On Aug. 14, 1941, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the United Kingdom's Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced the Atlantic Charter, a public declaration of war aims during World War II. Despite the fact that the United States was neutral at the time, Roosevelt nevertheless pledged American help for the Allies in the war.
Since the fall of France in June 1940, Great Britain and its empire had been alone in the struggle against Nazi Germany. Public opinion in the United States favored neutrality in the war, though most Americans were sympathetic toward Britain's struggle. In the 1940 U.S. presidential election, both candidates, the Democrat incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Republican challenger, Wendell Willkie, acknowledged the need to support Britain, though both pledged to keep America out of the war in Europe.
Winning an unprecedented third term to the White House with a clear electoral mandate, 449 to Willkie's 82, in early 1941, Roosevelt came up with the Lend-Lease plan that allowed America to send arms and supplies to Britain with the understanding that Britain could pay for it after the war. The legislation was passed by Congress in March.
Britain was absolutely dependent upon shipping to keep it supplied in the war and Adolf Hitler's infamous U-boats patrolled the Atlantic Ocean eager to sink British ships, whether merchants or military. Increasingly, American vessels began escorting British ships loaded with war material to British ports, hoping that the Stars and Stripes would act as a talisman to keep the dreaded U-boats away. It didn't always work and several incidents occurred in which German and American naval vessels fired upon each other.
In June 1941, Hitler made what many historians consider to be the biggest mistake of World War II. The Soviet Union, Germany's trading partner since 1939, became Hitler's next target. Not long after Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, the United States extended its Lend-Lease aid to the communist country. Hitler was now fighting a two-front war.
With the war in Europe as a backdrop, and looking to expand the lines of communication between their two countries, Churchill and Roosevelt decided to hold a face-to-face meeting at Placentia Bay, off the coast of Newfoundland in Canada. On Aug. 9, Churchill arrived on the HMS Prince of Wales while Roosevelt arrived on the USS Augusta.
The two men had met in 1918 at a dinner given by David Lloyd George, then prime minister of Great Britain. At the time, Roosevelt had been serving as the under-secretary of the Navy, while Churchill held the title of First Lord of the Admiralty (roughly equivalent to the U.S. secretary of the Navy). Apparently, Roosevelt did not make much of an impression upon Churchill. When they met off the coast of Newfoundland Churchill did not recall ever meeting him before, somewhat wounding Roosevelt's pride.
In his book, “Why The Allies Won,” historian Richard Overy wrote of the conference: “There was much to discuss. The situation for both states was critical. Since 1939 Britain had lost over two thousand ships totaling almost 8 million tons to enemy submarines, aircraft and merchant raiders. By 1941, a stream of vital foodstuffs, machinery and raw materials flowed from the New World, including most of Britain's oil and aluminum. Without these supplies Britain's war effort in 1941 could not have been sustained.”
Aug. 10 fell on a Sunday and Churchill hosted Roosevelt on board the Prince of Wales for services. Churchill picked the hymns that they sang — “For Those in Peril on the Sea,” “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” Never a particularly devout Christian, Churchill nevertheless understood the importance of the shared Christianity between the English speaking democracies. To further show solidarity with Roosevelt, Churchill remained seated by the president, whose legs were too weak to allow him to stand, even as the diplomats, soldiers, officers and sailors rose to sing.
In Churchill's memoirs of World War II, the prime minister wrote of the singing, “Every word seemed to stir the heart. It was a great hour to live. Nearly half of those present who sang were soon to die.” Indeed, Japanese naval forces sank the HMS Prince of Wales in December, only days after the Pearl Harbor raid.
The following day the diplomats talked, the military commanders talked and the two leaders talked. In his book, “FDR,” biographer Jean Edward Smith wrote: “Several times during the conference Churchill pressed Roosevelt for a declaration of war. 'I would rather have a declaration of war now and no supplies for six months than double the supplies and no declaration,' he was quoted as saying. Roosevelt replied that he was skating on thin ice with Congress and they would debate a declaration of war for three months.”
Though as president he could not declare war, Roosevelt did make several promises to the prime minister: He agreed to extend the range of armed escorts for British convoys to Iceland. He agreed to make heavy weapons like fighter aircraft and tanks a priority of American industry for shipment to Britain. He promised to approach Congress about another $5 billion in Lend-Lease aid. Also, the two agreed that if war broke with Japan, that Germany would be the priority target. Roosevelt gave the pledge to Churchill that he would do everything in his power — short of war — to aid Britain in its fight against Hitler.
By Aug. 12, shortly before the historic meeting ended, the two leaders had agreed upon a declaration of war aims and principles. Two days later the Atlantic Charter was released to the public. Overy wrote: “The document was not a treaty; neither part was bound by its terms. It was a very public statement of democratic solidarity, expressed in recognizably Churchillian prose, defining the hopes of both men for a 'better future for the world' through democratic politics, national self-determination and open trade.”
There were eight main points to the Atlantic Charter. First, both Britain and America stated that they sought “no aggrandizement, territorial or other.” Second, they did not wish to tinker with borders or rearrange maps without the express permission “of the people concerned.” Third, they called for self-determination and the right of every people to choose their own form of government. Along with that, the two nations pledged to restore governments that had been displaced by Nazi occupation of their countries.
Fourth, the two nations called for every state to have access to trade and raw materials “which are needed for their economic prosperity.” Fifth, the charter called for economic cooperation between nations to raise standards of living throughout the world. Sixth, they wished to create a safe and secure world where all men could “live out their lives in freedom from fear and want.” The powers pledged to work for this security “after the final destruction of Nazi tyranny.”
The seventh part of the charter called for freedom of the seas for all nations, and the eighth section, perhaps the most idealistic and practically unworkable goal, called for all nations to make an end of aggressive war through disarmament.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of this document was the fact that the United States, still at this time a neutral power, called for “the final destruction of Nazi tyranny.” Churchill later called it “astounding” that the United States made such a declaration, and further noted that, all things being equal, this language “implied warlike action.” If there had been any question before, it was gone now — the United States may not yet be a belligerent, but it considered Great Britain an ally nonetheless.
In the final analysis, the Atlantic Charter proved an important step in Anglo-American relations prior to American entry into the war, and paved the way for the smooth working relationship the two powers enjoyed during the conflict. The Atlantic Charter meeting was also the first of several wartime conferences between Roosevelt and Churchill, important events that allowed Allied leaders to craft strategy in an intimate and realistic way that the Axis powers never emulated.
The United States entered World War II on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Three days later, without any treaty obligations to Japan to do so, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at thediscriminatinggamer.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org