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PRIMARY DOCUMENTS  |  Provoked by Pearl Harbor: The White House Meetings of FDR and Churchill, December, 1941
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Resources: Lesson [PDF]  |  White House at War Links (

President Franklin D. Roosevelt called Sunday, December 7, 1941, a day that would "live in infamy," for on that day the Empire of Japan launched a surprise attack against the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. Within a day the United States was at war with Japan, and only three days later with Japan's Axis allies, Germany and Italy. Great Britain, only recently having come under the leadership of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, had been at war with Germany and Italy since September 1939. In that time the United States, though largely isolationist in its sentiments, had become the great "arsenal of democracy," aiding Britain through the Lend-Lease program.

Now, in an instant, Japan's raid at Pearl Harbor had mobilized the America people to war. As Roosevelt told Churchill, "We are all in the same boat now." Almost immediately upon hearing of the air attack, Churchill made plans for a trip to Washington to meet face to face with President Roosevelt and his military chiefs. Churchill's primary focus was to gain solid support for a "Germany first" military strategy. Nevertheless, the two leaders, in many formal and informal meetings at the White House, honed a concept they had first set down in the Atlantic Charter (August 1941) that had proposed a set of principles for international cooperation in maintaining world peace. The resulting Declaration by the United Nations of January 1, 1942, had 26 signatories, including the Soviet Union. The commitment of these signatories to the Declaration's principles would soon be tested in the crucible of World War II.


The student will:

  1. Understand the significance of the Declaration by the United Nations of January 1942 as an antecedent document to the development of the United Nations charter.

  2. Consider an application of the principles set down in the Atlantic Charter and the Declaration by the United Nations to actions involving its signatories.

  3. Discover and imagine ways in which close personal contact between President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill shaped the actions of both leaders in the early days of World War II.

»  National History Standards


On Sunday, December 7, 1941, Winston Churchill was dining at his home with U.S. envoy Averell Harriman and Ambassador John Winant. The radio was on, and the three men were suddenly jolted to attention by the announcement of the newscaster that the Japanese, Axis allies of Germany and Italy, had attacked Pearl Harbor. Churchill was on the phone immediately to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, asking for confirmation. "It's quite true," FDR said. The prime minister, whose country had endured 17 months of lonely fighting, knew immediately the implications of this attack, noting later that, "I did not pretend to have measured accurately the martial might of Japan, but now at this very moment I knew the United States was in the war, up to the neck, and in to the death. So we had won after all! . . . Great Britain would live . . . . Once again in our long island history we should emerge, however mauled or mutilated, safe and victorious."

Image: Churchill and Roosevelt holding a press conference at the White House on December 23, 1941. Courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Library

Churchill and Roosevelt holding a press
conference at the White House on
December 23, 1941. Courtesy Franklin
D. Roosevelt Library
Image: The Queens' Bedroom on the second floor of the White House as it looks today. Churchill stayed in this room on his visit. WHHA

The Queens' Bedroom on the second floor
of the White House as it looks today.
Churchill stayed in this room on
his visit. WHHA
Within days, Churchill was aboard the Duke of York steaming toward the United States and a meeting with the president, much needed according to Churchill because "The whole plan of the Anglo-American defense and attack has to be concerted in the light of reality." During the eight-day voyage Churchill was busily preparing three papers that he would present to President Roosevelt outlining his view of how the war should be fought. This was not their first meeting - that had been in August 1941 when they rendezvoused aboard a ship anchored off the coast of Newfoundland. There the leaders of beleaguered Great Britain and the neutral United States had set down the Atlantic Charter, guiding principles intended to govern the relationships among nations when peace came. Neither a treaty requiring Senate approval nor a state paper, it seemed a thinly disguised statement of war aims, including a call for "the final destruction of Nazi tyranny."

On December 22, as Churchill and his chiefs of staff spent their first evening in the White House, the circumstances were quite different. The prime minister would stay longer than the one week he had first anticipated. In fact, he did not leave the White House until January 14, 1942, with an intervening two-day trip to Ottawa to give a speech, and a week's rest in Palm Beach, Florida. The series of meetings of the two leaders, along with their cabinet-level and military advisors, was code-named "Arcadia," a word meaning "any real or imagined place offering peace and simplicity." Their work was anything but simple, but whatever decisions Churchill and Roosevelt would make during these White House discussions, they were now backed by the weight of war declarations of their respective countries.

With Churchill's arrival, the upstairs hall of the White House became, as Roosevelt's closest advisor, Harry Hopkins, called it, "the headquarters of the British Empire," complete with a temporary map room. During the prime minister's stay at the Executive Mansion, there were eight major meetings of the president, prime minister, secretaries of war and navy, the British and American chiefs of staff, and Harry Hopkins. As Churchill noted, "intense activity reigned." The first business of the two leaders was the formation of a "grand alliance of the Allies." The two leaders would draw up a solemn declaration to be signed by all nations at war with Germany. Churchill and FDR, as they had done with the Atlantic Charter, drew up separate drafts of what was tentatively called a "Declaration of Associated Powers" and blended them together through discussion. There was rapid-fire correspondence between the War Cabinet in London and Washington as differences arose with regard to certain words or phrases. Nevertheless, despite these difficult points, compromises were struck.

On January 1, 1942, representatives of 26 Allied nations signed the "Declaration by the United Nations." Pledging to support the Atlantic Charter, these signatories agreed to commit their full resources to the defeat of the Axis powers, promised to make no separate peace, and agreed to preserve idealistic virtues such as freedom and justice. Some would later say that this signing was the birth of the United Nations. At a time when the Germans controlled the European continent and the Japanese were sweeping across Guam, Wake Island, Hong Kong, Malaya and the Philippines, the Declaration provided millions with an uplifting message of hope.

For Discussion

1. Make copies of the Atlantic Charter and the Declaration by the United Nations

Ask students to read the Declaration and notice that its signatories agreed to subscribe to "the purposes and principles of the Atlantic Charter." Have students read the Atlantic Charter and make a list of its declarations. Discuss the following: What would it take from a military perspective to guarantee to all nations the conditions set down in the Charter? If the Charter resulted in the establishment of "a wider and permanent system of general security," which signatories would most likely have the burden of sustaining that security?

Which countries would benefit most from a "wider and permanent system of security"? When certain nations declare in such a document that something is essential - disarming aggressor nations, for example - does it necessarily follow that those nations must do something about it? How would isolationists groups such as "America First" feel about this Declaration?

2. Have students examine Roosevelt's handwritten list of Declaration signatories and note the changes that he made. Before revising this list he received advice from Harry Hopkins, his most trusted aide and confidante. Hopkins advised him that if the list of named countries was to be a long one, he thought it should include all of them, stating that he saw a distinct advantage in "having a long list of countries join us." Ask students to consider these questions: What would be the advantage of this long list? Hopkins also suggested to Roosevelt that certain countries like China and the USSR should be "lifted out of their alphabetical listing and placed with our own and the U.K." Why would Hopkins have made this particular distinction? Ask student to compare Roosevelt's handwritten list to the final Declaration. Did the president follow Hopkins’s advice? Why is the United States listed first, rather than Great Britain?

3. On January 6, 1941, in his Annual Message to Congress, President Roosevelt spoke of a future world founded upon four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of every person to worship God in his own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Though three of these seemed embodied in the language of the Atlantic Charter, many criticized the document because it did not include a reference to religious freedom. In the Declaration by the United Nations, Roosevelt sought to remedy this omission.

During the Declaration discussions, while the president was meeting with Soviet Prime Minister Maxim Litvinov, Churchill, and Hopkins, he made the point that he wished to add a reference to religious freedom in the document. The Soviet minister said that he thought the Kremlin might agree to a term such as "freedom of conscience," but not the word "religion." Invite students to consider this question: Why might one expect the Soviets to object to the word "religion"? Roosevelt made the argument that the traditional Jeffersonian principle of religious freedom was so broad that it included the right to have no religion at all. Invite students to consider the meaning of the terms "freedom of conscience" and "freedom of religion." Ask them whether or not they believe both terms are broad enough to include the right to hold religious beliefs? Have students re-read the Declaration to see if Roosevelt's idea prevailed.

4. Ask students to read the document that features Russia's amendments to the Declaration recorded in Roosevelt's own handwriting. Ask students to consider why this is by Roosevelt's pen, rather than a secretary's. What might this suggest about the level of intimacy established between Litvinov and Roosevelt?

5. At the time of the Declaration by the United Nations, the Soviet Union was not at war with Japan. Have students read item one of the Declaration. Discuss the following: Does the sentence in item one commit the Soviet Union to make war against all members of the Tripartite Pact? Why would it have been particularly difficult for the Soviet Union to join the war against Japan at this time?

6. The last editing change in the Declaration made by Roosevelt was to substitute the words 'United Nations' for "Associated Powers." In a telegram to a cabinet member, Winston Churchill stated: "President has chosen the title 'United Nations' for all the Powers now working together. This is much better than 'Alliance' which places him in constitutional difficulties, or 'Associated Powers,' which is flat." Discuss the following: Why does the term "Alliance" cause constitutional problems? What advantage does the term "United Nations" have over "Associated Powers." Is the only difference "flatness?"

»  ACTIVITY: The Atlantic Charter and the Origin of the United Nations

»  ACTIVITY: Inside the White House

Bibliography and Links

Churchill, Winston. The Second World War: The Grand Alliance. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1950.

Current, Richard N., et al. Words That Made American History. [3rd edition] Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1978.

Fields, Alonzo. My Twenty-One Years in the White House. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1960.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Seale, William. The President's House. Washington, DC: White House Historical Association, 1986.

Sherwood, Robert. Roosevelt and Hopkins, An Intimate History. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1948.

United Nations

The Avalon Project at the Yale Law School

National History Standards

This lesson meets the following National History Standards for United States history, Grades 5-12:

Evaluate the wartime aims and strategies hammered out at conferences among the Allied powers. [Hypothesize the influence of the past.] (Era 8: The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945), Standard 3C.)

Explain the purposes and organization of the United Nations. [Marshal evidence of antecedent circumstances.] (Era 8: Standard 3B.)

Evaluate the implementation of a decision by analyzing the interests it served; estimating the position, power, and priority of each player involved; assessing the ethical dimensions of the decision; and evaluating its costs and benefits from a variety of perspectives. (Historical Thinking, Standard 5.)

Appreciate historical perspectives, describing the past on its own terms, through the eyes and experiences of those who were there, as revealed through their . . . diaries, letters, debates . . . and the like. (Historical Thinking, Standard 2)


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