Atlantic Charter Declares a Postwar Right of Self-Determination Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Atlantic Charter, agreed to by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at their first wartime meeting, committed their countries to a peace recognizing the right of self-determination. In the aftermath of the war, the agreement helped shape both the global foreign policies and the international rhetoric of the triumphant Allied Powers.

Summary of Event

Although the Atlantic Charter did much to extend its impact, the idea of national self-determination was already at least a century and a half old by 1941. This idea holds that each nationality should be free to determine its own political arrangements, including establishing its political independence if desired. The concept of self-determination emerged from the romantic nationalism that developed in the first half of the nineteenth century and was used to justify a variety of revolutions and national unification movements in Europe and elsewhere. Historically, the idea was viewed in generally favorable terms by the U.S. government, which saw it as consistent with the nominally anticolonialist nature of American foreign policy. Atlantic Charter (1941) Anticolonial movements Nationalism Postcolonialism Self-determination[Selfdetermination] World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Allied planning meetings [kw]Atlantic Charter Declares a Postwar Right of Self-Determination (Aug. 14, 1941) [kw]Charter Declares a Postwar Right of Self-Determination, Atlantic (Aug. 14, 1941) [kw]Right of Self-Determination, Atlantic Charter Declares a Postwar (Aug. 14, 1941) [kw]Self-Determination, Atlantic Charter Declares a Postwar Right of (Aug. 14, 1941)[Selfdetermination, Atlantic Charter Declares a Postwar Right of] Atlantic Charter (1941) Anticolonial movements Nationalism Postcolonialism Self-determination[Selfdetermination] World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Allied planning meetings [g]North America;Aug. 14, 1941: Atlantic Charter Declares a Postwar Right of Self-Determination[00300] [g]Canada;Aug. 14, 1941: Atlantic Charter Declares a Postwar Right of Self-Determination[00300] [g]United States;Aug. 14, 1941: Atlantic Charter Declares a Postwar Right of Self-Determination[00300] [g]United Kingdom;Aug. 14, 1941: Atlantic Charter Declares a Postwar Right of Self-Determination[00300] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Aug. 14, 1941: Atlantic Charter Declares a Postwar Right of Self-Determination[00300] [c]Independence movements;Aug. 14, 1941: Atlantic Charter Declares a Postwar Right of Self-Determination[00300] [c]World War II;Aug. 14, 1941: Atlantic Charter Declares a Postwar Right of Self-Determination[00300] Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;prewar foreign policy Churchill, Winston [p]Churchill, Winston;World War II diplomacy[World War 02 diplomacy] Cadogan, Alexander Welles, Sumner

In World War I, the principle of national self-determination figured implicitly in several of President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, in which form it was accepted by the Allies as a war aim. It also shaped aspects of the peace settlement, notably in the creation of new states in Central and Eastern Europe out of the former Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian empires. Its application, however, was far from consistent, especially outside Europe. The idea nevertheless contributed to the stirrings of colonial populations in Asia and Africa.

The desire to declare public support for the principle of self-determination was not the primary reason for the meeting that produced the Atlantic Charter. That meeting was primarily motivated by wartime circumstance. By mid-1941, the war in Europe was almost two years old. Great Britain had held out against Adolf Hitler’s Hitler, Adolf [p]Hitler, Adolf;World War II initial onslaught and had been joined by the Soviet Union after the German invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941.

The United States was not yet at war, though President Franklin D. Roosevelt had made no secret of his belief that supporting Britain against Germany was necessary to the security of the United States and its interests. He had extended to the British a variety of material aid, most notably under the Lend-Lease Act, thereby skirting the line between neutral power and cobelligerent. British prime minister Winston Churchill certainly hoped that the United States would become a full-fledged belligerent. Roosevelt for his part probably believed that American entry into the war would ultimately be necessary to defeat the Axis Powers; at the very least, he hoped that American public opinion would support further measures that would aid Hitler’s enemies.

It was against this background that Roosevelt and Churchill arranged to meet for the first time in the summer of 1941. The place and time of the meeting was a closely guarded secret. On August 9, 1941, the USS Augusta, carrying the president, rendezvoused in Placentia Bay, off the coast of Newfoundland, with Churchill’s ship, HMS Prince of Wales. Over the next three days, the two men discussed a range of topics, including implementation of lend-lease arrangements, closer cooperation in the Atlantic, and how best to deal with the threat of Japanese expansion in Asia. The president, however, was determined that the conference would also result in a joint statement of war aims that would make clear to the American people and to the rest of the world the differences that existed between the values of the Allied democracies and those of the Axis Powers.

Although Churchill was not convinced of a pressing need for such a declaration, he was willing to go along and in fact took the initiative. Alexander Cadogan, the British permanent undersecretary for foreign affairs, drew up a draft statement that Churchill revised before inviting Roosevelt’s comments. Roosevelt’s Wilsonian sentiments about self-determination were well known to the British, and the draft included statements endorsing the concept. Subsequent drafts followed, with much of the work falling to Sumner Welles, the U.S. undersecretary of state.

This cartoon celebrates the second anniversary of the Atlantic Charter as a great document in the cause of liberty. The Allies had recently completed the successful invasion of Sicily and were poised to take mainland Italy.

(National Archives)

A number of points proved controversial in reaching a final agreement on the statement, but not those points dealing with self-determination. Churchill made clear his view that the British Commonwealth’s commitment to eventual colonial self-government (if not independence) made the principle inapplicable to the British Empire British Empire;World War II . Roosevelt did not press the point. The greatest difficulties came in trying to reconcile Roosevelt’s desire for postwar free trade with Britain’s commitments to imperial preference and in phrasing a reference to postwar security that would not frighten American isolationists.

Eventually, an eight-point joint declaration of war aims was hammered out, one that was in many ways reminiscent of the Fourteen Points of the previous war. The document was made public on August 14, 1941, and immediately came to be known as the Atlantic Charter. Six of its points were devoted to topics other than self-determination. Both powers declared that they sought no territorial gains from the war and that they looked forward to a world in which all nations would have access to trade and prosperity, in which there would be freedom of the seas, and in which there would be fewer arms, less fear, and a new system of international security.

Two of the charter’s points dealt directly with the issue of self-determination: There were to be no territorial changes that were contrary to the wishes of the peoples living in those territories, and the right of people to choose their own form of government was affirmed. In adhering to the charter, Roosevelt indicated the United States’ intention to shape the postwar world, even though the country was not yet a belligerent.

The immediate reaction to the Atlantic Charter was positive in both countries, but there was also an element of disappointment. In Britain, it had been hoped that something more dramatic, such as full-fledged American entry into the war, would be announced. The charter itself seemed slightly anticlimactic. In the United States, the charter’s principles were widely approved, but public opinion did not shift significantly in favor of American entry into the war, as Roosevelt had hoped it would.

Over the course of the war, however, the Atlantic Charter proved to be a document of immense importance in defining Allied goals. After the United States entered the war in December, 1941, Churchill made another voyage across the Atlantic. That meeting laid the groundwork for military cooperation and also for the Declaration of the United Nations of January 1, 1942. Those signing that statement agreed to embrace the principles announced in the Atlantic Charter and also agreed not to make a separate peace with the enemy. The original declaration was signed by twenty-six nations, a number that subsequently doubled. The Atlantic Charter—including the principle of self-determination—officially described the war aims of the Allies.

The charter’s self-determination provisions were, however, open to varying interpretations and provided the substance for much debate within the alliance. The British maintained that the provisions applied primarily to the European countries overrun and occupied by the Nazis and that they did not apply to the British Empire. In the United States, the Atlantic Charter contributed to an increasing anticolonialist trend in public opinion. The U.S. State Department showed a growing willingness to see the concept of self-determination as applicable outside Europe—certainly to the colonies of the Axis Powers and possibly to those of the Allies as well. The Soviets took a public stand in favor of self-determination everywhere, although their commitment was clouded by their clear expectation of beneficial territorial rearrangements in Eastern Europe and Asia. Overseas, supporters of independence, or home rule, in Asia and Africa were inspired by the Atlantic Charter and wished to use it as a lever against their colonial masters.

In short, the charter was a source of disagreement on the Allied side, even as it remained a common point of reference to which all pledged allegiance. It was in this context that the last meeting of the “Big Three”—Roosevelt, Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin—took place at the Yalta Conference in February, 1945. The three issued the joint Declaration on Liberated Europe that called for free elections and application of the principles of the Atlantic Charter.

The Atlantic Charter’s eighth point had called for a new system of international security. This began to take shape in the form of the infant United Nations (U.N.), created at a San Francisco conference in April-June, 1945. Grounding itself in the Declaration of the United Nations of 1942, the new organization embraced the principles of the Atlantic Charter. The organizing conference gave rise to a lively debate on the issue of self-determination, with predictable differences of opinion arising.

The United Nations United Nations;charter convention Charter ultimately allowed for a system of international trusteeship (involving administration by member nations under U.N. auspices) where the colonies of the Axis Powers were concerned. Article 73, regarding non-self-governing territories, stated that self-government through free political institutions should be the goal of all countries with respect to their colonies and trust territories. This represented a compromise between the British and American positions. The United States foresaw the need to maintain, for strategic reasons, some of the former Japanese colonies in the Pacific, while the British were as reluctant as before to embrace a definition of self-determination that would apply to their empire. Independence was not ruled out, but self-government short of independence would also be acceptable. As the war drew to a close, there remained an ambiguity about the principle of self-determination that would continue into the future.

Significance

The absence of a comprehensive treaty after World War II complicates any attempt to evaluate the Atlantic Charter’s impact on the peace it was intended to shape. Nevertheless, it is evident that the charter’s principles exerted a powerful influence on the postwar world, particularly in terms of self-determination. One example of this influence is provided by the functioning of the U.N. trusteeship system. Unlike the mandate system instituted by the League of Nations after World War I, under which only a few countries obtained independence, the U.N. trusteeship has overseen the transition to independence of all of the territories placed under its auspices, a task completed in 1994.

The foreign policies of the United States and other signatories to the charter showed varying degrees of commitment to the principle of self-determination. The Atlantic Charter remains an official statement of U.S. foreign policy, and the United States has often supported the emergence of former colonies as independent states. On the other hand, the onset of the Cold War in the immediate postwar period often caused ideological considerations to influence policy. The decision of President Harry S. Truman’s administration to support the restoration of French colonial rule in Indochina and elsewhere, for example, put American policy on the side of colonialism in Southeast Asia and laid the foundation for eventual American involvement in the Vietnam War. U.S. foreign policy with regard to Latin America, moreover, often involved supporting right-wing dictatorial governments and opposing left-wing democratic governments during the Cold War period. The Soviet Union’s failure to live up to the Atlantic Charter in its actions in Eastern Europe was equally blatant.

The long-term impact of the Atlantic Charter’s endorsement of self-determination has been most visible in Asia and Africa. World War II weakened the European colonial powers militarily, and the Atlantic Charter contributed to the development of a climate of opinion hostile to colonialism that was one of World War II’s most important legacies. The charter itself was often cited by those leading movements as diverse as the Viet Minh in Indonesia and the Congress Party in India.

The three decades following the war witnessed one of the most sudden and massive transfers of political authority in world history. In Africa alone, some fifty-one newly independent countries emerged from the former colonial empires. Many would eventually have achieved independence without the Atlantic Charter; however, by committing the victors of World War II to the principle of self-determination, the Atlantic Charter provided unique encouragement to those seeking to throw off outside control. It invested them with the moral force of the victorious crusade against Nazi racism and challenged the Allied Powers to live up to their own pronouncements. Atlantic Charter (1941) Anticolonial movements Nationalism Postcolonialism Self-determination[Selfdetermination] World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Allied planning meetings

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chamberlain, M. E. Decolonization: The Fall of the European Empires. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985. A short but reliable overview of the process of decolonization that followed World War II. Credits the Atlantic Charter with contributing to the worldwide growth of anticolonialist opinion and providing a moral weapon for nationalist movements. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Churchill, Winston. The Grand Alliance. Vol. 3 in The Second World War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950. Contains Churchill’s personal account of the drafting of the charter. Gives a sense of the wartime context, although tending to downplay the differences of viewpoint involved. Contains a photocopy of the first draft with Churchill’s comments and prints the text of the entire document. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cobban, Alfred. National Self-Determination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947. An eminent historian’s discussion of the concept of self-determination, written during wartime. Stresses the need for the great powers to remain united. Footnotes and index, but no bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dallek, Robert. Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. The standard account of Roosevelt’s foreign policy. Places the Atlantic Charter in the context of Roosevelt’s efforts to support the British while preparing American public opinion for intervention. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hannun, Hurst. Autonomy, Sovereignty, and Self-Determination. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. Not about the Atlantic Charter itself, but provides an interesting treatment of self-determination from the perspective of international law. Sees the desire for self-determination as a major source of conflict in the late twentieth century. Nine case studies illustrate the influence of the concept in the post-World War II world. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Louis, William Roger. Imperialism at Bay: The United States and the Decolonization of the British Empire, 1941-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Essential to understanding the self-determination aspects of the Atlantic Charter in the context of wartime diplomacy. Brings out the divergent British and American interpretations and the relationship between the charter and the eventual development of the United Nations. Extensive footnotes and index but no bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sands, Philippe. Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules from FDR’s Atlantic Charter to George W. Bush’s Illegal War. New York: Viking, 2005. An examination of U.S. foreign policy, international law, and the successes and failures of the United States in upholding its commitments on the world stage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, Robert Smith. The Eagle Triumphant: How America Took over the British Empire. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2004. Reads U.S. foreign policy and British-American diplomacy in World War II through the lens of the subsequent rise of the United States and decline of Great Britain as world powers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Welles, Sumner. Where Are We Heading? New York: Harper & Brothers, 1946. The best firsthand account of the drafting of the charter, by the producer of the final draft. Makes it clear that other points were more controversial at the time than self-determination. Index but no bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Theodore A. The First Summit: Roosevelt and Churchill at Placentia Bay, 1941. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969. Well researched. The fullest account of the meeting and the drafting of the charter. Considers Roosevelt’s disregard for the self-determination clause as applied to the British Commonwealth. Bibliographical essay and index.

World War II: European Theater

Roosevelt Signs the Lend-Lease Act

Germany Invades Russia

Bombing of Pearl Harbor

Soviets Take Control of Eastern Europe

Yalta Conference

United Nations Charter Convention

Nationalist Vietnamese Fight French Control of Indochina

India Gains Independence from the United Kingdom

Vietnam Is Named a State

Geneva Conventions Establish Norms of Conduct in War

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