By Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
In September 1940, Americans were still recovering from World War I two decades earlier with terrible loss of life. So deep were the wounds of the war, that Congress passed the first of four Neutrality Acts in 1935 banning the shipment or sale of arms from the U.S. to any combatant nation. Isolationism was popular among the citizenry, but as Germany continued to invade and take control of one country after another, President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew the time would come when the U.S. would be drawn into the war.
Still, he faced a conundrum: He was sympathetic to the needs of Great Britain and the need to stop the Axis powers of Germany, Japan and Italy, but in July he had accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for a third term as president of the United States which counted among the planks of its platform a pledge that “We will not participate in foreign wars, and we will not send our army, naval or air forces to fight in foreign lands outside of the Americas, except in the case of attack.”
Lucky for Roosevelt that said nothing about sending ships.
And so it was, 74 years ago today, that Roosevelt proposed a solution that would help the embattled Britain and strengthen the United States’ defenses against any future threats: the Sept. 2, 1940 Destroyers for Bases Agreement.
When Germany began its invasion of France in May 1940, and marched into Paris a little more than a month later, it forced the British to evacuate thousands of French and British soldiers from Dunkirk. The evacuation came at a terrible cost: 68,000 men either dead, wounded, missing or captured, the loss of 222 ships including at least six destroyers plus another 19 heavily damaged, and the loss of more than 950 Royal Air Force aircraft.
“What General Weygard has called the Battle of France is over…the Battle of Britain is about to begin,” Winston Churchill delivered in a House of Commons speech in late June. He knew Britain, standing alone, was about to face her darkest hour and the only hope for help was an isolationist America.
Churchill reached out to Roosevelt in July as German bombers began raids of Great Britain. The two world leaders had developed a close working relationship earlier in the year while Churchill was still the first lord of the admiralty. At the time, Churchill had urged the United States to take more of an anti-Axis position, pointing out that if Great Britain were to fall to the enemy, there would suddenly be a number of German colonies very close to America’s shores.
Bound by the Neutrality Acts, Roosevelt suggested a trade: air and naval bases within Great Britain’s colonies for 50 of the Navy’s over-aged destroyers. He could justify the swap because outlying bases would keep invaders from reaching America’s shores.
An agreement was quickly accepted on Sept. 2, 1940. The lease was guaranteed for 99 years “free from all rent and charges other than such compensation to be mutually agreed on to be paid by the United States.” Bases would be established in the Bahamas, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Trinidad, Antigua and British Guiana. Separately, bases in Newfoundland and Bermuda were “gifts generously given and gladly received,” Roosevelt said.
Roosevelt covered his bases, no pun intended, by reaching out first to Attorney General Robert H. Jackson to make sure the president had the power to enter into such an agreement without bringing it first to Congress. Jackson said he did. Jackson believed the Constitution gave the president the power under his title as Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy whose power is not defined or limited.
Roosevelt explained his actions to Congress on Sept. 3.
“This is not inconsistent in any sense with our status of peace,” Roosevelt assured Congress. “Still less is it a threat against any nation. It is an epochal and far-reaching act of preparation for continental defense in the face of grave danger.
“Preparation for defense is an inalienable prerogative of a sovereign state. Under present circumstances this exercise of sovereign right is essential to the maintenance of our peace and safety… The value to the Western Hemisphere of these outposts of security is beyond calculation. Their need has long been recognized by our country, and especially by those primarily charged with the duty of charting and organizing our own naval and military defense… For these reasons I have taken advantage of the present opportunity to acquire them.”
The destroyers for bases agreement was just one of several the United States would employ in order to help give Great Britain what help it could. After winning an unprecedented third term in office, Roosevelt tried to bring Congress closer to understanding America’s continued neutrality could not stand much longer.
During a fireside chat on Dec. 29, 1940, Roosevelt explained the message wasn’t about going to war, but instead “a talk on national security.” It was when he urged America to become “the great arsenal of democracy.”
Shortly afterward, he proposed the “Lend-Lease” program that allowed cash-strapped countries to purchase armament and equipment and deferring their payments.
In the meantime, just weeks after winning an unprecedented third-term in office, Roosevelt reached out to Churchill by sending his personal emissary, his former Republican opponent Wendell Willkie, to London with a message that included a few lines by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, probably most famous for his poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” about America’s quest for independence from Great Britain.
But the stanza from “The Building of A Ship” included a personal note from Roosevelt, stating it applied to the British people:
Sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!
The lines resonated with the prime minister. As Congress wrangled with the decision to pass the “Lend-Lease” Act, Churchill responded to Roosevelt’s note during a Feb. 9, 1941 BBC radio speech to his citizenry:
“Here is the answer which I will give to President Roosevelt: Put your confidence in us. Give us your faith and your blessing, and, under Providence, all will be well. “We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.”
The Lend-Lease Act was passed just weeks later. This act, along with the Destroyers for Bases Agreement, would help turn the tide against Germany in Europe. Churchill would later call the initiatives as “the most unsordid act” one nation had ever done for another.
Although both agreements created goodwill between the nations, it was the United States that probably benefited the most. With its defense industry ramping up, the U.S. would be prepared to join the fight when the time came on Dec. 7, 1941.