Military history

THE ATLANTIC CHARTER

The German invasion of the Soviet Union introduced vast new complexities for the Allies. Joseph Stalin appealed to both Britain and the United States for massive military supplies (aircraft, tanks, machine guns, rifles, etc.) and demanded that Britain relieve pressure on Russia by opening a “second front”—an invasion of Occupied France. Neither Churchill nor Roosevelt relished the idea of helping the odious and untrustworthy Stalin, but as Churchill put it colorfully, “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the Devil….” A “second front” in Occupied France was out of the question, but both Churchill and Roosevelt pledged to supply Stalin with arms; Churchill without charge, Roosevelt through the Lend-Lease program.

Further complications arose in the Far East. A month after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, on July 24, Japan occupied Vichy French Indochina (Vietnam). This brazen thrust destabilized the Far East, posing a grave new threat to China, to the Philippines, and to British and Dutch possessions or dominions in Southeast Asia and in Australasia. In hawkish reaction, Roosevelt froze Japanese assets in the United States, placed an embargo on oil exports to Japan, retained the bulk of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, and directed that the Philippines be heavily reinforced with aircraft, submarines,* and other weaponry. The British and Dutch joined in the oil embargo, reducing Japan’s oil imports by 90 percent. As related, Churchill directed the Admiralty to send a Royal Navy task force (Prince of Wales, Repulse, Indomitable, etc.) to the Far East.

The decision to supply the Soviet Union as well as Great Britain with Lend-Lease arms and to reinforce the Philippines put a nearly unbearable strain on the American “Arsenal of Democracy.” As a result, the expanding American Army and Army Air Forces could not be properly equipped; Army conscripts drilled with dummy rifles and tanks. The strain led American military leaders to criticize forcefully the British Mediterranean strategy, which they still viewed as a waste of precious military assets in a peripheral theater. Passing through London on his way back from Moscow, Roosevelt’s special emissary, Harry Hopkins, conveyed these views to Churchill in no uncertain terms, emphasizing that American strategists believed that “the Battle of the Atlantic would be the final decisive battle of the war, and that everything should be concentrated on it.” His message was echoed by the American military representatives in London, whose views strongly influenced Washington strategists.

Given these disputes and the shifting character of the war, Churchill and Roosevelt were persuaded that the time had arrived for a meeting between them and their senior military advisers. It was decided that the meeting was to take place secretly “at sea.” Churchill and party departed Scapa Flow on the battleship Prince of Wales; Roosevelt and party departed the United States on Admiral King’s Atlantic Fleet flagship, the heavy cruiser Augusta. The ships met on August 9 in the mutually convenient, well-defended, and smooth anchorage Placentia Bay, at the newly established American naval base in Argentia, Newfoundland.

Churchill and his party came more or less believing the Americans were on the verge of declaring full-scale war, or could be persuaded to do so. Accordingly, the British had prepared elaborate—and specific—joint military plans for the defeat of Germany and Italy. Churchill eloquently outlined these plans, which contained four principal elements in this chronological sequence:

MASTERY OF THE SEA-LANES. With American naval assistance the Royal Navy was to vanquish the U-boats, the super-battleship Tirpitz, and any and all other Axis vessels that posed a threat to Allied control of the ocean commerce lanes.

MASTERY OF THE MEDITERRANEAN BASIN. With American assistance—perhaps three divisions of ground troops—Britain was to gain complete and absolute control of the Mediterranean Sea, North Africa, and the Middle East, and knock Italy out of the war by relentless and heavy air bombardment.

STRATEGIC AIR ATTACKS ON GERMANY. With American assistance—about 6,000 heavy, four-engine B-17 and B-24 bombers to start—Britain was to mount a relentless and punishing air bombardment of German cities and war plants from bases in the British Isles and Italy, with the aim of creating “internal convulsion or collapse” and the overthrow of Hitler and the Nazi regime.

INVASION. If necessary, some time in 1943, Britain and the United States were to land “armored spearheads” in “several” occupied nations (e.g., France), which were to link up with secretly armed resistance groups to overthrow the Germans. About 15,000 tanks and about 200 oceangoing tank-landing ships (landing ship tank or LST) were to be required. Allied manpower—particularly American manpower—was to be held to a minimum; hence no large-scale American Army was necessary.

Still under pressure from strong isolationist elements in the United States, Roosevelt came to Argentia in no mood to intervene overtly in the war or to make any commitments beyond those already made in ABC-1. The American military advisers were therefore forbidden to engage in detailed discussions, and had prepared no position papers. Although they disagreed with or had grave reservations about all of Churchill’s points except the first (mastery of the sea-lanes), they confined their discussions to commitments already made to the British, such as convoy escort between Canada and Iceland.

The British were deeply disappointed at the warily aloof attitude of the Americans and the outcome of the conference. However, Churchill achieved an extremely important concession, perhaps not fully grasped at the time. He persuaded Roosevelt that the British Mediterranean strategy was valid in principle, setting Roosevelt apart from his military advisers and putting an end—at least temporarily—to American criticism of British operations in that area. This concession was to have a very great impact on the course of Allied military operations for the remainder of the war.

For political and propaganda reasons, both Churchill and Roosevelt were desirous of marking the conference with a high-minded joint declaration. This emerged in the form of an unsigned press release entitled “The Atlantic Charter,” given out several days after the meeting. It firmly linked the United States and Great Britain in a moral partnership to defeat the Axis and to seek disarmament and political freedom for all nations and people in the postwar world. Perhaps anxious to salvage something positive from what had been essentially a profitless conference, Churchill attached great importance to the document. “The fact alone of the United States, still technically neutral,” he wrote, “joining with a belligerent Power in making such a declaration was astonishing.”

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!