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 UN abroad. They are members of the Atlantic Charter Foundation.
It is perhaps one of the most important, yet least-known moments in Canadian history, an event that set out a future of peace when the world was enveloped in conflict and despair.
In early August, 1941, just off the tiny town of Ship Harbour in Newfoundland’s Placentia Bay, two of the giants of the 20th century had their first formal meeting. Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt would meet many times, but this first encounter defined their relationship.
Winston Spencer Churchill was the embattled prime minister of Great Britain, who had acceded to the position a year before. At 66, he was not a young man: He had struggled through the escape of British troops at Dunkirk and the devastating Battle of Britain. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was 59, but had been stricken by polio two decades before. FDR was into his third term as president, and the attack on Pearl Harbor was several months away. Despite negotiating the Lend-Lease Agreement to provide ships to Britain, he was wrestling with a recalcitrant Congress and an “America First” movement that sought to maintain an isolationist approach to the war in Europe.
The two men, and the governments they led, knew they should meet. But any rendezvous had to be in secret, given the delicacy of the British engagement in war and American avoidance of it. An agreed-upon point was established, effectively “halfway” between London and Washington: the Avalon Peninsula of 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 U-boats. Roosevelt offered a ruse to the U.S. 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.” Then they got down to work. 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 into the 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. 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.” The meetings ended on Aug. 12 and the Charter 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 event took place on the quiet waters of Newfoundland’s Placentia Bay that shaped world history. It is a moment that deserves to be commemorated. As a result, under the guidance of a blue-ribbon panel of historians and with the aid of John Crosbie, the Atlantic Charter Foundation and its supporters are planning a program of activities to celebrate its 75th anniversary in August, 2016. Citizens of Canada, Britain and the U.S., indeed all who believe in the cause of peace are invited to come to Newfoundland and Labrador to celebrate that extraordinary meeting of giants.