The Lease-Lend Bill will pass; the important question is how soon and with what modifications. Passage without change of a word or a comma three months or even six weeks from now might be worth less than passage in a few days with alterations. The President has therefore been wise to consult with congressional leaders and consent to changes that do not alter the essence of the measure. Other amendments will be offered in both House and Senate. So that merely obstructive or delaying suggestions may be sifted from those that might reasonably be considered, it is well to examine the more prominent suggestions:
Time Limitation.—Democracies have frequently had to delegate to their chief executives in periods of crisis far more dictatorial powers than this bill conveys. But the ultimate safeguard of democracy is the placing of a time limit on the powers delegated. The President has himself consented to a two-year limit; there is nothing against and everything for this change.
Money Limitation.—It is argued that by passage of this bill Congress will lose its constitutional power over the purse. It may, to be sure, pass or defeat appropriations to finance any new purchases for Britain from private industry. But the President may lend weapons or ships already belonging to the government, and Congress would be under irresistible pressure to make good any deficiency in our own forces. Thus the President would in effect decide how much Congress must appropriate for helping Britain.
This, in our opinion, is a technical debating point of use only to enemies of the purpose of the bill. To place a money limitation on the aid the President may extend might easily cause that aid to come to an end at the time when it was most needed, and in effect duplicate the situation which gave rise tot he present bill. Congress should decide the question now, and not have to debate it all over again at the undetermined time in the future. The amount of aid, from the point of view of defense from imminent danger, should be decided by the need and not by what it would cost.
Money Substitute.— Senator Taft and other members of the regular Republican opposition favor a substitute which would merely authorize a loan (or gift) of a fixed amount of money to Britain. This proposal ignores the time urgency. It would help Britain next fall or winter, but not soon, since it would merely enable her to order more goods to be manufactured. The bill as it stands permits the lending or leasing of existing defense equipment, which may turn the scales when Hitler tries to crush his enemy before our maximum production can become effective. Senator Taft and Representative martin by this amendment might present victory to Hitler.
Specifying Nations.— There are proposals to specify in this bill that aid under it should go to Britain only, and that the President should not be permitted to aid non-specified countries suffering from aggression without further congressional action. We do not see the gain of such an amendment. Is there doubt in anybody's mind as to which nations are suffering from aggression and need help? Would the President pick some beneficiary to which the country was hostile? And if the Axis is a unit, and our object is to check the danger it creates for the United States, what objection can there possibly be to aiding China and Greece as well as Britain? Or Turkey or Bulgaria, if they should be attacked? Our power to aid them promptly might prevent the attack.
Report to Congress.—Congress, it is argued, has a right to know how the powers it has delegated are being exercised. If it disapproves, it may wish to rescind the powers. Mr. Roosevelt has consented to an amendment requiring periodical reports to Congress, except for military secrets. This is an excellent accompaniment of broad delegation of powers. If it were not for the danger of delaying this bill by a complex new measure, we should favor going even further in the same direction. Long ago we suggested that the gulf in foreign policy between Congress and the President be bridged by a standing Congressional Committee which should be kept continuously informed of our foreign policy, and should pass upon any important new development in it.
Check by Army and Navy Chiefs.—Some of our legislators are afraid that the President will impulsively give away articles needed for our own defense, and have therefore proposed that his powers under the bill be restricted by a veto residing with the Chief of Staff of the army and Chief of Operations of the navy. Staff of the army and Chief of Operations of the navy. This is an absurd proposal, since the President is constitutionally, and should remain, commander-in-chief of the army and navy. Why give veto power to his subordinates? It would be meaningless unless Congress at the same time protected those holding it from removal from office. That would be equivalent to setting up military control of a vital element of foreign policy. It is not the function of the army or navy to exercise final decision concerning what is necessary for our defense, or the best use of our armed forces. Mr. Roosevelt has consented to a clause specifying that he consult these gentlemen; he doubtless would do so without any instructions on the subject.
Forbidding Purchases from Other Nations.—One proposal, while allowing the President to lend or lease our equipment abroad, would forbid him to buy or accept ill exchange any war articles from other nations. That sounds like sheer insanity. It is quite conceivable that the belligerents we are to aid might have something well worth accepting in trade. The proposal seems either like an attempt to sabotage the bill or an attempt to boost the profits of domestic munitions makers.
Britain Must Put up Security.—Some argue that while Britain may lack ready cash, she has plenty of property of one kind or another which could be pledged as security for the debts she may now incur. Therefore it is proposed that she be required to put up security for loans or leases of armament, unless it is proved that security can no longer be furnished. That would be a good proposal for a business dicker, provided we were not already convinced that war debts are extremely unlikely to be paid, no matter what the security. But we are not engaged in a business deal. We are engaged in defending the United States. There is every reason to avoid the haggling, delay and red tape that the proposal might involve.
No Convoys.—Perhaps the biggest fear concerning the bill is that under it—since it would permit the President to ignore previous legislation in carrying out its terms—he might violate the Neutrality Act by sending American ships to Britain and convoying them with American warships. Hitler then would torpedo them and we should find ourselves at war.
As is pointed out in our Washington Notes, though the President accepted an amendment specifying that nothing in the bill should be so construed as to permit this action, he constitutionally has the power to take it anyway, as head of the navy. Convoying merchant shipping in danger from an illegal blockade is not technically an act of war.
We believe the occasion is not likely to arise. It takes time and training to organize convoys. It would be both, simpler and more efficient to turn over to Britain any spare merchant ships and the necessary destroyers, cruisers or other craft, and let her keep on with the duty she has so efficiently performed so far. Our own navy need not be involved as such unless Britain suffered such losses of personnel in her navy, air force or merchant fleet as to necessitate a call on our manpower as well. That time is not in sight.
Furthermore, we do not believe Hitler will make war on this nation unless or until he conquers Britain, no matter what we may do. It is not his habit to take on more than one adversary at a time, if he can help it.
This article originally ran int he February 10, 1941, issue of the magazine.