FDR’s Arsenal of Democracy Speech
Seventy years ago this evening – December 29, 1940 – Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered one of the most important speeches of his presidency and helped set in motion a vast expansion of presidential power in the realm of foreign affairs.
Fresh from re-election a month earlier to an unprecedented third term, Roosevelt used one of his tremendously effective “fireside chats” via radio to proclaim America “an arsenal of democracy” determined to aid a beleaguered Great Britain that seemed to be on its last legs against Hitler’s powerful army and air force.
Speaking from the Diplomatic Reception Room in the White House, Roosevelt said this would not be “a fireside chat on war,” but rather “a talk on national security.” He proceeded to lay out what he saw as the threats to the United States if the British, blockaded and bombed, were forced to capitulate to the Germans. While the speech was widely praised and well accepted, not everyone, to say the least, agreed. [You can hear the full speech, including the fascinating CBS announcer’s introduction here.]
The non-interventionist bloc in Congress remained very strong in 1940 and 1941. Roosevelt was concerned enough about the anti-war sentiment in the country that he made comments near the end of his 1940 campaign against Republican Wendell Willkie that he would have to eat. He famously said “our boys are not going to be sent into a foreign war.”
Montana’s progressive Democratic Sen. Burton K. Wheeler condemned Roosevelt and his advisers as “warmongers” and Wheeler urged the president to utilize his position and leverage to seek a negotiated end to the fighting in Europe. (Idaho’s William E. Borah, a Republican, who had died in January 1940, surely would have agreed with Wheeler and other leading non-interventionist like Ohio’s Robert Taft and California’s Hiram Johnson, both Republicans.)
Roosevelt followed up his “arsenal of democracy” speech with legislation – forever known as Lend-Lease – that gave the president, in Wheeler’s view and it was a credible view, vast new powers – even dictatorial powers – to aid those countries, debt free, that the president deemed vital to America’s national security. By the end of the war in 1945, Lend-Lease had supplied $50 billion (more than $750 billion in today’s dollars) in material to Britain, the Soviet Union, France and China.
There is little debate that the aid was essential to the war effort. No less an authority than Josef Stalin confirmed that when he told FDR that American equipment had allowed the Allies to win the war. There is also little debate around the fact that Lend-Lease, and Roosevelt’s administration of the program, finally and forever shed the American foreign policy cloak of non-intervention or isolationism. With Lend-Lease, the country was committed to full and unrelenting international engagement and the country has seldom looked back since the act was signed into law in March 1941.
Fundamentally, what Montana’s Wheeler and Idaho’s Borah, among others, were objecting to was the inherent expansion of presidential power in the realm of foreign policy. Wheeler repeatedly warned of the rise of “an American dictator” who would run over the top of the Congress in the establishment of foreign policy.
History has recorded that FDR, while not always candid or even completely honest about his intentions, used his vast foreign policy power with restraint and with a deep commitment to democracy. But those who opposed Roosevelt, even if now mostly forgotten, have also been validated by history. The steady expansion of presidential power in the area of foreign policy that, in many ways, began on a December evening 70 years ago continues to this very day.
The United States has spawned no dictator as Sen. Wheeler feared, but we do have a commander in chief whose power to involve the country militarily in every corner of the globe is routinely unchecked and often not even really debated by the Congress. Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy is well recognized for its sweeping impact on domestic policy, but the 32nd president’s legacy in foreign policy is just has profound and it began with a speech on this day seven decades ago.