Made by History

Franklin Roosevelt’s Case for American Military Aid for Ukraine

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As Congress scrambles to keep the government open, the two parties are still deeply divided over whether to fund the Ukrainian war effort, with Republicans either opposed or insisting that such funding be tied to border security and significant new immigration restrictions. But the anniversary this month of a seminal speech underscores how critical this funding is — both for Ukraine’s war effort and America’s own national security.

On Jan. 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union address as the U.S. confronted a similar situation to the one it faces in 2024. In 1941, Great Britain was the American ally desperately trying to repel unprovoked aggression, in that case from Nazi Germany. Like Ukraine today, it confronted the real prospect that without further American military and economic assistance, the country would no longer be able to carry on its struggle against Hitler and his regime. Roosevelt made a stirring case for doing so — one that lays out why aiding Ukraine benefits the U.S. as well. 

The inspiration for Roosevelt’s address came from a letter he received from Prime Minister Winston Churchill on Dec. 10, 1940. Although Churchill maintained an optimistic tone in his plea, he insisted that unless the British government could establish a new means to feed its people and import munitions his country faced “mortal danger.”

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Churchill’s missive prompted Roosevelt to reimagine the U.S. as the “arsenal of democracy” and to devise a program known as Lend Lease to subsidize the British war effort. But he could not provide the assistance that Britain needed without first convincing Congress and the American taxpayer to support the appropriations needed to expand U.S. arms production to meet the demands of the aid program. It was this challenge that animated his state of the union address.

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Roosevelt began by stating he found it “unhappily necessary to report that the future and the safety of our country and our democracy are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our borders.” At that moment, Hitler had established what he called a “new order” in Europe, the Japanese were threatening to move beyond their invasion of China to other regions in the Pacific, and the forces of fascist Italy had launched attacks on Greece and North Africa. As Roosevelt put it, "the democratic way of life” was “being directly assailed in every part of the world.” The threat came not just from military actions. It also stemmed from the “secret spreading of poisonous propaganda by those who seek to destroy unity and promote discord in nations that are still at peace.”

Roosevelt dismissed those isolationists who opposed aid to Britain and insisted that the only way to end the war in Europe was to seek “a just peace” with Hitler’s regime. He scoffed that “no realistic American” could expect peace with a dictator to come with the “return of true independence…” Instead, such a peace, he said, “would bring no security for us or our neighbors.” Moreover, both morality and American national security interests would “never permit us to acquiesce in a peace dictated by aggressors and sponsored by appeasers.” Most Americans knew “that enduring peace cannot be bought at the cost of other people’s freedom.”

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The president then asked Congress for the authority and the funds to manufacture additional arms to help the British and any other nation at war with aggressors. “We must act as the arsenal for them as well as for ourselves, and we must act quickly,” he continued, because “the time is near when they will not be able to pay for them in ready cash. 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.”

Roosevelt refused to countenance such a possibility. His answer to “the new order of tyranny” that Hitler declared he had established in Europe was to propose its very antithesis: “a moral order” that did not depend on “the crash of a bomb…the concentration camp, or the quick lime in the ditch.” Rather, Roosevelt called on his fellow Americans to support a world based on four fundamental human freedoms: freedom of speech and expression; freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. “This is no vision of a distant millennium,” he said, as he drew his address to a close, but “a definitive basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.”

Roosevelt’s speech took U.S. foreign policy in a pathbreaking direction. His commitment to the establishment of the four freedoms—“everywhere in the world”—embraced a capacious definition of American national security. It envisioned the security and well-being of the people of the U.S. being dependent on the security and well-being of people in other parts of the globe—both economically and militarily. Roosevelt understood that it was the economic crisis of the 1930s that had given rise to anti-democratic, fascist regimes in Europe and Asia that were then waging war. Hence, protecting the U.S. meant both preventing such crises, and responding quickly and forcefully to aggression from non-democratic regimes.

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Viewed from this perspective, Roosevelt’s commitment to a world free from want and fear represented the starting point of the American-led effort to establish the postwar economic and security infrastructure that stands at the heart of today’s rules-based globalized economy. To Roosevelt, no less than “the happiness of future generations of Americans may well depend upon how effective and how immediate” American aid to the victims of aggression was. 

Today, the U.S. faces an analogous situation to the one confronting Roosevelt in January of 1941. Once again, democracy is under assault from an autocrat who invaded a neighbor out of the conviction that his ability and willingness to wage war far exceeded the willingness and ability of those who might oppose him. As such, a Russian victory in Ukraine would lend credence to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s argument that the powers of autocracy are superseding Western liberal democracy and might well mark the beginning of the “New World Order” that he and Chinese leader Xi Jinping recently touted at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing.

As in 1941, the American president grasps that U.S. aid to the victim of aggression is essential to defeating such efforts, but is running headlong into a short-sighted isolationist streak coursing through politics.

Yet, Roosevelt’s observation remains salient. At stake is not just the future happiness of the Ukrainian people, but the happiness of future generations of Americans. Failure to support Ukraine risks them living in a world dominated by autocratic rulers who have little respect for democracy, the rule of law, or the four fundamental human freedoms that a previous generation of Americans fought and died to protect. In a real way, this is a fight not about foreign aid or prioritizing other countries over addressing problems in the U.S. Instead, it’s about whether the U.S. will act to protect the well-being of Americans for generations to come.

David B. Woolner is professor of history and Kovler Foundation fellow of Roosevelt Studies at Marist College, senior fellow of the Roosevelt Institute, and author of The Last 100 Days: FDR at War and at Peace. Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here.

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