By Kevin Baker

Winston Churchill called it “the most unsordid act in the history of any nation.” Franklin Roosevelt introduced it at a press conference on December 17, 1940 in typically homey, easily comprehensible language:

“Suppose my neighbor’s home catches on fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him put out the fire. Now what do I do? I don’t say to him before that operation, ‘Neighbor, my garden hose cost me fifteen dollars; you have to pay me fifteen dollars for it.’ No! What is the transaction that goes on? I don’t want fifteen dollars—I want my garden hose after the fire is over.”

The neighbor on fire was England, burning under the Nazi blitz; the only major European power still resisting the German juggernaut. Its formal cry for help had been received on December 9, when a navy seaplane had touched down next to the U.S. cruiser Tuscaloosa, delivering a desperate letter from Churchill to Roosevelt, who was recuperating from the rigors of his re-election campaign.

“The moment approaches when we shall no longer be able to pay cash for shipping and other supplies,” the Prime Minister wrote, pointing out that the Exchequer was down to its last $2 billion—with $5 billion in orders from American munition factories outstanding.

What was needed was some way around the Neutrality Act, a misguided bit of isolationist reaction to World War I, which stipulated that any belligerents had to pay cash on the barrelhead for weapons—and that loans could not be provided for those nations that had yet to repay their debts from the Great War.

Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s man for all seasons, noted that his boss calmly went through two days of “refueling, the way he so often does when he seems to be resting and carefree.”

“Then, one evening,” Hopkins later recalled, “he suddenly came out with it—the whole program…there wasn’t much doubt that he’d find a way to do it.” The “whole program” was House Bill 1776, better known as “lend-lease.” It would grant Roosevelt’s request for the authority to “lend” tanks, planes, ships, and other aid to not only England but “any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States.”

Revisionist historians have noted that this was a nearly unprecedented concession of power to the executive branch; one probably unmatched until passage of the line-item veto in 1997, and still under dispute today. Under less able or scrupulous leaders, it was the first step on a long path to the Gulf of Tonkin, or the Iran-Contra scandal. It was also somewhat disingenuous: Just how was England or anyone else to return a “garden hose” that German U-boats put on the bottom of the Atlantic?

Yet to blame Roosevelt and the interventionists for, say, Vietnam in the hour of the world’s greatest crisis is no more fair than to criticize Lincoln for suspending habeas corpus during the Civil War. Something had to be done to stop Hitler, and done quickly, and leaders across the political spectrum rallied to the standard of H.R. 1776.

One of them was Wendell Willkie, FDR’s Republican opponent in 1940. Quizzed by a Senate committee over the contradictions between his support for the bill and his own, quasi-isolationist campaign, Willkie simply grinned and answered, “I struggled as hard as I could to beat Franklin Roosevelt, and I tried to keep from pulling any of my punches. He was elected President. He is my President now.” When Washington state’s Democratic Senator Homer Bone asked, “What is worse than war?” Republican Warren Austin of Vermont told him, “I say that a world enslaved to Hitler is worse than war, and worse than death.”

The isolationists trotted out an ostentatiously prayerful Mother’s Crusade Against Bill 1776, and Col. Charles Lindbergh, who assured the Senate that Britain was doomed. The Congress had more faith, passing H.R. 1776 by large margins on March 11, 1941, and providing Roosevelt with $7 billion in appropriations to America’s allies—to-be-the first of some $50 billion to be anted up by the end of hostilities in 1945.

American Greats Edited by Robert A. Wilson & Stanley Marcus
Public Affairs Press, a member of the Perseus Group