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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Placentia Bay Conference

8 to 11 August 1941

Location: Argentia Harbour off Placentia Bay, Newfoundland.
Players: Churchill and Roosevelt
Outcome: Creation of the Atlantic Charter, an agreement between Britain and America that led to an Anglo-American alliance.

Winston Churchill during the Atlantic Conference of August 1941, during which the Atlantic Charter was drawn up
Winston Churchill during the Atlantic Conference of August 1941, during which the Atlantic Charter was drawn up©
As early as January 1941, US President Roosevelt expressed an interest in meeting Churchill to discuss the defeat of Germany. But it wasn't until August 1941 that they finally met in Argentia Harbour off Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. America was still several months away from entering the war.

There was some negotiation regarding the parties who would join the conference, and the President was notified that the Prime Minister would leave Scotland on 4 August, sailing on HMS Prince of Wales. He would be accompanied by Admiral Pound, General Dill, Air Marshal Freeman, Harry Hopkins and Sir Alexander Cadogan. The President in turn notified the Prime Minister that he would bring Admiral Stark, General Marshall, General Arnold and Sumner Welles.

At Placentia Bay, agreements and aims were discussed and the Atlantic Charter was worded and agreed on 12 August. Although it has been suggested that the charter was signed by both parties, there is no evidence of such a document; we only have evidence of a press release.

The principles of the Atlantic Charter were supported by 26 countries, all united against Nazi Germany; their leaders agreed not to negotiate or make a separate peace with Hitler.

The first version of the Atlantic Charter was drawn up by Churchill and set out the principles that were to shape the struggle against German aggression by democratic nations. Churchill announced in parliament on 9 September 1941 that, 'At the Atlantic meeting we had in mind the restoration of the sovereignty of the states? now under the Nazi yoke.' As far as Churchill was concerned, the Atlantic Charter was limited to the defeat of Nazism.

Roosevelt understood the Charter differently and saw it as an opportunity to put an end to the colonial project. Roosevelt and the American nation mistrusted Britain's imperialist motives. He told Churchill:

'I can't believe that we can fight a war against fascist slavery, and at the same time not work to free people all over the world from a backward colonial policy? The peace cannot include any continued despotism ... Equality of peoples involves the utmost freedom of competitive trade.'

Roosevelt added to Churchill's version of the Charter, broadening its interpretation. He was effectively forcing the British Empire into granting independence to its colonies.

Churchill was reluctant to make such a direct concession and debated the wording of the Charter. Roosevelt wanted to add a clause saying: '... without discrimination 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 ...'. Churchill demanded that the wording should be 'with due respect to their existing obligations' rather than 'without discrimination'.

This was not the end of their debate: the question of colonial power was addressed again when the Lend-Lease Agreement was signed five months later. Roosevelt is reported to have told his son Elliot:

'I've tried to make it clear to Winston - and the others - that, while we're their allies and in it to victory by their side, they must never get the idea that we're in it just to help them hang on to the archaic, medieval Empire ideas ... Great Britain signed [sic] the Atlantic Charter. I hope they realise the United States Government means to make them live up to it.'

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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