The goals of the real lend-lease arrangement were more complicated. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who came up with the idea of helping America's allies during WWII, compared it to a fire hose that should be given to a neighbor to prevent fire from spreading to one's own home.
It was mostly the Soviet Union that was ablaze at the time, in the early 1940s. In lending and leasing weapons, ammunition, foodstuffs and other goods, the United States was primarily pursuing its own interests, which boiled down to playing for time and retaining its ability to join the war in the best possible shape. American historian George Herring wrote that the lend-lease program was not the most selfless act in the history of mankind, but rather an act of prudent egotism, with the Americans fully aware of how they could benefit from it.
The Soviet Union was not the sole recipient of aid under the lend-lease program, either. Forty-two other countries received aid, most of which went to Britain and its colonies, consuming over $30 billion out of the $46 billion the United States spent under the program. As for the Soviet Union, U.S. supplies amounted to just 4% of the country's defense-industry output at the time.
So, was the lend-lease program so modest that it did not influence the outcome of the war? Or would the Soviet Union, on the contrary, have lost the war but for the US and British convoys regularly carrying materiel to Murmansk, Arkhangelsk and Russian ports in the Far East?
These are the poles of opinion. As usual, the truth is somewhere in between. As memories of those times become obscured in thehaze of the ensuing decades, finding the truth is becoming ever more difficult.
What we know more or less for certain is the kind of hardware the U.S. supplied to the Soviet Union under the program, which peaked in 1943-44. The list of supplies was largely influenced by Moscow, which had to fill in the gaps in domestic military production with foreign supplies. For example, the Red Army had enough small arms and ammunition, so demand for them was not high. Lend-lease mostly provided heavy and high-tech (for the time) military hardware.
During the war, 22,195 aircraft, 12,980 tanks, 13,000 guns, 427,000 automobiles, 560 ships and 345,000 tons of explosives were brought to the Soviet Union along three supply routes running via the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific.
Incidentally, most of the foreign supplies were of civilian hardware, such as steam engines, railroad cars, machines, chemicals, medicine and foodstuffs. The Red Army consumed U.S. canned meat with gusto, its officers doted on Jeeps and Studebakers for their excellent cross-country abilities, and legendary fighter pilot Alexander Pokryshkin racked up kills in an American-made P-39 Aerocobra fighter.
The supplies that the Soviet Union received cost $11 billion at the time - about a quarter of the lend-lease aid provided to other allied countries.
For the record, there was also a "reverse lend-lease" of sorts, under which the Soviet Union supplied the United States with goods that the latter badly needed, including 300,000 tons of chrome ore, 32,000 tons of manganese ore, and large supplies of platinum, gold and wood. However, this was not what the then Secretary of State Edward Stettinius meant when he said that the Russians had already paid a price that cannot be measured in dollars or tons for this aid.
Equipment destroyed in the war was supposed to be regarded as a gift from the United States, with surviving, operational materiel to be returned or paid for by the Soviet Union. When the time came for the latter to pay, Washington, influenced by Cold War sentiments, inflated the sum owed by the Soviets in comparison to the debts of the rest of the coalition. The negotiations dragged on for decades until an agreement was signed in 1972, under which the Soviet Union received a final bill of $722 million. Of that sum, $100 million still has yet to be paid.
There are three reasons why the actual importance of lend-lease was higher to the Soviet Union than the purely technical amount of supplies.
Firstly, the undisturbed cooperation and trade between the Soviet Union and the West typical of the 1920s had dwindled by the start of the war. The Soviet Union increasingly found itself in a situation resembling international isolation. Therefore, every ton of supplies from the United States and Britain looked like the lifting of a blockade.
Secondly, the beginning of the war was an utter failure for the Red Army, whose strength in terms of planes, tanks and artillery pieces dropped by five to six times as early as June and July 1941 compared with the Wehrmacht. For production to begin in the east of the country, the Soviet leadership had to play for time, and the American aid was extremely useful in those hard times.
Finally, it immediately became clear that WWII would be, to a large degree, a war of engines and weapons. It is no coincidence that Stalin remarked during a meeting with Roosevelt's envoy, Averell Harriman: "The war will be won by industrial production." The Soviet Union was lucky to borrow and lease the fruit of another country's production at the initial stage.
Lend-lease did not turn the allies into soulmates. In fact, it would cause serious tension on many occasions.
U.S. and British tanks were far from perfect and would often be delivered lacking sights, maintenance and repair kits, etc. High-explosive rounds for 75-mm guns tended to explode unexpectedly. Stalin complained to Roosevelt in a letter in 1942: "I deem it my duty to inform you that, according to our experts on the front, U.S. tanks are easily set ablaze by antitank rifle rounds hitting them in the rear or on the sides. This is due to the high-grade gasoline burnt by the U.S. tanks producing a thick layer of gas fumes inside the tanks, which facilitates combustion."
Nonetheless, neither Stalin himself, nor the great military leader Marshal Georgy Zhukov, ever questioned the role played by lend-lease, regarding it as a turning point in WWII. New generations of Russians still remember and are grateful for the contribution of the Allies, and primarily the United States, to the common victory, the 60th anniversary of which the world will celebrate in May.