Franklin D. Roosevelt was missing.
While World War II raged in both Europe and Asia, the New York Times reported on August 13, 1941, that “for probably the first time in American history, the whereabouts of the president of the United States has been unknown for three days to the American people and to most, if not all, ranking government officials.” Roosevelt had last been seen in public 10 days earlier when he boarded the presidential yacht USS Potomac in New London, Connecticut, for what the president said would be a week-long fishing trip along the New England coast.
The White House had taken the unusual step of banning the press from reporting on the yacht’s whereabouts or following along on an escort ship as was customary. As Nigel Hamilton describes in his book “The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942,” the shroud of secrecy was necessary for Roosevelt to carry out what he called a “plan of escape.” The morning after the “floating White House” left shore, the president secretly boarded a launch and was taken to the flagship of the Atlantic fleet, the heavy cruiser USS Augusta.
By the time USS Potomac passed through the Cape Cod Canal, Roosevelt was already 250 miles away. The well-wishers waving to the presidential yacht as it crossed the canal had no idea that the people they saw aboard were Secret Service agents impersonating the president and his guests. “Even at my ripe old age I feel a thrill in making a get-away—especially from the American press,” the president wrote to a confidante.
As USS Augusta picked up steam traveling up the Atlantic coastline so did rumors that Roosevelt would be meeting at sea with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was absent from an important debate in the House of Commons on August 6. The rumor was indeed true, although the White House attempted to maintain the ruse. “Cruise uneventful and weather continues fair. President spent most of day working on official papers,” came Potomac’s update on August 8. The two sentences were true, but completely independent of each other, for Roosevelt was catching up on presidential paperwork while fishing in Placentia Bay off the southeast coast of Newfoundland as he awaited Churchill’s arrival.
The president had not even told Secretary of War Henry Stimson or Secretary of State Cordell Hull about the summit. The thick shroud of secrecy was necessary to shield the two leaders from possible attacks by German U-boats or bombers as well as the barbs of American isolationists wary of any secret agreements that might draw the United States into war. After Churchill arrived on August 9 aboard HMS Prince of Wales, a battleship that only months earlier had barely escaped destruction by the Nazi warship Bismarck, the two leaders met in person for the first time as heads of government.
In spite of being united in opposition to the Axis powers, Roosevelt and Churchill arrived in Newfoundland with vastly different goals for their summit. The American president was intent “to talk over the problem of the defeat of Germany” and work on a vision for the post-war world based on his “Four Freedoms.” Churchill, however, had a much different aim. “Our object is to get the Americans into the war,” the prime minister had written in February, and he hoped the meeting would be a prelude to the United States sending its troops into battle. “I must say, I do not think our friend would have asked me to go so far, for what must be a meeting of world notice, unless he had in mind some further forward step,” an optimistic British prime minister wrote to Queen Elizabeth, consort of King George VI.
Churchill’s hopes were quickly dashed, however, as Roosevelt made clear that he wanted the two men to outline principles for a post-war world. Although, as Hamilton writes, Churchill “wanted an American declaration of war, not a declaration of principles,” he reluctantly agreed to the endeavor in the hopes that it would boost the morale of the British people and strengthen ties with the United States, which might make it more likely to join the war effort.
For four days, as smoke wafted from Churchill’s cigar and the tip of Roosevelt’s long, elegant cigarette holder, the two men sparred over their visions of a post-war world. The American president wanted Churchill to stop granting preferential tariff rates to British Commonwealth members, and the prime minister knew that the post-imperial world order envisioned by Roosevelt would mean not only the prevention of a Nazi or Japanese empire but the dismantlement of the British Empire as well. Churchill, however, needed America’s help in the war and felt he had little leverage. Presidential son Elliott Roosevelt, who was at the summit, noted that “very gradually, and very quietly, the mantle of leadership was slipping from British shoulders to American.”
Churchill did not return home with what he had hoped for, but at least he had a document that affirmed the solidarity of his country with the United States. On August 14, two days after the end of the summit, the veil of secrecy was lifted and the joint declaration, which became known as the Atlantic Charter, was made public.
Among the eight common principles on which the two countries rested “their hopes for a better future for the world” were a respect for “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live” and an assurance that “all the men in all lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want.” Both countries agreed not to seek territorial gains from the war and to oppose any “territorial changes that do no accord with the freely expressed wishes of the people concerned.” In addition to affirming self-government for those countries that had lost it during the war, the Atlantic Charter called for the easing of trade restrictions, access for all nations to raw materials, freedom of the seas and disarmament of aggressive nations.
The Atlantic Charter not only defined the ideals for which the United States would eventually fight in World War II, it had a lasting impact once the guns fell silent. The declaration, which was affirmed by representatives of 26 governments in January 1942, served as the cornerstone for the establishment of post-war institutions such as the United Nations, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the North American Treaty Organization.
Watch full episodes of World War II: Race to Victory.