A World Worth Fighting For: The Power and Promise of the Atlantic Charter at 70

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Appeared in the American Legion Magazine
Winston Churchill called it “a great hour to live.” Franklin Roosevelt described it as a summertime “cruise,” while the White House told the press it was nothing more than a “fishing holiday.”

It was the Atlantic Conference, one of the most consequential summits in history. In the dark hours of World War II, it gave us a roadmap to a better world—a roadmap that continues to guide us 70 summers later.

A Better Future

Secrecy was of the utmost importance during the summit. After all, although the U.S. was not yet officially in the war, Britain was fighting for its life—and FDR was quietly helping the Brits. So the White House created a cover story for FDR’s noticeable absence from Washington, D.C., in the early days of August 1941: a fishing cruise aboard the presidential yacht, USS Potomac, to escape the summer heat and, in FDR’s words, “get some cool nights.”

However, after the requisite time of fishing in full view of the press, the Potomac slipped out to sea and rendezvoused with the USS Augusta, USS Tuscaloosa and “five new destroyers,” FDR proudly recorded in a post-summit memo. Even after FDR boarded the Augusta, the ruse continued aboard the Potomac, with the boat’s captain ordering his men to dress in civilian clothes and “sit on the deck pretending to be the president and his party,” according to FDR’s notes.

One of those destroyers joining the Augusta was the USS Mayrant, which happened to carry FDR’s son, Franklin, a Navy ensign who was “completely surprised when he found, on coming on board, that he was to report to the commander-in-chief of the Navy himself,” FDR later recalled. FDR’s other son, Elliott, also joined the flotilla, which gathered off Newfoundland.

Churchill arrived aboard the HMS Prince of Wales. “In a poignant reminder of which nation was at war,” recalls Churchill historian Ron Robbins, “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.” Just four months later, in that pivotal month of December 1941, Prince of Wales would be sunk by Japanese warplanes.

Once the summit got underway, Churchill and FDR crafted a statement of shared values that would outline their war aims, put forth their vision of a durable postwar peace and bind their countries together.

At just 374 words, the Atlantic Charter is amazingly succinct and yet packed with profound principles—principles most of us take for granted today, principles that were under assault from every quarter in 1941.

First and foremost, FDR and Churchill sought no territorial gain. This stood in stark contrast not only to past conflicts but also to what their enemies and their chief ally sought. After all, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Soviet Russia gobbled up territory from the outset of the war.

FDR and Churchill also vowed “no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned” and endorsed “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.” This was an echo of Woodrow Wilson’s promise of self-determination a generation earlier.

Recalling the failures of Versailles, FDR and Churchill made sure the postwar peace shaped by the Atlantic Charter would tear down barriers to trade, development and economic activity. If isolation, economic nationalism and closed-off markets helped sow the seeds of war, they reasoned, then free trade, access to raw materials, freedom of the seas and a more liberal economic system would characterize the postwar world. “One of the preconditions of any lasting peace will have to be the greatest possible freedom of trade,” FDR told Churchill during the Atlantic Conference (Paterson, 1995).

Likewise, if the military defeat of Germany was incomplete in 1918, the Atlantic Charter unequivocally called for “the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny” and the disarmament of aggressive nations. In other words, aggressors would be treated in such a way that post-World War I mistakes would not be repeated.

Finally, the Charter envisioned the “establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security” and a decrease in military spending. Two global wars in the span of 20 years convinced FDR and Churchill that they had an obligation to try to check mankind’s destructive impulses—impulses that by the end of the war could destroy mankind itself.

These war aims gave the Allies something to fight for: “a better future for the world,” in the words of the Charter, a freer, more just world. Twenty-two other nations eventually signed on to FDR and Churchill’s declaration of peace.

Something Special

Long before that better future could be realized, the summit signaled to Churchill and the British people that help was on the way.

With his country besieged, Churchill wanted the United States to enter the war as soon as possible. After Dunkirk, more than a year before the rendezvous in the Atlantic, Churchill shared his desperate dream of a day when “the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” Then, amid the Battle of Britain, he spoke to his countrymen but his words were directed to the far side of the Atlantic: “If we fail, then the whole world, including the United States…will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age.”

He was right. But given the American public’s wariness, U.S. entry into the war was simply not possible in August 1941. As evidence, Robbins notes that during the Atlantic Conference—with the Axis in control of vast swaths of the eastern hemisphere, and Japan plotting its strike on Pearl Harbor—the House of Representatives “approved by only one vote a bill to extend the Selective Service Act.”  

So FDR vowed, as Churchill put it, to “wage war but not declare it” (quoted in LaFeber, 1994).

In other words, it was during the Atlantic Conference that FDR quietly pulled the plug on American isolationism.

Likewise, it was during the Atlantic Conference that Britain began to hand off global leadership to America. By signing on to the Atlantic Charter, with its implicit rejection of imperialism, Churchill was, in effect, signing off on the eventual dissolution of the British Empire. As historian Niall Ferguson observes, “The British regarded a transfer of global power to the United States as the best available outcome of the war.”

Thus was born what Churchill later called the “special relationship.”

Although the two countries went to war in 1812 and nearly came to blows in the early 1900s, the foundation of close collaboration was always there. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, said the Anglo-Americans are “akin…in feeling and principle.”

That was certainly true at the outset of World War II, as the relationship between America and Britain blossomed into something arguably without any historical precedent. In early 1941, as if to formally consecrate this bond, FDR’s personal envoy to Britain, Harry Hopkins, rose during a dinner with Churchill and quoted from the Book of Ruth: “Whither thou goest I will go, and whither thou lodgest I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God,” he declared, dramatically adding, “even to the end.” Churchill wept openly.

Ever since, these two great Anglo-American partners have stood together, marched together, bled together, led together. It’s no coincidence or accident that the U.S. has developed bonds with Canada and Australia—two other pieces of the venerable British Empire—that are as strong and deep as the U.S.-UK alliance.

Immediately after his summit with FDR, Churchill told the House of Commons that Britain and the United States “will have to be somewhat mixed up together in some of their affairs for mutual and general advantage.” He envisioned joint military bases, “common study of potential dangers,” and “interchange of officers and cadets.” He even mused about “common citizenship” for Americans and Brits.

Washington and London never got quite that far, but they did create a “Combined Chiefs of Staff” during the war. British troops served under American command, and Americans under British command.

After the war, the alliance deepened, enfolding permanent cooperation on trade and monetary issues, intelligence sharing, weapons procurement and development, military basing and training, and strategic military doctrine.

Although the two partners have had occasional disagreements—Suez and Vietnam come to mind—they have been nearly inseparable in navigating the postwar world: the Berlin Airlift was an Anglo-American operation; Britain and America built NATO and continue to hold it together; they defended Korea at the beginning of the Cold War, liberated Kuwait at the end and faced down Moscow in the years between; they stabilized the Balkans, disarmed Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein; and today, these brother nations are dismantling al Qaeda, rebuilding Afghanistan, giving Libya a chance at “a better future,” and riding out what Foaud Ajami calls the Arab world’s “storm wave of freedom.”  

A Guide

Indeed, in today’s anti-authoritarian Arab revolutions, we hear echoes of what Churchill and FDR wrote in the Atlantic Charter—“the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.” Ever the visionary, Churchill knew the Charter would “remain a guide for…other peoples of the world.”

Much about the postwar world flows from the Charter: shared security, free trade and free government—all buttressed by a widening circle of free nations built around the U.S.-U.K. alliance.

Together, Churchill and FDR, and their successors, laid the groundwork for a number of global institutions that trace their origins to the Charter: the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, World Bank and NATO. To be sure, these organizations, like all things created by man, are imperfect and have earned every bit of criticism they get. But when operating at their best, they have contributed to a freer, more peaceful, more secure world.

For example, the World Bank has helped rebuild war-ravaged countries since the 1940s, and is today rebuilding Afghanistan. The IMF has prevented the return of “the highly destructive trade and currency wars of the 1930s,” as historian Walter LaFeber has argued, and today strives to provide an early warning before economic collapse. The WTO has lowered trade barriers around the world. NATO protected Western Europe, then stabilized Eastern Europe, then transformed Europe from an incubator of world wars into a source of global stability.

If these institutions are wobbling today, as some of them surely are, it’s largely because individual countries are not living up to the principles of the Atlantic Charter. As Churchill said of the UN, “We must make sure that its work is fruitful…that it is a force for action and not merely a frothing of words.”

Sadly, not enough countries have followed his counsel. Consider the UN’s inertia in the face of North Korea and Iran, or its incoherent response to the uprisings roiling the Arab world.

Not Perfect but Not Bad

Was the Atlantic Charter successful? To answer that question, consider Germany and Japan. Seventy years ago, they were predator nations. Today, they are peaceful, prosperous and free.

For that matter, the world—even with the troubles in the Middle East and the financial crisis—is more peaceful, prosperous and free. To be sure, the world is still afflicted by tyrants and wars. Regrettably, not every nation has embraced the rule of law, self-government and free trade—all principles enshrined in the Charter. FDR and Churchill were not so idealistic as to think they could perfect mankind or remedy the world’s ills with a piece of paper.

But owing partly to the vision they laid out in the Atlantic Charter, great-power disagreements haven’t triggered a global war—the kind that kills millions, the kind that erases cities and destroys nations, the kind that Churchill and FDR endured twice in a generation—for nearly 75 years. Not coincidentally, the zone of peace and prosperity in the world is larger today than it has ever been.

Not bad for a three-day fishing trip.

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