World War II: Atlantic Charter

Winston Churchill & Franklin D. Roosevelt aboard USS Augusta during the Atlantic Conference. US Naval History & Heritage Command

Atlantic Charter Background:

In mid-1941, World War II was raging across Europe. Despite British success in the Battle of Britain the previous summer and fall and the passage of the Lend-Lease Act in March 1941, the situation for the Allies remained perilous as German troops rolled through the Balkans and invaded the Soviet Union. Against this backdrop were also American and British concerns that Japan would use the situation in Europe to capture Pacific colonies belonging to the belligerents.

Though the United States officially remained neutral, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided it was prudent to meet to discuss the crisis. Electing to meet at Ship Harbour, Placentia Bay in Newfoundland, the two leaders used cover stories for their protection en route to the conference. Roosevelt announced that he was departing for a fishing trip in New England and instead boarded the cruiser USS Augusta for the trip north. Churchill staged a flag day in London and slipped away to the Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow where he embarked aboard the battleship HMS Prince of Wales.

The Atlantic Conference:

While Prince of Wales evaded German U-boats, Churchill rested and played backgammon with Roosevelt aide Harry Hopkins. Arriving at Placentia Bay on August 9, the battleship passed through a line of US warships before coming to a rest near Augusta. Ferrying across, Churchill met Roosevelt and presented him with a letter from King George VI.

The Prime Minister next made an official statement from his government. Meeting over the next few days, the two leaders discussed their war aims and outlined their vision for a postwar international system.

These talks led to the drafting of a declaration which was centered on eight common principals:

  • Neither the United States nor United Kingdom sought territorial gains as a result of the war.
  • Any territorial changes would be made with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned.
  • All peoples were to have the right to self-determination and self-government.
  • Trade barriers were be lowered
  • Global economic cooperation and social welfare were to be encouraged.
  • People were to have a freedom from want and fear.
  • Nations were to have the freedom of the seas.
  • Aggressor nations were to be disarmed after the war.

While the meeting was able to produce these aims, neither leader was particularly happy with its outcome. Churchill had come to the conference with the primary goal of getting "the Americans into the war." Failing this, he hoped that the US would increase its aid to Britain and make a strong statement against Japanese aggression. In attending, Roosevelt had hoped the meeting and resulting declaration would allow him to bring the United States into the conflict, however American public opinion remained staunchly against invention.

Roosevelt also sought assurances from Churchill that Britain had no secret treaties regarding the division of enemy territory at war's end. Also, he hoped to negotiate repayment of the Lend-Lease assistance through the dismantling of Britain's system of Imperial Preference tariffs.

As the talks progressed, Churchill became frustrated with Roosevelt's refusal to discuss US entry into the war and it became clear that he would not take a hard line with Japan. In addition, some of the clauses presented difficulties for the prime minister.

As the leader of an imperial power, the clause pertaining to self-determination of peoples caused Churchill problems as it had the potential for Britain's colonial subjects to agitate for decolonization. Also, the point regarding free trade had implications for the Imperial Preference system which could anger the protectionist wing of his party. Realizing that the declaration was the most he would be able to accomplish at the meeting and needing American support for the war, Churchill acquiesced on these points.

The Atlantic Charter:

Churchill wired the preliminary draft of the declaration to his Cabinet on August 11 recommending approval and stating that it would be "imprudent to raise unnecessary difficulties." This approval was given and the meeting concluded on August 12.

Two days later the results of the meeting were issued as the "Declaration of Principles issued by the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom." The name "Atlantic Charter" soon came into use after the term was used by the Daily Herald and in a speech by Churchill.

While not a signed treaty, the Atlantic Charter affirmed the connection between the US and Britain and the desire to halt the aggression of the Axis Powers. The document also served to bolster British morale. At the Inter-Allied Meeting that September, the Soviet Union, Free French, as well as the exiled governments of Belgium, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Poland, and Yugoslavia all agreed to adhere to the Atlantic Charter's common principles. As Churchill had feared, the self-determination clause gave hope to several nascent independence movements in European colonies.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Atlantic Charter." ThoughtCo, Mar. 16, 2016, Hickman, Kennedy. (2016, March 16). World War II: Atlantic Charter. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Atlantic Charter." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 12, 2017).