This is what George W. Bush and Barack Obama were getting at in separate oratories last week. Both speeches were portrayed as rebukes of the incumbent president. That’s probably accurate, but I don’t believe the former presidents were primarily registering a personal complaint, or even a stylistic one, against Donald Trump.
What they are lamenting, it seems to me, is a decline in a national consensus forged painstakingly during the Second World War and its long aftermath. I’m referring to a non-partisan accord holding that we are at our best as a people when we are battling racism and nativism — at home and abroad. Also — in the words of a young man who fought in the Pacific and led the free world during the Cold War — that America would pay any price and bear any burden to assure the success and survival of liberty in the world.
On this date in 1941, Congress took a key step toward forging that consensus. It wasn’t easy, and it entailed passing a Depression-era supplemental appropriation of $6 billion. Although that was a lot of money back then, and the legislative battle was spirited, it proved to be money well-spent. It may have saved the world.
The National World War II Museum has an extensive exhibit on the $6 billion supplemental budget bill approved by Congress 76 years ago today, money appropriated to implement the controversial program known as Lend-Lease, which was proposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the fading days of the dark year 1940.
In a December 29 fireside chat, FDR delivered a speech remarkable for its bluntness and rhetorical force. “The experience of the past two years has proven beyond doubt that no nation can appease the Nazis,” Roosevelt said. “No man can tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it. There can be no appeasement with ruthlessness. There can be no reasoning with an incendiary bomb. We know now that a nation can have peace with the Nazis only at the price of total surrender.”
With the European continent under Hitler’s boot heel, Roosevelt proposed to prevent the fall of the British Isles with U.S. help.
“We must be the great arsenal of democracy,” the president proclaimed. “For us this is an emergency as serious as war itself. We must apply ourselves to our task with the same resolution, the same sense of urgency, the same spirit of patriotism and sacrifice as we would show were we at war.”
At that moment in history, the Republican Party needed someone to reconnect it with its historic roots as a political party that would march for the cause of freedom. It found that person in the form of Wendell Willkie. The 1940 presidential nominee came out in support of FDR’s plan, at great political cost to himself.
Some parallels to today are striking. Willkie, the maverick, engendered some of the backlash John McCain has experienced over his many years in the Senate. Kansas Sen. Alf Landon, the Republicans’ 1936 sacrificial lamb against FDR, groused that Willkie built a reputation for intellectual independence “by slapping some other Republican leader” and ignoring others.
Privately, Landon was more explicit, complaining that Willkie was “constantly running interference for the president,” something he believed “an opposition leader should never do.”
Willkie didn’t agree at all. He believed that in this case the right policy was also the right politics, and he bluntly warned his fellow Republicans that if they were on the wrong side of history in the war enveloping this planet, they’d never be trusted to run the U.S. government again. He took heat for this stance. Kansas Rep. William Lambertson, for one, excoriated Willkie as “America’s No. 1 warmonger.”
Among Willkie’s converts, however, was Thomas Dewey, the man who would become the Republican presidential standard-bearer in 1944 and 1948. Willkie provided cover to enough like-minded Republican members of Congress that Lend-Lease was enacted in March 1941. The October 23 supplemental appropriation brought U.S. assistance to $13 billion, and the total would grow to much more.
Winston Churchill would describe Lend-Lease as the most unselfish act of its kind in recorded history.
“Then came the majestic policy of the president and Congress of the United States in passing the Lease-Lend Bill,” Churchill said. “Never again let us hear the taunt that money is the ruling power in the hearts and thoughts of the American democracy.”