The Atlantic Charter
Issued August 14, 1941. Printed by United Press in the New York Times, August 15, 1941, p.1.
After taking part in World War I (1914-18) the United States adopted a policy of isolationism, vowing to remain neutral (not take sides) in conflicts between foreign countries. But in the mid-1930s, soon after German dictator Adolf Hitler's rise to power in Germany (see Winston Churchill entry in chapter one), it became clear that every nation in the world was a potential target for power-hungry dictators. (A dictator is a leader of a government in which absolute—and often unfair and oppressive—power is held by one ruler alone.) In 1935 Italian dictator Benito Mussolini took steps to broaden his political power by attacking Abyssinia (the eastern African kingdom of Ethiopia). Two years later Japan invaded central China. With the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, the defense of democracy (government by the people) became a very real concern worldwide.
In the fall of 1940 the U.S. Congress authorized the start of a peacetime draft to enlarge the American armed forces. The draft required men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five to enroll for military training. Meanwhile, American industries geared up for increased production of war supplies. On May 27, 1941, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed that an "unlimited national emergency" existed, requiring military "readiness to repel any and all acts or threats of aggression directed toward any part of the Western Hemisphere."
By mid-1941 Germany controlled virtually all of Europe west of the Soviet Union. In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union had signed the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, an agreement that the two countries would not fight each other. Despite this agreement, on June 22, 1941, the Germans launched a surprise attack, code-named Operation Barbarossa, on the Soviet Union. The Soviets were completely unprepared for the invasion and for the first few months the Germans won battle after battle and pushed deep into Soviet territory. With this action it was clear to world leaders that Hitler intended to conquer all of Europe.
Meanwhile, tensions were mounting between the United States and Japan throughout 1941. The Japanese were attempting to expand their empire in Asia and the Pacific. Japan's leaders planned to take over Asian and Pacific territories that had been controlled by Britain, France, and the Netherlands. These countries couldn't defend their outlying areas because they were defending their own countries from German attacks. The only other major power in the Pacific was the United States. When Japanese troops moved into French-controlled territory in southern Indochina (the modern country of Vietnam) in July, the United States and Britain took it as a sign that Japan was planning to move against the rest of the Allies' territories in the Pacific, which would lead to war with Japan.
In August 1941, Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill met secretly aboard ships anchored in the coastal waters of Newfoundland (an island in the Atlantic Ocean off the eastern coast of Canada) to discuss defensive measures and war goals. During their meetings they composed a joint declaration known as the Atlantic Charter, which stressed the supreme importance of human rights and outlined the key ingredients necessary for achieving peace. First made public on August 14, 1941, this "recipe for peace" set forth principles that would guide the actions of the Allies (the forces that fought against Germany in World War II, namely, France, Britain, and later the Soviet Union and the United States) in the escalating global conflict. The charter also served as a foundation for the creation of the United Nations, an international peace organization formally established on October 24, 1945.
Things to remember while reading the Atlantic Charter:
- After Germany conquered France in June 1940, Britain was the only European country left fighting the Germans. Four distant countries that had once been British colonies— Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa— offered their support. They declared war on Germany and sent supplies and troops to help Britain fight the war.
- In his January 6, 1941 message to Congress President Roosevelt pledged American support to the nations already fighting the Germans. In order to furnish this support, certain terms of earlier Neutrality Acts had to be changed. In addition, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act (March 1941), making it easier for the United States to provide military aid to Great Britain and other nations at war against Hitler. By "loaning" war materials to these countries, Roosevelt hoped "to keep war away" from American shores.
- Roosevelt stressed the need for "freedom of religion" and"freedom of information" throughout the world. Hedeclared that the principles of the Atlantic Charter couldnot be achieved without these freedoms.
- After World War I, the United States was strongly isolationist (not interested in getting involved in the problems of other countries). The Atlantic Charter moved the United States one step closer toward involvement in World War II and suggested that the United States would be taking a greater role in world politics in the years to come.
- The United States did not officially enter World War II until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
The Atlantic Charter
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.
FIRST, their countries seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other;
SECOND, they desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned;
THIRD, 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;
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;
SIXTH, after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny, they hope to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want;
SEVENTH, such a peace should enable all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance;
EIGHTH, 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… that the disarmament of such nations is essential. They will likewise aid and encourage all other practicable measures which will lighten for peace-loving peoples the crushing burden of armaments.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Winston S. Churchill
What happened next…
On September 27, 1940, the governments of Germany, Italy, and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, also known as the Axis or Three-Power Pact. Each nation pledged full cooperation and support—politically, economically, and militarily—to the others in case of attack by another power (namely, the United States) that might enter the war. The terms of the pact were to remain in effect for ten years.
The United States officially joined the war four months after Roosevelt and Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter. On December 7, 1941 the Japanese bombed an American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The United States and Britain declared war on Japan. A few days later Japan's allies, Germany and Italy, declared war on the United States. The United States was now fully in the war, which had truly become a world war. By the end of December, Japan controlled most of the Pacific region, including the Philippines, Guam, the Gilbert Islands, Malaya, and Singapore.
Did you know…
- Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first U.S. president to appoint a woman—Frances Perkins—to his cabinet. (A cabinet is a group of close advisers to the president. Perkins held the post of secretary of labor from 1933 to 1945.)
- The meeting in Newfoundland was the first face-to-face meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt.
- In addition to numerous meetings between the two leaders throughout the war, they constantly exchanged opinions, information, and arguments by coded radio messages. They exchanged more than eight hundred such messages over the course of the war.
- While meeting in Newfoundland, Roosevelt and Churchill had secretly discussed what the war strategy would be in the United States entered the war.
- A failed attempt to assassinate President Roosevelt occurred on February 15, 1933, in Miami, Florida.
- Roosevelt was the only president in U.S. history to serve more than two terms in office.
- Roosevelt did not live to see the Allied victory in Europe. He died on April 12, 1945, about three and a half weeks before the Germans surrendered.
For More Information
Burns, James M. Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom. New York: Harvest/Har-court, 1973.
Graham, Otis L., Jr., and Meghan Robinson Wander, eds. Franklin D. Roosevelt, His Life and Times: An Encyclopedic View. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1985.
Hacker, Jeffrey H. Franklin D. Roosevelt. New York: F. Watts, 1983.
Larsen, Rebecca. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Man of Destiny. New York: F.Watts, 1991.
Miller, Nathan. FDR: An Intimate History. Originally published in 1983.Reprinted. Lanham, MD: Madison Books/University Press of America, 1991.
Morgan, Ted. FDR: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.
Perkins, Frances. The Roosevelt I Knew. New York: 1946.
Potts, Steve. Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Photo-Illustrated Biography. "Read and Discover Series." Mankato, MN: Bridgestone Books, 1996.
Ward, Geoffrey C. Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt, 1882-1905.Originally published in 1985. Reprinted. New York: Smithmark, 1994.
FDR. "The American Experience." WGBH Educational Foundation and David Grubin Productions, Inc., 1994.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Digital Archives. [Online] http://www.academic.marist.edu/fdr/ (accessed on September 6, 1999).
The American Experience: The Presidents. [Online] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/amex/presidents/ (accessed on September 6, 1999).
Allen, Peter. The Origins of World War II. New York: Bookwright Press, 1992.
Freedmen, Russell. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. New York: Clarion Books, 1990.
Hills, Ken. Wars That Changed the World: World War II. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1988.
Leckie, Robert. The Story of World War II. New York: Random House, 1964.
New York Times, May 7, 1941, p. 1; June 23, 1941, p. 1; July 3, 1941, p. 1;August 14, 1941, p. 1; October 4, 1941; October 10, 1941, p. 2.
Ross, Stewart. World Leaders. New York: Thomson Learning, 1993.