This week in history: Roosevelt and Churchill announce the Atlantic Charter
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.
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