Milestones: 1937–1945

The Atlantic Conference & Charter, 1941

The Atlantic Charter was a joint declaration released by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on August 14, 1941 following a meeting of the two heads of state in Newfoundland. The Atlantic Charter provided a broad statement of U.S. and British war aims.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill

The meeting had been called in response to the geopolitical situation in Europe by mid-1941. Although Great Britain had been spared from a German invasion in the fall of 1940 and, with the passage of the U.S. Lend Lease Act in March 1941, was assured U.S. material support, by the end of May, German forces had inflicted humiliating defeats upon British, Greek, and, Yugoslav forces in the Balkans and were threatening to overrun Egypt and close off the Suez Canal, thereby restricting British access to its possessions in India. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, few policymakers in Washington or London believed that the Soviets would be able to resist the Nazi onslaught for more than six weeks. While the British Government focused its efforts on dealing with the Germans in Europe, they were also concerned that Japan might take advantage of the situation to seize British, French, and Dutch territories in Southeast Asia.

Churchill’s copy of the Atlantic Charter

Churchill’s copy of the Atlantic Charter

Churchill and Roosevelt met on August 9 and 10, 1941 aboard the U.S.S. Augusta in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, to discuss their respective war aims for the Second World War and to outline a postwar international system. The Charter they drafted included eight “common principles” that the United States and Great Britain would be committed to supporting in the postwar world. Both countries agreed not to seek territorial expansion; to seek the liberalization of international trade; to establish freedom of the seas, and international labor, economic, and welfare standards. Most importantly, both the United States and Great Britain were committed to supporting the restoration of self-governments for all countries that had been occupied during the war and allowing all peoples to choose their own form of government

While the meeting was successful in drafting these aims, it failed to produce the desired results for either leader. President Roosevelt had hoped that the Charter might encourage the American people to back U.S. intervention in World War II on behalf of the Allies; however, public opinion remained adamantly opposed to such a policy until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Churchill’s primary goal in attending the Atlantic Conference was “to get the Americans into the war.” Barring that, he hoped that the United States would increase its amount of military aid to Great Britain and warn Japan against taking any aggressive actions in the Pacific.

Roosevelt, on the other hand, wanted the British Government to affirm publicly that it was not involved in any secret treaties, particularly ones concerning territorial questions, such as those concluded by the Allies during the First World War concerning the division of enemy territory at war’s end. Roosevelt also wished to arrange the terms by which Great Britain would repay the United States for its Lend Lease assistance. Roosevelt wanted the British to pay compensation by dismantling their system of Imperial Preference, which had been established by the British Government during the Great Depression and was designed to encourage trade within the British Empire by lowering tariff rates between members, while maintaining discriminatory tariff rates against outsiders.

Churchill was extremely disappointed by Roosevelt’s refusal to discuss American entry into the war. Furthermore, Churchill understood that several aspects of the proposed joint declaration might be politically damaging for the Prime Minister. Churchill worried that the abandonment of Imperial Preference would anger the protectionist wing of his Conservative Party. The Americans also proved unwilling to warn Japan too strongly against any future military action against British possessions in Southeast Asia. Finally, both Churchill and many members of his Cabinet were alarmed by the third point of the Charter, which mentions the rights of all peoples to choose their own government. Churchill was concerned that this clause acknowledged the right of colonial subjects to agitate for decolonization, including those in Great Britain’s empire.

Nevertheless, Churchill realized that the joint declaration was the most he could accomplish during the conference. While the United States would remain neutral, the declaration would raise the morale of the British public and, most importantly, bind the United States closer to Great Britain. Therefore, when Churchill forwarded the text of the declaration to his Cabinet on August 11, he warned them that would it be “imprudent” to raise unnecessary difficulties. The Cabinet followed Churchill’s recommendation and approved the Charter.

While the Atlantic Charter of August 1941 was not a binding treaty, it was, nonetheless, significant for several reasons. First, it publicly affirmed the sense of solidarity between the U.S. and Great Britain against Axis aggression. Second, it laid out President Roosevelt’s Wilsonian-vision for the postwar world; one that would be characterized by freer exchanges of trade, self-determination, disarmament, and collective security. Finally, the Charter ultimately did serve as an inspiration for colonial subjects throughout the Third World, from Algeria to Vietnam, as they fought for independence.