On Aug. 3, 1941, the flagship of Admiral Ernest J. King, the USS Augusta, slipped out of Newport, R.I. — the home of the Touro Synagogue to whom George Washington had written in 1790 quoting the Bible: “and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
The next day, the heavy cruiser picked up President Franklin Roosevelt off the coast of Cape Cod for a “rendezvous with destiny” — a gathering with Prime Minister Winston Churchill a few days sailing distance in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland.
Fear stalked the globe. Nazi Germany had subjugated France. Japan had committed the “Rape of Nanking” in China in 1937. Britain was narrowly surviving. Hitler’s June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union had German armies already advancing toward Moscow and Leningrad. While support for the Allies was growing in the U.S., the nation was badly split between interventionists and isolationists.
Roosevelt went to meet Churchill off the coast of Canada knowing he was racing against time to prepare the U.S. for war. When Gen. George Marshall had become chief of staff on Sept. 1, 1939, the U.S. Army was merely 200,000 men strong — the 17th largest in the world. Nevertheless, the U.S. had 130 million people and an industrial capacity unscathed by war and emerging from the Depression, which made it the potential “Arsenal of Democracy.”
Roosevelt — who had sought an unprecedented third term in part due to the existential threat of Nazi Germany — was by fireside chat and by deed building the case for American resistance to the Axis powers. Moreover, he was assembling a bipartisan national security team to address the global threats. Two members of the Republican aristocracy joined the Roosevelt cabinet in June 1940 after Germany’s invasion of the Low Countries and France: Henry Stimson as secretary of war and Frank Knox (Alf Landon’s 1936 running mate) as secretary of the Navy.
Nevertheless, Roosevelt was constrained by Washington’s historically powerful Farewell Address admonition to “steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world.” Roosevelt himself had promised in the waning days of the 1940 campaign that “[y]our boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”
Events abroad, though, clashed with 18th-century abstractions and campaign rhetoric. The U.S. reintroduced the Selective Service in August 1940, authorizing the drafting of 900,000 men.
With the critical support and congressional testimony of Wendell Willkie — Roosevelt’s GOP opponent in 1940 — the Lend-Lease Act passed Congress in March 1941. American war materiel began to flow to Britain, and eventually to the USSR. Historian Jonathan Jordan noted Willkie’s response in a Senate hearing to a hostile isolationist Democratic senator: “He [Roosevelt] was elected president. He is my president now.”
Against this backdrop, Roosevelt and Churchill issued a communiqué on Aug. 14, 1941, after five days of meetings. It would be known as the Atlantic Charter.
Almost precisely 75 years later, the spirit of the Atlantic Charter between the U.S. and Great Britain continues to guide American foreign policy: Collective security is paramount, as is resistance to aggression. In the words of Jordan in “American Warlords,” the principles of the Atlantic Charter “encourage free trade, support democratic institutions and work toward a permanent system of world security.”
The fundamentals of the Atlantic Charter formed the backbone of the postwar bipartisan foreign policy consensus as articulated by Sen. Arthur Vandenberg and editorial commentary from the Cowles newspapers of Minneapolis (forerunners of the Star Tribune) and Des Moines. It is reflected in the formation of NATO, which has helped to substantially keep the peace in Europe for 70 years — a profoundly important American interest.
The hope expressed in the Atlantic Charter for a better life for all peoples of the world reached into the U.S. via the exigencies of World War II and its aftermath. By executive order on June 25, 1941, Roosevelt desegregated plants engaged in wartime production. President Harry Truman desegregated the military in 1947 by executive order. Slowly, fitfully, but inexorably, the U.S. began to address its often-terrible civil rights history.
The promulgation of the Atlantic Charter hardly ended the debate over intervention, which continued until the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941. A few days after the charter’s signing, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an extension of the draft for another year by a 203-202 margin.
On Sept. 11, 1941, Charles Lindbergh — the most prominent figure of the America First movement — made a national radio broadcast in which he labeled as “war agitators” three “groups”: “the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration.”
As historian Lynne Olson records in “Those Angry Days,” Willkie described the speech as “the most un-American talk made in my time by any person of national reputation.”
However, despite the ongoing critique of intervention, the Atlantic Charter — to use the words of George Washington 151 years earlier — made the English-speaking democracies less “afraid” of Hitler as the U.S. became more confrontational with Germany in the fall of 1941. Indeed, the words and spirit of the Atlantic Charter continue to inform America’s role in the world to this day, 75 years later.
Steve Hunegs is the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.