Finest Hour 112, Autumn 2001
By RON CYNEWULF ROBBINS
Proof of its lasting impact can be seen whenever free peoples collaborate to rescue and shelter people victimized by tyrants or terrorists.
Churchill appears to have left no written record of his first meeting with Roosevelt, during World War I. This has led to the inevitable conclusion that the occasion was devoid of any echo in Churchill’s capacious memory. But for their second meeting Churchill insisted on a long and elaborate rehearsal. He was the producer and a leading “player.”
The date was 8 August 1941, three months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The cast: the crew of HMS Prince of Wales which had taken part in the action that sunk the Bismarck. Now Britain’s newest battleship was cleaving her way at top-speed through the unrelenting heavy seas of the Atlantic to Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, where President Roosevelt eagerly awaited the onset of discussions fateful to the outcome of the Second World War.
Humanity’s age-old dilemma of how to beat postwar “swords into ploughshares” was to be confronted. From the deliberations of two great statesmen would come a unique proclamation, the Atlantic Charter, dedicated to the betterment and protection of nations and paving the way for the United Nations. Proof of its lasting impact can be seen whenever free peoples collaborate to rescue and shelter people victimized by tyrants or terrorists.
Roosevelt was astonished at the gap in Churchill’s phenomenal memory concerning their initial introduction. It had taken place in London in July 1918. Churchill was then a cabinet minister and Roosevelt had attained the rank of Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy.
Boarding Prince of Wales on 4 August 1941, Churchill told aides that the trip would be his “first holiday” since becoming Prime Minister. But there was no reduction in his workload, and the crew were delighted with the opportunity to observe his tireless devotion to duty. At his comprehensive map room now in the ship he observed the plotting of menacing U-boats. He shrugged off the danger with the same disdain that marked his many wartime voyages. The map room enabled him to keep careful track of the changing fortunes of Britain’s hard-pressed forces across the globe. He toiled away at official papers and concentrated on plans for increasing Roosevelt’s support: the United States was not yet at war.
The warship soon ran into foul weather. Slower destroyer escorts were dismissed to avoid lowering speed, which would have meant late arrival. The majority of Churchill’s land-based advisers had queasy stomachs. Churchill, who revelled in the pitching and rolling, had to resort to prowling through the lower decks to stretch his legs. He also relaxed now and then by playing backgammon with Hopkins –whom he failed to beat.
Churchill conducted rigorous rehearsals for the conference. Undeterred by the cold and blustery conditions, he strode firmly along the deck to coach Sir Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Undersecretary of the Foreign Office, whom he had chosen to play the role of Roosevelt. Cadogan could scarcely conceal his surprise.
On the quarterdeck a guard of honour was assembled alongside the Royal Marines band. In obedience to Churchill, Cadogan raised his hat to pretend he had just arrived. Right on cue the Marines struck up “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The order, “Present Arms!” rang out. The guard of honour responded proudly. Churchill came forward and shook hands with Cadogan, who seemed somewhat awed at what was expected of him. But he was composed and dignified on being suitably greeted by the Chiefs of Staff. The battleship’s officers added their salute. The rehearsal was punctuated with suggestions from Churchill until he was satisfied the ceremonial would be a worthy tribute to the President of the United States.
As Churchill sailed west, struggling to outmanoeuvre Hitler’s Kriegsmarine, unconquered Britain was scaling down her traditional freedoms. Censorship had been imposed and accepted as an essential weapon. Disciplined survivors of incessant German bombing, the British responded to the injunction on official posters: “Careless Talk Costs Lives.” There would be no breach of security to jeopardize Churchill’s Atlantic crossing. But because the Americans were still at peace, presidential activities were “fully reported.” The White House told the nation that FDR was enjoying a “fishing holiday” aboard the Presidential yacht Potomac. In fact, he had left the yacht and joined the USS Augusta. Destroyers and planes had shielded his voyage to Placentia Bay.
The destiny of the world depended on the effectiveness of policies agreed on by Roosevelt and Churchill. After the Luftwaffe’s onslaughts had failed to break Britain in 1940, Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. Churchill had immediately aligned Britain with the Russians and arranged the signing of a pact to provide all possible aid.
The far-sighted American Lend-Lease Act was already buttressing Britain. Roosevelt amplified this in July 1941 by sending U. S. forces to take over the occupation of Iceland from the British. He also ordered naval vessels to patrol sea lanes as far east as Iceland. Churchill quickly hailed the “first rate political and strategical importance” of Roosevelt’s intervention. The Nazis received another punishing blow when Lend-Lease was extended to the Russians. But it was imperative that Roosevelt and Churchill meet face-to-face to coordinate future moves.
The redoubtable Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s intimate friend and emissary, was aboard Prince of Wales, having flown to London on July 14th. Frail in body, robust in mind and will, he formed a warm, productive partnership with Churchill. The modus operandi for Lend-Lease was the main reason for his visit to Downing Street. At the end of an intensive survey of the war situation, he suddenly suggested that Churchill confer in person with Roosevelt. Broad-ranging talks would consolidate policy. Churchill, jubilantly endorsing the idea, hastened to telephone FDR. In swift accord they settled the details — location, date, security measures. Moscow was the next stop for Hopkins, but he had returned to Britain by plane in time to sail with Churchill.
Hopkins was a remarkably accomplished liaison officer and diplomat who deserves full credit for his spontaneous and persuasive approach to Churchill. But it must be emphasized that previously there had been a foreshadowing of the policy soon to be drawn up and approved by Washington and London to safeguard freedom. Roosevelt had given the developing alliance deep thought and welcomed any initiative Hopkins could provide. Churchill was obviously in favour of a meeting to ensure the United States linked hands with Great Britain to destroy Hitler’s despotism.
What principally mitigated against the project was Churchill’s overwhelming preoccupation with the roaring tide of Nazi advance. But Hitler’s attack on Russia had widened the war rapidly, and the speedy conquest of Russian territory by the German army sharpened the necessity for a Roosevelt-Churchill summit to marshal every resource and unify every counterstroke. Hopkins, with that immaculate sense of timing which endeared him to Roosevelt, had chosen the precise moment to pinpoint the perils of further delay.
During his London visit, Hopkins broadcast an inspiring, memorable message to the people of Britain. This writer listened to it with a group of fellow servicemen. He explained that Roosevelt had promised to guarantee the delivery of American supplies to Britain. “You are not fighting alone,” Hopkins declared, in a voice ringing with conviction.
Almost instant rapport had been established between Churchill and Hopkins. As they sailed together for Newfoundland, they spent hours in conclave. Hopkins gave a detailed account of his visit to Moscow. The highlight was his favourable impression of Stalin’s determination, coupled with Russia’s imperative need for help to hold back Hitler. Undoubtedly this reinforced Churchill’s opinion that Britain should be prepared to divert to Russia some of the American materiel previously earmarked for Britain. Churchill welcomed Hopkins’s optimistic assessment of Soviet military capability, a derisive contradiction of the dark pessimism of Sir Stafford Cripps, Britain’s gloom-and-doom ambassador to Moscow. Cripps had lofty political ambitions, which almost always exceeded his prescience and performance.
Hopkins was intrigued to discover that the British had undermined Churchill’s agreement with Roosevelt that no journalists would be present to witness their meeting. Brendan Bracken, Churchill’s confidant and Minister of Information, had been guilty of extreme rationalization in providing berths for H. V. Morton and Howard Spring, two prominent British authors. (Both of them, in their younger days, had been journalists.) Spring was fond of telling former newspaper colleagues how he had been officially contacted in a hush-hush manner and invited to go at once on an overseas trip that would last three weeks, destination undisclosed. Nobody believed him. “Haven’t you heard? There’s a war on, old chap,” he was told by a Whitehall bureaucrat. Spring’s dentures were with his dentist for repairs, but fame as a novelist had not deadened his news instinct. Sans teeth, he rushed aboard Prince of Wales. Those voyaging alongside him have related that he was undeterred by the inconvenience he was forced to endure at mealtimes!
On Saturday, 9 August 1941, under escort now by Canadian destroyers, HMS Prince of Wales drew close to Argentia, on Placentia Bay along Newfoundland’s south coast. A former fishing settlement, Argentia had been occupied in January 1941 by U. S. marines, who set up the first Lend-Lease base granted by Britain. (Not until 1970 was the base shut down.) Owing to a mistake in time zones, Prince of Wales was 90 minutes ahead of schedule. Churchill expressing acute displeasure, compelled the ship to turn about, patrol for a while, then reappear in compliance with clocks and protocol. Mists shrouding the hills could not mar the grandeur of the vista. The bay is over 50 miles wide. In the half-light of early morning, visiting crews admired the endless shoreline and shadowy splendour of trees crowding the hills. Hitler, a self-confessed coward in any ship, would have received daunting reaffirmation of his sea-fear had he glimpsed the assembled might of worships summoned to protect Roosevelt and Churchill on their outward and homeward journeys.
In a poignant reminder of which nation was at war, Prince of Wales emerged from the mists in wartime camouflage, in stark contrast to the sleek American vessels arrayed in their peacetime livery of light grey. With an exchange of salutes and the playing of national anthems, Augusta and Prince of Wales anchored alongside each other, towering symbols of Anglo-American unity. Churchill boarded Augusta to join Roosevelt. Handshakes and smiles were sunny preambles to more serious matters. Never before had two men commanded such power.
Roosevelt invited Churchill to review “off the cuff” the latest developments on the war front for the benefit of 25 American key personnel. FDR, the renowned speechmaker and master politician, had looked forward to seeing Churchill in action, so he deliberately presented WSC with opportunity to display his legendary oratory. The old campaigner bolstered confidence with his knack of simplifying complex issues. His sweeping overview spoke of the sacrifices called for in pursuit of victory.
In the next few days the leaders and their teams tackled a massive agenda. Decisions were wrought that would reshape millions of lives. The Far East, and particularly Japan, had to be dealt with in depth. The Middle East and Africa claimed a large share of attention along, including ways to handle Vichy France and the best means of keeping French warships out of German hands.
Assistance for Russia was a priority. Churchill had recruited the ebullient Canadian, Lord Beaverbrook, to take charge of expediting deliveries to the Soviets. Stalin was to be informed that ships loaded with supplies were already at sea and many more could be counted on to provide every possible aid. Anglo-American representatives would go to Moscow and collaborate with Stalin’s appointees. A most friendly message, signed by Roosevelt and Churchill, was dispatched to Stalin. It explained policy and stressed that Moscow could rely on unstinted cooperation.
There was a discussion on strategy to block the anticipated military moves of Hitler and Mussolini. Those present felt that the combined American and British staffs had the brain-power to outwit any similar round-table effort by the Axis dictators, though a round-table was scarcely the type of structure Hitler was likely to employ with Rome and Tokyo.
The stature of Roosevelt and Churchill was manifest in the interest they took in details of the Sunday church parade to be held aboard Prince of Wales. Breaking for a spell in Roosevelt’s cabin, they considered hymns and the traditional routine for a service at sea. “O God Our Help In Ages Past,” Churchill’s favourite, was given pride of place, followed by Roosevelt’s choice: “Eternal Father Strong to Save.” “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was included.
Sunday was bright with welcome sunshine. American and British seamen stood not in formal ranks, but mingled as they wished: they spoke the same tongue and knew survival depended on their loyalty and courage. Roosevelt and Churchill were accompanied by their Chiefs of Staff. The magnificent bay and hills resounded with hymn singing. Murmured prayers did not neglect to mention the oppressed peoples. It was a scene of unforgettable, heroic dignity. Soon these same Americans would be in thick of the war, while off Singapore, Prince of Wales and most of her crew would be sent to the bottom by Japanese torpedoes.
Morton and Spring, privileged onlookers on Prince of Wales, were precluded from leaping into print until the two leaders were securely home again. They remained unaware that Roosevelt and Churchill were working zealously on a communiqué that would loom large in history. The Atlantic Charter was formulated at an extremely crucial period. Roosevelt, although committed in heart and mind to Britain’s defence, had done everything he could politically to assist Churchill.
In the midst of the proceedings, the President and Prime Minister received tidings that the U.S. House of Representatives had approved by only one vote a bill to extend the Selective Service Act (draft). Churchill, sensitively tuned to the U.S. situation, had refused to yield to temptation by pressing Roosevelt for a declaration that the United States would come in on Britain’s side. The close vote confirmed his wisdom. Yet, in effect, the Charter was more than a full-blooded affirmation of what must be achieved: it warned Germany, Italy and Japan that the Americans were now in steadfast partnership with the British. This pseudo-neutrality ended finally when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and Hitler declared war on the United States.
Churchill had to contact Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee in London to get governmental blessing for the Atlantic Charter. At 1:45 a.m. London time on 12 August 1941, Attlee called an emergency meeting of the Cabinet. Two small amendments were ironed out and official approval communicated to Churchill.
Though Roosevelt originated the idea of the Atlantic Charter, he asked Churchill to write the first draft. Several others were sifted through before this final version was promulgated:
The President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill, representing His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom, being met together, deem it right to make known certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world.
First, their countries seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other.
Second, they desire to seek no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned.
Third, they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.
Fourth, they will endeavour, with due respect to their existing obligations, to further the enjoyment of all States, great or small, victor or vanquished, of access, on equal terms, to the trade and to the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity.
Fifth, they desire to bring about the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field, with the object of securing for all improved labour standards, economic advancement, and social security.
Sixth, after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny they hope to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want.
Seventh, such a peace should enable all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance.
Eighth, they believe that all the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons, must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea, or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten, aggression outside of their frontiers, they believe, pending the establishment of a wider and more permanent system of general security, that the disarmament of such nations is essential. They will likewise aid and encourage all other practical measures which will lighten for peace-loving peoples the crushing burden of armaments.
In London on September 24th, the delegates of ten Allied nations, including the Soviet Union, proclaimed allegiance to the principles of the Charter.
Much has been made of the implicit hypocrisy of Churchill in declaring such sweeping rights of self-determination which in no way affected his attitude toward the British Empire. This criticism is certainly valid, but tends to magnify the less significant at the expense of the titanic. Such a declaration by two nations, one not yet at war, was unprecedented in world history.
At a news conference Roosevelt was asked if Churchill had “signed” the Charter. The President’s reply: “Nobody ever signed the Atlantic Charter. Now, that’s an amazing statement.” Amazing, too, is the momentum of history which often outruns the intentions and hopes of those who make it. The Charter was not an official document, but rather a communiqué. Its historic achievement rests on the endorsement it received on 1 January 1942, from countries putting their signatures to the United Nations Declaration. They pledged themselves to adhere to its every principle.
For his part, Roosevelt’s faith in the Atlantic Charter never faltered. He once rebuffed its critics with words that summed up his creed: “I would rather be a builder than a wrecker, hoping always that the structure of life is growing not dying.”
NOTES FOR STUDENTS AND READERS
Principal advisers contributed to the Charter’s purpose and phraseology. However, students of Roosevelt and Churchill may spot the paragraphs most attributal to each leader. For example: “freedom from fear and want” takes us straight to Roosevelt, while “being met together” is clearly Churchillian.
A proper perspective on the Placentia conference calls for familiarity with Churchill’s war memoirs and keen concentration on his Volume III, The Grand Alliance (London: Cassell; Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1950). Among numerous critiques worth consulting, these repay close reading: The Semblance of Peace: The Political Settlement After the Second World War, by Sir John Wheeler-Bennett and Anthony Nicholls (Macmillan: London, 1972); The First Summit: Roosevelt and Churchill at Placentia Bay 1941, by Theodore A. Wilson (Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston 1969); 2nd Atlantic Meeting, by H.V. Morton (Methuen and Company: London, 1943).
Eminent American, Canadian and British professors wrote trenchant and enlightening essays published in a collection entitled The Atlantic Charter, edited by Douglas Brinkley and David R. Facey-Crowther (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1994). The analyses are the outcome of an international conference of scholars at the Memorial University of Newfoundland to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Placentia Bay meeting.
Acknowledgement is due to Howard Spring. with whom this writer dined in 1945, who gave a vivid description of his voyage in Prince of Wales. Usually, Spring was the personification of modesty, but he did boast about the pleasure he had in walking the deck of the battleship with Churchill, whose conversation showed he was familiar with Spring’s work. Like Churchill, Spring had written for one of Beaverbrook’s newspapers.
Mr. Robbins, of Victoria, B.C., is a retired journalist who covered British Parliamentary affairs, and a FH senior editor.