When history’s wheel turned … here in Newfoundland
Seventy years ago this summern— Aug. 9-12, to be exact — the then-island nation of Newfoundland was the stage set for one of history’s decisive turns. This was, of course, the secret meeting between Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain and President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) of the United States.
For more than two days, amid what had to be one of the darkest periods in Western civilization, the two statesmen and their top military advisors met to take each other’s measure and to more effectively map out a plan of action in the face of darkening news from Soviet Russia, where the Nazis were clobbering the Red Army.
It was most vital for the two leaders to ascertain where and when the vast American productive capacity could best help their British customers. “Customers,” not allies, because the United States was not then at war.
The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbour was still four months away ( December 7, 1941). The British were hanging by their fingernails after being chased off the continent of Europe in 1940, and forced to endure the tragic indiscriminate bombing of her major cities in the winter of 1940-1941.
The vital lifeline
Above all, it was necessary to focus on what help the Americans could give the British dominions in securing the most important lifeline of the war — the vital convoy supplies to England that kept the embattled island afloat.
FDR wanted to help, and indeed had done much already with the Lend-Lease Act of March, 1941 whereby $7 billion in aid was scheduled to flow across the Atlantic. But he was dealing with a jittery Congress and a still isolationist country, one that was more interested, in the words of one journalist, “in a dog fight behind Main Street than a world at war.”
On his part, the wily Churchill wanted an Atlantic meeting to try and bring the United States in as a belligerent. But FRD was already proving wilier still and the meeting off Argentia, crucial as it was for all that would follow, would result more in a meeting of minds over planning for the onslaught that could follow from Imperial Japan.
But when an empire’s life is at stake, a meeting of minds can be
Neil Earle is an adjunct history professor at Citrus College in Glendora, California.
essential. This is what made the meeting in the wide waters of Placentia Bay that August so important — then and now. It is not too much to say that this rendezvous of two talented politicians on the stage of world history offered a foreshadowing of the way the world was going to go for the next 60 years.
The United States was beginning her ascent to world power, Britain was staggering under the weight of global responsibilities she could no longer fulfill, and for Newfoundland, the American warships in Placentia Bay served notice of how much things were going to change. Just in time, too, for the island dominion was churning restlessly under the rule of a Commission of Government that had been imposed in 1934 after the economic setbacks of the period.
The meeting at Placentia Bay was more than just symbolic for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. Under Lend-Lease, the Americans were fast building a huge naval and air base at Argentia, and young men from Carbonear and Old Perlican and elsewhere were already finding work as carpenters, brick layers and timekeepers.
The economic magnet of Argentia Naval Base lasted until 1994. In the 1950s, a young future journalist, Rex Murphy, moved with his father from Irishtown in Carbonear to Freshwater in Placentia Bay. The work was easier to find. Beyond these local comings and goings the appearance of the American president in home waters drove home that Newfoundlanders were about to be drawn more into the American orbit and steadily away from connections to the British Empire, even though that influence would linger for a while.
The first summit
What initially came out of the Argentia conclave was the Atlantic Charter, so dubbed by a British newspaper. Here was an eight-fold declaration of joint principles, one which breathed the spirit of liberal democracy without committing the United States to any overt action. The third article respected the right of all people to choose the form of government under which to live. The fifth article mentioned the phrase “effective international organization” after the coming about of “a peace which will … cast down forever the Nazi tyranny.”
Article Eight called for all nations to seek “an abandonment of the use of force” in the future, a utopian-sounding proposal, but one which showed how much the strain of bitter reality was showing on the Western democracies in the late summer of 1941.
The joint declaration of August, 1941 helped raise the moral bar in international affairs, crystallize issues of governance and the like for the Western democracies that are still being fought out in Libya and Afghanistan — the rule of law, the rights of the individual.
The hint towards some means of “effective international organization” was a foreshadowing of the phrase Churchill and Roosevelt would use in their wartime correspondence — the united nations. Broad statements of idealistic principles may seem unrelated to the “real world realities” but they nevertheless enshrine spiritual principles that brutal dictators sometimes flaunt to their peril.
According to the military historian, Max Hastings, the Charter’s “noble phrases in support of a common commitment to freedom” enshrined principles that gave hope to struggling subject people around the world (Winston’s War, page 168).
What immediately came out of it was FDR’s offer of 150,000 old rifles to the British and his determination the very next month that American naval vessels would “shoot on sight” any German U-Boats seen in the North Atlantic. This was pushing his presidential powers almost to the limit.
From Argentia would sail the Reuben James in October and her sinking off Iceland with 100 men lost would do much to prepare American attitudes for war with Hitler. Indeed, Hastings reveals that FDR intended to “provoke war” not in the Pacific — as conspiracy theorists like to suppose — but in the North Atlantic where the U.S. Navy had already taken over escort duty for the convoys steaming from the east coast.
FDR had made his trip secret, leaving on a “fishing trip” it was reported but boarding the heavy cruiser Augusta off Martha’s Vineyard. He did do some fishing as these waters were by no means unfamiliar to him. It was at Campobello in the Bay of Fundy, after all, that he had contracted polio in 1921.
His wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, speaking at Memorial University in 1961, alluded to her “delightful memories of a part of the world which my husband and I enjoyed for many years” (New York Post, Oct. 2, 1961). FDR, the former secretary of the navy, was in his element.
Max Hastings deftly sketched Churchill’s arrival in his plain style: “Placentia Bay is a rocky inlet on the south coast of Newfoundland where some five hundred inhabitants occupied a fishing settlement ashore. The British discerned a resemblance to a Hebridean sea loch. Early on the morning of Aug. 9, Prince of Wales began to stand in. Then her officers realized that the ship’s clocks were set ahead of the Newfoundland time zone.
“ The ship turned and ploughed a lazy course offshore for 90 minutes, before once more heading into the anchorage. At nine a.m. her anchors rattled down a few hundred yards from the U.S. cruiser Augusta, which bore the president.”
Most of the workers from Conception Bay and elsewhere helping build the new installations springing up at Argentia were beneficiaries of the “destroyers for bases” deal as LendLease was also known. In 1940, in exchange for 60 old destroyers for convoy duty the British government gave the United States permission to build military bases in the Caribbean and Newfoundland.
Gibralter of the West
In his detailed study, “Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World: 1929-1949,” Peter Neary gave the basic facts: “ These were described in the lease under six headings: Argentia; Quidi Vidi (St. John’s), two parcels of land; Quidi Vidi lakeside; White Hills (near St. John’s), four parcels of land; Stephenville, three parcels of land and Signal Hill Battery (the St. John’s harbor front property).
“At the height of the base-building boom, about 20,000 Newfoundlanders were employed in military construction, which in effect had suddenly, some would say providentially, given the country a major new industry. According to a 1946 Canadian estimate, United States military investment in Newfoundland was over $300,000,000, roughly more than three times Ottawa’s defense spending there” (pages 153179).
But where the American eagle went the Canadian beaver would soon nervously follow. RCAF bases at Torbay and Goose Bay took shape. All of this military spending led to what Neary described as the “economic miracle” of 1941-1942. Newfoundland and Labrador were pulling out of the economic doldrums of the Great Depression at last.
Newfoundland’s strategic position soon earned her the nickname “Gibraltar of the West,” as Neary documents. And Neary’s account also reminds us that progress has its cost. To make way for the U.S. military, the remains of 625 individuals were exhumed from the old graveyard at Argentia and reinterred in the new cemetery at Freshwater (page 155). This indignity has not been forgotten.
Newfoundland drivers had to switch to the right side of the road when entering American territory and work alongside Americans who could buy duty free cigarettes at seven cents a pack. No wonder labour troubles soon emerged and an Argentia labour union took shape soon after the first Yanks arrived.
One of the lessons of history is that even in deadly battles for survival, as in 1941, the relationship between labour and management, between insiders and outsiders, will never quite cease. Yet, in spite of it all, the people of Newfoundland gained enough confidence from their wartime experiences as one of the sally ports of freedom so as to demand Responsible Government by 1948, which led to Confederation with Canada in 1949.
Historians know that that very active American presence symbolized by FDR and Churchill meeting at Argentina was one fact that made Newfoundland real estate very desirable to Canada’s strategic posture in the emerging Cold War.
A Newfoundland poet’s pungent phrase, “Argentia’s smoking funnels,” epitomized all that was happening in the Gibraltar of the West. Seventy years later it may be time to remember, for, as Hastings summarizes, “ here was something which our parents and grandparents did well in a noble cause.”