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Atlantic Charter

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President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill signing the Atlantic Charter

With the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor on the horizon, we turn our attention to the eve of US involvement in the war that changed the world. This entry by the Museum’s Senior Director of History & Research, Keith Huxen, is just one of many historical essays on 70th anniversaries we will be posting in coming years. You can also keep up with significant dates by following the Museum’s Twitter feed, @wwiitoday.

The Atlantic Charter: 70th Anniversary, August 14, 1941

In the summer of 1941 the historical pathway of the Second World War was rapidly changing. In Asia, Japan found herself still struggling after four years to complete and consolidate her conquests in China without recourse or access to the raw materials spread further across the Southeast Asian archipelago. Pressure in the European war was also reaching critical mass. Great Britain, having survived the previous summer by fending off Operation Sea Lion, Hitler’s planned invasion across the English Channel, had continued to fight Germany alone. Unable to complete Britain’s defeat by late October 1940, Hitler gambled and unleashed Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion and double-cross of the Soviet Union. The Germans believed that total victory over the USSR could be completed in six months. Germany’s gamble would achieve four great objectives: Soviet defeat would rob Britain of her last potential European ally and force Britain to a separate peace; Hitler would eliminate the Soviet Communist regime which he regarded as his great ideological enemy; Hitler would acquire through invasion the vast Lebensraum or eastern living space in Ukraine where he intended to build a purely Aryan empire; and last, as the German army acquired and controlled the territories of Eastern Europe, Hitler would gain control of two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population (along with other racial undesirables in the Nazi lexicon) which he intended to extinguish from European life. Unleashed on June 22, 1941, the Nazi invasion and strategy appeared to have a good chance of success as the Nazis drove deep into Soviet territories.

Despite a long and dedicated political opposition to Communism, Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill immediately welcomed Joseph Stalin and the Soviets as an ally in the fight against Nazism. When questioned on his political pivot, Churchill famously observed that “if Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favorable reference to the Devil.”

The one great power missing from the dramatic geo-political sea-changes of summer 1941 was the United States. Since the war’s outbreak in September 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt maintained that the United States was officially a neutral nation. However, Roosevelt began to orchestrate gradual policies such as the revision of the Neutrality laws, Cash and Carry, and the Destroyers for Bases deal which indicated American sympathies with the solitary British. After his successful reelection bid in November 1940, Roosevelt became more open in his preferences. His January 6, 1941, Four Freedoms speech morally aligned the United States with British democratic values as opposed to the totalitarian Nazi leviathan. While moral support was appreciated, Churchill’s nation was broke and needed war materials to continue fighting. In March 1941 Roosevelt’s political masterstroke, Lend-Lease, passed Congress and allowed the United States to lend or lease war materials to Britain without cash payment. Roosevelt famously described the transaction as borrowing a neighbor’s garden hose during a home fire, with the idea that the materials would be returned after the fire (ie, the war) was over. Congress basically committed the United States to funding the British war effort without entering the war against the backdrop of great domestic opposition to direct American involvement in the war. Even as late as May 1941 polls showed 82% of the American people desired to stay out of the war at that time. Roosevelt and Churchill awaited events.

Ultimately, Hitler’s aggressions turned American public opinion more than any other factor. After Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, Roosevelt made the Soviet Union eligible for Lend-Lease aid. Still, Churchill longed for direct American involvement in the war and recognized that American intervention was necessary, especially before the potential collapse of the Soviet military effort. Hitler was not naïve to the reality that Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease aid essentially meant that the United States was picking up the financial tab for one side in a hot war, and was not the act of a neutral nation. Hitler could not allow this material to re-energize the British and Soviets on the battlefields, and aimed to sink the Lend-Lease convoys with German U-boats as the convoys crossed the Atlantic. Clear-eyed political and military analysts understood that the stage was set for a shooting war between the United States and Germany in the fall of 1941. But Roosevelt felt that he could not outpace American popular opinion, and was hesitant in order not to appear to be eagerly pushing his country into the war.

It is against this backdrop that the Atlantic Charter should be viewed. Roosevelt and Churchill had begun to establish an intimate political courtship and even personal friendship through a direct correspondence that stretched back to September 11, 1939, shortly after the outbreak of the European war. This was an unusual arrangement, as when Churchill was brought into Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty official contacts were to be maintained only between the heads of government. However, it appears that Roosevelt had identified Churchill as the coming man in English government due to his spirited opposition to Hitler and the Nazis. After Churchill indeed became Prime Minister in May 1940 the two men had an increasingly close political relationship through their correspondence. But except for a fleeting meeting in 1918 which Churchill did not remember (much to Roosevelt’s chagrin) the two men had never met personally.

The Atlantic Charter was the occasion which brought them together. There was much subterfuge in the preceding weeks as the two leaders sought to arrange a secret personal meeting at sea to discuss the war situation and postwar international goals. The journey was perilous to Churchill as a war leader crossing an Atlantic ocean filled with German U-boats, and politically perilous to FDR as he was eager not to fan the flames of isolationism amongst the American public. The two leaders rendezvoused aboard ship off Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, greeting each other on the deck of the USS Augusta on August 9, 1941. In the days that followed, the two men cemented a political and personal relationship punctuated by luncheons, dinners, and religious worship together. The most important aspect of the meeting, however, was the Joint Declaration of Principles issued in their name at the end of the conference.

In their Joint Declaration, the President of the United States and the British Prime Minister agreed upon a core of eight principles which the world should be founded upon after the defeat of Nazi Germany. These principles included no territorial aggrandizement; no territorial changes without the consent of peoples; right to self-government of all peoples; right to trade and raw materials; economic rights to secure freedom from want; a peace established to guarantee freedom from fear; freedom of the seas; and a call for disarmament within the “establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security,” this last principle becoming the basis for a new United Nations to replace the defunct League of Nations. The Chicago Daily Herald newspaper is believed to have first applied the term “Atlantic Charter” to the document, but Winston Churchill himself adopted the use of term in a radio speech given on August 24, 1941, to the British public.

The real and immediate significance of the document in August 1941 was that by quite literally linking arms on shipboard with the British wartime leader, the President of the United States was publicly taking the British side in the current war. This visibly was not the act of a neutral nation. Rather, the large wall which had been erected before American entry into the Second World War was in its last stages of dismantlement. The aggressions of the Axis powers had been the greatest spur to the turnaround of American opinion, but President Roosevelt had aided this process, step by step, through the rewriting and dismantling of the Neutrality laws, the Destroyers for Bases Deal, Lend-Lease, and now a public American commitment to a postwar world founded upon an Anglo-American democratic vision. It was the culminating and perhaps Roosevelt’s greatest political blow against the isolationist wall which separated the United States from involvement in the Second World War. From here on, the German U-boat campaign in the Atlantic might furnish the events which would likely bring direct American involvement into the war, and indeed the sinking of American ships such as the Kearney and the Reuben James in the fall 1941 would bring the United States and Germany into an undeclared sea war with each other.

But the animating spirit of the Atlantic Charter went far beyond the fall of 1941 and the politics of American entry into the war. It was a philosophical marker on the character of a post-Hitler, postwar world the democratic powers wished to see established. The broad principles of the Atlantic Charter became the basis for more concrete postwar visions to which the Allied powers committed. After the Japanese attack upon the United States at Pearl Harbor brought the United States directly into the war and initiated Hitler’s declaration of war upon the United States on December 11, the Allied powers drew up the Declaration of the United Nations issued on January 1, 1942. Twenty-six signatory nations that day directly pledged themselves “to a common program of purposes and principles embodied in the Joint Declaration of the President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland dated August 14, 1941, known as the Atlantic Charter.”

Roosevelt and Churchill remained committed to the principles of the Atlantic Charter and its postwar goals even at the Yalta conference in February 1945. As Hitler’s demise appeared imminent, Roosevelt and Churchill insisted on recognizing the Atlantic Charter as a guiding star for the postwar peace. With Stalin’s agreement, in their joint Declaration of Liberated Europe, the restatement of the commitment to the self-government of peoples was explicitly identified as a principle of the Atlantic Charter. The section was concluded with the statement: “By this declaration we reaffirm our faith in the principles of the Atlantic Charter, our pledge in the Declaration by the United Nations and our determination to build in cooperation with other peace-loving nations world order, under law, dedicated to peace, security, freedom and general well-being of all mankind.”

The Atlantic Charter was the philosophical thread which ran through Allied effort in the Second World War. It stated the Allied values at risk, and for which blood was shed in the war: self-government of peoples, the right to improve material existence, freedom of religious worship, and the hopeful establishment of a peaceful world. Beginning with Roosevelt and Churchill, it connected, networked and enlarged the efforts of the Allied governments. It was designed to bring a philosophical framework around the crises of 1941, and to begin to provide a hopeful, idealist vision of a postwar world which would justify the blood that must be shed in order to prevent Hitler from installing his world order. The Atlantic Charter was not a concrete plan for the postwar world. It was not a nuanced or complex document. It could not be enforced upon Stalin’s designs for his nation or the nations of Eastern Europe which his army controlled at the end of the war. It was an idealist and hopeful vision of a postwar world painted in bold, primary colors offered at a time of greatest uncertainty and distress.

The purpose of the Atlantic Charter was to offer the world a different future than that which Hitlerite Germany seemed destined to impose by force in the late summer of 1941. Perhaps Winston Churchill himself stated it best during his August 24, 1941, radio speech to the British public when he returned from the Atlantic rendezvous: “It symbolizes in a form and manner which everyone can understand in every land and every clime, the deep underlying unities which stir and at decisive moments rule the English-speaking peoples throughout the world . . . Would it be presumptuous of me to say that it symbolizes something even more majestic—namely: the marshaling of the good forces of the world against the evil forces which are now so formidable and triumphant and which have cast their cruel spell over the whole of Europe and a large part of Asia?” In retrospect, on this 70th anniversary, it is safe to judge that Mr. Churchill was not presumptuous. The Atlantic Charter remains a beacon to a brighter world of tomorrow.

Keith Huxen is the Senior Director of Research and History at The National WWII Museum.  He holds a B.A. degree from Louisiana State University and a Ph.D. in American history from George Washington University.

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