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.

Pro­vok­ing war

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.”

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