Giving the Atlantic Charter a Face-Lift on Its 60th Anniversary

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Itai Sneh is a graduate student in history at Columbia University and a writer for the History News Service

This month marks the 60th anniversary of a watershed in U.S. history: the August 1941 Atlantic Charter. The alliance between Britain and the United States recognized in the Charter helped to win World War II and, later, to defeat communism. But that unique alliance is in trouble now because of fundamental differences between the two Atlantic powers on strategic and environmental issues.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter at a secret summit on a warship off Newfoundland, declaring in broad terms their joint humanitarian, strategic and commercial goals. The agreement signaled an end to American neutrality and isolation.

The Charter gave rise to the term"Atlanticism," denoting a special relationship between two English-speaking countries separated by an ocean but sharing a heritage of culture, ideas, open markets and free trade.

Roosevelt wanted to introduce moral and practical standards into postwar arrangements. He also wanted to define a role for the United States in international affairs while increasing cooperation with the British. The Atlantic Charter echoed the Four Freedoms speech Roosevelt had delivered seven months earlier to Congress, an address that declared worldwide goals freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear and aggression.

In the Charter, the United States indirectly undermined British colonialism by stressing postwar self-determination and self-government, but mollified the British by promising crucial support against Germany. Although a British undersecretary for war called the Atlantic Charter"great poppycock," its contents gave rise to the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Today, the United States and Britain compete economically and have different interests. In addition, the United States is focusing its policies more on Asia while Britain is drawing closer to Europe.

The British are governed by a Labor Party that is friendly to environmental concerns, would like to avoid an arms race with China and Russia, and tends to pressure Israel to be more conciliatory toward the Palestinians. The United States, by contrast, is led by Republicans who are more receptive to industrial, business and military points of view in using natural resources and handling international relations. There is so far little chemistry between the statesmen at the helm of these countries.

Could a new Atlantic charter help bridge these differences? A new charter, signed perhaps by leaders of all industrial nations, might be based on democracy and free trade. It could sanction political and commercial cooperation against the global recession, against endemic poverty and lawlessness in the developing world, and propose strategies for dealing with AIDS, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and rogue nations.

A new charter could launch an inclusive Western agenda into the twenty-first century. It could embrace poor, ethnic and religious communities at home and abroad. The United States and Britain could benefit from assuming a new global leadership role, replicating their finest hour 60 years ago.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Frank Branzuela - 4/19/2004

The history of the Atlantic Charter should be the subject of a book. Especially interesting would be a list of all the authoritative historical publications that state unequivocally that the Atlantic Charter was signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill on Aug. 14, 1941. Actually, they didn't sign it on August 14th. They didn't ever sign it. There has never been a signed copy of the Atlantic Charter. Some sources say that the Charter was a communique rather than an official document. It was a typed news release given to the American and British radio operators on board the ships at the conference held off the coast of Newfoundland. It's release was intended to explain away the purpose of the secret conference in the Atlantic. For well over 60 years respected historians have been citing the Aug. 14, 1941 signature date, and none of them seem to have gone to the bother to refer to source documents. There are no signatures on the documents in the U.S. Archives. It was a news release. We have been parroting a deception for over 60 years. We do so want to believe what our leaders tell us, don't we?