Stalin, FDR, and the Truth about U.S. Lend Lease Aid to the USSR

Red Army Soldiers in U.S. Lend Lease Jeep, Germany, 1945

Dealing with the Devil – FDR and “Uncle Joe”

U.S.-Soviet relations prior to U.S. involvement in World War II, in particular the relationship between President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) and Stalin, are often overlooked. FDR proposed the idea of assisting the Soviet Union a full nine months before Pearl Harbor after he received intelligence that a German attack on the USSR was imminent.[1] After Operation Barbarossa began, there were many in the President’s administration and Congress who thought it a big gamble to aid the Russians with one Soviet city after another falling to the Wehrmacht during the summer 1941. Ultimately the President was able to convince Congress that it was worth the risk to provide the Soviets with assistance to weaken Nazi Germany. There was a precedent for this type of cooperation, as Soviet-American economic ties went back to the 1920s and included loans, food relief, and assistance with factory and infrastructure design and construction.[2] In the 1920s and 30s both Lenin and Stalin realized that as a developing nation the USSR needed help from the U.S. and fomented a trade relationship with the America – while at the same time engaging in espionage and infiltration of U.S. government agencies and industry. By 1941 the Soviets had hundreds of “agents of influence” and outright spies in practically every agency and at every level – including within FDR’s inner circle of advisors.[3] This situation came in handy for Stalin in negotiating Lend-Lease deals. FDR’s close advisor, Harry Hopkins, the man who smoothed the way for the Lend-Lease (later the sale of uranium to the Soviets) and played a major hand in making it possible was an alleged Soviet agent. The NSA later described Hopkins as such in the Venona Papers as did former Soviet spy chief General Pavel Sudoplatov.[4]

FDR and Stalin at Yalta, February 1945, Colorized Photo, Wiki Commons

To the psychopathic-minded Stalin, diplomacy was a weapon that could be used to extend Soviet power and territory as well as enhance the international prestige of the USSR.[5] Stalin shrewdly heaped praise on FDR and stroked his ego. FDR fell for it hook, line, and sinker – like the amicable personal relationship that FDR had with Churchill, he naively thought he also had a special personal connection or friendship with Stalin whom he affectionately referred to as “Uncle Joe.” When the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, William Bullitt, attempted to fill in the President on the true nature of Stalin’s evil character, duplicity, and brutality FDR responded that despite the facts he thought Stalin was “not that kind of man” – after all Harry Hopkins “says he’s not.”[6] FDR went on to tell the ambassador that if he gave Stalin “everything I possibly can” in the way of Lend-Lease and “ask nothing in return” that “he won’t try to annex anything [after the war] and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.”[7] This proved to be a colossal misjudgment of Stalin’s character and motives and a textbook example of successful Soviet disinformation.

The Truth About Lend-Lease

Red Army Lend Lease 2.5 ton Studebaker trucks towing 76 mm. guns behind T-34 tanks with mounted infantry, Eastern Front, circa 1944 Red Army Photo

The role of Allied aid was deliberately understated, if not eliminated, from Soviet World War II historiography. This was done to propagate the myths of the economic victory of socialism over fascist imperialism and the superiority of the Soviet war economy over that of the capitalist countries. According to official Soviet figures, all Western supplies accounted for only four percent of Soviet production during the war.[8] After the fall of the Soviet Union, official state archives and records for a time became accessible (prior to the rise of Vladimir Putin). In his book Pravda o Velikoy Otechestvennoy Voyne (The Truth About the Great Patriotic War) Russian historian Boris Sokolov led a team of historians who examined a treasure trove of previously inaccessible documents and set the record straight. His work includes an entire chapter on Western Aid to the Soviet Union. Sokolov concluded that without foreign aid, especially from the United States, the USSR would not only have failed to win the war but would not have been able to resist the initial German onslaught.[9] Among the litany of previously unknown data revealed by Sokolov regarding Soviet production and Lend-Lease Aid the following stands out:

  • Aviation Fuel: Foreign aid accounted for 57.8% of the wartime production of high-octane aviation fuel in the USSR.[10]
  • Trucks: Lend-Lease trucks were received in the amount of 150% of Soviet domestic production.[11]
  • Railroad Equipment: Lend-Lease rails, ties, locomotives, and freight cars accounted for over 97% of Soviet wartime production.[12] Without which, Sokolov asserts, it would have been impossible to operate the Soviet rail system during the war.
  • Explosives and Gunpowder: 53% of all ordnance and small arms ammunition produced in the USSR 1941-1945 was made using Lend-Lease explosive materials.[13]
  • Metals and Metal Goods: Lend-Lease aluminum, steel, lead, copper, cable, etc. made up anywhere from 50% to 80% of Soviet wartime production.[14]
  • Machinery and Tools: Lend-Lease made up around 30% of Soviet wartime production, however Sokolov points out that the American made machinery was more complex and expensive than those produced in the Soviet Union and greatly expedited mass arms production.[15] Without which it would have been impossible to produce the amount of weaponry and materiel needed to supply and equip the Red Army.

In his book, Sokolov quoted Soviet Marshal Georgi Zhukov from a series of interviews that he did with the Russian writer Konstantin Simonov in the early 1960s in which he stressed the importance of foreign aid in the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany. In the Marshal’s conversations with Simonov he confidentially lamented the fact that Soviet propaganda systematically demeaned the importance of American aid to the Soviet war effort. Zhukov described the Soviet Union as being an “industrially backward country compared with Germany.” According to Zhukov they would have been in “dire straits” without imports of American gunpowder without which it would have been impossible to produce the quantities of ammunition needed to fight the war. The Marshal went on to explain that it was only due to U.S. steel imports that the Soviets were able to quickly ramp up tank production. Zhukov also told Simonov that “without U.S. ‘Studebakers’ we would have had nothing with which to tow our artillery” and that U.S. built trucks “generally provided most frontline transport.”[16]

Lend Lease and Soviet Mechanized Forces

Perhaps the area where Lend-Lease aid was most vital was in supporting the Red Army’s mechanized arm. In the opening months of the war most Soviet armored units were annihilated; fed into battle piecemeal, poorly supplied, and led by inexperienced officers, Soviet armored units were relatively easy pickings for the Germans. By the end of summer 1941, the Red Army’s staggering losses in armor amounted to more than 15,000 tanks – roughly the equivalent of 230 Soviet tank brigades.[17] Lend-Lease tank deliveries helped the Red Army to restock its tank units until domestic production could catch up. In 1942 Lend-Lease tanks made up nearly one third of the Soviet armored force.[18] It was not until mid-1943 that Soviet tank production was sufficient to outfit its best units with T-34s.[19] Even then the Red Army was unable to mount the type of offensives desired by Stalin. While the Wehrmacht supply chain, strung out across thousands of kilometers of steppe and swampland, was often inadequate, the Soviet system was just as bad or worse. Due to acute lack of motor transport large numbers Soviet mechanized infantry would ride on top of tanks in a desant role. This was effective until the tanks outran the horse drawn wagons on which they and the infantry relied for resupply. This situation was not remedied until late 1944 with the massive influx of U.S. made 2.5 ton trucks which gave the Red Army the mobility to conduct Deep Operations.[20] The Soviets also never developed a vehicle that was analogous to the German SPW or American halftrack and relied entirely upon U.S.-built M2 halftracks and M3 scout cars to outfit the mechanized infantry and recon units in a few elite “Guards” units.[21] They also never developed an armored recovery vehicle and depended exclusively on Lend-Lease equipment to fill that role.[22]

Red Army Guards Division recon scouts mounted in U.S. Lend Lease M3 armored acout car with M2 Browning .50 cal. machine gun, Eastern Front

The Red Army’s capability to conduct Deep Operations depended on its mechanized arm – the proverbial “tip of the spear.” It was these large, mechanized formations of infantry, tanks, and artillery that allowed Marshal Zhukov to conduct the massive offensives and encirclements in 1944-1945. Could the Red Army have defeated Germany’s armored forces without Lend-Lease? I believe it is doubtful for various reasons. Despite the inferior quality of many Lend-Lease tanks when compared with the venerable T-34, the trucks, halftracks, and other support vehicles were of high quality and not domestically produced in sufficient quantities, if at all. Without these vehicles, the Red Army’s ability to conduct Deep Operations would have been severely impaired if not impossible. Not to mention the fact that 80% of the aluminum used in T-34 engines came from Lend-Lease sources.[23]

Without Lend-Lease the Soviet central planners would have been forced make some very difficult choices – Do we make airplanes or tank engines? Trucks or tanks? Artillery pieces or railroad rails and locomotives?

Soviet footage of Lend Lease U.S. M4 Sherman tanks filmed at various locations on Eastern Front


Contrary to FDR’s delusional belief that Stalin wanted a peaceful coexistence and that he would not attempt to annex more territory, the opposite came to pass. Even as soldiers fired their last shots in anger, the West and the USSR began to slide into Cold War. Stalin promptly broke his word and did not allow democratic elections in the newly “liberated” and occupied areas of Eastern Europe, installing instead Soviet puppet governments. People in those regions of the world went on suffering under the burdensome yoke of communism for the next forty plus years. Given the available knowledge today – if the Allies had scaled back Lend-Lease assistance starting in 1943 and fed the Soviets just enough aid to fight a static war and grind down the Nazi war machine but not enough to mount massive offensives, the Western Allies may have been able to meet their Russian counterparts on the banks of the Vistula or Dnieper instead of the Elbe. This would have put the West in a far stronger position to negotiate with Stalin, and possibly saved Eastern Europe from decades under the iron fist of Soviet rule. Not to mention the many civilians that would have been spared the brutal behavior of the occupying Red Army troops.

End Notes

[1] Albert L. Weeks, Russia’s Life-Saver: Lend Lease Aid to the U.S.S.R. in World War II (Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books, 2004), 5.

[2] Ibid. 66-69.

[3] Ibid. 7.

[4] Ibid. 45.

[5] Ibid. 38.

[6] Ibid. 46.

[7] Ibid. 46.

[8] Boris Vladimovich Sokolov, Правда о Великой Отечественной Войне – Pravda o Velikoy Otechestvennoy Voyne (Saint Petersburg, Russia: Aletheia, 1998), 103.

[9] Ibid. 116.

[10] Ibid. 105-106.

[11] Ibid. 107.

[12] Ibid. 107-108.

[13] Ibid. 108.

[14] Ibid. 109-112.

[15] Ibid. 104.

[16] Ibid. 107.

[17] Robert Forczyk, Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front 1941-1942: Schwerpunkt (Pen and Sword. Kindle Edition, 2014), Kindle Location 2650.

[18] Ibid. Kindle Locations 6055-6058.

[19] Ibid. Kindle Locations 6061-6062.

[20] Robert Forczyk, Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front: 1943-1945: Red Steamroller (Pen and Sword. Kindle Edition, 2016), Kindle Locations 969-972.

[21] Ibid. Kindle Locations 966-969.

[22] Ibid. Kindle Locations 974-978.

[23] Ibid. Kindle Location 2127.