Even before the United States entered World War II in December 1941, America was sending arms and equipment to the Soviet Union to help it defeat the Nazi invasion.
Although in August 1939 the Soviet Union and Germany had signed a nonaggression treaty, Germany’s June 1941 invasion of the USSR brought their alliance to an end, forcing the Soviets to confront the Nazis as enemies. President Franklin D. Roosevelt convinced Congress the U.S. should provide military aid to nations “vital to the defense of the United States.”
“We cannot, and we will not, tell [them] that they must surrender, merely because of present inability to pay for the weapons which we know they must have.”
Under the Lend-Lease Act, enacted nine months before the U.S. entered the war, Washington dispatched war supplies to Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union. While the U.S. and the USSR disagreed in other areas, the threat Hitler posed to the world brought them to a common objective.
Technically, the U.S. lent these materials. As Roosevelt told cost-conscious Americans:
“Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire. … If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant I may help him 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 got to pay me $15 for it.’ I don’t want $15 — I want my garden hose back. In other words, if you lend certain munitions, and munitions come back after the war, you are all right.”
Ultimately, the U.S. did not seek or expect much in the way of monetary repayment. Some wartime debts were later settled at a greatly reduced rate, but Lend-Lease was mostly a grant by the United States, the nation Roosevelt called the “arsenal of democracy” to its partners against Nazism and fascism.
Equipping the Red Army
After Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, America sent the first convoys with goods to the Soviet Union by August.
The scope of the aid is detailed by Russia Beyond, an online publication of Russia’s state newspaper (Rossiyskaya Gazeta), and also by many historians, including U.S. policy analyst Albert L. Weeks in his 2004 book Russia’s Life-Saver: Lend-Lease Aid to the USSR in World War II.
In the final tally, America sent its Russian ally the following military equipment:
- 400,000 jeeps and trucks
- 14,000 airplanes
- 8,000 tractors
- 13,000 tanks
And these supplies:
- More than 1.5 million blankets
- 15 million pairs of army boots
- 107,000 tons of cotton
- 2.7 million tons of petroleum products (to fuel airplanes, trucks and tanks)
- 4.5 million tons of food
Americans also sent guns, ammunition, explosives, copper, steel, aluminum, medicine, field radios, radar tools, books and other items.
The U.S. even transported an entire Ford Company tire factory, which made tires for military vehicles, to the Soviet Union.
From 1941 through 1945, the U.S. sent $11.3 billion, or $180 billion in 2016 dollars, in goods and services to the Soviets.
The difference it made
In a November 1941 letter to Roosevelt, Soviet Premier Josef Stalin wrote:
“Your decision, Mr. President, to give the Soviet Union an interest-free credit of $1 billion in the form of materiel supplies and raw materials has been accepted by the Soviet government with heartfelt gratitude as urgent aid to the Soviet Union in its enormous and difficult fight against the common enemy — bloodthirsty Hitlerism.”
At a dinner toast with Allied leaders during the Tehran Conference in December 1943, Stalin added: “The United States … is a country of machines. Without the use of those machines through Lend-Lease, we would lose this war.”
Nikita Khrushchev, who led the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964, agreed with Stalin’s assessment. In his memoirs, Khrushchev described how Stalin stressed the value of Lend-Lease aid: “He stated bluntly that if the United States had not helped us, we would not have won the war.”
Unearthing a forgotten story
The former Museum of the Allies and Lend-Lease, in Moscow, offered physical evidence of America’s contributions to the Soviet war effort.
When the museum opened in 2004, the son of Soviet Marshal K.K. Rokossovsky donated his father’s American-made World War II Willys jeep. The museum displayed the still-operational vehicle and even took it on occasional driving trips. The museum also showcased a unique collection of uniform buttons carrying Soviet symbols on the front and stamped “Made in Chicago” on the back.
The museum is no longer active, but its former director, Nikolai Borodin, remains dedicated to publicizing the Lend-Lease story. In addition to military aid, he says, the U.S. sent food, clothes and toys to Russian civilians.
Under Lend-Lease, “whatever was asked for was received,” he says.
In his May 9, 2005, remarks at a Moscow parade honoring the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory against Nazi Germany, Russian President Vladimir Putin honored Russian sacrifices — the USSR suffered more casualties than any other force engaged in the war — and acknowledged Allied help in winning World War II.
Putin noted that “61 nations and almost 80 percent of the world’s population” were affected by the war in some way, and Allied help was integral to defeating Hitler.
“Dear friends, we never divided the victory into ours and someone else’s,” Putin said. “We will always remember the assistance from the Allies: the United States of America, Great Britain, France and other nations of the anti-Hitler coalition, [plus] German and Italian anti-fascists.”
Decades earlier, addressing the U.K. House of Commons shortly after Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill hailed the late president for ensuring the delivery of U.S. aid to the Allies during the largest armed conflict in human history.
Roosevelt, Churchill said, “devised the extraordinary measure of assistance called Lend-Lease, which will stand forth as the most unselfish and unsordid financial act of any country in all history.”
American leaders, for their part, were well satisfied that the Lend-Lease program helped achieve their objective: the defeat of Hitler.
This story was originally published April 29, 2020.