Sunday, March 11, 2012

71 Years Ago Today: "The president's "whole program," later to be known as "lend-lease," was the unconventional idea that the United States could send Britain weapons and supplies without charge and then, after the war, be repaid not in dollars but in kind."

On This Day in the New York Times today:
On March 11, 1941, President Roosevelt signed into law the Lend-Lease Bill, providing war supplies to countries fighting the Axis.
Wow, I'd just been cruising the Caribbean last night with  Roosevelt when he came up with the idea of Lend-Lease in No Ordinary Time.  That's the magic of very good books - they take you temporarily into another time and place.    When the cruise was over . . .
The president returned to Washington Monday afternoon, December 16, tanned, rested, and in excellent humor.  The following day, at his press conference, he puffed hard on his cigarette and then revealed his startling plan.  He had heard a great deal of nonsense about finances in the past few days, he began, by people who could think only in traditional terms.  Whereas banal minds assumed that either the Neutrality Acts of the late 1930s or the Johnson Act, barring loans to defaulters on World War I debts would have to be repealed in order to allow loans or gifts to England, he had a much simpler notion in mind - a gentlemen's agreement that eliminated the foolish dollar sign entirely, and allowed England to make repayment in kind after the war.

"Well, let me give you an illustration:  Suppose my neighbor's home catches on fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away.  If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help to put out his fire.  Now what do I do?  I don't say to him before that operation, 'Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15;  you have to pay me the $15 for it.'  What is the transaction that goes on?  I don't want $15 - I want my garden hose back after the fire is over.  All right.  If it goes through the fire all right, intact, without any damage to it, he gives it back t me and thanks me very much for the use of it."  And if the hose was damaged by the fire, he could simply replace it.
[Some background for the historically disadvantaged:  Germany had invaded France, Holland, and Belgium very quickly in 1939 and was now (late 1940 early 1941) conducting air raids nightly on Britain.  There was fear Britain would be invaded.  But isolationists - both on the left and the right - were opposed to the US involvement arguing the oceans would keep us safe.  Roosevelt said the aeroplane had made the US vulnerable as never before and was building up the military just in case and was trying to get as many weapons and other supplies to Britain as fast as he could.  There had been a lot of opposition to arming Britain - the US didn't have enough to protect itself if there were an attack and arming Britain seemed a way to draw us into the conflict.  In November 1940, FDR had just be reelected for an unprecedented third term.]

Doris Kearns Goodwin (the author) framed this story around the idea of how people think, well, how FDR thought, starting with author John Gunther asking Eleanor Roosevelt how the president thought.
Mr. Gunther's question was on the minds of several Cabinet members in mid-November 1940, when the president seemed unable and unwilling to concentrate his thoughts on a new and disturbing crisis:  Great Britain was on the verge of bankruptcy.
The cash reserves of the British treasury, the U.S. was told after the election, were no longer sufficient to pay for the munitions and supplies that Britain had ordered from the U.S. - supplies needed now more than ever.  Though Britain's success in repulsing the Luftwaffe had postponed the threatened invasion until spring, the German advantage in war materials was growing and would continue to grow as Germany increasingly moved to supplement its own vast production with that of the industrial countries it had conquered - Holland, Belgium, France, Czechoslovakia.  Without American supplies to close the gap, Britain would be defeated in a matter of months.
What to do?  The idea of loaning the money to Britain was raised in the Cabinet, but no one believed that Congress would go along, given America's experience with unpaid debts in World War I.  During the discussion, the president, Frances Perkins recalled, threw out "a question here and a hint there."  Perkins had the feeling that "he was thinking about something, about some way in which the people of the U.S. could assist the British," but he had nothing concrete to offer.  The problem seemed insoluble.
In the midst of the crisis, as administration officials were frantically scurrying from one meeting to another, the president suddenly announced that he was leaving Washington for a ten-day sail through the Caribbean on the navy cruiser the U.S.S. Tuscaloosa.  He told his stunned Cabinet, "All of you use your imaginations" to come up with an answer.  To be sure, the exhausted president needed to rest after the wearying campaign.  "The more I sleep, the more I want to sleep,"  he was heard to say.  But the timing of the pleasure trip was profoundly disturbing to those who worried about Britain's survival.

 Eleanor, who had been in a ship accident as a child and still did not like being on the water, was traveling through the South and Midwest, lecturing, and keeping an eye on economic conditions where she traveled.  She's disturbed to see people living in shacks "made of scraps apparently, bits of corrugated iron, even heavy cardboard is used. . . .I cannot help feeling that there should be a better way of meeting this problem."

Crowds send off FDR's cruise from Miami. 
Map from Lonely Planet
 The president spent his days with his white shirtsleeves rolled up over his wrestler's arms, talking, fishing and basking in the sun.  From the beginning of the trip to the end, the newspapermen who followed faithfully behind on a convoy destroyer had no idea where they were going or how long they would be gone.  At Guantanamo Bay the cruiser pulled into the dock for an hour's stop so that a large stock of Cuban cigars could be carried on board.  At Jamaica, St. Eleuthera Island (in Bahamas), St. Lucia, and Antigua, the president hosted British colonial officials and their wives at lunch.  At Eleuthera Island (in the Bahamas) he was joined by the duke of Windsor.  Relaxing evenings were spent on deck cheering boxing matches between black mess attendants, listening to drummer contests between sailors and marines, playing poker, and watching movies - including Tin Pan Alley, staring Betty Grable, and Northwest Mounted Police, with Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard.  .  .

But the world would not go away.  From daily dispatches Roosevelt learned that heavy raids on London had devastated the House of Commons and that massive bombings of Coventry, Birmingham, and Bristol had so severely damaged dozens of war factories that vital production would be halted for months.  At the same time, it was reported that the severity of German submarine sinkings had escalated;  in a matter of weeks, seven merchant vessels carrying tons of needed supplies had been sunk.  And from Washington came news of the unexpected death of Lord Lothian, British ambassador to the U.S., who had worked unremittingly to strengthen his country's bond with the United States.  A Christian Scientist, Lothian had refused treatment for a simple infection that turned exotic.
[To find the three unmarked locations on map: Miami is on the lower right side of the finger coming down from the word CARIBBEAN;  Guantanamo Bay is  at the bottom of Cuba, facing Jamaica; and Eleuthera is in the Bahamas.]

A seaplane dropped off an urgent letter from Winston Churchill who regarded it as "'one of the most important' he had ever written" which said how the British were ready to fight to the death against the Germans, but they were now facing a new problem - finances. 
"The moment approaches where we shall no longer be able to pay cash for shipping and other supplies.  While we will do our utmost and shrink from no proper sacrifices to make payments across the exchange, I believe you will agree that it would be wrong in principle and mutually disadvantageous in effect if, at the heights of this struggle Great Britain were to be divested of all saleable assets so that after the victory was won with our blood, civilization saved and the time gained for the United States to be fully armed against all eventualities, we should stand stripped to the bone.  Such a course would not be in the moral or economic interests of either of our countries."
. . .Churchill's letter had a profound effect on the president, though he said little about it at first.  "I didn't know for quite a while what he was thinking about, if anything," Hopkins said later.  "But then - I began to get the idea that he was refueling, the way he so often does when he seems to be resting and carefree.  So I didn't ask him any questions.  Then, one evening, he suddenly came out with it - the whole program.  He didn't seem to have any clear idea how it could be done legally.  But there wasn't a doubt in his mind that he'd find a way to do it."

The president's "whole program," later to be known as "lend-lease," was the unconventional idea that the United States could send Britain weapons and supplies without charge and then, after the war, be repaid not in dollars but in kind.  How Roosevelt arrived at this ingenious idea, which cut through all the stale debates in Washington about loans and gifts, is not clear.  "Nobody that I know of,"  White House speechwriter Robert Sherwood has written, "has been able to give any convincing idea" of how the refueling process worked.  "He did not seem to talk much about the subject in hand, or to consult the advice of others, or to 'readup' on it . . . One can only say that FDR, a creative artist in politics, had put in his time on this cruise evolving the pattern of a masterpiece."
 There's lots to learn in these passages - some geography, ways of thinking (getting away and letting my brain solve puzzles on its own often works for me), and seeing that imagination can often come up with a new solution that overcomes the objections.  And also the importance of being able to frame your solution in a story that people can understand.  And I learned that Caribbean has one 'r' and two 'b's.

And I suspect that this book has a lot for President Obama to learn from. 

These quotes come from the beginning of Chapter 8 of No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin. 

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