Eighty years, Roosevelt and Churchill hold their first summit meeting


The true reason for President Roosevelt’s mysterious “holiday” was revealed. He was holding a summit meeting with Winston Churchill. They had met once before during the First World War but Churchill had been a senior national politician and Roosevelt very junior in the administration; Churchill had long  forgotten the encounter. They had corresponded extensively since Churchill’s accession to power but this would be the moment for them to establish a working relationship. The venue was carefully chosen:  Placentia Bay was in Newfoundland and thus British territory but the US was building an airbase there as part of the destroyers for bases deal of the previous year. Churchill arrived on the battleship HMS Prince of Wales which had been involved in the hunt for Bismarck a few weeks before.

In practical terms the meeting was a disappointment for the British. Roosevelt did not promise to enter the war as Churchill hoped he would. The joint statement of goals the leaders signed – soon to be known as the Atlantic Charter – contained pledges unwelcome to the British: the promise of full international free trade and the principle of self-determination, which was aimed British domination of India, which was repugnant to many Americans.

The true importance of the meeting was symbolic. It set the seal on Roosevelt’s pitch to the American people that the Atlantic and its seaboard were of vital strategic importance to the US. Images of the Sunday service conducted on Prince of Wales’s quarterdeck at an altar draped with US and British flags were broadcast around the world, with their message of shared western, Christian heritage. The common statement of goals had the flavour of a full alliance. Certainly the Germans and Japanese imagined that the Charter was accompanied by secret, military protocols

Roosevelt could go little further in committing the US. National sentiment was still opposed to involvement in the European war and the America First Committee was the powerful focus of isolationist sentiment. The Committee’s most effective frontman was the celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh and in a speech in Cleveland he accused protagonists of intervention of striving to create “incidents and situations” that would provide pretext of national defence for bring the US  into the war. It was almost as though he was listening in to Roosevelt's conversation with Churchill in which he repeatedly expressed a hope that that Germany would create some kind of pretext by taking action against US Navy vessels that were now protecting Atlantic convoys.

The story that Louis XIV once declared, "l'Etat, c'est moi" may be apochryphal but Marshal Petain did say practically the same in the wake of Vichy France’s defeat in Syria and the embarrassing agreement to allow Japan into Indochina, when he tightened his grip on power. He declared bluntly that  authority no longer came from beneath, but was what he chose to apply from above. He claimed he had saved France from the mutinies of 1917 and put an end to the rout of 1940; now he would save the French from themselves. Political parties were suppressed. He imposed an oath on Vichy officials in which they pledged loyalty to him personally. Amongst the forces of the old order that he denounced as opposing his national revolution was the old bugbear of the Catholic right in France, freemasonry.