Following the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkerque, Britain was virtually naked militarily, and the nation now awaited a German attack. When Churchill appealed to Roosevelt for military assistance, the U.S. reaction was immediate and extraordinary. Within days, 600 freight cars were on their way to U.S. ports filled with military equipment to be loaded aboard British merchant ships. These included half a million rifles and 900 old 75 mm field guns.
On 15 June, Churchill directly appealed to Roosevelt for 35 old U.S. destroyers. With Germany controlling both the Channel ports and Norway, Britain faced the prospect of defending against German invasion with but 68 destroyers fit for service, a stark contrast to the 433 destroyers possessed by the Royal Navy in 1918. Britain's shipping lanes were even more vulnerable to German submarines with the fall of France, and Italy's entry into the war had made the Mediterranean an area of difficult passage. As Churchill put it to Roosevelt, "We must ask therefore as a matter of life or death to be reinforced with these destroyers." Over the next days and weeks, as the number of these British warships continued to dwindle, Churchill's appeal grew to 50–60 destroyers. Roosevelt's insistence on proceeding with the aid went against the advice of Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Harold Stark, who believed that Britain was doomed and that such a step would strip America bare militarily before new production could materialize.
With American public opinion strongly against U.S. intervention, Roosevelt masked the transfer in a deal announced in an executive order on 3 September 1940 that was not subject to congressional approval. Britain received 50 World War I–vintage destroyers from the United States, in return granting the United States rights of 99-year leases to British bases in North America and the Caribbean Islands. The United States claimed that the agreement did not violate American neutrality because the British were providing access to naval bases and facilities deemed essential for American defense, including those in Newfoundland, Bermuda, British Guiana, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, and Trinidad. The Roosevelt administration maintained that the deal was an important step in ensuring national security and preventing the spread of the European war to the Americas.
Actually, the United States got far more than it gave. The destroyers were in wretched condition; some barely made it across the Atlantic. But the deal gave a tremendous boost to British morale at a critical juncture, and Churchill viewed this as another step by the United States toward outright participation. Privately, German leader Adolf Hitler saw this in much the same light. Anxious to unleash Japan in Asia to occupy the United States, he ordered talks opened with Japan that culminated in the Tripartite Pact of 27 September. The long war, a clash involving continents that would give advantage to nations with superior sea power, drew closer to realization. One of the destroyers, HMS Campbeltown (formerly the USS Buchanan) played a major role in the British destruction of the dry dock at Saint Nazaire, France, on 28 March 1942.
James T. Carroll and Spencer C. Tucker
Lash, Joseph P. Roosevelt and Churchill, 1939–1941: The Partnership That Saved the West. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976.; Shogan, Robert. Hard Bargain: How FDR Twisted Churchill's Arm, Evaded the Law, and Changed the Role of the American Presidency. New York: Scribner, 1995.