50 De­stroy­ers That Saved the RN/RCN

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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, that Roo­sevelt pro­posed a so­lu­tion that would help the em­bat­tled Bri­tain and strengthen the United States’ de­fenses against any fu­ture threats: the Septem­ber 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 Septem­ber 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 Septem­ber 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 De­cem­ber 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 “LendLease” Act, Churchill re­sponded to Roo­sevelt’s note dur­ing a Fe­bru­ary 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 w 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 De­cem­ber 7, 1941.

Great Bri­tain's Prime Min­is­ter Win­ston Churchill, left, and Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt on­board USS Au­gusta off the coast of New­found­land dur­ing the At­lantic Char­ter Con­fer­ence in Au­gust 1941. NHHC pho


"Red Lead Row," San Diego De­stroyer Base, Calif., with at least 65 de­stroy­ers tied up. Of those de­stroy­ers, 15 of them would go to Great Bri­tain for the

"De­stroy­ers for Bases" agree­ment. Pho­tographed at the end of 1922.

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