What Was the Lend-Lease Program?

World War II in Europe erupted on September 1, 1939. America remained officially neutral but wanted to find a way to support WWI ally Great Britain against Nazi Germany.

Feb 23, 2024By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA

what was lend lease program


As Nazi Germany was growing stronger and more belligerent in Europe, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt prepared for war. However, most Americans did not want a repeat of World War I, and Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term in 1940 after France had already fallen to the Nazis by keeping the United States officially neutral. However, despite this official neutrality, the United States was assisting Britain, Europe’s last holdout against Adolf Hitler, through the Lend-Lease Program. By leasing military equipment to Britain rather than gifting it, the United States maintained its stance of neutrality while keeping Hitler’s regime from dominating all of Western Europe. Later, this program would be extended to the Soviet Union following Hitler’s invasion in 1941.


Setting the Stage: Horrors of World War I

Devastation caused by World War I. Source: The National WWI Museum and Memorial, Kansas City


The United States entered World War I in April 1917, almost three years after the conflict began in Europe. Having finally entered the conflict due to Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare against US shipping to Allied Powers like Britain and France, as well as the released Zimmermann Telegram where Germany was caught asking Mexico for a military alliance against the United States, America began sending thousands of soldiers into trench warfare in eastern France. Quickly, the American public began to learn about the horrors of modern warfare and its deadly weaponry, such as the machine gun and poison gas.


When World War I ended in November 1918, most people looked for solutions to prevent any future wars. Some wanted an increase in international diplomacy and engagement, like US President Woodrow Wilson and his famous Fourteen Points, which included the creation of a League of Nations. Others wanted to reduce international involvement and avoid wars by keeping America’s might behind its two oceans – the Atlantic to the east and the Pacific to the west. In the end, the United States did not join the new League of Nations and took a step back from international affairs during the 1920s.


Setting the Stage: FDR Hates the Nazis

German dictator Adolf Hitler (center left) and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (center right) at the Munich Agreement in 1938. Source: Radio Free Europe


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A decade later, the world was embroiled in the Great Depression. In November 1932, a liberal Democrat named Franklin D. Roosevelt, popularly known as FDR, won a landslide victory against incumbent Republican president Herbert Hoover. Promoting his expansionary fiscal policies, collectively known as the New Deal, FDR was highly popular with voters and easily won re-election in 1936. With the Depression ongoing, few Americans were particularly concerned with international affairs. FDR was concerned, however, about the growing power of the Nazi Party in Germany. Having spent summers in Germany as a boy, FDR was a keen observer of German events and politics and also spoke German.


Allegedly, concern about Adolf Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany in 1933 led FDR to push for America’s official recognition of the Soviet Union, hoping to establish a counterbalance to Germany’s re-growing power. In 1936 and 1937, FDR began speaking out, though in general terms, about the spread of autocratic governments in Europe and Asia, clearly referring to Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. After the controversial Munich Agreement in September 1938, where Germany was ceded control of part of Czechoslovakia in return for a pledge not to take further territory, FDR began actively seeking ways to stop Hitler’s aggression.


1940: The Fall of France

German dictator Adolf Hitler (center) standing before the famous Eiffel Tower in Paris, France after the Fall of France in the summer of 1940. Source: Foreign Affairs


The surprise German invasion of France introduced a new type of warfare: the Blitzkrieg. Instead of digging down into trenches, as both sides had done in World War I, the Germans used speed to outmaneuver and surround their French and British opponents. Planes and tanks struck first, and France’s Maginot Line of post-WWI fortresses was no match. France, seen as one of the world powers, fell to Hitler’s armies in six weeks. The world was stunned, including the United States.


As the Germans pushed back French and British forces in France, a debate raged in the United States: was it time to intervene? After all, France and Britain were America’s allies from the First World War, and Germany was an old enemy returned, apparently even more dangerous than before. The fall of France in June 1940 brought about half of polled Americans to the belief that it was time to intervene militarily. However, the horrors of World War I were still relatively fresh, and many isolationists argued that America should not get stuck in another “European war.”


The Battle of Britain & FDR’s 1940 Campaign

Two German dive bombers returning from an attack on Britain in August 1940, during the aerial Battle of Britain. Source: WNYC / New York Public Radio


With France conquered, only Britain held out against Germany (and Germany’s less powerful ally, Italy). Most Americans supported the spirited British defense of their island nation in the aerial Battle of Britain during the autumn of 1940. Determined to break Britain’s spirit and potentially prepare for an amphibious invasion, the German Luftwaffe launched wave after wave of bombing attacks. Meanwhile, debate raged about America’s role during that autumn’s 1940 presidential election. Republican nominee Wendell Willkie campaigned on the suggestion that FDR, running for an unprecedented third term, would bring the US into the war.


US President Franklin D. Roosevelt (left) sitting with British prime minister Winston Churchill (right) early in World War II. Source: The Atlantic Council


FDR responded that he would not enter the war but would turn America into the “arsenal for democracy.” Indeed, the US had taken steps in 1940 to prepare for the growing conflict, such as instituting the nation’s first peacetime draft. Meanwhile, FDR looked for ways to provide material support for Britain. At the time, only cash payments for weapons were allowed by law. In September 1940, the “Destroyers for Bases” program was launched, giving Britain some fifty older US Navy destroyers in exchange for rights to use air bases in Canada. This exchange insulated FDR from criticism that he was giving “gifts” to Britain, but a better long-term solution was needed to continue supplying Britain with equipment. In December, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill warned FDR that Britain was about to run out of money to buy any more weapons.


Congress Approves the Lend-Lease Program

The Lend-Lease Act was passed by Congress in 1941, promoted as a way to further promote the defense of the United States. Source: PBS Learning Media


FDR quickly took Churchill’s warning and turned it into a policy proposal that would become the Lend-Lease Act. In January 1941, the president appealed to Congress to pass a new law allowing the United States to “lend” or “lease” weapons to nations considered allies. The Act was justified as furthering the defense of the United States itself. Supporters in Congress pushed the bill by arguing that it was better to help fight Germany in Europe than wait for Germany to strike the United States itself. In March, the bill was passed into law.


The law was popular and advertised as a way to keep US soldiers out of the war. In less than two months, material began arriving at British ports from the United States. The new Lend-Lease Program was a major logistical challenge, as the Roosevelt administration had to figure out how much material it could spare, how to ship it, and where to ship it. At the time, the British were fighting in the skies over England and on the ground in North Africa. The US also had its own widespread military, including in the Philippines, that needed regular supplies. Analysts worked overtime to determine whether equipment and supplies should remain home, be sent to Britain’s military, or be dedicated to Britain’s struggling civilian population.


American Contributions to the War in Europe

A World War II era Jeep, of which thousands were sent to Britain. Source: The United States Army


The first wave of Lend-Lease shipments was heavily devoted to food, as Germany was trying to starve Britain with a submarine blockade (similar to World War I). Additionally, it took time for the US armaments industry, which had largely demobilized after World War I, to re-tool for new weapons. Still, the United States quickly re-transitioned to its World War I status of being a “breadbasket of democracy.” By the end of 1941, the US had sent roughly $600 million worth of equipment and supplies to Europe, mostly to Britain. This included thousands of vehicles, especially the newfangled Jeep, and millions of rounds of ammunition.


By early 1942, British forces in North Africa were able to use American-made equipment to good effect. The delivery of planes to Britain was controversial, however, as some leaders of the US Army Air Corps complained that sending planes as part of Lend-Lease meant that fewer American pilots could train on them. FDR largely approved the transfer of this material, as well as artillery pieces that some generals did not want to send. Fortunately, to increase the number of weapons produced, the US and Britain agreed to standardize their armaments production. This meant American tools and equipment could be sent to Britain and help the British boost their own production rather than relying on shipping arms themselves.


Expanding Lend-Lease to the USSR and China

American-made planes in Iran during World War II, waiting to be picked up by the Soviet Union. Source: The National Museum of the United States Air Force, Riverside, Ohio


On June 22, 1941, shortly after Lend-Lease got rolling between America and Britain, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Despite the Soviet Union being a communist dictatorship under Joseph Stalin and largely seen as a belligerent state by Americans, it was an invaluable ally against the Nazis. Thus, despite the USSR’s own complicity in invading Poland in 1939 and its Winter War against Finland in 1940, Lend-Lease was extended to include the Russians as well. By the end of World War II in Europe, US material sent to the Soviet Union under Lend-Lease would total $11.3 billion (close to $200 billion in today’s dollars).


Military aid for China had begun in December 1940 and was quickly incorporated into Lend-Lease the following year. Japan had been engaging in war against the Chinese since 1937, and its atrocities had brought worldwide condemnation after the infamous Nanking Massacre. Tensions with Japan continued to rise in 1940 and 1941, especially after Japan officially joined Nazi Germany and fascist Italy as one of the Axis Powers. By the start of Lend-Lease in March 1941, the US had placed Japan under a full embargo and was shipping war material to aid the Chinese along the Burma Road.


September 1941: A State of War Exists With Germany

The view from a submarine periscope, similar to what German submariners would have seen when targeting American ships headed to Britain in 1941. Source: The National Geographic Society


Many considered the Lend-Lease Act to be a de facto “declaration of war” on the Axis Powers. This was especially true regarding Germany, as the US had already been increasingly hostile to imperialist Japan since 1937 and its invasion of China. Critics argued that transferring US military equipment to Britain would inevitably lead to the use of American personnel as well. Similar to World War I, the sending of military goods to Britain prompted German responses in the form of submarine warfare. By mid-1941, German submarines were targeting American ships in the North Atlantic.


On September 4, 1941, a German submarine fired upon the USS Greer, an old Navy destroyer. A week later, FDR announced a “shoot on sight” order regarding German or Italian vessels near American water, calling them the “rattlesnakes of the Atlantic.” On September 22, new orders declared that German or Italian armed naval vessels in shipping lanes could be “destroyed.” Inevitably, the increasing shipments of war material to Britain likely would have resulted in an eventual naval battle between US and German ships in the Atlantic, bringing America into World War II in Europe without the incident of Pearl Harbor.


American Industrial Might Helps Win WWII in Europe

A poster praising the word of American industry during World War II. Source: The United States Department of Defense


Lend-Lease played a crucial role in the Allies’ eventual victory in Europe. Despite the Soviet Red Army handing the Nazis 80 percent of their combat deaths during the war, the Soviets frequently fought with American-made equipment. Although the Cold War led the USSR to downplay the importance of Lend-Lease to its eventual seizure of Berlin in May 1945, there was much Soviet praise for Lend-Lease during World War II itself. Dictator Joseph Stalin himself stated that the war would have been lost without American “machines” – delivered to the USSR from the west, east, and south – during the Tehran Conference of November 1943. Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, later concurred with this opinion.


As the war progressed, more aid went to the Soviet Union than Britain, especially since US troops became stationed in Britain itself. By the end of the war, the Soviets had received some 14,000 aircraft, 40,000 trucks and Jeeps, and 13,000 tanks from the United States. Ultimately, Lend-Lease is credited for up to one-third of the Soviet Union’s armored vehicles during the war, as well as between one-third and one-half of its aviation fuel. Therefore, despite constant tensions in the debate over who should be given more credit for winning World War II in Europe, it is clear that Lend-Lease made victory possible at all.


Modern Example: A New Lend-Lease in Ukraine 

Ukrainian soldiers atop armored vehicles, similar to those promised by NATO countries (including the United States) during the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War. Source: Radio Free Europe.


The success of Lend-Lease in helping the Allies turn the tide of war relatively quickly – with America’s factories far from the bombing capability of either Nazi Germany or imperialist Japan – is recalled today with a new war in Europe. Currently, the Russo-Ukrainian War rages in Ukraine, sparked by a Russian invasion in February 2022. The US and its NATO allies responded swiftly with military and civilian aid…but Ukraine has consistently requested more. A new lend-lease act applying to Ukraine has been signed by US President Joe Biden. Similar to the original Lend-Lease Act of 1941, the new act of 2022 has sparked debate about the extent to which the US will help arm Ukraine.


While NATO countries have readily given Ukraine small arms and light vehicles, there has been hesitation to supply Ukraine with heavy tanks and fighter jets. Some are concerned that this equipment could fall into Russian hands, allowing them to learn technical secrets. Others worry that Ukraine might use Western weapons to go on the offensive against Russian territory itself, potentially expanding the war. Since Russia is a nuclear-armed power, the stakes are very high regarding any expansion of the war. But, similar to the Lend-Lease Act during World War II, today’s shipments of weapons and supplies have kept a less-powerful nation from being overwhelmed by a titanic aggressor.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.