Dolitsky: Thanks, no thanks, as WWII Lend-Lease suffers from miscommunications

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By ALEXANDER DOLITSKY

PART V: Alaskans worked with Soviets, but later Soviet historians painted the aid program as an effort to expand American imperialism and use Soviet resistance for the West’s own mobilization.

The Lend-Lease program marked a turning point in World War II. Over the past 30 years, many historians and government officials have recognized the crucial importance of the program in winning the war. The program’s delivery of combat aircraft over the ALSIB Air Route was indisputably one of its greatest achievements. (ALSIB, or the Northern Trace, was the Soviet section of the Alaska-Siberian air road for Lend-Lease aircraft coming from from the Northwest Staging Route).

Many Alaskans worked together with Soviets on the cooperative program. Although the two nations still faced possible invasion by the Japanese, the work taking place along the ALSIB route instilled new hope for victory shared in common by all of those involved, whether American or Soviet.

Just a few months after the tide of war turned in favor of the Allies, however, expectations of continued post-war cooperation would again succumb to mutual suspicion and antagonism. 

Over the course of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt served as an inspirational political leader who held the Allies together against their enemies and, through implementation of the Lend-Lease program, forged an alliance with the Soviet Union that proved essential to victory.

During his tenure, Roosevelt gambled four times on war-related affairs. He predicted Britain’s survival, and he was right. He believed that the Soviet Union would withstand German attack, and he was right again. He was confident that Germany and Japan would eventually be defeated, and he was right a third time.

He further speculated that by not attaching a dollar sign or political strings to aid to the Soviet Union, he could secure its friendship and cooperation after the war. On this issue, he was mistaken.

Roosevelt believed that his administration’s good intentions would change the communists’ view of capitalist countries, entertaining an illusion that Lend-Lease operations had opened a channel of communication with the Soviet people, which would eventually cause democracy in the Soviet Union to flourish, leading to an eventual partnership with the West. In reality, such a channel of communication had been opened with merely one Soviet—Joseph Stalin.

As reported by Boris A. Dolitsky, a Soviet Army officer who defended Moscow in 1941 and later was stationed in Chita of the Cis-Baykal region in southern Siberia from 1942 to 1947, not many Soviets knew much about the magnitude of American Lend-Lease aid to the Soviet Union during the war or the sacrifices made by Americans to accomplish the goals of the program. 

Relying on unwritten rules of political reciprocity, Roosevelt was often puzzled by the Soviet government’s refusal to permit Western allies to send military observers and technicians to Siberia and the Eastern Front. While he resisted the USSR’s vigorous insistence that he open a second front in Europe early in the war, U.S. involvement in Allied military activities in the Pacific and North African theaters and in the Lend-Lease convoys to Europe in fact diverted significant enemy forces from the Eastern Front in Europe.

Sometimes Roosevelt expressed irritation that the Soviets could not understand the complexity of the logistics of Lend-Lease deliveries to the Soviet Union; further, the U.S. Congress and 49 percent of the American people expressed persistent reluctance to support Soviet aid, and 54 percent felt that recipients should pay for the aid received. The American administration often quarreled with the Soviets about delivery schedules. The Soviets actually refused to open the ALSIB Air Route until August of 1942, when they finally realized that they might not have other alternatives. In addition, Soviet authorities insisted on more rigid specifications for the war equipment than did, for instance, the war offices of the United Kingdom.

As a result of myriad complications and frequent miscommunications, American officials, who were unable to observe directly how Western-supplied equipment was being used, were often forced to rely on rather vague and generalized reports by Soviet authorities asserting that the great quantities of American equipment were being used in the 1945 offensive.

During the war, Soviet officials were reluctant to acknowledge, either in the press or in public, the support they received from the United States; at the end of the war, the Soviet government purported the role of Lend-Lease aid to be an insignificant four percent of the total industrial production of Soviet enterprises.

Soviet industrial production, in general, has often been exaggerated to demonstrate the accomplishments and advantages of the Soviet Socialist State. On June 19, 1962, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, asserted, “…during World War II American monopolists made billions of dollars on war deliveries. They fattened themselves on the blood of the people lost during two world wars.” Soviet historians painted the aid program as an effort to expand American imperialism and use Soviet resistance for the West’s own mobilization. 

Soviet efforts to minimize the role of the Lend-Lease program may have been motivated by considerations of national prestige and image. Only in the last 25-30 years have Russian scholars begun to note the significant contributions of Lend-Lease supplies to the war effort.

Although during the war the Soviet government gave decorations to a number of Westerners, and in the 1990s honored seamen who had served on the Murmansk run, they still emphasize the small size of Lend-Lease aid in relation to Soviet production and the heroism of the Soviet people in delivering Lend-Lease supplies. To fully understand the complexity of the Soviet attitude toward Lend-Lease operations, one must regard the subject in the context of Russian and Soviet history, politics, law, traditions, and behavioral psychology—matters extending far beyond the scope of the present work.

Kathrine the Great and other Douglas A-20 Havocs waiting at Nome to fly west over the ALSIB. – Library of Congress
Negotiations for the Repayment of Lend-Lease Aid

The Lend-Lease program was a system of transfer to participating countries of military and other materials necessary for conducting the war. Countries receiving aid through the Lend-Lease program signed a bilateral agreement with the US, stipulating that materials destroyed, lost, or used during the war would not be subject to any repayment whatsoever after the end of the war. Materials left over after the war that were deemed suitable to the needs of the population would be subject to repayment in full or in part by means of long-term credit. Military materials left after the war could be reclaimed by the U.S. government (although the U.S. government repeatedly declared that it would not make use of that right). Equipment and materials ordered but not delivered by the end of the war could be acquired by the ordering country with long-term American credits.

In their turn, countries entering into the Lend-Lease contract took upon themselves the obligation to render help to the United States with materials at their disposal.

All in all, during the years of the war, the United States made Lend-Lease deliveries to 42 countries, amounting to a worth of nearly $50 billion dollars. In return, the U.S. received goods and services—and, ultimately, repayments totaling $7.4 billion dollars.

Of the overall sum of Lend-Lease help, Great Britain received nearly $31 billion, France about $1.5 billion, and the Nationalist-controlled regions of China about $600 million.

The entire sum of Lend-Lease deliveries to the USSR from 1941 to 1945, according to Soviet sources, amounted to about $10 billion in war materials and other supplies, approaching the $13 billion distributed to Western Europe under the post-war Marshall Plan. 

After the end of World War II, problems arose around the terms of payment for remaining Lend-Lease materials. The U.S. discontinued Lend-Lease deliveries to the USSR in September of 1945. A little over a year later, in December of 1946, the United States annulled the original agreement’s stipulation allowing the USSR long-term credit for materials and equipment ordered under the Lend-Lease Agreement but not yet shipped.

This unilateral annulment, claimed the Soviets, constituted a discriminatory attitude with respect to the USSR in settling the payments under the Lend-Lease Agreement. The U.S. was also accused of delaying negotiations on the issue.

In negotiations with the United States in 1947 and 1948, 1951 and 1952, and at the beginning of 1960, the Soviet government asserted that the Soviet Union had had the greatest effect in securing an Allied victory in World War II; therefore, Soviet diplomats argued, it could not and would not accept discriminatory measures that would leave it in a position inferior to other Lend-Lease recipient nations.

The Soviet representatives based their arguments on clauses in the Soviet–American agreement of June 11, 1942, stating that the conditions of the final settlement should be of such a nature as to conform to the common interests of the United States of America and the Soviet Union and to advance the creation and maintenance of peace in the world. The language of the pact also indicated its intention that Lend-Lease debt settlement conditions not hinder commerce but, rather, encourage mutually beneficial economic relations between the two nations.

Accordingly, in negotiations that took place in Washington, D.C., in January of 1960, the Soviets insisted that the agreement settling Lend-Lease matters should be reached contemporaneously with the normalization of commercial and economic agreements between the USSR and the U.S. However, at that time, the U.S. expressed little desire to resolve the question, and the exchange of opinions between the representatives of the USSR and the U.S. was suspended. 

Although settlements were made within 15 years of the termination of the Lend-Lease programs with most of the countries that had received aid from the United States, a settlement with the USSR would not be reached until the early 1970s when, on October 18, 1972, an “Agreement on the Disposition of Lend-Lease Supplies in Inventory or Procurement in the United States Between the United States and the USSR” was signed.

In the end, the United States accepted the Soviet Union’s offer to pay $722 million in installments through 2001 to settle its debt. During Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s visit to the United States in 1991, the parties revisited the agreement, with the Russian government agreeing to settle the balance with a payment of $674 million to the U.S. Treasury. This sum was finally paid to the U.S. by the Russian Federation in 2006.

Check back for Part VI of this series.
Alexander Dolitsky: U.S. Lend-Lease aid to Soviet Union during World War II
Alexander Dolitsky: Roosevelt’s choice with Soviets — to help or not to help?
Dolitsky: Memories of the Soviet pilots stationed in Alaska
Dolitsky: Alexander Dolitsky: U.S. Lend-Lease aid to Soviet Union during World War II


Alexander B. Dolitsky was born and raised in Kiev in the former Soviet Union. He received an M.A. in history from Kiev Pedagogical Institute, Ukraine, in 1976; an M.A. in anthropology and archaeology from Brown University in 1983; and was enroled in the Ph.D. program in Anthropology at Bryn Mawr College from 1983 to 1985, where he was also a lecturer in the Russian Center. In the U.S.S.R., he was a social studies teacher for three years, and an archaeologist for five years for the Ukranian Academy of Sciences. In 1978, he settled in the United States. Dolitsky visited Alaska for the first time in 1981, while conducting field research for graduate school at Brown. He lived first in Sitka in 1985 and then settled in Juneau in 1986. From 1985 to 1987, he was a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist and social scientist. He was an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Alaska Southeast from 1985 to 1999; Social Studies Instructor at the Alyeska Central School, Alaska Department of Education from 1988 to 2006; and has been the Director of the Alaska-Siberia Research Center (see www.aksrc.homestead.com) from 1990 to present. He has conducted about 30 field studies in various areas of the former Soviet Union (including Siberia), Central Asia, South America, Eastern Europe and the United States (including Alaska). Dolitsky has been a lecturer on the World Discoverer, Spirit of Oceanus, andClipper Odyssey vessels in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. He was the Project Manager for the WWII Alaska-Siberia Lend Lease Memorial, which was erected in Fairbanks in 2006. He has published extensively in the fields of anthropology, history, archaeology, and ethnography. His more recent publications include Fairy Tales and Myths of the Bering Strait Chukchi, Ancient Tales of Kamchatka; Tales and Legends of the Yupik Eskimos of Siberia; Old Russia in Modern America: Russian Old Believers in Alaska; Allies in Wartime: The Alaska-Siberia Airway During WWII; Spirit of the Siberian Tiger: Folktales of the Russian Far East; Living Wisdom of the Far North: Tales and Legends from Chukotka and Alaska; Pipeline to Russia; The Alaska-Siberia Air Route in WWII; and Old Russia in Modern America: Living Traditions of the Russian Old Believers; Ancient Tales of Chukotka, and Ancient Tales of Kamchatka.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Short version: Franklin Roosevelt, the Hyde Park brahmin, was duped. But it really didn’t matter, since he and his New York neighbors had enough money and the unwashed living west of the Hudson wouldn’t know how much they had given away anyhow.

    The above may seem caustic but it is my perception after multiple decades of reading, that to the folks outside the Northeast, WW2 was about personal sacrifice, saving democracy and other high principles. To those in the Northeast, it was about avoiding scary stuff and making a lot of money.

  2. Ask about escaped US lows detained permanently by the Soviets. That episode of 20/20 got spiked in the name of diplomacy during the Clinton regime

  3. Being originally from Pennsylvania, I can tell You that many people in the Northeast were dirt poor and sacrificed heavily including their lives. As a youngster, I remember Veterans from the Spanish American War to the Korean War and heard stories of Families going without for “The War Effort”. All peoples suffer to some extent regardless of location, however those civilians and soldiers in the midst of wars obviously much more.

  4. Yes, it is caustic, considering Pearl Harbor and the fact that Germany was preparing 5o invade the US had it been successsful in all it’s battle plans. Also don’t forget yours and my home was invaded by the Japanese in 1942 and that was NOT in collusion with any of those living in the Northeast of America!!Roosevelt didn’t have many options in 41 or 42 but to thrust the nation into full out war!! Sure some capitalists made money in WW 2 but they succeeded in turning an industry into a war production mode that literally turned out warplanes faster than the enemy could shot them done and that’s what won the war just much as any other effort. And in America lives we’re valued far more than the cost of Artillery shells, aircraft, tanks or any other war material!! Would you have it any other way!!

  5. The 13 billion bucks that the USA spent on the Russian Lend Lease program led to Germany’s defeat and ultimately provided unfettered access to European markets by American industry and banking and the hundreds of billions in profits they pumped into our postwar economy, not to mention the huge geopolitical influence the USA gained. A very smart business deal, indeed!

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