Churchill, Roosevelt and the Atlantic Charter: a moment for the ages

Published on August 12, 2014
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt standing aboard HMS Prince of Wales in Placentia Bay on Aug. 10, 1941. Supporting Franklin Roosevelt on his left side is his son, Capt. Elliot Roosevelt USAAF. A presidential aide stands nearby. — Photo from the Imperial War Museums

It is no exaggeration to say that Newfoundland and Labrador has contributed mightily to the history of Canada and the world. Through a combination of history, geography and luck, the province has been the site of significant events that have had a long-term global impact.

The arrival of the Vikings in 1000, John Cabot’s exploration in 1497, the laying of the Atlantic telegraph cable in Heart’s Content in 1866, the first wireless reception by Marconi on Signal Hill in 1901 and, the first trans-Atlantic flight by Alcock and Brown in 1919 are all well-known to most Canadians. However, one of the most important historical events to take place in Newfoundland and Labrador has been shrouded in a neglect as thick as the fog on Placentia Bay for decades: the first meeting of Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt to draft and then sign the Atlantic Charter in August 1941.

This seminal event, which has long been described as occurring “somewhere at sea” actually took place at Ship Harbour, Placentia Bay.

At that moment in time, the two men who were to lead the Allied cause were struggling in their own backyards.

Winston Spencer Churchill was Prime Minister of Great Britain and had seen the devastation of the Battle of Britain the year before.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was into his third term as president, and despite negotiating the Lend-Lease Agreement to provide ships to Great Britain, he was wrestling with a recalcitrant Congress and an “America First” movement that under thinly-veiled anti-Semitism sought to maintain an isolationist approach to the war in Europe.

The attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbour was four months away.

The two men knew they should meet in secret, given the delicacy of the British engagement in war and American avoidance of it.

An agreed-upon point was established, effectively “half-way” between London and Washington: Newfoundland, then a British dominion.

Churchill staged a flag day in London and boarded the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, which navigated the North Atlantic sea lanes chock-a-block with German


Roosevelt offered a ruse to the American news media: under the guise of a weekend fishing trip off New England, he slipped onto a U.S. Navy cruiser, the Augusta, and headed north.

Once ensconced at Ship Harbour on Aug. 9, Churchill ferried over to Roosevelt’s ship with a letter from King George VI and stepped aboard, saying “At long last, we meet, Mr. President.”

Roosevelt remembered that they had met awkwardly many years before in London, but resisted mentioning it. Then they got down to work.

While their military leaders attended “get to know you” sessions on various ships, the two leaders concentrated on writing a statement of war aims — the kind of world they hoped to build after the defeat of the Axis powers.

Roosevelt had to have this if he was to lead his country in war. Over the next three days, Churchill and Roosevelt laboured over the eight clauses that make up what came to be known as the Atlantic Charter.

These two leaders were great communicators. In stirring words they spelled out the principles of a world order worth fighting for, including the “right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.”

In their off time, Roosevelt rested on the Augusta, while Churchill went ashore for some sightseeing.

The meetings ended on Aug. 12 with the signing of the Charter and it was made public Aug. 14.

On Jan. 1, 1942, representatives of 26 nations, meeting in London signed the United Nations Declaration and endorsed the Atlantic Charter as defining their common purposes.

In effect, the Atlantic Charter became the approved vehicle of Allied war aims and the precursor of the UN Charter in 1945.

Churchill came to Placentia Bay hoping to get Roosevelt to enter the war.

Initially the meeting was a grave disappointment, but given the constraints on the U.S. president’s powers and the strength of isolationist sentiment in his country, there was no way FDR could make such a commitment.

Churchill left Placentia Bay with the bonds of the military alliance crucial for the defence of the free world firmly in place and the foundations laid for a new world to follow the allied victory.

For four days in August 1941, an important international event took place on Placentia Bay that shaped world history.

It is a moment that deserves to be commemorated, and will be in 2016, thanks to a blue-ribbon panel of historians.

The Atlantic Charter Foundation and its supporters, including current Lt.-Gov. Frank Fagan and his predecessor, the Honourable John Crosbie, are planning a program of activities to celebrate its 75th anniversary in August 2016. This will be a chance for all people who believe in the cause of peace to come to Newfoundland and Labrador to celebrate that extraordinary meeting of giants, and to recognize a landmark moment in world history.

Peter Russell is emeritus professor of

political science and Principal of Senior College at the University of Toronto.

Andrew Caddell lived in St. John’s in the 1980s and has served with the United Nations abroad. They are members of the Atlantic Charter Foundation.