and supplies for their manufacture, repair, servicing, or operation. And he was given power to transfer weapons and tools as well as farming and industrial machines and articles to any country whose defense he deemed “vital to the defense of the United States.”

The administration of lend-lease was to be entrusted to the president, with Congress exercising its constitutional control over appropriations. The provisions for final settlement, as we shall see later, were to be left very broad. The greatest immediate benefits were expected to be the results wined by our allies in using lend-lease weapons against the aggressor nations. Beyond that, nations receiving aid were expected to assist us in their turn. Events alone could determine what form the return benefits of this mutual aid program would take.

The heart of the proposed law was the phrase: nations whose defense is “vital to the defense of the United States.” It was a recognition of the importance for ourselves of supporting our friends against attack. It testified to a realization that if they went down our own ability to stand off aggression would suffer.

Was lend-lease fully debated?

Seldom has any Congressional measure aroused as much debate as H.R. 1776.

The American people had to think this through. For weeks the pros and cons of lend-lease were thrashed out—in social gatherings, around the stoves of country stores, in club meetings and mass meetings, in forums, on the radio, in the editorial columns of newspapers, in magazine articles, and above all, in hearings, in the cloakrooms, and on the floors of Congress.

Sometimes the debates were bitter. “Interventionists” argued with “Isolationists.” Members of the America First Committee debated with members of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. Men quarreled over the meaning of lend-lease, its implication for our future foreign policy, and its possible effect on the outcome of the war in Europe. Amid the sound and fury, however, the basic issue was clear: Should we render all aid possible to Great Britain and other countries opposing the Axis, or should we stay on the sidelines—as we had done while Poland, France, and the other nations were swiftly toppled by the Nazi armies? Should we cling to the Neutrality Act and the Johnson Act or should we repeal them?

To the hearings on Capitol Hill trooped citizens prominent in many fields and representatives of various organized groups. They probably were most influential in determining the fate of the Lend-Lease Bill. What did they have to say?

Arguments of its supporters

Those who testified favorably maintained that weapons sent to the countries fighting the Axis would help to hold back a danger that threatened the civilized world, including ourselves. If our own national security was at stake, they said, we should make a serious mistake to measure our contribution to the common effort on a system of accounting that placed the dollar sign first and delivery of the goods next.

Congress was reminded that after the last war the Allied governments owed the United States huge sums o£ money, and that after some annual installments had been paid, all the debtors except Finland had defaulted. Our former Allies took the position that they could not pay—some said that they had fought “our war.” A good deal of ill will toward the United States was stirred up. In some countries people made acid comparisons between contributions to victory in lives lost and in dollars loaned. Uncle Sam was called “Uncle Shylock.”

In the end, the bulk of the war debts was not collected. Gathering unpaid interest all the time, they remained a burden on the economies of debtors and creditors alike and a source of poison in our relations with our former Allies. Without question they contributed, in no small measure, to the collapse of world economy and American prosperity in 1929.

Misunderstanding and bickering must now be avoided, argued the supporters of the Lend-Lease Bill. By providing articles badly needed in England and elsewhere, we would give vital support to a cause we deemed just and urgent. Production of weapons would come first; the settlement of accounts later.

Why did the Army favor it?

“We are not seeking to make a loan to Great Britain,” Secretary of War Stimson declared. “We are really seeking to purchase her aid to our defense. We are buying—not lending. We are buying our own security while we prepare.”

The Secretary of War also favored the bill for its direct advantages to the United States as well as to the other United Nations. Production of war weapons in this country would be simpler, surer, and quicker, he argued, if our defense departments and the various allied purchasing commissions stropped competing for war orders. With the procurement agencies of the United States government in sole charge o£ ordering and assigning war materials, weapons could be standardized and, if it ever became necessary, kept for our use as well as transferred for the use of the British or other nations fighting the Axis.

Other advocates—outside the Army—said that if we stood by passively, the enemy might gain control of the sea and air approaches to this hemisphere. It was an illusion to think that we could create a sort of “Chinese Wall” invulnerable to attack. Germany and Japan, they pointed out, had as recently as September 1940 signed an alliance and pledged each other full political, economic, and military aid. Tokyo and Berlin made no secret of their cooperation, pressing upon us the reality that an attack against the United States could come at any point on our long continental shoreline as well as in the Panama Canal Zone, Alaska, Hawaii, or the Philippines. The defense of Britain and our own defense, they argued, were inevitably linked.

As to the broad powers given the president, the proponents said that restrictions might hinder the main purpose of the bill. They urged that we must not fall into the trap of being guided by dollars instead of needs—the very difficulty lend-lease sought to avoid. The president was required to report to Congress on lend-lease operations every ninety days, they pointed out, and of course Congress would have control over appropriations. But this control should apply to the over-all amount oil money spent and to the execution of the plan as a whole, not to the details, they said. Deciding in advance just how to act through lend-lease might stand in the way of effective conduct of the war by the nations we were trying to help.

Arguments of its opponents

Opponents of the bill argued that we should devote all our resources to the support of our own Army, Air Forces, and Navy. They said that we should be less concerned about the victories of aggressors across the ocean and more concerned about the improvement and strengthening of our defenses. We should defend ourselves, they urged, by making our country impregnable.

Some who favored aiding Britain and her allies declared that the Lend-Lease Bill would give too much power to the executive branch of the government. They said the aid should be limited to specific countries, and the amounts of goods and their costs decided in advance.

Among the most vocal opponents of lend-lease were the people who said it meant war. They argued that if it was vital to us to support one side in the war we should step in and become a fighting ally. But they were convinced that lend-lease was an undercover scheme that would make us an active partner in the struggle without an official declaration of war.

On February 8, the House passed H.R. 1776 by a vote of 260 to 165. On March 8, the Senate passed the measure 60 to 31. The final text of the act, which contained only minor changes from the original, was agreed to by both houses on March 11, 1941, and signed by the President the same day.

As part of the federal law, the Lend-Lease Act represents the will not of individuals or groups, but of the American people.