The United States, 1939-1941: Neutrality?

The United States, 1939-1941: Neutrality?

The Arsenal of the Allies: The United States


In December 1940, Franklin Roosevelt announced that the United States would be the “arsenal of democracy” during one of his fireside chats. In this speech, he urged Americans to support the democratic Allies in their fight against the Nazis—fascist oppressors who stood in direct opposition to democracy. Moreover, Roosevelt announced that the United States would provide goods and products essential to the Allies’ war effort. In large, the neutral United States rallied behind Roosevelt’s words. While most Americans were not in favor of getting entangled in another European war, the majority agreed that supplying the British with military products was essential. As the war in Europe increased in its scope and violence, so too did the industrial output on the American homefront. When the United States was drawn into World War II on the side of the Allies in 1941, every facet of society became devoted to helping the war effort. Indeed, the United States had become the world’s “arsenal of democracy.”


Learning Objectives

  • Understand the significance of American industrial production during the World War II years.
  • Identify and explain the significance of the Lend-Lease Act.


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Bonds: a loan made to an investor;  primary way of financing World War II in the United States

Cash and Carry: 1939 American policy that allowed Allied countries to come to the United States and purchase military equipment with cash

Lend-Lease Act: 1941 American program that agreed to “lend, lease, or otherwise dispose of” military and food aid to Allied nations

Liberty Ships: commercial naval ships that were converted to be auxiliary warships during World War II

War Production Board: American agency that governed war production during World War II


The Role of the Neutral United States


From the outset of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt was a staunch Anglophile. He admired many things about England and had developed a close relationship with the young and inexperienced king, George VI. Warm and engaging, Roosevelt was also paternal, and some historians describe his relationship with King George VI as almost father to son. Likewise, Roosevelt developed a close relationship with England’s future prime minister, Winston Churchill. When war erupted in Europe in the autumn of 1939, Roosevelt desperately wished to help the British. A master politician, he understood that the American public remembered too-well, the horrors of World War I. The people were overwhelmingly against becoming involved in another European war. For this reason, Roosevelt would have to become crafty in how he helped the Allies.


Cash and Carry


Following Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, Roosevelt passed the Fourth Neutrality Act. This gave the United States the ability to trade arms with foreign nations provided that the countries came to America to retrieve the arms and paid for them in cash. This policy was quickly dubbed Cash and Carry. From Roosevelt’s perspective, the act served two immediate purposes: it galvanized American production and businesses; and it also allowed the British to purchase military equipment from the United States to bolster their defenses and war effort.




Following the fall of France, and the Battle for Britain, Roosevelt was committed to helping the Allies even more. In March 1941, Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease Act. This allowed the President “to lend, lease, sell, or barter arms, ammunition, food, or any ‘defense article’ or any ‘defense information’ to ‘the government of any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States.'”  In practicality, the Lend-Lease Act allowed the President to give military products and food to the Allies with little thought of their return or compensation.  Through the Lend-Lease Act, the U.S. sent military equipment, including airplanes and heavy artillery, to England, Free France, the Soviet Union, and other Allied nations; however, most products went to England. Because of the Lend-Lease Act, skirmishes erupted in the Atlantic between U.S. cruisers and German U-boats because the Germans perceived the act as the unofficial alliance between the United States and England, as well as the Western Allies.


U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Lend-Lease Act in March 1941.


In England, the act was hailed as helping save the British war effort. Planes, tanks, trucks, ammunition, helmets, and even food was sent to England. Similarly, the United States sent shipments of military equipment and food to the Soviet Union in the fall of 1941, following Germany’s invasion. By all accounts, the Lend-Lease program helped the Allies win the war. As Roosevelt predicted, the program also helped galvanize American industries and businesses. However, the United States received little compensation for the delivery of the military and food shipments. And very little of the military equipment was returned after the war. 


The United States Homefront during World War II


Once the United States formally entered World War II in December 1941, the U.S. government took strong measures to convert the economy to meet the demands of war. And these demands imposed by the U.S. participation in World War II turned out to be the most effective measure in battling the long-lasting consequences of the Great Depression. Government programs continued to recruit workers; however, this time the demand was fueled not by the economic crisis, but by massive war demands. Production sped up dramatically, closed factories reopened, and new ones were established, which created millions of jobs in both private and public sectors as industries adjusted to the nearly insatiable needs of the military.  Famously, under the “miracle man” Henry J. Kaiser, Liberty Ships were produced at the rate of one every three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Companies worked around the clock to produce war materials at a similar rate. By the end of 1943, two-thirds of the American economy had been integrated into the war effort.


War Production Board


The most powerful of all war-time organizations whose task was to control the economy was the War Production Board (WPB), established by President Roosevelt on January 16, 1942. Its purpose was to regulate the production of materials during World War II in the United States. The WPB converted and expanded peacetime industries to meet war needs, allocated scarce materials vital to war production, established priorities in the distribution of materials and services, and prohibited nonessential production. It rationed such commodities as gasoline, heating oil, metals, rubber, paper, and plastics.


Logo for the War Production Board during World War II.


The WPB and the nation’s factories affected a great turnaround. Military aircraft production, which totaled 6,000 in 1940, jumped to 85,000 in 1943. Factories that made silk ribbons now produced parachutes, automobile factories now built tanks, typewriter companies converted to machine guns, undergarment manufacturers sewed mosquito netting, and a roller coaster manufacturer converted to the production of bomber repair platforms. The WPB ensured that each factory received the materials it needed to produce the most war goods in the shortest time. Between 1942 and 1945, WPB supervised the production of $183 billion worth of weapons and supplies, about 40% of the world's output of munitions.




The greatest challenge of such massive war-related production was the permanent scarcity of resources. In response to it, the U.S. government, similarly to other states engaged in the war, introduced severe rationing measures. Tires were the first item to be rationed; there was a shortage of rubber for tires since the Japanese quickly conquered the rubber-producing regions of Southeast Asia. Throughout the war, rationing of gasoline was motivated by a desire to conserve rubber, as much as by a desire to conserve gasoline. A national speed limit of 35 miles per hour was imposed to save fuel and rubber for tires. Automobile factories stopped manufacturing civilian models by early February 1942, when they converted to producing tanks, aircraft, weapons, and other military products, with the United States government as the only customer. As of March 1, 1942, dog food could no longer be sold in tin cans; therefore, manufacturers switched to dehydrated versions. As of April 1, 1942, anyone wishing to purchase a new toothpaste tube, then made from metal, had to turn in an empty one. By June 1942, companies also stopped manufacturing metal office furniture, radios, phonographs, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and sewing machines for civilians.

Sugar was the first consumer commodity rationed, with all sales ended on April 27, 1942. Coffee was rationed nationally on November 29, 1942. By the end of 1942, ration coupons were used for nine other items. Typewriters, gasoline, bicycles, footwear, silk, nylon, fuel oil, stoves, meat, lard, shortening and food oils, cheese, butter, margarine, processed foods (canned, bottled, and frozen), dried fruits, canned milk, firewood and coal, jams, jellies, and fruit butter were rationed by November 1943. Scarce medicines, such as penicillin, were rationed by triage officers in the U.S. military during World War II.

Many American families helped reduce the demands put on farmers by planting victory gardens. These private kitchen gardens were in homes, but also in public spaces such as parks. They supplemented, rather than replaced the fruits, vegetables, and herbs consumed by Americans. Moreover, they helped increase patriotism among families and the community.


American poster demonstrating how victory gardens were a means to show patriotism during World War II.




The unemployment problem caused by the Great Depression ended with the mobilization for war, hitting an all-time low of 700,000 in fall 1944. Greater wartime production created millions of new jobs, while the draft reduced the number of young men available for civilian jobs. There was a growing labor shortage in war centers, with sound trucks going street by street begging for people to apply for war jobs. So great was the demand for labor that millions of retired people, housewives, and students entered the labor force, lured by patriotism and wages. The shortage of grocery clerks caused retailers to convert from service at the counter to self-service. Before the war, most groceries, dry cleaners, drugstores, and department stores offered home delivery service, but the labor shortage, as well as gasoline and tire rationing, caused most retailers to stop delivery. They found that requiring customers to buy their products in person increased sales.

Because of the unprecedented labor demands, groups that were historically excluded from the labor market, particularly African Americans and women, received access to jobs. However, even the existing circumstances did not end discrimination, especially against the workers of color.


Financing the War


As the U.S. entered World War II, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. began planning a national defense bond program to finance the war. Morgenthau advocated for a voluntary loan system and began planning a national defense bond program in the fall of 1940. The intent was to unite the attractiveness of the baby bonds that had been implemented in the interwar period with the patriotic element of the Liberty Bonds from the first World War. Bonds became the main source of war financing, covering what economic historians estimate to be between 50% and 60% of war costs.


The Bond System


The War Finance Committee was placed in charge of supervising the sale of all bonds, and the War Advertising Council promoted voluntary compliance with bond buying. The government appealed to the public through popular culture. Contemporary art was used to help promote the bonds, such as the Warner Brothers theatrical cartoon, “Any Bonds Today?” Norman Rockwell’s painting series, “The Four Freedoms,” toured in a war bond effort that raised $132 million. Bond rallies were held throughout the country with celebrities, usually Hollywood film stars, to enhance the bond advertising effectiveness. The Music Publishers Protective Association encouraged its members to include patriotic messages on the front of their sheet music, like “Buy U.S. Bonds and Stamps.” Over the course of the war, 85 million Americans purchased bonds, totaling approximately $185.7 billion.


Global Impact


The United States in World War II was not only the “arsenal for democracy,” but also the “breadbasket for democracy.” German occupation had caused much of the Soviet Union to be malnourished and underfed. Even Joseph Stalin confessed that American efforts in the war had helped the Soviet Union enormously. By the end of the war, the United States had shipped nearly 18,000,000 tons of products to the Soviet Union alone. And tens of millions of dollars worth of equipment to England, the Soviet Union, Free France, China, and other Allied countries. From 1939-41, the United States remained technically and legally, neutral. But its actions suggested that it was never truly neutral, and always on the side of the Allies.


Map showing American shipments to the Soviet Union from 1941-1945 through the Lend-Lease Act.



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