Atlantic Charter Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the Atlantic Charter there is a clear view of a postwar world based on national self-determination, open trade, and, in some cases, disarmament. Some of the language also reflects both the views and actions of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's domestic program during the Depression. The document was also an attempt by Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill to articulate clear postwar aims of achieving or restoring liberal democratic freedoms amid a confusing scenario: the United States had officially entered the war, and the largest British ally was the Soviet Union, under the dictatorial Joseph Stalin, which had recently been invaded by Hitler's forces. Yet the ideals contained in the document would have an influence far beyond what the two leaders expected.

Summary Overview

In the Atlantic Charter there is a clear view of a postwar world based on national self-determination, open trade, and, in some cases, disarmament. Some of the language also reflects both the views and actions of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's domestic program during the Depression. The document was also an attempt by Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill to articulate clear postwar aims of achieving or restoring liberal democratic freedoms amid a confusing scenario: the United States had officially entered the war, and the largest British ally was the Soviet Union, under the dictatorial Joseph Stalin, which had recently been invaded by Hitler's forces. Yet the ideals contained in the document would have an influence far beyond what the two leaders expected.

Defining Moment

Although the German blitzkrieg had failed to produce conditions favorable to a German invasion of Britain by the summer of 1941, the number of militarily capable allies, should the United States enter the conflict, remained in short supply. Even the addition of the Soviet Union to the list of Hitler's official enemies came about as a result of incredible initial German success on the ground. While American public opinion was slowly moving toward an acceptance of US involvement, it was not there yet, and Roosevelt had to find ways to support Great Britain, and then the Soviet Union, without openly declaring war on the Axis powers. After the famous exchange of US destroyers for leases on British bases in September 1940, the president convinced Congress and the US public to end the cash-and-carry requirements from the 1937 Neutrality Act, which regulated American trade with countries at war, and instead to pass the Lend-Lease Act in March 1941, which supplied Britain with war material based on a future promise of repayment.

Unfortunately for Britain in mid-1941, the United States was not yet in the war and US naval vessels were not yet protecting British ships crossing the Atlantic. This would only occur after the Greer encounter of early September 1941 when a German submarine and the USS Greer, an American destroyer, fired at each other and Roosevelt used the incident to begin a policy that included the escorting of British merchant ships and the approval for US captains to fire on German ships. Thus, the three-day meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt on warships in the North Atlantic off the coast of Newfoundland occurred when the Allies were near their lowest point militarily in all of World War II, following the British defeat in Greece and retreat into Egypt from Libya. Yet the two leaders would try to bolster the flagging spirits of the anti-Axis nations by describing what they were fighting for, which was a vision of a better world resting on a global system of self-determination, free trade, disarmament, and collective security.

Author Biography

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) was president of the United States between 1933 and his death in April 1945. He was elected for an unprecedented four terms and led America through most of the Great Depression and most of World War II. He consistently focused on a Europe-first war policy while also prodding British leaders to shed their empire after the war.

British prime minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) disagreed with the latter idea, but he was still willing to work closely with Roosevelt, even before the United States' official entry into the war. Churchill became prime minister in May 1940 as the war was going badly for the Allies. Even though he led Britain through the dark days of the German air blitz on English cities when Britain stood alone against Hitler, and even though he played a vital role in the Grand Alliance that led to Allied victory, his political party lost the election in the summer of 1945 and Churchill was replaced as prime minister, although he remained active in politics.

Historical Document

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;

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;

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 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, pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security, that the disarmament of such nations is essential. They will likewise aid and encourage all other practicable measure which will lighten for peace-loving peoples the crushing burden of armaments.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Winston S. Churchill

Glossary

aggrandizement: the act of making something appear greater than is actually warranted by the facts

Document Analysis

According to the Atlantic Charter, all people are to be free “to choose the form of government under which they will live.” It is a clear assertion of the principle of self-determination, which would have ramifications around the world long after 1941 or even 1945. In addition, nations are not to use “aggression outside their frontiers,” and if any nation acquires more territory, the process has to “accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned.” To answer the question of what might happen should tyrants like Hitler or Stalin abuse their own people, the charter seems to contain the promise that people within those national boundaries should still have “the means of dwelling in safety” and “live out their lives in freedom from fear and want.” The latter language, which reflects part of Roosevelt's list of four freedoms that all Americans deserved, combines with the language of providing “improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security” to show the influence of the American president's domestic experience and actions on a key international document. These are the very ways Roosevelt had attempted to rally the American people to survive the Great Depression. The practical enforcement of such standards within nation-state territorial boundaries, however, would prove a vexing issue during both the Cold War and post–Cold War periods as leaders often continued to visit violence on their populations with impunity.

Reflecting a belief that the closed regional trading blocs of the 1930s had contributed to the global conflict, Roosevelt and Churchill also portray a future in which world economic activity would occur in a free-trade environment. The equal access that all nations would have “to the trade and to the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity” is described as a desire for “the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field.” Freedom of the seas is promoted, which would of course have an economic impact. There is, however, an important caveat in the document's fourth principal point, which states that this economic open market would be pursued by the United States and Great Britain “with due respect for their existing obligations.” Such language provides Churchill a cover for the continuation of Britain's empire. This future world of free trade would be more stable and safe if, as noted in the document, countries disarmed after the war was over. There are caveats here as well, such as hinting that disarmament is perhaps only for aggressor nations and not for the United States or Great Britain or that they will disarm only in the case of “a wider and permanent system of general security.” While the United Nations was already within Roosevelt's vision, if it would end up with a lack of breadth or permanency, the United States and Britain seem to retain the right to remain armed.

Essential Themes

Despite its qualifiers, the Atlantic Charter was a clear vision of a postwar world that sought to expand positive economic activity, reduce armaments, and perhaps even eliminate international conflict. It was an outline within which Roosevelt pursued postwar institutions, such as the creation of the United Nations. While by the end of the war he came to believe that he could do little about Soviet military domination of Eastern Europe, he still believed that the tenets of the Atlantic Charter could create a better world of nation-states that pursued shared interests or at least discussed economic or territorial disputes before resorting immediately to force.

Similarly, nationalists in nonwestern parts of the world believed that the Atlantic Charter applied to their struggles for freedom against European colonizers who had dominated them for decades and in some cases for centuries. From India to Indonesia to Vietnam, nationalist leaders of all political stripes took the words of the charter at face value and often pointed out that the self-determination of eastern and central Europeans was their birthright as well. The language of self-determination contained in the document thus inspired leaders and people across the globe.

Some historians, however, have noted that part of the language of the Atlantic Charter may have contributed to the onset of the Cold War division between east and west. First, even though the Soviet Union was still reeling from the initial German onslaught in the late summer of 1941 when the charter was issued, historian David Kennedy has noted that the document was designed in part “as a way of assuaging American anxieties that a war in alliance with Soviet Russia might contaminate democratic ideals.” Other historians, including Walter LaFeber, have noted that later in the war Roosevelt and subsequent American leaders believed if they acquiesced to Soviet control over half of Europe, it would “undermine American hopes for the triumph of the Atlantic Charter principles, thus destroying the chances for postwar peace and American prosperity,” the latter of which increasingly appeared to US officials to be based on an open international trading system that would prevent a drift back into economic depression. Whether for good or for ill, the principles outlined in the charter later helped stiffen the backs of US officials as they confronted an increasingly successful Red Army surge across Europe during the latter part of the war and made American leaders more likely to insist on the immorality of Soviet possession of much of eastern and central Europe.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Brinkley, Douglas, and David R. Facey-Crowther, eds. The Atlantic Charter. New York: St. Martin's, 1994. Print.
  • Kennedy, David M. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
  • LaFeber, Walter. America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945–2002. 9th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002. Print.
  • Wilson, Theodore A. The First Summit: Roosevelt and Churchill at Placentia Bay, 1941. 1969. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 1991. Print.
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