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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Ukraine aid in the light of history

Ukrainian soldiers of the 148th Separate Artillery Brigade at their firing position in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, on March 27, 2024. American funds will help Ukraine restock two things that have played pivotal roles in the war: artillery shells and antiaircraft munitions. (Nicole Tung/The New York Times)

By Paul Krugman

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 was closely correlated with economic ideology. Almost all liberals favored supporting Britain in its darkest hour; many conservatives didn’t.

Yet the aid passed. Congress appropriated $13 billion before the attack on Pearl Harbor. This was an immense sum at the time — about 10% of America’s annual gross domestic product. Somewhat surprisingly, however, not much of that total consisted of weaponry. As the American Historical Association noted: “Our munitions industry was still largely in the tooling up state. And the flow of finished weapons was at first only a trickle.”

Indeed. Europe had begun rearming years before World War II started, while an isolationist United States hadn’t developed much of a defense industry — to take a famous example, the Sherman tank didn’t go into production until 1942. As a result, most of America’s initial aid took the form of food — at first we were less the arsenal of democracy than its breadbasket.

How does aid to Ukraine compare with that experience?

First, it’s vastly smaller relative to the size of our economy. The just-passed package will roughly double the cumulative aid we’ve given Ukraine, but at about $60 billion it’s less than one-fourth of 1% of GDP — around one-fortieth the size of the initial Lend-Lease appropriation. Anyone claiming that spending on this scale will break the budget, or that it will seriously interfere with other priorities, is innumerate, disingenuous or both.

What about claims that America is bearing too much of the burden? Last week Donald Trump accused Europe of failing to pay its share: “Why is it that the United States is over $100 Billion Dollars into the Ukraine War more than Europe, and we have an Ocean between us in separation? Why can’t Europe equalize or match the money put in by the United States of America in order to help a Country in desperate need?” (Eccentric, more or less Germanic capitalization in the actual post.)

The answer to his questions is that his assertions are false. As the Kiel Institute reports, “The data show that total European aid has long overtaken U.S. aid — not only in terms of commitments, but also in terms of specific aid allocations sent to Ukraine.” Notably, many though not all European nations are spending substantially more in support of Ukraine as a percentage of GDP than we are.

What is true is that the United States has provided more military aid than Europe.

Why? Remember that in the first year of Lend-Lease, America couldn’t supply much in the way of weapons, despite the immense size of our economy, because years of low military spending had left us with an underdeveloped military-industrial base. It took a couple of years to translate America’s overall industrial might into comparable military might. Right now Europe is in a similar situation. It has the money to help Ukraine, and for the most part it has the will, but it doesn’t have the production capacity to meet Ukraine’s military needs.

Will this change? Europe is moving toward increased military capacity, but more slowly than it should, and U.S. aid remains essential.

So as I said, I’m relieved that America has finally released essential aid, but still very worried about the future. For now, at least, U.S. support remains crucial to Ukraine’s survival.

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