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Western Front14th August 1941

Atlantic Charter

The first wartime meeting between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt
The first wartime meeting between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt

On 9 August 1941, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met for the first time as wartime leaders. The location for their encounter was dramatic – on board a warship off the windswept coast of Newfoundland. And the document they would sign at the conclusion of the meeting – which became known later as the ‘Atlantic Charter’ – would embody a series of positive principles about the future conduct of nations. The trouble was that it was subsequently going to prove impossible for either Churchill or Roosevelt to live up to the optimistic view of human affairs they had decided to embrace here, off the coast of Canada.

This was a carefully choreographed encounter designed to symbolize the friendship not just of the two great English speaking democracies, but the friendship of the two leaders – Churchill and Roosevelt. But the propaganda was deceptive. In fact, Churchill and Roosevelt were not particular friends. They had only met once before when Roosevelt had visited London at the end of the First World War. Roosevelt had felt slighted at the meeting and had not been overly impressed by Churchill. Indeed, when he heard that Churchill had been made Prime Minister in 1940 he had remarked that ‘he [Roosevelt] supposed Churchill was the best man that England had, even if he was drunk half the time.’i

Nor was this, in any appreciable way, a meeting of equals. Churchill was very much the supplicant in his dealings with America before Pearl Harbour. He knew that Britain could not carry on fighting without aid from the United States. Thus, starting in 1940, his relationship with President Roosevelt was the most important single relationship in his political life.

Indeed, just eight days after becoming Prime Minister, in May 1940, Churchill wrote to President Roosevelt, essentially saying that Britain's entire future depended on America. Without American support, he said, it might be necessary to make some kind of deal with the Nazis: ‘If this country was left by the United States to its fate, no one would have the right to blame those then responsible if they made the best terms they could for the surviving inhabitants.’ii

So all-important was the relationship with America, that Churchill was not even above pretending matters were even bleaker than they were. ‘It was very important to have a close relationship with America,’ says Andrew Roberts, ‘and we were always attempting to draw the Americans in more closely. I think exaggerating the threat of invasion was also something that went down very well in America and we didn’t buck at anything really, in terms of propaganda, to try and get the Americans on side… Churchill mentions it again and again, that the new world will come to the savior of the old. These are not just rhetorical phrases, they actually give people hope.’

But, of course, Roosevelt himself had a problem in pursuing a close relationship with the British. ‘What we have to remember is that this was a time of intense isolation in America,’ says Professor Robert Dallek. ‘The last thing that Roosevelt was able to do was to go to the country and say ‘we’ve got to rescue Britain and we’ve got to stand with them.’ He couldn’t say that. What he could say was ‘we need to help Britain so that they will defeat the Nazis so that the Nazis won’t represent a threat to us.’’

And in 1940 President Roosevelt had an election coming up. Crucially, he had to be extremely careful that he was not being seen to push America towards war by making overt promises to the British. In September 1940 he did feel able to announce that the British would gain 50 old destroyers in exchange for the leasing of British military bases in the Caribbean and elsewhere, but that was carefully couched as a ‘good deal’ for America. It was only after his re-election in November 1940 that Roosevelt felt able to push forward with what turned out to be one of the economic foundations of the war – Lend Lease.

On 17 December 1940 Roosevelt announced that the United States would ‘lend’ the British aid to help fight the war, and would only expect payment if these goods needed to be ‘replaced’ at the end of the conflict. It was a political masterstroke - folksy and crafty at the same time. The reality was, of course, that it was hard to imagine military equipment not being used by the British during the fight against the Nazis. So Roosevelt had found a way to provide Britain with help, but without payment until much later, if ever.

This, then, was the background to the meeting between the two leaders off Newfoundland in the summer of 1941. Churchill, by now, was of the view that Roosevelt had decided to ‘wage war, but not declare it,’ and had come seeking further commitments to the conflict.iii But he would be disappointed. For all of the symbolism of the encounter – most famously the newsreel pictures of the two leaders signing hymns together at Sunday morning service on the deck of HMS Prince of Wales – Roosevelt was far too canny a politician to be drawn into any outright commitment just by the wishes of the British Prime Minister.

Instead, what came out of the meeting was a document containing eight principles. These were said to be the leaders’ combined ‘hopes for a better world’ – including they wish that all nations abandon ‘the use of force’ and that ‘all peoples’ could in future ‘choose the form of government under which they will live.’ Actually, these were largely Roosevelt’s ‘hopes for a better world’. It was clear they could hardly be Churchill’s since he absolutely did not believe that ‘all peoples’ could ‘choose the form of government under which they will live’ – else he would support, for example, the independence of India, something he was, in reality, adamantly opposed to.

And even Roosevelt would never be completely committed to the noble principles enshrined in this ‘Atlantic Charter’ as his subsequent dealings with Stalin over the fate of Eastern Europe would make clear. No, this meeting was really about image and emotion. The image of ‘togetherness’ with Britain and the warm emotion caused by espousing liberal – if a little fuzzy – principles that everyone could unite behind.  


i Entry for 12 May 1940 in Harold L. Ickes, The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes, Da Capo, 1974
ii Laurence Rees, World War Two: Behind Closed Doors. Stalin, the Nazis and the West, BBC Books, 2009, p. 72
iii Robert Dallek, Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945, OUP USA, 1995, p. 285