East Coast community celebrates pivotal Second World War meeting.
Newfoundland community celebrates secret Second World War meeting.
When Winston Churchill came to the Newfoundland outport of Ship Harbour, it was in the darkest days of the Second World War. He did not have much time for the local people.
This year, for the event’s seventy-fifth anniversary, from August 11 to 14, things are going to be different in Ship Harbour.
In August 1941, the British prime minister, arriving aboard the battleship Prince of Wales, met American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who arrived aboard the cruiser Augusta. The summit at Ship Harbour was their first: four days of intense and secret meetings with their most senior advisors aboard the anchored ships.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was still four months away, and the United States was still at peace.
Churchill had come to Newfoundland hoping to draw the United States into the war. Roosevelt hoped at least to shift American public opinion away from isolationism. The Ship Harbour summit fulfilled neither hope. At first it was regarded as a failure.
Yet, in the war room of the Augusta, Roosevelt and Churchill had created the Atlantic Charter, a statement of the principles their nations stood for: the self-determination of nations, free trade and economic co-operation, and a permanent system of general security. As more nations joined the war against fascism, the Atlantic Charter became the blueprint for the postwar world, the germ of the United Nations Charter.
Peter Russell, a Toronto political scientist, calls the Ship Harbour summit “a story of how the alliance of the two big democracies was truly bonded on the waters of Placentia Bay. ‘We are bonded now,’ Elliott Roosevelt said his father, the American president, said to him as they walked back from the church service on the Prince of Wales. It was not just calculated foreign policy. It was a personal trust and understanding between the two leaders. It is fair to say that the beginning of effective resistance to Hitler was in Placentia Bay.”
The memory of the Atlantic Charter summit has endured at Ship Harbour. In 1991, on the fiftieth anniversary, Parks Canada erected a handsome monument overlooking the anchorage. For the seventy-fifth anniversary this August, Newfoundland and Labrador will host another Atlantic Charter conference. Prominent Newfoundlanders, international scholars, a Churchill descendant, and Roosevelt biographer Conrad Black will gather in St. John’s and Ship Harbour to recall the great events of 1941.
The Atlantic Charter summit was held in deepest secrecy. When the great ships appeared, locals feared the worst: Just eight months earlier, the arrival of another naval force had meant the displacement of four hundred people for a naval base at nearby Argentia. In 1941, local people learned nothing about Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s presence. Only Churchill went ashore, and only to stretch his legs at a deserted cove.
This year, the people of Ship Harbour, population about two hundred, and the Atlantic Charter Foundation they have established, are going to be central to the commemorations. This August, their foundation will host a garden party, a church service, fireworks, a barbecue, and a fishing derby, all wrapped up with a Newfoundland kitchen party — “not actually in a kitchen,” said Tom O’Keefe, one of the foundation’s local advisors.
The Placentia Cultural Arts Centre will launch Newfoundland playwright Agnes Walsh’s new Atlantic Charter play for the conference delegates — but really for the whole community.
The play is not about Roosevelt and Churchill; it’s about local people and what they did while the great men conferred with each other offshore.
The formal conference about the Atlantic Charter summit will be moving and impressive. But, if you are in the area in August, the play and the Ship Harbour’s kitchen party might be the really hot tickets.
American President Franklin Roosevelt, seated left, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, seated right, meet at Ship Harbour, Newfoundland, August 1941.