Roosevelt Myth - John T. Flynn

The Atlantic Charter

The next chapter of this story of America's march into war came on the morning of August 15, 1941. The headlines in the morning newspapers told that Roosevelt and Churchill had met at sea in Placentia Bay off the coast of Newfoundland—the President on the Augusta, the Prime Minister on the Prince of Wales, surrounded on deck by a numerous entourage of the highest ranking military and naval dignitaries of both countries and in the sea by an imposing fleet and with a sky full of protecting war planes. When it ended the President and the Prime Minister issued what they called a Joint Declaration. The most important parts of that document were the first three paragraphs:

"First, their countries seek no aggrandizement, territorial or otherwise.

"Second, they desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed desires 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."

There were other clauses—to open to all, victor and vanquished alike, access to the raw materials and trade of the world, to promote the fullest collaboration of all peoples for improved economic conditions; a peace in which all men may dwell in safety; the freedom of the seas to all and the abandonment of the use of force as an instrument of national defense.

The theatrical setting of this conference had been a pet idea of Roosevelt's for some time. At different times he had considered different persons as part of the cast. His first candidate for a great sea conference, before the European war began, was Hitler. There was no reason for meeting at sea save the purely spectacular features which Roosevelt always loved. The dramatic effect of the meeting was very great. It made a thunderous radio story and massive headlines. But, as was so characteristic of Roosevelt, the great declaration of principles was a mere incident of the meeting. The purpose was wholly military. Having made up his mind to take America into the war when that was possible, having formulated with the British military and naval chiefs a full program of action when the moment arrived to strike, there remained some grave matters to be settled. We now know from Mr. Sumner Welles memoranda, which are part of an official record, what happened. Churchill did not think the Singapore agreements went far enough. When the two men met Churchill brought up three matters.

First, he confided to Roosevelt a startling piece of news, namely that England's position at Gibraltar was becoming precarious. The British staff expected Hitler to occupy Spain within 30 days. If that happened the British would have to evacuate Gibraltar. They would, therefore, have to take over the Canary Islands to protect their gateway to the Mediterranean. These belonged to Spain and the British navy believed the operation would call for an immense force. This would make it impossible for England any longer to guarantee to Portugal the protection of the Azores Islands. Churchill had therefore suggested to the Portuguese Premier that he request Roosevelt to take over England's commitment to protect the Azores. And a letter from the Portuguese Minister, Dr. Salazar, was already in Roosevelt's hands. The Azores are off the coast of Spain. Roosevelt very promptly agreed to undertake this commitment.

Churchill next discussed the situation in the Pacific. Japan had seized Indo-China; Churchill did not want her to advance further lest she menace Singapore and he asked the President to issue a warning to Japan. Roosevelt agreed to do so in the following words:

"If the Japanese government undertakes any further steps in pursuance of the policy of military domination through force or conquest in the Pacific region upon which it has apparently embarked, the Government of the United States will be forced to take immediately any and all steps of whatsoever character it deems necessary in its own security, notwithstanding the possibility that such further steps may result in conflict between the two countries."

Cordell Hull, in his memoirs, said this amounted to an ultimatum to Japan and that he was shocked when he saw it. The President, on his return to Washington, immediately delivered the warning to the Japanese ambassador, but at Hull's insistence it was somewhat watered down in diplomatic language—but, according to Sumner Welles, the meaning was unchanged.

Churchill then brought up the final problem: they would have to give the press an explanation of what they bad been conferring about. The President suggested that he could not reveal the commitments he had made. Churchill objected strongly to this. He wanted to stimulate the courage of the British and of the peoples of the occupied countries, who would be profoundly depressed if told that America had made no commitments.

It was finally agreed that they would make no mention of the commitments; instead, they would merely say that they had discussed aid as authorized under the Lend-Lease Act to the nations resisting aggression and follow this with an announcement of principles on which they based their hopes for a better world. This pleased Roosevelt. When he got home and was asked point-blank at a conference with his own Congressional leaders whether or not he had made any commitments he replied "No." He dared not admit that he had made two grave commitments, one to send American troops into a European island where an attack was expected and the other to issue to Japan what the Secretary of State characterized as an ultimatum. This denial was to his own leaders. On the other hand, Churchill felt at liberty when he got home to create the impression that they had done plenty at that meeting. He made that magnificent speech in the Commons, in the finest manner of that historic body, in which he carefully created the expectation that the vast power of America was at last about to be used—though he did not say so outright.

When the statement was published it was headed "A Joint Declaration." Next day in the New York Times it was referred to in a headline as "America's Mein Kampf." But after a few more days the name "Atlantic Charter" was given to it in the newspapers. And when the United States entered the war the noble principles enunciated were accepted as a guarantee of the allies' conduct to all the occupied countries. On the day of Pearl Harbor, the countries occupied by Germany or the Axis powers were France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, the Baltic states, Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Balkan states (Rumania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Greece) and, of course, China.

Three weeks after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt sent for all the representatives in America of these occupied countries and said to them:

"Be assured, gentlemen, that the restoration of the countries occupied by Germany and suffering under the Axis yoke is my greatest concern, which is shared in like degree by Mr. Churchill. We promise that all will be done to insure the independence of these countries."

Churchill was present. He turned to the Polish Ambassador and said:

"We will never forget what glorious Poland has done and is doing nor what heroic Greece and Holland have done in this war. I hope I need not add that Great Britain has set herself the aim of restoring full independence and freedom to the nations that have been overrun by Hitler."

These reassurances were to be repeated many times with varying oratorical flourishes. And as for the "Atlantic Charter," which was nothing more than a screen to hide what had actually been done at Placenta Bay, a handsome copy of it was made, bearing the names of Churchill and Roosevelt, and placed on exhibition in the National Museum in Washington, where crowds viewed it with reverence as one of the great documents of history.

The final chapter in the history of this "document" would come three years later.