Our Declaration of Interdependence

Susan Dunn

In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt SUGGESTED a two-year experiment: he proposed moving the date of Thanksgiving up one week from the customary last Thursday in November. The point was to help businesses and the economy by extending the lucrative shopping season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Most states agreed to try the experiment, but the six New England states and eleven others refused to go along.  The mayor of Plymouth, Massachusetts, where Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1621, said that  “We here in Plymouth consider the day sacred.”

And so, in Plymouth, Massachusetts on the fourth Thursday in November in 1940, three thousand men, women, and children, many dressed in Pilgrim costumes, crowded into Memorial Hall to commemorate the first Thanksgiving in the New World. Local citizens played the parts of Governor William Bradford, Myles Standish, and the Indian King Massasoit and reenacted three scenes from the past: the signing of the “Mayflower Compact,” the first written expression of democratic self-government in America; the landing at Plymouth Rock; and finally the first Thanksgiving.

In the early evening, as they all streamed out of Memorial Hall into the freshly falling snow and wintry stillness of the November dusk, they heard the shouts of newsboys selling the late edition of the Thursday paper. “Germany bombs Plymouth! Two hundred tons of bombs fall on Plymouth!” For eight hours, the Nazi Luftwaffe dumped its lethal cargo of bombs on the British port city of Plymouth on the English Channel. A hundred and fifty German planes battered the town and its harbor, destroying warehouses, navy supply depots, freight yards, railway lines and especially blocking the harbor so that new shipments of armaments couldn’t arrive.  The Nazi goal was not only to reduce to rubble and flames important military and industrial targets but also to break Britain’s morale by depositing hell upon its people.

When the minister of the First Church in Plymouth, Massachusetts heard the news of the bombing in Plymouth, England, he immediately sent a telegram to his British brethren: “Your sorrows are our sorrows,” he wrote. “Your battles are our battles. From Plymouth, Massachusetts to Plymouth England, fight on, Godspeed.”

Here in the United States, on FDR’s earlier Thanksgiving Day, people watched parades and attended church services, enjoyed turkey dinners, played football —  and when they got home, they turned on the lights, they laughed and slept safely and peacefully in their beds. But in England, November was a lousy month.

In early December 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent a long, sobering letter to Franklin Roosevelt. “The future of our two democracies and the kind of civilization for which they stand are bound up with the survival and independence of the British Commonwealth of Nations,” he wrote. Making it plain that the future of Britain, as well as that of the rest of the world now, depended on the assistance of the United States, he appealed to Roosevelt for “supreme and decisive help in what is our common cause.”

Churchill didn’t ask for American soldiers. Instead, he wrote,  “Give us the tools — and we will finish the job.” In fact, what he needed was money  — money to buy American guns, ships, planes, and tanks. Up to then, America’s policy had been known as  “cash and carry” — the Americans sold weapons to the British who paid cash for them and then transported them on their own ships through dangerous waters.  But now Churchill wrote to FDR that “the moment approaches when we shall no longer be able to pay cash for shipping and other supplies.” The leader of the world’s greatest empire was begging the American president for help.

The  United States complied. The Lend-Lease Act, passed in March 1941, assured Great Britain that the United States would furnish, free of charge, all the war materiel it needed to defend itself against the ruthless Nazi gangster regime.

“We think in English,” Alexander Hamilton said in 1789. With those four simple words, he encapsulated the profound intellectual, political, and cultural ties that bound and still bind the United States and Great Britain.  Hamilton had been one of the rebellious, bratty children in the thirteen colonies who decided to cut their ties with the British King and Parliament and declare independence in 1776. But 164 years later, those bratty children would come to the rescue of their mother country, the “sceptered isle,” in Shakespeare’s words, that had bequeathed to them the precious Anglo-Saxon and Enlightenment principles of freedom under law, self-government, and the right of individuals to due process. No Declaration of Independence in 1940; instead there was Lend-Lease, a Declaration of Interdependence” and, as Winston Churchill memorably said, the “most unsordid act in all of recorded history.”

It was the end of the era of  American isolationism and retreat from world affairs that had begun in 1919 when the Senate rejected American membership in the League of Nations. But with the Lend-Lease Act, the United States embarked upon the road to global leadership and, from then on — until the unfortunate election of 2016 —  would play the leading political, military, and moral role in the world.

Susan Dunn, the Massachusetts Professor of Humanities at Williams College, is the author of a dozen books, including Roosevelt’s Purge; 1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler—the Election amid the Storm; and The Three Roosevelts, co-written with James MacGregor Burns.

Further Reading

Featured photo
“President Franklin D. Roosevelt, half-length portrait, seated at desk, looking down, signing H.R. the lend-lease bill to give aid to Great Britain, China and Greece” via Wikimedia Commons

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