THE ATLANTIC CHARTER
By DAVID SEMPLE
77 years ago, in August 1941, UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill met US President Franklin Roosevelt on board HMS Prince of Wales, off the coast of Newfoundland at Placentia Bay. The war was not going well for Britain and the Soviet Union was fighting for its life against a massive German invasion which had begun in June. The United States was still neutral but had been selling arms to Britain for two years, finally signing the Lead-Lease arrangement in March 1941 for the financing of Britain’s war against Nazi Germany and Italy. Winston Churchill was determined to drag the United States into the war and set out for Placentia Bay on August 4, 1941 to meet President Roosevelt for the first time.
Although the United States was unable to enter the war in the summer of 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill signed a document which went on to be called the Atlantic Charter. This became the most important declaration of Western principles in the 20th century, principles which still shape our world in the 21st century. The post-war world we live in today was born during that week in Placentia Bay, off the coast of Newfoundland, the island which was both the foundation stone of the English-speaking New World, and the island where the British Empire began its life.
No 10 Downing Street, London
Churchill saw Hitler and his Reich as incarnating something evil and dangerous, some of the brutal sources of which may have been very old but some of which were alarmingly new. And his vision was such that he turned out to be the savior not only of England but much else besides – essentially, all of Europe. (John Lukacs, Five Days In London: May 1940.)
Adolf Hitler rose from the ashes of Germany’s sudden collapse at the end of the First World War, like a demon, to take one of the most civilised nations in modern history on a trajectory that almost completely destroyed the Judeo-Christian foundations upon which Western civilisation was built. It’s true that Europe has never recovered from the devastation Nazi Germany wreaked upon the continent. The failings of postwar Europe, with its rejection of liberal democracy by the bureaucratic institutions of the European Union, have their roots in Hitler’s “new dark age” of 1933-1945.
Remember, Hitler was the most popular leader in the thousand year history of the German people. Remember too that a nation, in fact a whole continent, cannot easily recover from the almost satanic legacy left by a generation of Nazi Germans and their collaborators, many of whom are still living. And their children and grandchildren in Europe seem to have not learned the right lessons of the 1930s and 1940s. That’s why antisemitism is rising in Europe today to levels unseen for seventy years. That’s why the European Union is openly hostile to the State of Israel, where many of the victims of European antisemitism during the Hitler era found refuge after the war. To actively persecute the only Jewish state in the world today, only a short seventy years after the Holocaust, shows that Europe has not recovered from the sickness of which Nazi Germany was only a symptom.
Remember too that Hitler was the most disgusting, most repellent, most horrible leader of a nation state that has emerged during the modern era, the era which began with the discovery of America in 1492.
Remember that Hitler was supported by his nation wholeheartedly. The German people, voluntarily hypnotised by the dark satanic ideology of Nazism, were more than willing to wreak havoc across the European continent, to participate in the industrial genocide of seven million Jews, and countless other millions of minorities, in the most sordid act of inhumanity in the history of human civilisation. Forget the Pharaohs, the Greeks, the Romans, the Mongols and the Spanish Inquisition; the Nazi New Order represented an all time low for humankind. And this came out of a civilisation that we used to refer to as Christendom.
Remember the generation of tens of millions of people who did not live to contribute to the development of our civilisation after the Second World War because their lives were brutally stamped out by the totalitarian tyranny of the Third Reich.
Remember, too, the outstanding generation of soldiers and civilians, men and women, who fought bravely to defeat Hitler’s Germany. Let us hope that they did not live, or tragically die, in vain. We owe that generation, who gave and lost so much, to continue to carry the flame of individual freedom, democracy and human dignity that the Nazis tried to extinguish so ruthlessly.
1940 and 1941 were very dangerous years for freedom and democracy. “Churchill understood something that not many people understood even now,” writes John Lukacs in Five Days In London: May 1940. He continues: “The greatest threat to Western civilization was not Communism. It was National Socialism. The greatest and most dynamic power in the world was not Soviet Russia. It was the Third Reich of Germany. The greatest revolutionary of the twentieth century was not Lenin or Stalin. It was Hitler.
“Hitler not only succeeded in merging nationalism and socialism into one tremendous force; he was a new kind of ruler, representing a new kind of populist nationalism. What was more, the remnants of the older order (or disorder) were not capable of withstanding him; indeed, some of the conservative representatives, in Germany and elsewhere, were inclined – for many reasons, including their fear of Communism – to accommodate themselves to him. It was thus that in 1940 he represented the wave of the future. His greatest reactionary opponent, Churchill, was like King Canute, attempting to withstand and sweep back that wave. And – yes, mirabile dictu – this King Canute succeeded: because of his resolution and – allow me to say this – because of God’s will, of which, like every human being, he was but an instrument. He was surely no saint, he was not a religious man, and he had many faults. Yet so it happened.”
Churchill was the only world leader who stood in the path of Hitler after the fall of France in June 1940. Rejecting, or not responding to, repeated “peace” offerings made by Hitler, who said he would allow the British Empire to survive if Britain would give Germany free rein in Europe, Churchill knew that the British people were fully behind the war effort against the Third Reich. “The deep-seated conservatism of the British people – as distinct from the political and social conservatism of the Conservatives – was a great asset in 1940”, writes Lukacs. “The great majority did not know – more precisely, were hardly able to conceive – that Britain might lose the war.”
Winston and Randolph Churchill
Churchill, when confronted by his son Randolph about Britain’s prospects of defeating Germany, answered, “I think I see my way through.” According to Randolph, “he resumed his shaving. I was astounded, and said: ‘Do you mean that we can avoid defeat?’ (which seemed credible) ‘or beat the bastards?’ (which seemed incredible). He flung his razor into the basin, swung around and said with great intensity: “Of course we can beat them. I shall drag the United States in.”
Churchill knew he could not defeat Nazi Germany with only the strength of the British nation and its Empire and Commonwealth. He knew that without the New World, Britain and Soviet Russia could not defeat Nazi Germany. In the end, it took the combined military and economic strength of the British Empire, the United States and Soviet Russia to defeat the greatest military machine in history, to save Europe from its own suicidal Nazi ideology of death and to preserve freedom and democracy for at least another seventy years.
Part 1 NEW DARK AGE
To achieve victory, Winston Churchill established the special relationship with President Franklin Roosevelt of the United States. In August 1941, Churchill and Roosevelt signed the Atlantic Charter. This was before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Atlantic Charter became the first policy document for the wartime anti-Nazi alliance; a document which loudly proclaimed the kind of the post-war world the Anglo-Americans wanted to build, a world built upon the traditional English freedoms and liberties which inaugurated the democracies of the New World.
The first two years of the Second World War were disastrous for Great Britain, but even worse for the countries of mainland Europe, across the English Channel. First came the Phoney War of 1939-1940, which saw Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia carve up Poland, while Britain dropped millions of leaflets over Germany. Neville Chamberlain, the man who came back from Munich holding a useless piece of paper (and declaring “peace in our time”) did not have the stomach to be a good war leader. He thought that he could destroy the Third Reich with a naval blockade. But Russia came to Hitler’s rescue by providing the necessary raw materials needed to supply the Nazi onslaught against the West in May 1940. In the space of two months, Western Europe collapsed in front of the Nazi war machine, first Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Holland and finally France. Hitler had eaten up all the democratic nations and then began to introduce his totalitarian New Order into all the occupied territories.
A new dark age, which had begun in Berlin in January 1933, now spread across the whole of continental Europe. The Nazis raped Europe and turned it into a slave labour camp for the benefit of the German “master race.” Collaborator regimes were in place in those countries not directly under Nazi occupation, including Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Vichy France and of course the Soviet Union. Spain was neutral but run under a fascist regime. And Italy entered the war as Hitler’s ally on June 10 1940. Only Britain stood in Hitler’s path. Once Britain was forced to deal with the Nazis, Hitler was confident he would win his war for the domination of Europe.
The fall of Neville Chamberlain, the British champion of the “appeasement” policy which did so much to further the aims of Nazi Germany before the war, changed everything. Churchill, who for ten years had been the most despised and unpopular rogue politician within the British establishment, became prime minister on May 10 1940. As France was collapsing in the path of Hitler’s tanks, hundreds of thousands of British and French troops were being evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in what could only be called the greatest military catastrophe in British history thus far. Many more such catastrophes would follow over the next two years. But Churchill stood firm. He resisted all peace offerings from Italy and Germany, despite heavy pressure applied by some of his colleagues in the War Cabinet to make an accommodation with the Third Reich. Lord Halifax in particular could see no way through to victory for Britain. Hitler offered to leave the British Empire alone as long as Germany could remain dominant in Europe. But Winston Churchill understood Hitler more than the German Fuhrer understood Churchill.
Hitler and Churchill almost met in Germany in 1932, before the German Fuhrer’s rise to power. Martin Gilbert tells this story:
“When in November 1932, shortly before Hitler came to power, and Churchill was in Munich doing some historical research about the First Duke of Marlborough, […] an intermediary [Putzi Hanfstaegl] tried to get him to meet Hitler, who was in Munich at the time and had high hopes of coming to power within months. Churchill agreed to meet Hitler, who was going to come to see him in his hotel in Munich, and said to the intermediary: ‘There are a few questions you might like to put to him, which can be the basis of our discussion when we meet’.”
Churchill questioned the intermediary about Hitler’s antisemitism. When the German tried to excuse Hitler’s attitude to Jews being the result of an influx of eastern European Jews, Churchill challenged him, saying, “Tell your boss from me that antisemitism may be a good starter, but it is a bad sticker”. This was a racing term. What Churchill was saying was that, by persecuting Jews, he was backing the wrong horse.
When asked by the intermediary which issues Churchill wanted to talk about with Hitler, Churchill replied: “Why is your chief so violent about the Jews? I can quite understand being angry with the Jews who have done wrong or are against the country, and I can understand resisting them if they try to monopolise power in any walk of life, but what is the sense of being against a man simply because of his birth? How can any man help how he is born?”
Martin Gilbert comments:
“This may seem a simple sentiment to us now, but how many people, distinguished people from Britain, the United States and other countries, who met or might have met Hitler, raised that question with him? So surprised, and possibly angered, was Hitler by this question that he declined to come to the hotel and see Churchill.”
Churchill knew that Hitler could not be trusted to keep his word. He knew that Hitler was worse than the tyrannies which had tried to undermine English freedom and independence over the centuries; worse than the medieval Popes, worse than Phillip the Second of Spain, worse than Louis the Fourteenth of France, worse than Emperor Napoleon, and worse than Kaiser Wilhelm. He knew that Hitler represented an evil ideology which threatened to destroy all that was precious about European civilisation. Victory for Hitler meant the end of the Enlightenment. Many in the English upper classes preferred Hitler to Soviet Russia. But Churchill knew that Nazism was worse than Communism. Churchill knew that were Britain to do a deal with the man he contemptuously referred to as “Corporal Shicklegruber,” Britain would fall under a Vichy-type regime. Churchill understood more than anyone else that victory for Hitler would bring the end of Christian civilisation.
The new prime minister prevailed over his colleagues in secret meetings of the War Cabinet discussing whether to do a deal with the Nazis in May 1940. A week before the fall of France, he made perhaps his most famous speech in the House of Commons on June 18 1940:
“What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over … the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.
“But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.”
Churchill, more than anyone in his time, was prescient in this speech. He knew Hitler’s “new dark age” would introduce the darkest chapter in human history. He understood the meaning of Hitler. He knew that Nazi Germany must be defeated. He also knew what was necessary to defeat Hitler. On June 4 1940, his “fight them on the beaches” speech, pointed to the path to final victory:
“…we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
From the very beginning of the war, Churchill knew that, if Britain could hold out against Hitler, Hitler could not win his war. Churchill’s route to victory would be to drag the United States into the war.
Part 2 THE NEW WORLD
Shortly after Churchill became prime minister in May 1940, his son Randolph burst in on the elder Churchill shaving in his bedroom. Here is Randolph Churchill’s account:
“After two or three minutes of hacking away at his face, he half-turned and said: ‘I think I see my way through.’ He resumed his shaving. I was astounded, and said: ‘Do you mean that we can avoid defeat?’ (which seemed credible) ‘or beat the bastards?’ (which seemed incredible). He flung his razor into the basin, swung around and said with great intensity: “Of course we can beat them. I shall drag the United States in.”
On July 31, 1940, as the Battle of Britain raged over the skies of England, the German Fuhrer made the momentous decision to prepare for a war against the Soviet Union in the spring of the following year. Hitler knew that he did not have naval superiority necessary to invade the British Isles. When Hitler’s plans to invade Britain were cancelled, Churchill found this out from decoding German Ultra transcripts. But he did not tell the Americans. During the following winter, Churchill told the Americans that Hitler planned to invade Britain in May 1941. Instead, Germany attacked the Soviet Union. In the year between the fall of France and Hitler’s attack on Russia, Winston Churchill did everything he could to bring the United States into the war.
After it became clear Britain was not going to conclude a French-type armistice with Hitler, President Roosevelt agreed to let Churchill have fifty old American destroyers, during the autumn of 1940, in return for allowing the United States to take over British naval bases in the West Indies, the Far East and Newfoundland. This was seen by some as a better deal for America than for Britain. But Churchill understood that he was bringing the American frontier eastwards into the Atlantic, including Trinidad and Greenland. German victory could only serve to isolate American in a hostile world dominated by Germany, Italy and Japan. Thus, Americans were coming to terms with reality; they must prop up the British Empire, the only power fighting the Axis alliance, in order to protect America.
The Lend-Lease Act of March 1941 provided Britain with credit to pay for the war effort. Churchill called it “the most unsordid act in history.” Lend-Lease also gave benefits to the United States. British overseas trade came under new restrictions. British overseas investments and properties, estimated by the Americans to be worth almost $14 billion, were asset-stripped and sold off to Americans at low prices. This included $55 million worth of gold held by Britain in South Africa and many British-owned corporations in the United States. In total, Britain’s Lend-Lease debt to America reached almost $27 billion by the end of the war. The United States became Britain’s paymaster from the beginning of 1941, but the Americans also intended to become asset-strippers of the British Empire.
The beginning of the war in Europe, in September 1939, heralded a full economic recovery for the United States following a long decade of economic depression. In other words, the Second World War was bad for Britain but good for America.
Britain chose the Mediterranean and the Middle East as the battlefields on which to continue the war against Italy and Germany. Churchill was determined to fight “to the last inch and ounce” for Egypt. He implored Roosevelt “not to underrate the gravity of the consequences which may follow from a Middle Eastern collapse.” In May 1941, Churchill made it clear to Averell Harriman, an emissary of President Roosevelt in Britain, “With Hitler in control of Iraq oil and Ukrainian wheat, not all the staunchiness of “our Plymouth Brethren” will shorten the ordeal.” The German invasion of Russia was delayed by over a month precisely because Hitler had to divert armies to drive the British out of Yugoslavia, Greece and Crete during April and May 1941.
Churchill in North Africa
Suddenly, Britain’s Middle Eastern oilfields came under threat with a pro-German revolt in Iraq. Churchill made sure it was crushed ruthlessly. However, the German army regained the advantage in North Africa. Roosevelt offered to take over the British military bases in Iceland so that Churchill could “liberate a British division for defence against invasion or the Middle East.” In addition, Roosevelt offered to send American engineers to Egypt to service aircraft and tanks about to be delivered to the Middle East. The United States was being drawn further and further into the war, short of being an active participant, yet no American declaration of war was forthcoming. A major turning point came on July 4. The Americans introduced a new policy to protect shipments of supplies to Britain. They would now use force against German ships and airplanes which attacked convoys to Britain.
“One afternoon Harry Hopkins came into the garden at Downing Street and we sat together in the sunshine”, wrote Churchill in The Grand Alliance. “Presently he said that the President would like very much to have a meeting with me in some lonely bay or other. Thus all was soon arranged. Placentia Bay, in Newfoundland, was chosen, the date of August 9 was fixed, and our latest battleship, the Prince of Wales, was placed under orders accordingly.”
Churchill wanted to settle business relating to “American intervention in the Atlantic, aid to Russia, our own supplies and above all the increasing menace of Japan.”
Churchill set sail for Newfoundland on August 4 and cabled Roosevelt, “We are just off. It is 27 years ago today that the Huns began their last war. We must make a good job of it this time.” The Prince of Wales, the ship on which Churchill sailed, had participated in the chase for the German battleship Bismarck earlier in the year. The crew of this ship had witnessed their sister ship HMS Hood destroyed during the Bismarck campaign. As recently as May 1940, the Hood was one of the ships that knocked out the French fleet at Oran.
Churchill took with him Sir Alexander Cadogan of the Foreign Office, Lord Cherwell and staff from the Defence Office. “The utmost secrecy was necessary because of the large number of U-boats in the North Atlantic,” wrote Churchill, “so the President, who was ostensibly on a holiday cruise, transhipped at sea to the cruiser Augusta, and left his yacht behind him as a blind.” Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s unofficial emissary to Winston Churchill, joined the Prince of Wales at Scapa Flow, having been to Moscow “to obtain directly from Stalin the Soviet position and needs.”
HMS Prince of Wales, Placentia Bay, August 1941
In August 1941, Newfoundland became the place where the special relationship between the United States and the UK became fact and not just a fantasy of Winston Churchill. This special relationship, which is still with us today, forms the rock upon which the defence of the Western world is based. It was born with the Atlantic Charter, in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland.
(Newfoundland, a former British Dominion, later became the last province to join Canada in 1949. The first English expedition to reach the island was commissioned by King Henry the Seventh in 1497. Then, on August 5 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, under a Royal Charter of Queen Elizabeth the First claimed Newfoundland to be England’s first overseas colony. Big ideas have small beginnings. Thus, four hundred and thirty-three years ago this month, we can see the small beginnings of what was to become the biggest empire in the history of our world, the British Empire.)
Five days later, the Prince of Wales arrived at Placentia Bay, not far from the small port of Argentia in Newfoundland. “We arrived at our rendezvous at 9am, on Saturday August 9, and as soon as the customary naval courtesies had been exchanged I went board the Augusta and greeted President Roosevelt, who received me with all honours,” wrote Churchill, “He stood supported by the arm of his son Elliott while the national anthems were played, and then gave me the warmest of welcomes. I gave him a letter from the King and presented members of my party.”
Roosevelt took his British guest on a tour of the Augusta. According to Averell Harriman, Roosevelt was intrigued by Churchill “and likes him enormously”. Then began the first day of conversations between the US president, the British prime minister, US under-secretary of state Sumner Welles, the US and Sir Alexander Cadogan. These meetings, which continued until the conference ended the following week, also included staff officers of both America and Britain, “sometimes man to man and sometimes in larger conferences.”
“On Sunday morning, August 10, Mr Roosevelt came aboard HMS Prince of Wales, and with his Staff Officers and several hundred representatives of all ranks of the United States Navy and Marines, attended the Divine Service on the quarterdeck,” wrote Churchill. “This service was felt by us all to be a deeply moving expression of the unity of faith of our two peoples, and none who took part in it will forget the spectacle presented that sunlit morning on the crowded quarterdeck – the symbolism of the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes draped side by side on the pulpit; the American and British chaplains sharing in the reading of the prayers; the highest naval, military and air officers of Britain and the United States grouped in one body behind the President and me; the close-packed ranks of British and American sailors, completely intermingled, sharing the same books and joining fervently together in the prayers and hymns familiar to both.”
Britons and their American cousins sang “For Those in Peril on the Sea” and “Onward Christian Soldiers,” ending with “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” all of these hymns chosen by the British prime minister himself. “It was a great hour to live,” wrote Churchill, “Nearly half of those who sang were soon to die.”
John Martin, Churchill’s new principal private secretary, also found the church service moving: “You would have had to be pretty hard-boiled not to be moved by it all – hundreds of men from both fleets all mingled together, one rough British sailor sharing his hymn sheet with one American ditto. It seemed a sort of marriage service between the two navies, already in spirit allies, though the bright peace-time paint and spit and polish of the American ships contrasted with the dull and camouflage of the Prince of Wales, so recently in action against the Bismarck.”
Part 3 SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
For back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light;
In front the sun climbs, how slowly!
But westward, look, the land is bright!
These lines, from the poem “Say Not The Struggle Naught Availeth” by Arthur Hugh Clough, were spoken by Winston Churchill in a radio broadcast on April 27 1941. Churchill told his radio listeners that the United States was “very closely bound up to us now” and introduced the above lines as words which were “apt and appropriate to our fortunes tonight” and would be so judged “wherever the English language is spoken or the flag of freedom flies.”
In the first fifteen months of his premiership, Churchill set himself a task which no other statesman of his time could have accomplished. He had managed, step by step, to lure the United States, a neutral country, into actively helping Great Britain to fight the war against Hitlerism.
First, there was the destroyers-for-bases deal; then Lend-Lease; and now, (on board the two ships Augusta and the Prince of Wales at Placentia Bay in August 1941), the announcement of a declaration of common Anglo-American principles for the conduct of the war against the Nazi tyranny. Churchill and Roosevelt also set out a democratic and liberal vision of the type of world which they wanted to see created following the destruction of Hitlerism.
From the very first day of this secret Anglo-American conference off the coast of Newfoundland, Roosevelt was anxious that the two countries should draw up a joint declaration “laying down certain broad principles which should guide our policies along the same road.” Churchill presented the President a tentative draft of this policy document, intended to link Britain’s war aims with the aspirations of the United States, on Sunday.
As Churchill wrote in his war memoirs, “The profound and far-reaching importance of what came to be called ‘Atlantic Charter’ was apparent. The fact alone of the United States, still technically neutral, joining with a belligerent Power in making such a declaration was astonishing. The inclusion in it of a reference to ‘the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny’ amounted to a challenge which in ordinary times would have implied warlike action.”
The next day, Churchill and Roosevelt continued their formal discussions. They agreed to the implementation a new American naval commitment, wherein the US Navy would take over from Britain all Atlantic patrols between Iceland and the United States. They also agreed that they would use all their efforts to pressure Japan from making any further aggressive moves in the Pacific theatre. Churchill and Roosevelt sent a message to the Japanese government, warning them that “any further encroachment by Japan in the South-West Pacific would produce a situation in which the United States Government would be compelled to take counter-measures” against Japan.
Churchill and Roosevelt, August 1941
Roosevelt drafted a paragraph pledging to create an “effective international organization” which would give all nations security “within their own boundaries…without fear of lawless assault or the need to maintain burdensome armaments.” Britain’s War Cabinet insisted on the inclusion of a clause on the need to improve “labour standards, economic advancement and social security” during the postwar era. Churchill added a sentence to the final draft calling for “a world at peace” after “the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny”. This was very important. The United States was officially a neutral power, yet Roosevelt was committing himself to the defeat of Germany.
In the Atlantic Charter, Britain and the United States pledged themselves to “no aggrandisement, territorial or other” as a result of winning the war, in addition to introducing territorial changes “that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned.” They also committed themselves to “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they do wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.”
Roosevelt and Churchill formally approved the document on Thursday August 14 1941. The eight principal points of the Charter were:
no territorial gains were to be sought by the United States or the United Kingdom;
territorial adjustments must be in accord with the wishes of the peoples concerned;
all people had a right to self-determination;
trade barriers were to be lowered;
there was to be global economic cooperation and advancement of social welfare;
the participants would work for a world free of want and fear;
the participants would work for freedom of the seas;
there was to be disarmament of aggressor nations, and a post-war common disarmament.
Churchill, who wanted a permanent “Grand Alliance” between Great Britain and the United States, was pleased with the “realism of the last paragraph, where there was a plain and bold intimation that after the war the United States would join with us in policing the world until the establishment of a better order.” The Americans had other ideas, however. They certainly wanted the defeat of Hitler, but did not under any circumstances want to prop up the British Empire. Churchill proclaimed that he did not become prime minister to bring about the end of the British Empire. In fact, that is exactly what he did; he sold the world hegemony of the British Empire to the United States. America essentially took over Britain’s role and Churchill made easy the transition from two centuries of Pax Britannia to a new century of Pax Americana. Most important of all, the United States and Great Britain finally ended the long history of hostility and mutual distrust between friendly but rival powers, which had governed Anglo-American relations for the one hundred and sixty five years between the Declaration of Independence and the Atlantic Charter.
Churchill on HMS Prince of Wales, August 1941
In August 1941, America and Britain at last put aside their historic differences to unite together in creating a new postwar world in which the principles of Anglo-American liberty and democracy should govern the rest of mankind. The Atlantic Charter was actually called the “Joint Declaration by the President and the Prime Minister”. But the British newspaper Daily Herald called it “the Atlantic Charter.” Churchill used that name when he spoke in the House of Commons upon his return to London. The British War Cabinet approved the terms of the document, although it was never formally passed by Congress in the United States. In Churchill’s account of the Yalta Conference he quotes Roosevelt saying of the unwritten British constitution that “it was like the Atlantic Charter – the document did not exist, yet all the world knew about it.”
Britain’s allies against Nazi Germany all formally endorsed the Atlantic Charter, including the governments-in-exile, the Soviet Union and the Free French. They later signed another document on January 1 1942, called the Declaration by the United Nations, after the United States formally entered the war, in which they agreed to continue to fight for “a victory over Hitlerism” without any ally making a separate peace with any of their enemies. The United Nations document incorporated the “purposes and principles” of the Atlantic Charter.
Churchill had some reservations about the final draft of the Atlantic Charter. For instance, it was agreed between Roosevelt and Churchill that the clause regarding “self-determination” would not apply to Africa and Asia; in other words, they would not apply to the British Empire. The United States, however, was never going to fight a war for the preservation of the British Empire or any other European empire, French, Dutch or Belgian. After the war, the United States, under presidents Truman and Eisenhower, applied all possible pressure on its allies to bring an end to the colonial empires of Europe. After all, the American War of Independence was a war against imperialism.
Churchill left Placentia Bay with some important commitments made by the United States, the most important of which covered the protection of convoys across the Atlantic. Roosevelt had agreed that his escort ships would be given orders “to attack any U-boat which showed itself, even if these were two hundred or three hundred miles away from the convoy.”
Anglo-American unity against Nazi Germany, August 1941
Roosevelt told Churchill that he “would wage war, but not declare it,” and that America “would become more and more provocative.” He also told Churchill that if the Germans “did not like it they could attack American forces.” Churchill told the War Cabinet that Roosevelt “made it clear that he would look for an ‘incident’ which would justify him in opening hostilities.”
As Churchill said farewell to the crew of the Prince of Wales at Scapa Flow on August 18, he declared, “We have brought back a means of waging more effective war and surer hope of final and speedy victory.” The men of the Prince of Wales would not live to see that final victory. Their ship was sunk off the coast of Malaysia, torpedoed by Japanese ships, less than four months after leaving Placentia Bay, only three days after Pearl Harbor, on December 10 1941.
The United States did not enter the war that summer. But Churchill had got everything he needed out of Roosevelt, short of an American declaration of war, over the fifteen months since becoming prime minister. He knew that it was only a matter of time before America would join the crusade against Hitlerism. In that regard, the trip to Placentia Bay was a success.
The Atlantic Charter led to the destruction of the Third Reich and the creation of the postwar world
The Atlantic Charter went on to became the most important declaration of principles in the 20th century, principles which still shape our world in the 21st century. The post-war world we live in today was born during that week in Placentia Bay, off the coast of Newfoundland, the island which was both the foundation stone of the English-speaking New World, and the island where the British Empire began its life.
Most important of all, the special relationship between the British people and the American people was born on the Prince of Wales on August 10 1941. Today, that special relationship is stronger than ever. British and American friendship had a cooling off after the end of the Second World War. Truman wanted to avoid any permanent alliances after 1945. But the advent of the Cold War quickly made the Americans come to their senses. Thus, the Marshall Plan and the formation of Nato brought Americans away from developing any more ideas they may have got about retreating into isolationism for a second time. Moreover, the West has lived under the protective umbrella of the American nuclear deterrent since the Second World War.
The special relationship suffered badly during the Eisenhower years. America’s betrayal of Sir Anthony Eden’s government during the Suez Crisis of 1956 did more damage to American influence in the Middle East than it did to British power. Since the days of President Kennedy, however, Britain and the United States have remained the closest of allies, in particular during the Thatcher-Reagan years and the Blair-Bush years. George W Bush, in a joint sitting of Congress which was attended by Tony Blair immediately after 9/11, declared, “America has no truer friend than Great Britain.” A few years ago, President Obama asserted, “The special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is enduring, and the United Kingdom’s membership in Nato remains a vital cornerstone of US foreign, security, and economic policy.”
This special relationship was created by Winston Churchill, who succeeded, at the most dangerous moment in European history, in convincing the United States to become the policeman of the world and the successor to Britain in carrying the torch of freedom across the globe.
Churchill and Roosevelt with Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King in Quebec, 1943