Chicago, Illinois December 4, 1941

Early in July 1941, four months after the U.S. Congress had enacted the Lend-Lease Program that began assisting Great Britain and China in their defense against the aggressor states of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan, Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt requested his Sec­re­taries of War and the Navy to prepare a com­pre­hen­sive war program. The top-secret program was to address speci­fic assump­tions regarding mate­riel needs and poten­tial U.S. adver­saries and allies once America was drawn into the Euro­pean con­flict, which Roose­velt assumed would be within a year, as well as out­line stra­tegic and tacti­cal guide­lines to defeat Amer­ica’s enemies. At the time of the presi­dent’s request most of conti­nental Europe lay pros­trate under the German jack­boot. The mili­tary collapse of the Soviet Union, which Germany had assaulted the pre­vious June with 3.9 mil­lion men, 3,350 tanks, and 4,389 air­planes in Opera­tion Bar­ba­rossa, was one of the assump­tions that was reflected in the 147-page “Victory Plan” (or “Victory Program”) submitted to the president in September.

Roosevelt was between a rock and a hard place as war clouds drifted across the Atlantic and over the Amer­i­can land­mass in the summer and fall of 1941. He knew what mea­sures the nation needed to embrace if it and the recipi­ents of the Lend-Lease Program were to prevail over the forces of Euro­pean fascism. But he also recog­nized that these mea­sures, which included both a rapid mili­tary build­up plan for the anemic armed forces (at the start of 1941 there were just over 458,000 non-Coast Guard mili­tary person­nel on active duty) and a mobili­za­tion plan for Amer­i­can indus­try, would be extremely unpop­ular with a majority of citizens if the measures became public.

But on this date, December 4, 1941, the Chicago Daily Tribune, owned by Repub­lican Robert McCormick, a leading non-inter­ven­tionist, America First iso­la­tionist, and no friend of the thrice-elected Demo­cratic presi­dent, used a source from the War Depart­ment’s War Plans Divi­sion to pub­lish details of FDR’s “Vic­tory Plan”—including the asser­tion that the U.S. would not be able to field forces in strength against Nazi Germany “before July 1, 1943, due to a short­age of essen­tial equip­ment.” The article, which also appeared in news­papers owned by two of McCor­mick’s first cousins, the New York Daily News and The Washing­ton Times-Herald, speci­fied in some detail how the Vic­tory Plan was to be imple­mented. Secre­tary of War Henry L. Stim­son called the source of the leak (never discovered) “wanting in loyalty and patri­otism.” The German embassy in Wash­ing­ton was only too happy to cable sum­ma­ries of the news­paper articles to Berlin, where mili­tary planners re­exam­ined their own poli­cies in light of the “incon­tro­ver­tible intel­li­gence” the articles pro­vided. All the more reason, Germany’s leader Adolf Hitler believed, to quickly finish off the Soviet Union (at war with Germany since June 22, 1941) and Great Britain (at war with Germany since Septem­ber 3, 1939) before America could intervene any further.

Alas, Japan sprang a nasty surprise on both Germany and the United States when it attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at anchor at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Decem­ber 7, 1941, just three days after McCormick & Co. had dropped their own bomb­shell. Hitler pro­fessed to his Foreign Minister, Joachim von Rib­ben­trop, that he had no alter­na­tive but to support his Tri­par­tite treaty partner in the Far East. (In Decem­ber 1941, the major players in the nine-member Tri­par­tite, or Axis, Pact were Germany, Italy, and Japan.) And so on Decem­ber 11, 1941, Germany, followed by ser­vile Italy, declared war on the United States. Upon the citi­zens of all three Axis coun­tries and beyond, the global war would heap misery, poverty, death, and devastation on an unprecedented scale.

America’s Victory Plan Meant Becoming the “Arsenal of Democracy”

RooseveltRoosevelt signing Lend-Lease Bill, March 11, 1941

Left: In a radio broadcast (a so-called “fire­side chat”) delivered on Decem­ber 29, 1940, Roose­velt promised to help the govern­ment of hard-pressed Great Britain fight Hitler’s Germany by giving it mili­tary supplies while per­mitting the U.S. to avoid actual com­bat with Britain’s enemy. Europe does “not ask us to do their fighting,” the presi­dent assured his lis­teners. “They ask us for the imple­ments of war, the planes, the tanks, the guns, the freighters which will enable them to fight for their liberty and for our secu­rity.” As “the great arse­nal of democ­racy,” the mem­o­rable phrase FDR used in his address, “we must get these wea­pons to them, get them to them in suffi­cient volume and quickly enough, so that we and our chil­dren will be saved the agony and suf­fering of war which others have had to endure.” Roose­velt pursued this topic in his annual State of the Union address to the U.S. Congress on Janu­ary 6, 1941, ini­ti­ating a debate on what was to become the U.S. Lend-Lease Program.

Right: The Lend-Lease Program became law on March 11, 1941, with the presi­dent’s signature. The pro­gram effec­tively ended the U.S. pre­tense of neu­trality vis-à-vis Germany, Italy, and Japan. Lend-Lease provided for the pro­cure­ment, manu­facture, and trans­fer (by loan, lease, or sale) of defense items as well as food and ser­vices to coun­tries whose defense was deemed crucial to the U.S. The Office of Lend-Lease Admin­is­tration dis­bursed a total of $50.1 bil­lion (equi­va­lent to $650 bil­lion today) in assis­tance. The money repre­sented 17 per­cent of the total war expen­di­tures of the U.S. In all, $31.4 bil­lion went to Britain, $11.3 bil­lion to the Soviet Union, $3.2 bil­lion to France, $1.6 bil­lion to China, and smaller sums to other Allies. The interest-free credit was used by Allies to acquire air­craft, ships, tanks, trucks and other vehicles, steel, muni­tions, petro­leum pro­ducts, army boots, cotton, and food. The terms of the agree­ment pro­vided that any equip­ment was to be used until time for its return or destruc­tion. In practice very little was returned. Canada operated a similar pro­gram called Mutual Aid that provided $1 bil­lion in loans and $3.4 bil­lion in supplies and services to Britain and other Allies.

U.S. War Department Film from 1942: “War Comes to America”