Nearly two years after the start of the Second World War—with most of continental Europe under German occupation—Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill held their first wartime meeting. From Aug. 9-10, 1941 at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, the two titanic leaders in the West agreed to find common cause in the struggle against Nazism.
As the Prince of Wales dropped anchor, one of Churchill’s aides remarked that his meeting with Roosevelt would make history. “Yes,” replied Churchill, “and more so if I get what I want from him.” What Churchill wanted was a U.S. declaration of war against Germany and a firm warning to Japan against taking aggressive action in the Pacific.
He would be disappointed. Despite two years of Nazi triumphs in Europe, despite Japanese belligerence and savagery in Asia, despite Britain’s existential struggle during the London Blitz, Americans remained in an isolationist mood. Public opinion polls revealed that 75 percent of American adults opposed going to war against Germany. Roosevelt—perhaps the most poll-driven president in American history—had done almost nothing to prepare the American people for the inevitable. Thus FDR told Churchill that he could not formally declare war at this moment. “I may never declare war,” he said.
Instead, Roosevelt agreed to a softer declaration: a general statement of war aims. Like his political hero, Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt liked lofty proclamations of universal principles. Desperate to commit the United States to the war in Europe, Churchill helped in drafting the document. The result was the Atlantic Charter, a joint declaration of Anglo-American objectives.
The historic eight-point document asserted political and economic principles that would shape the post-war era. Importantly, the charter drew upon the shared liberal political tradition between the United States and Great Britain. Article 3, for example, captures the Lockean concept of government by consent of the governed: “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.”
Churchill naturally interpreted this as being directed to those nations that had fallen under Nazi rule. But FDR, a staunch anti-colonialist, had a broader audience in mind: Britain’s colonial claims in Africa and India. Ironically, FDR’s repugnance for colonialism did not prevent him from scrapping the principle when it was time to negotiate with Stalin’s Russia over the fate of Eastern Europe.
Article 8 of the Atlantic Charter seems lifted from the Wilsonian playbook for establishing world peace:
They believe that all of the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten, aggression outside of their frontiers, they believe, pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security, that the disarmament of such nations is essential.
As biographer William Manchester explains, Churchill, ever the moral realist, went along with the language about disarmament in order secure a U.S. commitment to participate in a “permanent system of general security.” Since most Americans wanted nothing to do with an international coalition, this proved to be a key concession. Perhaps overstating its significance, Churchill called it “a plain and bold intimation that after the war the United States would join with us in policing the world.”
The most poignant moment of the Atlantic conference occurred on Sunday, August 10, when Roosevelt, his staff, and several hundred American sailors boarded the Prince of Wales to join their British counterparts in a worship service. Churchill understood something profoundly important about the power of Christian faith to unite people in moments of crisis. He was not ashamed to draw on the common Protestant heritage of Great Britain and the United States. Churchill designed every detail of the service, choosing the hymns himself. One of his favorites was “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” an Isaac Watts rendition of Psalm 90.
O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home.
It was a remarkable moment: as the Nazi war machine continued its deathly rampage in Europe, seemingly unstoppable, the fighting men of the world’s most powerful democracies, along with their political leaders, gathered to sing a hymn of praise to the God of the Bible. Writing in his memoirs, Churchill marked its significance. “It was a great hour to live,” he wrote. “Nearly half of those who sang were soon to die.”
Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at the King’s College in New York City and a senior editor at Providence. His most recent book is A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918.
Photo Credit: Church service on the after deck of HMS Prince of Wales, in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, during the Atlantic Charter Conference. Seated in the center are President Franklin D. Roosevelt (left) and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Standing behind them are Admiral Ernest J. King, USN (between Roosevelt and Churchill); General George C. Marshall, U.S. Army; General Sir John Dill, British Army; Admiral Harold R. Stark, USN; and Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, RN. USS Arkansas (BB-33) is in the center distance. Donation of Vice Admiral Harry Sanders, USN (Retired), 1969. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph (Catalog #: NH 67208)