Interpreting the Atlantic Charter


By F. H. LAGUARDIA, Mayor of New York City

Delivered at Opening Ceremonies of Free World House, New York City, June 2, 1944

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 555-556.

I AM going to talk this evening about the Atlantic Charter. When men are in great sorrow they speak from the innermost of their soul. When men are in great danger they think clearly and act unselfishly for their own safety as well as that of others. In every catastrophe or eat cataclysm in the history of the world, men have ought, in the very midst of great dangers, not only of immediate protection but about ways for future safety, and for avoidance of the causes that brought disaster. Thus we see in the days when pestilence and epidemics of disease raged, taking terrific tolls of life, that men would give thought not only to healing the sick at the moment but to finding ways and means to avoid future epidemics. In the same way, we have seen right in our own country, in its early days, and even during its growth and development how communities, faced with dangers, always pooled their forces and resources primarily for their own safety but with thought and consideration of near and distant neighbors.

It was in such a period of great danger and in an atmosphere of great sorrow that two great men, leaders of two great people, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, met. From this historic meeting on a battleship in mid-ocean came the Atlantic Charter. To understand this covenant we must know the background. We must consider the situation of that time. We must bear in mind the danger facing Great Britain and the United States. We must not forget the determination of the British people and that of the people of our own country not to submit at whatever cost to Nazi tyranny. All this is necessary to clearly understand what brought forth the Atlantic Charter, and its true intent and meaning.

Let us recall the military situation of that day—August 14, 1941—The Axis powers were at the peak of their strength, military victories and chance of ultimate success. The Battle of Britain, that is war brought right to British soil with civilians the victims, began around August of 1940, and increased its intensity right up to the very day of the Atlantic Charter. Thousands of German planes would raid British cities, day after day, hour after hour.

Coventry, Birmingham, Bristol and every industrial city and port took merciless pounding month after month. In April of '41 London was constantly under air attack and tons of bombs dropped upon it day after day for weeks and months. Liverpool was partially wiped out in April of '41. Portsmouth and other ports were successively attacked during that summer.

Recent changes in the military situation crowd out these unpleasant memories but the fact remains that in August of 1941 it was not at all certain that the Axis forces would not invade Great Britain, and no one knew better than President Roosevelt that if they did, we would have to defend our own shores and prepare for a ten-year war of defense.

The casualties, dead and injured, of civilians in Great Britain, non combatants, men, women and children, mounted to over one hundred thousand by that time. Let us look at our own shores. German submarines were within sight of the Atlantic and Gulf coast. Up to May of '41, allied shipping had suffered a loss of 6,127,673 tons of ships. The Battle of the Atlantic raged simultaneously with the Battle of Britain, There were periods immediately preceding the memorable day of August in 1941 when it seemed as if the Axis powers could cut off the source of supply to great Britain and cut communication between the nations of the British Commonwealth.

Remember, too, that when President Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill met on the Battleship in the Atlantic, their purpose was to prepare a long, defensive warfare and have plans ready in the event of the Nazi occupation of the British Isles. The Axis powers had already occupied, and were holding and bleeding Czechoslovakia and Poland and Finland and Denmark and Norway and a great part of France. Italy, under Fascists and brain-trusted by Nazi mentality, had entered the war and had been successful against the spear-armed army of Ethiopia and had been driving successfully in North Africa. Her Navy, at the disposal of the Nazis, was effectively policing the Mediterranean, and there were periods when it was not known whether the defense of the Suez could hold out or not, as a matter of fact, the Canal was often closed to navigation for long periods. It was in June of that year 1941 that the British suffered reverses in Greece and were compelled to evacuate Crete. Germany rushed to the aid of Italy and successfully invaded Jugoslavia and Greece. Salonika was lost, and the Balkans, with the rich oil fields of Rumania were under the complete control of the Axis forces.

Dunkirk was the constant reminder of the critical situation and only one day prior to the Atlantic Charter (and surely the news reached the Battleship) Marshal Petain signed the Collaboration Treaty with Germany which actually turned over to the Nazis all of the resources of France and control of the entire Channel and Mediterranean coast of that country, Germany was pushing Russia hard and by August 14, 1941, Odessa had been encircled, the Nazi troops were advancing between the Dneister and Dneiper Rivers, and had taken control of the mineral regions of Krivog Rog. The bread basket of Europe, the Ukraine, had already been evacuated, and the Nazis in control of the entire wheat country.

While there were some people in our country who perhaps could not or would not evaluate properly and fully our own situation and our common interest with Great Britain, and the inevitable attack which would follow a Nazi victory in Europe, the military and naval minds of our country were working frantically to utilize every second of time while our President was pleading and begging Congress for necessary appropriations.

A gloomier military situation could not possibly have existed for Great Britain. Democracy was never nearer complete annihilation than it was then. Our country was never in greater danger—not even on the day when the British marched into Washington and burned our Capitol.

Assurance had to be given to the world, in the midst of this critical situation, in the face of the apparent military successes of the Axis forces, that there was still hope for all the people of the world, and that the United States and Great Britain had pledged their sacred honor to see it through. For centuries to come, the Atlantic Charter must be read and understood and followed and adhered to in the light of that period and what it meant at that time. It cannot be abridged. It cannot be reduced. It cannot be weakened. It must be interpreted right from men's souls in the way it was written. It cannot be construed now, in the flush of victory, with new ideas and by selfish ambitions, national or personal. None of its fundamental principles can be changed now. It is man's covenant with heaven.

What is the Atlantic Charter? Great Britain and the United States "seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other;" Everybody can understand that. The people of the two countries must see that this pledge is carried out.

Second: "They (the Governments of the United Kingdom and the United States) desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned." Can there be any doubt as to the meaning of that? Why all the discussion now, when the war is not even over, as to what the Atlantic Charter means. It means simply that no country or any part of a country can be taken and given to someone against the wishes of the natives, of the inhabitants, of that country. They, alone, are to decide. In other words, territorial confines are to be . fixed in accord with the wishes of the people themselves and not by a pencil line drawn arbitrarily on a colored map. The two nations pledged their respect for "the rights of all people to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them." And that too is so clear, isn't it ? All of the occupied countries are to be restored and the people of these countries are to decide what form of government they now desire. It also means that colonies or islands that have been unhappy in the past and have had little or no say in their own destiny, in their own government, have been guaranteed the right of self-determination and of deciding whether or not they want to go back to the old status or whether they want to establish their own government. Iceland is the first to indicate her desire to be independent and to become a democracy.

Now we come to the Fourth, and here, perhaps, the one cause which, more than any other, has caused wars, is sincerely faced: The two countries "will endeavor, with due respect for their existing obligations, 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 which are needed for their economic prosperity;" Let no American be deceived by this. Here is one of the causes of war, and if we start talking about new tariff barriers or if we seek in any way to deviate from this principle, so necessary in a new world order, the boys in our schools today will be in the Third World War.

The Charter then expresses the desire "to bring about the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labor standards, economic adjustment and social security." There is nothing new in this. It has been talked about. It has been sung for centuries yet very little has been done about it. Here is a solemn pledge, here is the sacred word of honor given by two great people to bring about a decent standard of living for all people and proper adjustment for security. In this respect, to date, man has failed miserably. God Almighty in His Wisdom provided the world with sufficient food and everything man needs. Man has not been able to use it properly. To the contrary, man has hoarded, has pilfered, and has sought to monopolize at the expense of others God's own gift to all.

And 6th—the sacred promise that "after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny * * * that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want." This is too precious to be left as historic poetry. It must be translated into action. It must be given life and vitality and reality at home and abroad, to present friends and to past foes.

And the Seventh—and 8th—which give promise of access to the high seas and the abandonment of the use of force and the notice to the Axis powers, yes it includes Japan too, that they will not be permitted to again arm—that is so clear that it requires no explanation and will permit of no change. Let not the sentimental ones cry too soon for mercy. No mercy was shown at any time anywhere prior to August 14, 1941; no mercy was shown at Pearl Harbor in December of that year. No mercy has been shown to the innocent people of the occupied countries in Europe nor in the Balkans. No mercy has been shown to some of our own prisoners. Every possible semblance of a source or possibility of repetition on the part of the Nazis and Japs must be fully, completely and entirely removed.

Now why do I say all this? There is altogether too much discussion at this time as to what the Atlantic Charter really means. It means exactly what it says. There is too much being said and sometimes from high authoritative sources, that of course it has to be considered in the light of changed conditions. Oh no, not that. It must be construed in the light of the conditions which brought it about and what it seeks to achieve. It must be construed and applied in the light of what we know about human history, ancient and contemporary. That cannot be changed. It must be construed and enforced in accordance with what it meant, what it means and what it will mean to the entire world.

It must be construed in the light of what is best and finest and spiritual in man. It must be construed as Churchill, the man who saved his country—and as Roosevelt, who wants to save democracy meant and intended that it should mean. Not what Churchill, the Parliamentarian, may say occasionally now—not what Roosevelt, facing an election may say later—but what two truly great statesmen said in unison at a time when freedom and liberty were threatened—when two fine souls spoke for the future of their countries and for the safety of the world.