On September 1, 1939 when German mechanized and air forces invaded Poland precipitating WWII. Using the so-called “Blitzkrieg” or lightning war, the Germans were able to crush the Polish army in just three weeks (Toynbee 384). The Soviet Union served as a non-aggression ally of Germany at the start of the war, invading Poland (after three weeks of the German invasion) in the east. France and Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939.
After the invasion, there followed what historians called the “Phony War.’ During this period, Allied and Axis forces in Europe were in a state of hibernation. There were little military or operational activities conducted by the two camps. Suddenly, at the start of 1940, German forces swung in Western Europe, absorbing Denmark, Holland, Belgium, and Norway. France faced the possibility of an invasion.
In April of the same year, German armored divisions outflanked the Maginot Line, forcing French forces to concentrate their strength in areas near Paris. The main German attack forced the British out of France (Toynbee 392). France then was widely open to further German attack. After two weeks of fighting, the French government surrendered to Hitler. France was then divided into two: a German occupied territory and a Vichy French occupied territory (which was essentially an ally of Hitler).
Now, Hitler turned his eyes on North Africa. He sent General Erwin Rommel to destroy the British Eight Army in Libya and Egypt. Because of his brilliance and prowess as a general (he was known as the Desert Fox), he “liberated” Libya (which was an Italian colony) from the much superior British army (double in number and ammunitions) in just one month. His army headed to Egypt.
At the start of 1941, Britain was successively attacked by German bombers. Hitler planned to subdue Britain by air raids. He directed his top air force (Luftwaffe) officers to concentrate the bulk of bomber divisions to attacking Britain industry (Churchill 511). This, according to him, would severely destroy Britain’s capability to sustain a prolonged war. He also directed his admirals to organize the so-called “Wolf Packs”, groups of U-boats aimed to destroy British naval units and especially merchant ships. This would starve Britain.
Although Britain succeeded in reducing German air attacks by the end of 1941, its allies in the Balkans fell one by one to Nazi forces. Yugoslavia fell after two weeks of fighting. Greece, after defeating the Italian army sent by Mussolini succumbed to Hitler’s forces after three weeks.
Crete also fell to German parachute units, after one month of resistance (British forces evacuated the island and then headed to Egypt). Britain once again faced defeat. To add to Britain’s fear of defeat, some of its colonies in the Middle East began revolting. The paramount head of Iraq sent a message to German diplomats asking German aid to sustain the revolt. The shah promised collaboration with the Axis after the rebellion succeeded. The Germans responded positively and sent some air divisions in Iraq.
Britain’s situation was worsened when British forces suffered successive defeats in Asia. Burma fell to the Japanese. The impregnable “Singapore” fell to the Japanese after one month of fighting. British supply lines in Asia were heavily destroyed (Churchill 472). Although the British had allies in Asia, they were essentially ineffective to stem the Japanese advance. Britain now stood alone against Germany in Europe. It was in the verge of defeat. Its supply lines were hampered by both U-boat attacks and German air forces. This was the situation when America decided to help Britain by extending its supply base.
Stand of America during the Second World War
The United States stayed out of the war in its early phase because of the strong opposition of a significant portion of the American public (historians called this as “isolationism). The American public saw the entry of America to the war as non-beneficial to the American nation.
The war would destroy some of the civil liberties that Americans enjoyed since independence. Needless to say, the war would demand the full transformation of the US economy into a war economy. In the US Congress, there was a great debate as to whether the United States should help its perceived “allies” in Asia. However, the talk of sending American troops to Europe was clearly out of the question. America was not ready to face a strong enemy, albeit in the atmosphere of political unrest at home.
The US president at that time, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, knew that if Britain fell to the Nazis, America would be the next target of the German war machine. Thus, he formulated a strategy to help Britain and not getting involved in the war. The policy was called the March 1941 Lend-Lease Agreement (Lend-Lease Act: URL cited).
On March 11, 1941, upon the heed of President Roosevelt, the US Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act. This act gave the president the authority to sell, transfer, exchange, and lend any form of equipment (whether it be military or commercial in nature) to any country fighting the Axis powers (Lend-Lease Act: URL cited). About 50 billion dollars was allocated by Congress for the said act. Most of the money went to Great Britain. Some portion went to other countries fighting Axis powers. As the war progressed, the US Congress increased the allocation for the act. The British government promised to repay the aid over the next successive years (about 650 million dollars).
The act though was passed not without opposition. Many legislators felt the need to stay America out of the war. They believed that America’s entry into the war would result in another economic crisis, similar to the Great Depression. The act though was passed at the heeding of the US president (noted as an urgent bill).
The implementation of the act did not go smoothly, as what Roosevelt expected. The details of the settlement were not yet drawn by the powers involved. Although some suggestions were put up by the US government, the British did not agree to the suggestions. One suggestion was the handing over of the British West Indies as an assurance of debt repayment. This was essentially out of principle to some British politicians and academicians.
For example, Robert M. Hutchins of the University of Chicago said, “We know that we have had till lately 9 million unemployed and that we should have them still if it were not for our military preparations. When our military preparations cease, we shall, for all we know, have 9 million unemployed again.”
Another suggestion was, in exchange for American destroyers, the British fleet must sail to North America if Great Britain fell into the hands of the Nazis. The Prime Minister protested to the suggestion arguing that it would weaken British morale in the war. According to him, 50 or sixty old destroyers were never enough to compensate the weakened morale of British troops fighting the Nazis in Europe and North Africa.
The Americans though were able to put suggestions into the settlement that were favorable to the British. The British agreed to open British naval straits to American naval units in exchange for the destroyers. As part of the settlement, the British also agreed to open their air territory to American air units. The British also agreed to open naval bases in the Caribbean to the United States. The two countries believed that the course of the war depends on the mutual relationship of Great Britain and the United States. The war would be lost if the two countries refused to actively cooperate with each other.
As such, Franklin Roosevelt felt that it was the obligation of every American to help countries fighting the enemies of democratic institutions. Thus, he agreed to abolish the so-called “cash-and-carry basis of purchasing war goods for “allied” countries. After the November 5th presidential election (after Roosevelt’s victory), Roosevelt urged the US Congress to increase war aid to countries fighting the Axis umbrella. He also urged the body to consider the arming of the United States in case the United States entered the war. He also announced to the American public that the United States had never been apathetic in its foreign relations; that it aimed to protect the world from the barbarism of totalitarianism and racism. Thus he said,
“Through these years of war, we Americans have never been neutral in thought. We have never been indifferent to the fate of Hitler's victim. And, increasingly, we have become aware of the peril to ourselves, to our democratic traditions and institutions, to our country, and to our hemisphere. We have known what victory for the aggressors would mean to us. Therefore, the American people, through the Congress, have taken important and costly steps to give great aid to those nations actively fighting against Nazi-Fascist domination” (Roosevelt 1: URL cited).
From this point, the United States was ready to give its economy to the war effort. Factories producing chocolates were transformed into tank factories. Milk manufacturing centers became armament centers. The whole government bureaucracy was directed to the war effort. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the United States increased its aid to the “allies.” The US promised to send 10, 000 tanks to the Soviet Union by August of the same year (the USSR was almost defeated were it not for US aid). With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the whole US economy was producing war materials greater than the whole production capability of the Axis powers. Involvement in the war resulted.
Churchill, Winston. The Second World War. London: Houghton Mifflin Books, 1986.
Lend-Lease Act. 2007. 9 December 2007 from http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/2WWlendlease.htm (accessed).
Roosevelt, Franklin. FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT'S MESSAGE TO CONGRESS URGING THE ARMING OF AMERICAN FLAG SHIPS ENGAGED IN FOREIGN COMMERCE. Department of State Bulletin, October 11, 1941. 9 December 2007 from http://www.ibiblio.org/pha/policy/1941/411009a.html (accessed).
Toynbee, Arnold. A Study of History. (Abridged) Oxford University Press, 1987.