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August 10, 1941: The Atlantic Conference

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Eighty-two years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill met (August 9-14, 1941) for the first time as heads of state.  The two had met only once before—back in 1918, when Roosevelt was a young Assistant Secretary of the Navy and Churchill a young Member of Parliament.  This new meeting would forever after be known as the Atlantic Conference.

The location, a tightly guarded secret, was Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, the site of a new American naval base leased from the British as part of the destroyers-for-bases deal.  [Note that I write “the British” instead of “the Canadians.”  You might be surprised to know that Newfoundland was at the time still a British dominion, and did not vote to join Canada until March 31, 1949! For a time, the base, Naval Station Argentia, was the largest American military base outside the U.S.  Its importance earned it the nickname “the Gibraltar of the Atlantic.”]

Churchill arrived at Placentia Bay on the morning of August 9, 1941, aboard HMS Prince of Wales, a British battleship.  Roosevelt awaited him aboard the heavy cruiser USS Augusta.

Roosevelt and Churchill

The goals of the two leaders heading into this all-important first meeting were poles apart.  At the top of Churchill’s list was an American declaration of war against Germany, or at the very least vastly increased military assistance.  Roosevelt’s expectations were much more modest.  He hoped to use the conference to help dislodge the implacable isolationist sentiment gripping much of the country, and even more of the Congress.

Both parties came away only partially satisfied.  American isolationist sentiment remained as implacable as ever.  On August 12, while the conference was underway, a bill to extend the military draft passed the House of Representatives by a single vote.  Nevertheless, Roosevelt did agree that the U.S. Navy would henceforth escort British ships sailing from the coast of North America to a point two hundred miles east of Iceland.  This move alone freed up “over fifty destroyers and corvettes” for use in Britain’s home waters in Churchill’s estimation.  Moreover, the military leaders of the two countries were able to further their staff discussions, providing greater coordination.  Finally, Roosevelt promised to be more provocative in challenging the German Navy on the high seas, hoping to perhaps create an “incident.”

Churchill, for his part, had to be content with these developments, as well as an offer for increased aid (FDR promised to ask Congress for another $5Billion in lend-lease aid).  All these fell far short of his original goal, but half a loaf was better than none.

Finally, the conference could not fail to have an important symbolic impact as well. Felix Frankfurter, writing to FDR afterward, observed:

“We live by symbols.  And you two in that ocean . . . in the setting of that Sunday service, gave meaning to the conflict between civilization and arrogant, brute challenge; and gave promise more powerful and binding than any formal treaty could, that civilization has brains and resources that tyranny will not be able to overcome.”

Ironically, the most far-reaching outcome of the Atlantic Conference grew out of a suggestion Roosevelt made at his initial meeting with Churchill: to issue a joint declaration of principles.  This joint statement—really no more than a mere press release—soon became known as the Atlantic Charter.  In the words of one historian “it seized men’s imaginations and framed their hopes.”  Issued on August 14, 1941, its eight points had the universal appeal of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points (issued in 1918), with the important distinction that it was a joint, rather than unilateral, declaration.  These eight “common principles” for the postwar world included: no territorial expansion; liberalization of international trade; freedom of the seas; international labor, economic and welfare standards; freedom from fear and want; and most importantly, restoring self-determination to all countries occupied during the war by the Axis powers

The Atlantic Charter would ultimately influence the formation of NATO and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).  Adherents to the Atlantic Charter would later (January 1, 1942) sign the Declaration by United Nations, which became the basis of the current United Nations.

Admiral Harold Stark, CNO, and General George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, stand behind FDR and Churchill

Although the Atlantic Conference has been best remembered for the Atlantic Charter, the emotional high point of the event, agreed by all, was a joint religious service held on the quarterdeck of the Prince of Wales on Sunday morning, August 10.  All the conferees, along with hundreds of sailors from both countries, attended.  In his magisterial history of World War II, The Grand Alliance, Winston Churchill described the scene:

“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 Americans sailors, completely intermingled, sharing the same books and joining fervently together in prayers and hymns familiar to both.”

August 10, 1941 service aboard the Prince of Wales

Franklin Roosevelt agreed. He later told his son Elliott “If nothing else happened while we were there, that would have cemented us.”  FDR may have been particularly moved by the choice of hymns (personally chosen by Churchill himself) which included Roosevelt’s personal favorite, the Navy Hymn:

Eternal Father, strong to save,

Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,

Who bid’st the mighty ocean deep

Its own appointed limits keep,

O hear us when we cry to thee,

For those in peril on the sea.*

It is a powerful hymn, one I heard many times while one of my sons was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy.

The closing words of the hymn, along with Churchill’s final observation: “Every word seemed to stir the heart.  It was a great hour to live,” would prove to be particularly poignant. Exactly four months later—on December 10, 1941, the Prince of Wales would be sunk by Japanese dive and torpedo bombers off the coast of Malaya; nearly half of its officers and sailors who had attended services that sunlit morning would be dead.

*= At President Roosevelt’s funeral on April 14, 1945,  in the East Room of the White House, the opening hymn was the Navy Hymn.

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