This week, President Joe Biden signed a bill passed with broad bipartisan support by Congress, a modern recapitulation of the World War II-era “Lend-Lease Act.” The measure will provide material assistance to help Ukraine not only survive the Russian onslaught but to beat Moscow’s forces back across the Ukrainian border. Indeed, the new legislation so consciously mirrors the program that helped the British and Soviets fend off the Nazi menace that it is notable only for what isn’t evocative of the Second World War: controversy.
Ukraine’s Lend-Lease bill, which will speed the transfer of arms and humanitarian assistance to Kyiv, sailed through Congress with almost no opposition. The U.S. Senate approved the measure unanimously. In the House, just 10 members voted against it. Some, like Rep. Tom Massie, consistently oppose U.S. involvement in most foreign conflicts no matter their virtues. Others, including Reps. Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Green, and Paul Gosar, have made a fetish of opposing that which polite American society likes. Contrary to their claims, however, it’s not just America’s “elites” who support Ukraine’s war effort. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a crisis in modern times as unifying and galvanizing as opposition to Russia’s war of territorial expansionism in Europe.
In April, as the new Lend-Lease legislation was working its way through Congress, a majority of Americans told AP-NORC pollsters they didn’t believe Joe Biden had done enough to support Ukraine’s war effort. More than 50 percent of U.S. adults privileged imposing sanctions on Russia even over limiting the collateral damage to the American economy, and 61 percent of respondents backed sending more weapons to Ukraine. Those figures track with a late April Washington Post/ABC News poll that found just 14 percent of Americans believe the U.S. is doing “too much” to help Ukraine. Majorities backed increasing U.S. assistance—both the lethal and non-lethal varieties—even though voters feared the prospect of Russia’s war expanding beyond the Ukrainian theater and contributing to higher consumer costs at home.
As of last week, a Pew Research Center survey discovered that more Americans are finally beginning to say that the U.S. is responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with the proper urgency. And while Republican respondents continue to disapprove of Biden’s handling of the crisis, the number of GOP voters who do approve of Biden’s response has increased as America’s commitment to Ukraine’s defense has deepened. These figures are remarkably unchanged from early this year, even among Joe Biden’s Republican critics. The consensus around the justness of the Ukrainian cause and America’s need to support it has been remarkably durable, and it has endured even as the crisis in Ukraine fades from the daily headlines.
This stands in stark contrast to Franklin Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program, which was genuinely controversial. A Gallup poll taken in March of 1941 following the provision of ships, planes, ammunition, and weapons to Great Britain found that the act was supported by two-thirds of U.S. adults, but a full 33 percent opposed providing support to the U.K. The act signaled the de facto end of America’s longstanding and erstwhile legally mandated neutrality. In August and September of that year, the public was scandalized by the revelation that British diplomats had used Lend-Lease appropriations to finance their lifestyles. Republicans, in particular, were mistrustful of the idea that there was any lending or leasing going on; rather, they suspected that Roosevelt was simply giving away the U.S. arsenal. As Sen. Robert “Mr. Republican” Taft said, “Lending war equipment is a good deal like lending chewing gum. You don’t want it back.”
While it was a minority constituency, opponents of any activity that could draw the U.S. into a conflict with Germany were a potent force in American politics. By marked contrast, the arguments made by nationalistic Republicans, blinkered “realists,” and those on the left whose distrust of Western policy initiatives is entirely reflexive have found little purchase among the broader U.S. electorate. Given the quality of their arguments, Americans are wise to ignore them.
Some claim that the involvement of NATO member states in this conflict, albeit by proxy, makes Russia’s arguments for them. The war in Ukraine is divisive inside Russia, whereas opposition to NATO is not; facilitating Ukraine’s defense helps the Kremlin consolidate domestic support. That’s a salient argument only if you ignore what Russian regime officials have been saying about this war even before it began. Ukraine, they maintain, is a Western fiction. Thus, Vladimir Putin’s mouthpieces maintain, they’re already fighting NATO. Nor should we lend any credence to the idea that Ukraine’s long-stalled bid for NATO membership served as a casus belli. No progress had been made toward that end since at least 2008, and the nations who should be most deterred by Russian threats—namely, Finland and Sweden—are racing toward NATO accession.
The more shameless among those who would consign Ukraine to the fate Russia has in mind insist that they alone treasure Ukrainian lives. “You speak as if Ukrainian lives should be thrown away, as if they have no value,” Rep. Taylor Greene snarled in response to Rep. Dan Crenshaw’s expression of support for the Ukrainian cause. “Just used and thrown away.” A modestly more cogent argument along these lines maintains that helping Ukraine only prolongs the war and the nation’s suffering. Indeed, prolonging the war is the whole point. The alternative, which average Ukrainians are bitterly resisting, is a campaign of mass murder, starvation, ethnic cleansing, and deportation to detention centers inside Russia proper. You can say a lot about those who would sue for peace even as Ukraine is miraculously beating back the Russian onslaught, but you cannot call them compassionate.
The most novel argument in favor of Ukraine’s subjugation is that advanced by GOP nominee for U.S. Senate in Ohio, J.D. Vance, who is agitating for making aid to Ukraine “conditional on sending money to the American southern border, on actually trying to fix this terrible shortage of baby formula and hospital supplies.” This is a bizarre non sequitur. The idea that these priorities are in conflict, or that the provision of support for Ukraine’s independence and securing the U.S.-Mexico border or fixing the broken supply chain are mutually exclusive, is simply ponderous. The world’s sole superpower can and should do all of the above, and Vance has expended no mental energy in the effort to explain why it cannot.
To the visible consternation of a vocal minority, Americans across the political spectrum are deeply invested in Ukraine’s fight against Russia. It’s hard to see what political advantage the detractors are seeking in their efforts to popularize apathy toward the atrocities we’re all witnessing in Europe. In fact, their position is so ploddingly unpersuasive and wildly out of step with the country that we can only conclude their hostility toward Ukraine’s cause is entirely sincere.