The Argentia Conference: How World War II's Grand Alliance Was Formed

The Argentia Conference: How World War II's Grand Alliance Was Formed

The Allies eventually prevailed over the Axis powers.

There were many differences of opinion, with the U.S. military leaders looking askance at Britain’s desire to protect her empire’s vulnerable position in the Mediterranean and doubting a British belief that Germany could be defeated by air power, a few armored divisions, and partisans—and without a large-scale invasion, for which the resources were not available. Hopkins briefed Churchill and FDR on his meeting with Stalin and convinced them that the Russians would hold out against the Nazi invaders. The two leaders agreed to send immediate aid to Russia “on a gigantic scale.”

Churchill was Aghast at FRD’s’Weak-Kneed Stance’ on America’s Public Disclosure of Their Presence in the War

Churchill tried to persuade FDR to take a strong stand against Japan, which had recently seized the southern rump of Indochina, and to agree to go to war in the Pacific if Britain were attacked there. The prime minister was anxious to obtain more Lend-Lease help, and he wanted the U.S. Navy to help escort the Atlantic convoys carrying vital war supplies to Britain.

Churchill also wanted to conclude the Argentia talks with a resounding public declaration of Anglo-American unity that would hearten his hard-pressed people, but Roosevelt was in a difficult position. He had long been aware of the aggressive postures of Germany and Japan, and he believed that helping Britain in its solitary struggle was the right and only course for neutral America. But he was plagued at home by shrill isolationist factions fearful of the country being dragged unprepared into the war, and he felt that he must avoid specific public commitments.

FDR told Churchill that he wanted to issue a statement denying that he or any of his military leaders had entered into any binding agreement with the British government that had not already been authorized by Congress. Churchill was aghast, saying that such a weak-kneed stance would only encourage the Axis powers and would dishearten neutral countries that wanted to see some sign of America’s opposition to fascism. “We also would not like it,” the prime minister growled. Nevertheless, Roosevelt assured the British leader that his country would play as large a role as possible in the war against Germany.

During the conference, Churchill snatched some time to relax in congenial surroundings. At Placentia Bay, he took exercise by going ashore in his trademark siren suit, clambering over the rocks, and playfully rolling boulders down a cliff.

Eventually, the two leaders and their advisers drew up a joint, eight-point declaration that would soon become known as the Atlantic Charter. The eight points were: Britain and America would seek no new territories; no territorial changes without the consent of the people involved; the right of self-determination; free trade; joint economic development; freedom from fear and want; freedom of the seas; and abandonment of the use of force.

The charter embodied noble sentiments but would have little specific influence on the course of World War II. However, it was significant because it outlined the aims of the free peoples in the conflict and set out the reasons why the United States might go to war. Also, it had given the British and American high-level staffs an opportunity to get to know each other and to work together.

The declaration announced on August 12, 1941, the last day of the Argentia conference, was not an official state document in the accepted sense of the term. It was actually little more than a press statement issued jointly by the British and Americans and handed to the radio operators aboard their ships for transmission to shore. But Undersecretary Welles said that it was as valid in its binding effect as if it had been officially signed and sealed. It was “notice to the world by the president of the United States and the prime minister of the United Kingdom that … the two nations which they represented would adhere to the great principles set forth in the declaration.”

The participants did not know it at the time, but their conference was the precursor of subsequent high-level meetings during the war, while their joint statement would ultimately serve as the cornerstone for what would become the United Nations.

“This is the End of Isolationism. It is the Beginning of a New Era in Which the United States Assumes the Responsibilities Which Fall Naturally to a Great Power.”

There were mixed reactions to the Atlantic Charter. Many Britons, hoping for a clear-cut American commitment to enter the war, were disappointed. Future Secretary of State John Foster Dulles agreed: “Unless we propose concrete measures, statements of good intentions will be looked upon with grave and warranted skepticism.” The charter was dismissed in Berlin as “insipid chitchat,” while a semi-official news agency in Tokyo accused Britain and America of a “tricky plot” to dominate the world. The isolationist Chicago Tribune criticized “the pretentious and meaningless eight points,” but The New York Times declared perceptively, “This is the end of isolationism. It is the beginning of a new era in which the United States assumes the responsibilities which fall naturally to a great power.”

After the conference, President Roosevelt sailed back to Maine on the USS Augusta and then took a train to Washington. When waiting reporters asked him if he thought America was now any closer to war, FDR replied that he did not think so.

Impressed with the ebullient Churchill and encouraged by the harmony and spirit of the conference, Roosevelt tried to cast the charter in a favorable light before his citizens. At a news conference, he quoted a letter from Justice Felix Frankfurter: “We live by symbols, and you two in that ocean … in the setting of that Sunday service, gave meaning to the conflict between civilization and arrogant, brute challenge; and gave promise more powerful and binding than any formal treaty could, that civilization has brains and resources that tyranny will not be able to overcome.”

FDR returned to Washington determined to stoke up the nation’s defense program. He dispatched the capable, diplomatic Averell Harriman to Moscow to join Lord Beaverbrook, the British production minister, in coordinating aid to Russia; expanded the U.S. military mission to China; and ordered a sweeping reorganization of the American preparedness program. The president stated, “I give solemn warning to those who think that Hitler has been blocked and halted that they are making a very dangerous assumption.”

An opinion poll taken immediately after the Argentia conference showed that 74 percent of Americans opposed direct involvement in the war. Whether they liked it or not, the direction of U.S. policy had been set. The chief executive knew that his country would not survive long in a world dominated by the Axis powers and had determined that it should join hands with the British Empire and ultimately defeat Nazi Germany. Many Americans voiced the uneasy feeling that time was running out for them.

Churchill left Placentia Bay with the clear impression that Roosevelt would bring his country into the war. FDR had committed the Navy to taking over the America-to-Iceland leg of all convoy runs, and the prime minister believed that the president “would wage war but not declare it.” Nevertheless, Churchill could not help feeling apprehensive about the future. As he would cable presidential envoy Hopkins later that month, “I don’t know what will happen if England is fighting alone when 1942 comes.”

Meanwhile, the prime minister returned home aboard thePrince of Wales. The battleship encountered a convoy of 72 ships in several columns, steaming at about seven knots. According to Cadogan, it was “a beautiful and inspiring sight … the forest of funnels looked almost like a town.” Churchill stopped off in Iceland to review British troops and the U.S. Marine garrison, and the playing of the rousing Marine Hymn moved him to tears. He received a warm welcome from the people of Reykjavik, whose hot springs Churchill—who loved to take baths—greatly admired.

The Atlantic Charter was signed at ceremonies in London and Washington on September 24, 1941. The 15 signatory governments included Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, the nations of the British Empire, and many exiled European governments. On January 1, 1942, the first step was taken toward the establishment of the United Nations when delegates from 26 countries gathered in the American capital to endorse the principles of the Atlantic Charter. They agreed to mobilize all their resources against the Axis powers and to make no separate peace.

Michael D. Hull is a frequent contributor to WWII History. He has written extensively on the political aspects of the war and resides in Enfield, Connecticut.

This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons