On this day in 1941, the Senate approved a $6 billion supplemental Lend-lease bill, thus bringing the United States closer to joining the war that was consuming the rest of the world.
The original Lend-Lease Act, passed in March 1941, gave President Franklin Roosevelt the power to lend, lease, or otherwise dispose of food, ammunition, and arms to any country he deemed essential to the defense of the United States. By the fall of 1941, those nations included the Soviet Union and China as well as Great Britain. By the end of the war, the US would give more than $49 billion to more than 40 nations under Lend-Lease.
Many members of Congress had predicted dire consequences if Lend-Lease became law; indeed, the debate shows elements of what Richard Hofstadter famously called the paranoid style. Despite Roosevelt’s insistence that the law would help the country avoid war, the anti-interventionists knew that Lend-Lease signaled a turning point in U.S. foreign policy, and they put up a tremendous fight against it. They repeatedly invoked the “lessons of history” taught by World War I revisionists. Senator Burton Wheeler, the leader of congressional forces against Lend-Lease, used arguments similar to those George Norris had made in 1917. The “interests” were once again foisting “one war measure after another on you, a peace-loving and unsuspecting people,” he told Congress. The people should respond by refusing to play the game of the Morgans and the Rockefellers. “Remember,” Wheeler told his supporters, “the interventionists control the money bags, but you control the votes.”
The anti-interventionists also stressed the dangers of a leviathan government in wartime, particularly the dangers of an imperial presidency. The peril to the republic, national hero Charles Lindbergh testified to a congressional committee, “lies not in an invasion from abroad. I believe it lies here at home in our own midst.” Senator Gerald Nye decried Congress’s willingness to surrender its constitutional purview to a “power-hungry executive” and reduce itself “to the impotence of another Reichstag.” If Congress was another Reichstag, then Roosevelt, by extension, must be another Hitler. Leaders of the anti-interventionist organization America First maintained that the New Deal’s centralizing bureaucrats wanted, as Senator Wheeler said, to “establish fascism in the United States.” In his opponents’ eyes, the very act of opposing Hitler transformed Roosevelt into an American Hitler. (For more on views of Roosevelt as a dictator, see Ben Alpers’ marvelous book.)
When they insisted that neither side in the war had a righteous cause, the anti-interventionists downplayed Hitler’s brutal and increasingly genocidal policies against the Jews. Indeed, anti-Semitism was the elephant in the room that the more “responsible” anti-interventionists tried to ignore. Some, like journalist John T. Flynn, tried to keep the most vehement anti-Semites out of America First. They also tried to persuade prominent Jews to join the organization. But Lindbergh laid bare the anti-Semitic core of anti-interventionism when he gave a speech in Des Moines in September 1941 that identified the three forces leading the country to war: the Roosevelt administration, the British, and the Jews. Lindbergh singled out the Jews for special criticism: “Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our Government.”
Most newspapers and public officials condemned Lindbergh’s speech—Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican nominee for president, called it “the most un-American talk made in my time by any person of national reputation”—and Flynn and some America First leaders were distressed by it. But many anti-interventionists believed that Lindbergh had simply told the “truth,” that, as the lawyer Amos Pinchot explained, “as a group, the Jews of America are for intervention.” These anti-interventionists shared Lindbergh’s conviction that Americans would never willingly join a war against Germany; instead, they were being forced into it by selfish Brits, a lying executive, and Jewish warmongers. Though they insisted that these beliefs were not anti-Semitic, they ignored the long history of American anti-Semitism that lay behind Lindbergh’s accusation.
The anti-interventionists refused to see the differences between the First World War and the Second, between the British and the Nazis. They did, however, understand that the U.S. government was changing in immense—and, they believed, frightening—ways. Senator Robert Taft, the dean of anti-interventionist conservatives, argued that support for Britain would be the first step down a slippery slope to a national security state. “If we admit at all that we should take an active interest,” he said back in 1939, “we will be involved in perpetual war.” The United States would become more like European countries, with a powerful, centralized government launching wars around the globe. The increase in the coercive power of the government—to draft men, to commandeer resources, to suppress dissent—would imperil Americans’ historic independence and autonomy. It would, as Wheeler said, “slit the throat of the last Democracy still living.”