Atlantic Charter 75th Anniversary in Newfoundland

By Alexander Gregor

St John’s, Placentia and Ship Harbour

August 11-14, 2016

Slides at the bottom of the article provided by Peter Alberti.

To advance the slide show please hoover on the images until you see the arrows.

Several Senior College Fellows had the opportunity to attend the 75th anniversary commemoration of the 1941 eight-point British-American agreement on post-war goals for a reshaped international community, an agreement that would become known as The Atlantic Charter. The gathering was planned and organized by the Atlantic Charter Foundation, in collaboration with the International Churchill Society of Canada, the Churchill Society for the Advancement of Parliamentary Democracy, the NATO Association of Canada, as well as the Placentia Area Historical Society, Memorial University of Newfoundland, and the Governments of Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador. A central figure in this planning was Professor Peter Russell, Principal of Senior College and former Chair of the Churchill Society for the Advancement of Parliamentary Democracy.

The gathering allowed the participants – approximately seventy-five – to visit the site of this event (and of Churchill’s famous if brief foray ashore on the beach at Ship Harbour) and to gain a sense of the interpretations that have developed over the years as to the character, goals and significance the event. The secret meeting was to prove a seminal influence not just in the conflict at hand, but in the shape of the post-war international community that was to emerge from it. Historians suggest that the original meeting ended not with a formally signed charter, but with a more informal but ultimately just as important agreement on eight fundamental principles. The historical context and the sometimes substantially different viewpoints of the two principals – Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt – on matters such as trade and empire meant that the stated goals had to be carefully nuanced. Churchill was adamant that the empire would remain intact; Roosevelt was opposed to the concept both of empire and imperial trade preference. And he, of course, was the leader of a “neutral” country that was still strongly isolationist, and a country to which he himself had pledged non-involvement (at least in terms of combat). The question, then, of the goals of the meeting and their actual success provided interesting discussion. Churchill was successful, arguably, in fostering a closer personal relationship with the American President, and, to varying degrees, among their respective staffs. But the notion of drawing the United States into the conflict – if that had been a serious hope – was obviously not fruitful. Indeed, it was noted that it was Hitler rather than Churchill who finally succeeded in that goal – by declaring war on the United States after the Imperial Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.

But certainly the charter agreement was successful and seminal in the image it created of a new world order – an image that would guide the allies in the subsequent years of the war, and ultimately in the establishment of the United Nations itself (and, indirectly, in the disillusion of the British Empire, despite Churchill’s hopes and efforts). The long-term influence of the charter provided the basis for an engaging discussion on the importance of the exemplary will, resolution and unity it manifested in the face of catastrophic world issues – and the relevance of such a stance in today’s circumstances.

The gathering itself began in St John’s with a formal reception at Government House, at which delegates were greeted by both the Lieutenant-Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador and the provincial premier. Two visits to Placentia Bay brought the group to the now decommissioned US Forces base (part of the wartime ‘bases for destroyers’ agreement between Britain and the United States) – a setting that was able to be used quite literally as a safe harbour for the secret meeting between the two leaders. Another part of the visit brought the group to Ship Harbour, which in 1974 had been made an historic site by the Government of Canada. A commemorative monument was erected in 1976 above the beach where Churchill landed, and there the group was able to participate in a commemorative ceremony and a re-enactment of the original service of thanks which took place on HMS Prince of Wales. The ceremony was capped with an address by Duncan Sandys, Churchill’s great-grandson, and then by a splendid community garden party – yet another instance of the pervasive hospitality shown the visiting group.

A particular highlight of the event had taken place in the town of Placentia itself – a locally written, produced and acted play – Mysterious Visitors – which engaging portrayed the reactions of the local residents to the sudden and unexplained “invasion” of their harbour in August 1941. This enthusiastically presentation was credited in large measure to Peter Russell’s support and assistance.

Other portions of the event took place in St John’s itself – with a visit to the Crow’s Nest – a naval officers’ club originally founded in 1942, and now festooned with historical artifacts; and then a series of talks at Memorial University, with speakers including Hugh Segal (now serving as Chair of the NATO Association of Canada, Bob Rae and Peter Russell. The gathering was capped by a formal dinner at the St John’s Forces base, again in a replication of the original dinner served on HMS Prince of Wales. An after-dinner address was presented by Conrad Black, with a response offered by the Hon. John Crosbie.

It was noted more than once during the course of the gathering that the original charter meeting, and the enormous impact that ultimately flowed from it, were pieces of historical knowledge little known, or at least fully appreciated, in contemporary Newfoundland – as well as in Canada as a whole. It was rightly pointed out that the event had nothing directly to do with Canada at the time; but it certainly was an important part of the world into which Canada emerged, and of the story of the final province to join Confederation. The delegates were therefore more than ready to add their names to a petition that emerged during the final days, strongly recommending that the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador declare August 14th a provincial commemorative holiday in perpetuity. The petition seemed a particularly appropriate conclusion to a remarkably instructive and successful gathering.

Photographs: Copyright © 2016 Peter Alberti
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