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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.

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The student will:

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


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."

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?"

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)

Activities: I. The Atlantic Charter and the Origins of the United Nations

According to Robert Sherwood in Hopkins and Roosevelt, the British government never regarded the Atlantic Charter as a formal State Paper. Sherwood states that, "It was, to them, not much more than a publicity handout. Roosevelt, who took it much more seriously, was compelled to foster this belief by insisting that it could not be considered as in any way a Treaty; if it had been, he should have had to submit it to the Senate for ratification."

Ask students to read excerpts from Winston Churchill's The Grand Alliance relating to the question of the Soviet Union's territorial ambitions in the Baltic States. Have them collect evidence that: (A) Churchill took the language of the charter very seriously; and (B) he believes that Roosevelt considers it an important commitment. Have students present their evidence to the class.

As a parallel assignment, ask other students to research the political fate of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania at the end of World War II, and their political, social, and economic circumstances today. Encourage students to write the UN offices of these three countries to gain specific material about each their recent histories. Ask this group of students to assess the validity of Churchill's concerns in 1941-42.

After students have presented Churchill's concerns at the beginning of the war, and have brought the class up to date on current conditions in these three countries, ask them to write a "Progress Report" on the Baltic States, and to imagine that Winston Churchill would receive it. Encourage them to emphasize the degree to which the political environment in those three countries reflects the ideals of the Atlantic Charter. Ask them to include a prediction about what they think is likely to happen in that part of the former Soviet Union in the next few years.

One outcome of the Arcadia Conference was the formulation of the Declaration by the United Nations. Ask students to conduct research on other conferences of World War II and report to the class on what major decisions were reached by the Allies at these meetings. As students present their findings, generate a list of these decisions on the board or overhead. Ask students to decide whether that action helped (+) or hindered (-) the efforts of the Allies to move toward the goals of the Atlantic Charter and the Declaration by the United Nations.

Ask students to develop an evolutionary chart on the development of the United Nations. Have them begin with the charter of the League of Nations then include the Atlantic Charter and the Declaration by the United Nations and finally the United Nations Charter of 1945. Invite them to consider categories such as these: primary objectives; signatory nations and their relative power; organizing structure; binding financial and military commitments. After students analyze the chart and its results, ask them to write generalizations about the influence of early efforts at collective security on the mission, make-up, and structure of the current United Nations.

As a parallel assignment ask several students to compare the Atlantic Charter to >Franklin Roosevelt's Annual Message to Congress, January 6, 1941. Have them present their findings to the class, stating in what ways the two documents seem related.

Divide the class into two groups. Ask each group to assess the validity of this statement made by Churchill to his Foreign Secretary on January 8, 1942:

"No one can foresee how the balance of power will lie or where the winning armies will stand at the end of the war. It seems probable however that the United States and the British Empire, far from being exhausted, will be the most powerfully armed and economic[ally strong] bloc the world has ever seen, and that the Soviet Union will need our aid for reconstruction far more we shall then need theirs."

Students will arrive at their conclusions through research. Ask one group to focus their study on the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union in 1948. Ask the other students to concentrate their efforts on the current situation in these three countries. Have students present their findings either in a class discussion or an essay.

Ask students to represent artistically the ideals and goals of the Atlantic Charter and the Declaration by the United Nations. Create a display of that work.

Have students visit the United Nations website. Ask students to conduct research on any action taken by the United Nations since 1945; for example, UN assisted elections in Mozambique, October 1994. Ask students to study the history of that country further to discover what circumstances prompted a UN intervention. After the research is complete, ask each student to write a United Nations Day (October 24) editorial from the perspective of that country and take a stand on the power and relevancy of the United Nations in that region.

Roosevelt's ideas for re-ordering the signatories of the Declaration by the United Nations prevailed, so that the top four were the United States, the United Kingdom, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and China. To review, click on the handwritten list. When the United Nations was organized these four countries, plus France, made up the permanent members of a 15-nation UN Security Council. Ask one group of students to conduct research to define the role of the United Nations Security Council. Ask another group to determine how China has changed politically since the end of World War II, while other students research what has happened to the political structure of the USSR. Have students provide at least two examples in which these changes have complicated the "great Power unanimity" concept, (the rule that all five of these powers must agree), and the international peacekeeping role of the Council. If time permits, let students prepare a Security Council meeting in which one of these examples is debated. Have students role-play representatives of the entire Security Council, including non-permanent members. The students should debate and vote from their assigned nations’ political perspectives.

Ask students to imagine that Franklin Roosevelt could sit in on a session of the United Nations General Assembly today. Invite them to find imaginative ways to describe how they think Roosevelt might view this organization, which is an outgrowth of his ideas. Share these creative products with the class.

Activities: II. Inside the White House

When Winston Churchill visited the White House from December 22, 1941, through January 14, 1942, he stayed upstairs in the Rose Room, now known as the Queens' Bedroom. On January 3, 1942, he wrote home to Clement Attlee, a British cabinet minister: "We live here as a big family, in the greatest intimacy and informality, and I have formed the very highest regard and admiration for the President. His breadth of view, resolution, and his loyalty to the common cause are beyond all praise."

Ask students to click on and read excerpts describing aspects of the relationship between Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt and the circumstances that shaped the Arcadia meetings. Then have them complete one or more of the following activities:

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Prime Minister Churchill decided that he wanted to go to the United States to see President Roosevelt. As he said in his cable to Roosevelt, "I feel that all of these matters, some of which are causing me concern, can best be settled on the highest executive level." As was the custom for the prime minister, Churchill asked the permission of the king (George VI) to leave the country. It was granted. Ask students to compose a letter that Churchill might have written to the king upon prime minister's return to Great Britain. In the letter, ask them to make a case for the idea that the face-to-face contact between the two leaders had been beneficial to the war effort, including setting in place some firm ideas regarding a "lasting peace."

In writing to the king about his planned trip to America, Churchill expressed his fears: "We have also to be careful that our share of munitions and other aid which we are receiving from the United States does not suffer more than is, I fear, inevitable." Some critics of Churchill claimed that his visit to the White House and his subsequent relationship with Roosevelt were not genuine but rather based strictly on political and military expediency. Ask students to gather evidence from all of the documents presented here that Churchill held Roosevelt in high regard, that theirs was a relationship of mutual respect, admiration, and idealistic affinities. Ask students to incorporate their findings into seven or eight diary entries written from the perspective of either a family or staff member who would have been at the White House during Churchill's visit.

As excerpt "G" indicates, Franklin Roosevelt admired Churchill's "mobile Map Room" and had one created for the White House. Ask several students to research the Allied and Axis military situation in early 1942. Have them illustrate the theaters of action, using colored pins, on a world map. As a parallel assignment, ask other students to illustrate a world map showing how the military situation had changed by early 1945. After the maps are displayed, use them as a means of helping students write compare-and-contrast statements about the progress of the war.

In excerpt "H," Harry Hopkins noted differences in the methods Roosevelt and Churchill used in preparing speeches. Discuss this passage with students so they can better understand its meaning. After discussion, invite one group of students to read and analyze Roosevelt's Annual Message to the Congress, January 6, 1941, and have another analyze Churchill's Message to the Congress, December 26, 1941. Each group should examine the selected speech in the light of differences between the two leaders' styles, as noted in the excerpt. Have students relate their findings to the class, using specific passages from the two speeches to validate their points.

Robert Sherwood in Roosevelt and Hopkins noted, "Churchill was in the White House because he was the King’s First Minister, but he could not forget that he was also a professional historian who was most sensitive to the radiations of the past." Engage the students in a discussion about historiography, the process or methods used to write history. Consider these questions: Might Churchill's "sensitivity to the radiations of the past" have shaped his memory of President Roosevelt and the White House visit as described in his 1950 book, The Grand Alliance? How might the fact that Roosevelt died before the end of the war have influenced Churchill's memory of his time with the president? What if, despite valiant efforts, the Grand Alliance had not won the war? Might an historian such as Churchill then view this period differently? Robert Sherwood worked in the Roosevelt administration as a speechwriter. How would that have affected his objectivity in writing a biography of Roosevelt and Hopkins? In what ways would his insider's position strengthen his ability to tell the story? Doris Kearns Goodwin was a small child in the early 1940s. Would her view of these events necessarily be more objective? What is the value of a memoir such as the one written by Alonzo Fields? After the discussion, lead students to better comprehend the importance of reading history from a variety of perspectives.

President Roosevelt's regrouping of the order of signatories to the Declaration by the United Nations.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Library

Churchill and Roosevelt holding a press conference at the White House on December 23, 1941.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Library

The Queens' Bedroom on the second floor of the White House as it looks today. Winston Churchill stayed in this room during his visit.


Footnotes & Resources


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

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