The Lend-Lease scheme was certainly a political act of unexampled generosity. Churchill’s description to Parliament of the plan as a “most unsordid act” recognized the rarity in human affairs of such far-seeing and imaginative action. R.S.Sayers (1956) in one of the British official histories of the Second World War described it as “a story, above all else, of unprecedented generosity on the part of the American nation” (p.375). Of course, in political decisions altruism is unlikely to be the sole motive, and no secret was ever made of the vital importance to the United States of the survival of Britain, and indeed of the fighting capacity of the Soviet Union. Indeed, it was this consideration that Roosevelt used to persuade a traditionally, even instinctively, isolationist American public to support his plan. In aiding the British “we are following… hard-headed self-interest,” he said (Dallek, 1981, p.252). If Britain fell, he said, the United States would be in real peril. “Never before since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock has our American civilization been in such danger as now” (ibid, 256). Similarly, Roosevelt was prepared to aid the Soviet Union, braving the strong anti-communism of most Americans, because he “saw a substantial quid pro quo in some 280 Russian divisions fighting a like number of German troops” (ibid, 295-6).
Such concern for one’s own national interest is realistic and responsible on a political leader. However, more skeptical voices have suggested that Lend-Lease served United States’ needs in more aggressive and less altruistic ways. Dobson (1986 and 1995) has argued that the terms of the Lend-Lease agreement deliberately imposed painful conditions on the post-war UK economy, forcing Britain to accept radical changes in her trading practices and tying her to the preferred policy of the United States. The terms under which Lend-Lease was granted “not only weakened Britain’s general economic position, they also diminished the likelihood of Britain being able to carry out the commitment to freer trade she had given to the State Department” (Dobson, 1986, 11). Elsewhere Dobson describes United States actions as “an offensive intrusion into UK economic sovereignty” (Dobson, 1995, 85), and claims that there was a deliberate policy to keep Britain vulnerable, and to remove her as an economic competitor in the post-war world. It certainly seemed like this to Sayers, writing in 1956, when austerity was only just beginning to recede in the UK. After the Lend-Lease plan was enacted at least Britain’s poverty was never again so absolute. It became instead the poverty of the poor relation: this was already brought home to British negotiators before the bill was through Congress and for all the generosity of that ‘most unsordid act in history’, the British never escaped from that position. (Sayers, 374)
Secretary Hull admitted that aid to Russia “is deemed to be in the interest of our own national defense” (quoted in Herring, 1975, p.38). There was always the possibility that Stalin would make another deal with Hitler. Truman’s suspension of Lend-Lease in 1945 could well be seen as one of the first clashes of the Cold War, though United States’ generosity could hardly have been expected to survive Soviet intransigence for long.
Roosevelt’s success in setting up Lend-Lease was a remarkable achievement in the face of the deepest convictions of the American people.
From the beginnings of their history, Americans had believed they were a people apart who had escaped form the tyranny and corruption of Europe and had established a uniquely free and innocent society which served as a model for the rest of the world. The preservation of this freedom and innocence, so this myth ran, rested on America’s success in remaining disentangled from the woes of Europe. (Hamby, 1976, p.22)
Wilson’s idealism at the end of the First World War had met with disappointment in the post-war years, confirming American disgust with European political ineptitude and dishonesty. Neville Chamberlain could speak of Czechoslovakia as a distant country whose fate meant little to the British, so it is hardly surprising that the American public felt that European disturbances were even more remote from them. Roosevelt was in many ways a Wilsonian, with a deep belief in collective security, but countless domestic pressures affected his foreign policy. America remained aloof from the Spanish Civil War, because Catholic groups saw Franco as the defender of the Spanish church. The large Italian-American population supported Mussolini; even as the Ethiopian crisis was developing Congress pushed through the Neutrality Act of 1935, banning American firms from selling arms to belligerents. In 1936 an extension of the bill prohibited loans to belligerent nations. Another Neutrality Act in 1937 imposed the “cash and carry” regulation, whereby belligerents could only purchase American goods with cash, and transport them on non-American ships. This constituted, as Robert Divine has commented, “a widespread desire to escape from the world politically while remaining in it economically” (Hamby, 25). Representative Louis Ludlow even proposed a resolution that the United States should only enter a war if a majority were in favor in a national referendum.
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