Washington, D.C. January 6, 1941

Three days after Adolf Hitler had sent his Wehr­macht (Ger­man armed forces) into neigh­boring Poland on Septem­ber 1, 1939, Great Britain and France declared war on Nazi Ger­many. Nine months later, following France’s sur­render to the Wehr­macht in June 1940, the British govern­ment, which since 1939 had been paying for arms and other goods to fight the Nazi jugger­naut using its gold reserves under the U.S. “cash and carry” pro­gram, had liqui­dated so many of its assets that the Nazi hold­out was running short of cash. (The “cash and carry” revision to the U.S. Neu­trality Acts of of the 1930s per­mitted the sale of war material to bellig­erent nations as long as they arranged for its transport in their own bottoms and paid cash on the barrelhead.)

On this date, January 6, 1941, in his annual State of the Union address to mem­bers of the U.S. Con­gress, Presi­dent Frank­lin D. Roose­velt pro­posed Lend-Lease assis­tance to the Allies fighting the Axis scourge: Nazi Ger­many, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. The pro­posal followed on Roose­velt’s Decem­ber 29, 1940, radio address during which he pro­claimed the U.S. would be the “arsenal of demo­cracy,” arming and supporting the Wes­tern demo­cra­cies in Europe and to a lesser extent the Nation­alist Chi­nese in their fight-to-the-death against the forces of tyranny and enslave­ment. Enacted on March 11, 1941, Lend-Lease was a pro­gram under which the United States—tech­nically a non­com­bat­ant—supplied mili­tary aid (wars­hips, war­planes, tanks, and other wea­ponry) as well as aid of an econo­mic nature (food, oil, railway equip­ment, trucks and jeeps, clothing, blankets, and army boots) to coun­tries whose defense the presi­dent deemed vital to the U.S. The act estab­lished the Office of Lend-Lease Admin­is­tration, which dis­burse monies from 1941 to the con­clusion of the war against Japan, the last Axis hold­out, in August 1945. In general the aid was free. In return the U.S. was given 99-year, rent-free leases on naval and air bases in British and Commonwealth territories during the war.

Over $50 billion (equivalent to $723 billion today) worth of supplies were shipped to U.S. allies, equiv­a­lent to 17 per­cent of total U.S. war expendi­tures following initial Congres­sional authori­za­tion of $7 billion. The money took the form of interest-free credit; in accor­dance with the Lend-Lease bill, the debts were to be paid after the war. In all, $31.4 bil­lion in Lend-Lease materials went to hard-pressed Great Britain (“the spear­head of resis­tance to world con­quest,” as Roose­velt called that coun­try in Decem­ber 1940) followed by $11.3 bil­lion to the Soviet Union. Some $3.2 bil­lion went to France, $1.6 bil­lion to Nationalist China, and the remaining $2.6 bil­lion to other Allies. (Canada operated a simi­lar pro­gram called Mutual Aid, loaning $1 bil­lion in supplies and $3.4 bil­lion to Britain and other Allies.) Lend-Lease effec­tively ended the United States’ pre­tense of neu­trality vis-à-vis the Axis and was a deci­sive retreat from the policy of non­inter­ven­tionism that had been char­ac­teristic of U.S. foreign policy since the early Thirties. War­time Prime Minis­ter Win­ston Chur­chill expressed his appre­ci­a­tion on behalf of Great Britain for the Lend-Lease measure, calling it a “new Magna Charta.”

Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms, Oil on Canvas, 1943

In his State of the Union Address to the U.S. Congress on Janu­ary 6, 1941, Presi­dent Roose­velt out­lined his desire for a world based, not on a “new order of tyranny”—an allusion to the “new Euro­pean order” cham­pioned by Nazi Ger­many and Fascist Italy—but on four essen­tial human rights: free­dom of speech, free­dom of wor­ship, free­dom from want, and free­dom from fear. These essen­tial rights hearkened back to the Atlantic Charter, a joint state­ment of post­war aims signed by Roose­velt and Churchill at Placen­tia Bay, Newfound­land, in mid‑August 1939. The illus­trator Norman Rock­well created a quartet of paintings depicting these Four Free­doms that was first published in the Saturday Evening Post. In 1943 the Office of War Infor­ma­tion printed 240,000 copies of Rock­well’s Four Freedoms to be used as an incen­tive for war bond pur­chasers. Sales of the posters and the tour of Rock­well’s four paintings to major American cities raised more than $130 million in war bond sales.

Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech, 1943Rockwell’s Freedom of Worship, 1943
Rockwell’s Freedom from Want, 1943Rockwell’s Freedom from Fear, 1943

Top Row (L–R): Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship
Bottom Row (L–R): Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear

Listen to President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Speech

Roosevelt Proposes the Lend-Lease Program to the U.S. Congress, Urging Americans to Become the “Arsenal of Democracy”