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What We Got For What We Gave
The American Experience With Foreign Aid
April/May 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 3
The great unsettled world political problem in 1919 was the future course of Russia, where the Bolsheviks were engaged in a civil war to consolidate their control. Because of the disruption of war and revolution, millions in Russia were on the brink of starvation. Hoover was a humanitarian but also a political realist. He offered food for Russia on condition that it be distributed by agents of his organization. The Bolsheviks refused the food-unless they be given sole control over its distribution. Lenin and Trotsky realized, as did Hoover, that political power came from flour barrels as well as from the barrels of guns. No food was sent by the United States to Bolshevik-controlled Russia in 1919 or 1920. But in 1921 famine became so severe that Moscow appealed for help. Hoover was now Secretary of Commerce and the moving spirit behind the American Relief Administration, a consortium of private groups operating with government support. From 1921 to 1923 the ARA distributed enough food in Russia to save millions of lives.
In the years preceding World War II, there were lively debates over whether to aid certain countries attacked by aggressors-Ethiopia by Italy, and China by Japan, for example-but American isolationist sentiment was so strong that those who favored strict neutrality held the upper hand in Congress. Then Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland, and the Second World War was on. In June, 1940, France surrendered to Germany, and Great Britain was alone in the fight, facing the prospect of imminent German invasion. President Franklin D. Roosevelt believed that the national security of the United States depended on British survival. However, he applied foreign aid by indirection, claiming that his overriding purpose was to keep the nation out of war. With that stated aim he arranged a deal: the United States gave Great Britain fifty First World War destroyers and received in return leases to a string of naval and air bases from Newfoundland, through Bermuda, to the Caribbean.
The next step excited deep controversy. Early in 1941 Roosevelt asked Congress for authority to declare the defense of any country vital to the defense of the United States, and then to provide that country with military and other supplies. The program was misleadingly called Lend-Lease. In theory the recipients were to return any usable equipment when the war was over, and to the best of their ability also were to supply the United States with reciprocal goods and services.
Opponents of Lend-Lease said that Roosevelt would become the supreme war lord of the world and that Congress, if it gave the requested authority to the President, would be renouncing its constitutional participation in the conduct of foreign policy. One isolationist Senator said that Lend-Lease was a plan to plow under every third American boy. (The reference was to the early New Deal agricultural policy of plowing under surplus crops in order to raise farm prices.)
Roosevelt won the battle. Lend-Lease became law in March, 1941. By 1945 the United States had spent more than $50 billion in Lend-Lease aid, with the largest amounts going to Great Britain and Russia. In practice, Lend-Lease was nearly all gift. The British contributed some reciprocal aid, especially in housing American troops in the British Isles. Most recipients had nothing to offer in return except victory over the Axis; but that, after all, was the primary purpose of Lend-Lease in the first place.
Sometimes the United States used Lend-Lease for purposes transcending simple military victory. For example, in the Middle East the British initially distributed all aid. But by 1943 the American government no longer would accept the idea of that region as an exclusive British responsibility or sphere of influence, and the United States began to extend Lend-Lease directly to Middle Eastern countries. In Latin America, Lend-Lease was used as much as an instrument for strengthening good political relations as it was for its direct effect on the war. Lend-Lease was also used to pressure the British into modifying the system of imperial preference whereby the components of the Empire-Commonwealth extended preferential tariffs to each other, a form of discrimination against the United States.
Between 1939 and June, 1941, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia were linked in a nonaggression pact, and most Americans considered the Soviet Union to be as evil as Germany. But then Hitler invaded Russia. The United States and Great Britain acted on the axiom that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Prime Minister Winston Churchill said that he would make a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons if Hitler invaded hell. Lend-Lease was extended to Russia. Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins, his closest adviser and assistant in foreign affairs, demanded that aid for Russia be assigned first priority, and that it be delivered in spite of appalling losses from German U-boat attacks against convoys. They believed that Russia might make a separate peace if aid was not given on the most generous no-strings-attached basis.