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Editorial Note on Surplus Materiel and War Production
Prior to mid-May 1940, the Roosevelt administration and the War Department considered the stock of World War vintage surplus or obsolete munitions and ordnance to be largely earmarked for disposal to Latin American nations. British and French purchasing agents in the United States had expressed no interest in acquiring surplus army materiel; the legality of such sales to belligerents was in doubt, and Secretary of War Woodring was adamantly opposed to the sale of any surplus army property, particularly to belligerents. In mid-March the army, the navy, and the State Department finally agreed upon a procedure to handle arms sales to neutral governments. (See the documents in NA/RG 165 [OCS, 15270]. See also Secretary Woodring’s handwritten comments on Brigadier General Richard C. Moore’s Memorandum for the Chief of Staff, March 9, 1940, NA/RG 165 [G-4, 31684].)
German military successes forced a rapid reassessment of arms sales policies. On May 21 the heads of the British and French purchasing commissions presented to Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau a lengthy memorandum listing urgently needed supplies they wished to purchase from the United States’s World War stocks. That same day General Marshall directed Major General Charles M. Wesson, the chief of Ordnance, to prepare a memorandum listing the supplies that could be sold.
Paralleling the developments in regard to surplus materiel was the issue of sales of aircraft to belligerents. In this area, British and French purchases had stimulated the United States aircraft industry far more than War or Navy department budget authorizations had permitted. The War Department sought to encourage foreign aircraft purchases. On March 25 Marshall had written a memorandum which endeavored to delineate government policy; President Roosevelt approved it with some modifications. (“Government Policy on Aircraft Foreign Sales,” NA/RG 165 [OCS, 15270-938].) Within certain limits, manufacturers could negotiate deferred deliveries of aircraft for which the army had contracted if this allowed them to take advantage of foreign orders. The manufacturer would later fulfill the army’s contract with newer models.
On March 28, in testimony before the Senate Military Affairs Committee, Marshall sketched his reasons for supporting a revised aircraft sales policy. “We will have the benefit of the tragic situation which produces a market for a plane that foreign governments want immediately and which we would prefer to release in favor of a more modern plane, and in order to get that plane as soon as possible other governments will pay a good price for it. Therefore, it is to the advantage of the manufacturer if he is allowed to sell the plane, particularly if it is nearly ready for delivery. If he is permitted to do that, he can sell to his own profit and give us the benefit of a better plane, we hope practically without cost and in many instances we know without any cost to us. So then we should be able to go along progressively changing our orders to get the maximum modernization of airplanes in the program, which will project further into the future the day of obsoletion of our types, and thereby delay the date when their replacement will be necessary.” (Senate Military Affairs Committee, Purchase of Implements of War by Foreign Governments, Hearings [Washington: GPO, 1940], pp. 12-13.)
Before the German attack on the Netherlands and Belgium, Allied aircraft orders in the United States provided the British and French with an important but marginal source of supply. After that date both London and Paris pressed the Roosevelt administration ever more urgently for all possible planes. (H. Duncan Hall, North American Supply, a volume in the History of the Second World War [London: HMSO and Longmans, Green and Company, 1955], pp. 125, 128.) Marshall now found himself thrust into the position of struggling to prevent the Allies from absorbing the entire United States aircraft output and thereby upsetting the army’s own preparedness plans.
Recommended Citation: The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, ed. Larry I. Bland, Sharon Ritenour Stevens, and Clarence E. Wunderlin, Jr. (Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 2, “We Cannot Delay,” July 1, 1939-December 6, 1941 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 221-223.