Ukraine Aid in the Light of History

On Saturday the House of Representatives finally overcame MAGA opposition and approved a new aid package for Ukraine. The Biden administration presumably had matériel ready to ship, just waiting for congressional authorization, so the effects of this legislative breakthrough will be quick.

Like many observers, I’m simultaneously relieved, ashamed, angry and worried by what has happened. I’m relieved that a nation under siege will probably — probably — get aid in time to survive, at least for a while, something that was increasingly in doubt given overwhelming Russian artillery superiority. I’m ashamed that things got to this point — that America came so close to betraying a democracy in danger. I’m angry at the political faction that blocked aid for so many months, not, as I’ll explain below, because of reasonable concerns about the cost, but probably because they want Vladimir Putin to win. And I’m worried because that faction remains powerful — a majority of Republicans in the House voted against Ukraine aid — and could still doom Ukraine in the years ahead.

But let me set emotions aside and try to do some analysis. In particular, let me take on some myths about aid to Ukraine. No, spending on Ukraine isn’t a huge burden on America, coming at the expense of domestic priorities. No, America isn’t bearing this cost alone, without help from our European allies. Yes, U.S. aid is still crucial, in part because Europe can supply money but isn’t yet in a position to supply enough military hardware.

To understand these points, I find it useful to look back at the obvious historical parallel to current aid to Ukraine: Franklin Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program, which began delivering aid to Britain and China in 1941, before Pearl Harbor brought America officially into World War II.

It is often forgotten how controversial that aid was at the time. Many people are probably aware that there was an America First movement that opposed any aid to embattled Britain, in part because some of its prominent leaders, notably Charles Lindbergh, were racist and openly sympathetic to the Nazis.

I suspect that fewer people are aware that even in Congress, Lend-Lease was a deeply partisan issue. The initial bill, enacted in early 1941, passed the House with very little Republican support. Even more strikingly, support for Lend-Lease (triangles pointing up in the chart below) was closely correlated with economic ideology (Dimension 1). Almost all liberals favored supporting Britain in its darkest hour; many conservatives didn’t:

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