Winston Churchill’s secret voyage (Part two): The Atlantic Charter

On the first day of the Atlantic Conference (9 August 1941) at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, President Roosevelt hosted both luncheon and dinner on the heavy cruiser USS Augusta, for Churchill and the senior members of his party. A preliminary conference session also took place. The rendezvous off Newfoundland was the first time that Churchill and Roosevelt had met since 1918. Both men realised the importance of forging a strong personal bond, and a warmth between them soon developed.

The next morning, Sir Alexander Cadogan, a senior diplomat (whom Churchill found indispensable) suddenly found himself tasked with drafting a declaration of principles which would set out the approach of the UK and US to the post-war world. This request had come unexpectedly from Roosevelt. Churchill stormed up and down the deck, no doubt brimming with ideas. Later that morning, the American party came over to the Prince of Wales for a Sunday service on the deck under the big guns. The hymns were chosen by Churchill: ‘For those in peril on the sea’, ‘Onward Christian soldiers’ and ‘O God our help in ages past’ (see footnote 1). The Union Jack and Stars and Stripes were both draped alongside each other on the lectern from which the readings were given. It was a highly emotional occasion. The President, referring to the service, told his son, Elliott: ‘if nothing else happened while we were here, that would have cemented us’ (footnote 2).

President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill are shown in conversation with a group of men around them in military uniform.
President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill seated on the quarterdeck of HMS Prince of Wales for a Sunday service during the Atlantic Conference, 10 August 1941 (Wikimedia Commons)

The first truly serious conference discussions began on 11 August. The journalist H V Morton observed the frenzy of activity:

‘Launches were in perpetual motion between the Prince of Wales and the President’s cruiser; secretaries and others ran up gangways, disappeared and returned with papers and documents’.

Cited in Trade in War’s Darkest Hour by Hunter Nottage (online article on World Trade Organisation website) WTO | The history of multilateral trading system

There was a great deal of telegram traffic involving London and Washington. Over the next three days, agreement was reached on the text of declaration of principles, the Atlantic Charter, finalised by 14 August. It began as follows:

‘The President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister, Mr Churchill, representing His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom, being met together, deem it right to make known certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world’.

In the Atlantic Charter eight principles were outlined: as Historian Gill Bennett has commented, ‘today they may seem uncontentious, but in 1941 some were difficult for Churchill to accept’ (footnote 3). For example, it might seem surprising that Churchill, with his strong commitment to the Empire, agreed with the line in Article 3: ‘They [the US and UK] respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live’; however, the need to stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the US was imperative, and overrode any concerns or doubts about the language used.

Catalogue ref: PREM 3/485/9

I’d like to focus here on the economic articles 4 and 5. They read as follows:

Fourth, they will endeavor, with due respect for their existing obligations, to further the enjoyment by all States, great or small, victor or vanquished, of access, on equal terms, to the trade and to the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity;

Fifth, they desire to bring about the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security.

Economic co-operation and a lasting peace

Churchill and Roosevelt realised there was a strong link between international economic co-operation and an enduring peace.

Churchill proclaimed the merits of the Atlantic Charter in a radio broadcast to the British people on 24 August, and he laid emphasis on the differences from the allied approach after the First World War: 

‘instead of trying to ruin German trade by all kinds of additional trade barriers and hindrances, as was the mood in 1917, we have definitely adopted the view that it is not in interests of the world’ that any ‘nation should be unprosperous or shut out from the means of making a decent living for itself and its people by industry and enterprise’

Cited in Trade in War’s Darkest Hour by Hunter Nottage (online article on World Trade Organisation website) WTO | The history of multilateral trading system

This view was in tune with the thinking of influential thinkers in the United States. It aligned with the long-term vision of Harry Dexter White, a senior US Treasury department official: ‘for White, economic collaboration through the post-war institutions – that in time would lead to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and World Trade Organisation – was critical to avoiding new wars’ (footnote 4).

So, the allies were determined to avoid the mistakes which contributed to the Second World War. But there was another factor at play. Article 4 reflected US concern about the UK’s system of ‘imperial preferences’. The aim of this system, enshrined in the Ottawa agreements of 1932, was to encourage trade within the British Empire by lowering tariff rates between members, while maintaining higher tariff rates against countries outside the Empire. The US were keen to sweep these preferences away; Britain wished to protect trade with the Empire (and the Commonwealth). The language used in the Atlantic Charter was vigorously debated over and the final version represented a compromise.

And arguments about imperial preference were played out again during the negotiations which led to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), signed at Geneva by 23 countries just over 75 years ago, on 30 October 1947. Again, a compromise was reached. Regarding this Agreement, the US did not manage to abolish imperial preference. Over time, the issue faded in its importance, and the discriminatory preferences were dismantled. In general, GATT was successful in reducing tariffs and minimising barriers to international trade and it made a significant contribution to the huge expansion of world trade in the post-war era. In the 1990s GATT was incorporated into the World Trade Organisation and extended further. The foundations for this success were laid by Churchill and Roosevelt, when they met in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, in August 1941. 

Footnotes

  1. ‘Churchill: Walking with Destiny’, Andrew Roberts (Allen Lane, 2018) p. 675
  2. ‘Franklin and Roosevelt: A Portrait of a Friendship’, Jon Meacham (Granta Publications, 2003), p. 116.
  3. What’s the Context? Signature of the Atlantic Charter, 14 August 1941, Gill Bennett – History of government (blog.gov.uk)
  4. ‘Trade in War’s Darkest Hour’ by Hunter Nottage (online article on World Trade Organisation website) WTO | The history of multilateral trading system

2 comments

  1. Andrew Payne says:

    Great couple of blogs Mark. For those interested in the next step of this developing Special Relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt I would strongly recommend ‘One Christmas in Washington’, David J.Bercuson & Holger H. Herwig (Overlook Press, 2005). It’s a brilliant account of Churchill’s totally impromptu visit to The White House to doorstep Roosevelt into agreeing terms for the Grand Alliance, including a wonderful account of how Roosevelt announced the name “United Nations” to Churchill as the PM emerged from his morning bath with just a cigar!

    1. Mark Dunton says:

      Hi Andrew – thanks for this kind – and interesting comment.
      M

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