When Britain Needed Help to Fight the Nazis, FDR Came Through

A Franklin D. Roosevelt inscribed photograph signed, circa 1930s, sold for $1,625 at an October 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced the idea at a press conference on Dec. 17, 1940, in typical homey, easily comprehended language:

“Suppose my neighbor’s home catches on fire and I have a length of garden hose 400 or 500 feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up to his hydrant, I may be able to help him put out the fire. Now what do I do? I don’t say to him, ‘Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15, you have to pay me $15 for it.’ No! What is the transition that goes on? I don’t want $15 – I want my garden hose back after the fire is out.”

The neighbor on fire was England, facing the full ferocity of the Nazi blitz. England was the only major European power still resisting (barely) the German juggernaut. The formal cry for help, a desperate letter from Winston Churchill to FDR, had been received eight days earlier on Dec. 9 when a navy seaplane had touched down next to the USS Tuscaloosa off of Florida’s southern coast. The president was on board the heavy cruiser recuperating from the rigors on his November reelection campaign when the seaplane crew delivered the letter.

The Prime Minister had written, “The moment approaches when we shall no longer be able to pay cash for shipping and other supplies” … pointing out that the Exchequer was down to its last $2 billion – with $5 billion in orders from American munitions factories outstanding. Roosevelt knew the answer was to find some way around the Neutrality Acts, an isolationist ploy that stipulated that any war belligerents had to pay cash for weapons – and loans were prohibited to any nation that had not repaid debts from WWI.

Harry Hopkins – FDR’s man for all seasons – wrote that his boss mulled it over for two days, then one evening came up with the whole program! The “whole program” quickly became House Resolution 1776, better known as “Lend-Lease.” It granted the president the authority to lend tanks, planes, ships and other aid not only to England but to “any country whose defense the president deems vital to the defense of the United States.” Leaders across the political spectrum rallied to support H.R. 1776.

One was Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate just defeated in the 1940 presidential election and a staunch opponent of the United States entering the war in Europe. When the Senate quizzed him about this obvious contradiction, he smiled broadly and said, “I struggled as hard as I could to beat Franklin Roosevelt and didn’t pull any punches. He was elected president. He is my president now … I say a world enslaved to Hitler is worse than war, and worse than death.”

The opposition was organized and very powerful. Colonel Charles Lindbergh had even assured the Senate that Britain was already doomed. Fortunately, Congress had more faith in FDR and passed H.R. 1776 by large margins on March 11, 1941. The bill provided Roosevelt with $7 billion in appropriations – the first of $50 billion to be used by the end of hostilities in 1945.

Churchill famously called Lend-Lease “the most unsordid act in the history of any nation.”

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Look to 1935 if Goal is Infrastructure Projects That Work

Joseph Christian Leyendecker’s cover illustration for the Oct. 19, 1935, edition of The Saturday Evening Post sold for $137,000 at a May 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

“The social objective is to try to do what any honest government … would do: to try to increase the security and happiness of a larger number of people in all occupations of life and in all parts of the country … to give them assurance that they are not going to starve in their old age.”

Although this could have been taken directly from any Bernie Sanders speech anytime over the past 10 years … it was actually a response from President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 7, 1935, when answering a question about the social role of government.

This was the same week that Babe Ruth announced his retirement from the Boston Braves, only six days after he hit three home runs in the last game he played. It was the end of an era and it came right in the middle of the Great Depression.

Bread lines were still long and double-digit unemployment was accepted as the new normal. People were generally depressed and hope was a rare commodity.

Technological unemployment threatened to permanently engulf huge sectors of the workforce, particularly less skilled and older workers in general. Observers suggested that deep structural changes in the economy meant that the majority of those over 45 would never get their jobs back. Lorena Hickok (Eleanor’s paramour) opined that, “It looks like we’re in this relief business for a long, long time.” The president’s advisor, Harry Hopkins, was soon speaking of workers who had passed into “an occupational oblivion from which they will never be rescued… We shall have with us large numbers of the unemployed. Intelligent people have long since left behind them.” Sound familiar?

Even FDR chipped in with his “Fireside Chat” on June 28, 1934: “For many years to come, we shall be engaged in rehabilitating hundreds of thousands of our American families … The need for relief will continue for a long time; we may as well recognize that fact.”

The Emergency Relief Appropriation Act became law on April 18, 1935. The bill approved the largest peacetime appropriation in American history. This single appropriation authorized more spending than total federal revenues in 1934; with a special $4 billion earmarked for work relief and public works construction. Roosevelt and the bill’s architects did NOT believe they were addressing a transient disruption in the labor market, but a long-term (perhaps permanent) inability of the private economy to provide employment for all who wanted to work.

Thus were born many federal agencies, with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) the largest. The WPA employed 3 million people in the first year and in eight years it put 8.5 million people to work at a cost of $11 billion. WPA workers built 500,000 miles of highways, 100,000 bridges, as many public buildings, plus 8,000 parks.

When the current administration and Congress debate “infrastructure projects,” they would be well served to study this period in American history. These folks really knew how to do it!

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].