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Months Before Pearl Harbor, Churchill and Roosevelt Held a Secret Meeting of Alliance

The two leaders met in a warship off the coast of northern Canada to talk strategy

Winston Churchill and FDR aboard the HMS 'Prince of Wales,' Churchill's ship, when the Atlantic Charter was released. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

It was August 14, 1941. Pearl Harbor was months in the future. But Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill were already working together to foil the Nazis.

The pair were drafting what’s now known as the Atlantic Charter, an agreement between the two world powers about how the world would look after the war was won.  The two leaders issued their joint declaration on this day in 1941.

The leaders had met just a few days earlier aboard the U.S.S. Augusta, which was moored in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, writes the State Department’s Office of the Historian. They reached consensus on eight shared principles, writes the office: "Both countries agreed not to seek territorial expansion; to seek the liberalization of international trade; to establish freedom of the seas, and international labor, economic, and welfare standards. Most importantly, both the United States and Great Britain were committed to supporting the restoration of self-governments for all countries that had been occupied during the war and allowing all peoples to choose their own form of government."

The principle of self-determination was controversial. Roosevelt “saw the fight against Nazi occupation as extending to ensuring the freedom of colonial people from rule by imperial powers–including Britain,” the BBC writes. Churchill, writes the State Department, "was concerned that this clause acknowledged the right of colonial subjects to agitate for decolonization."

Churchill wanted the United States to join the war, which was his main motivation for attending the secret meeting, writes the Office of the Historian. But Roosevelt refused to discuss the United States joining the war. At the same time, he hoped that the Atlantic Charter would help to convince Americans they should back the move. “However, public opinion remained adamantly opposed to such a policy until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941,” writes the Office of the Historian.

The Charter was not a treaty or formal agreement, notes the United Nations. But it "publicly affirmed the sense of solidarity between the U.S. and Great Britain against Axis aggression," according to the State Department. It was also the first time Churchill and Roosevelt had met. According to the BBC, “the friendship forged at Placentia Bay formed a firm foundation for a series of crucial strategy conferences throughout the war."

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