In his political and diplomatic history book The First Summit: Roosevelt and Churchill at Placentia Bay, 1941
(1991), Theodore A. Wilson explores a secret summit between two significant world leaders in the months leading up to the Pearl Harbor bombings and how this summit shaped the direction of foreign policy between the USA and the UK. A history professor and nonfiction writer, Wilson typically focuses on the period between 1940 and 1975; he is especially interested in national security policies and foreign affairs. He once served as the Senior Research Fellow at the US Army Center of Military History.The First Summit
concerns a secret conference in 1941 between British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The summit took place aboard a secluded ship in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. According to Wilson, it was one of the most significant conferences staged during World War II, and its importance cannot be overstated.
For Wilson, the “First Summit” is memorable for three reasons. First, it confirmed the Atlantic Charter, setting out the general World War II aims of the British and Americans and how the leaders planned to cooperate during the conflict. Second, it gives us insight into the leaders’ very different personalities. Finally, the conference shed light on the inner workings of US politics, bureaucracy, and Anglo-American economic relations.
Wilson relies on archival research and primary resources. The First Summit
includes official papers drafted by officials and politicians, including Adolf Berle, Lord Halifax, and Sir Alexander Cadogan. Their insights offer readers a true understanding of just how significant the summit was for Anglo-American politics, highlighting how difficult it is for any country, however powerful, to prepare for conflict of this magnitude. The book also includes various declassified documents from the National Archives and British official records.
Wilson explains in detail why the meeting occurred. In the Atlantic, German U-boats targeted convoy supplies heading for England. Churchill needed help protecting these convoys and ensuring that much-needed supplies arrived in the UK. At this point, the US only agreed to support the convoys. Roosevelt did not want to actively participate in World War II.
Although Churchill and Roosevelt respectively led two of the most powerful countries in the world at the time, they hadn’t met each other properly before the summit. The summit was the first opportunity for the leaders to meet to discuss their relative political views. They both knew how serious the meeting was, but it was impossible to predict the outcome.
The summit was one of the most significant meetings of World War II because it effectively shaped the course of the conflict, Wilson argues. The world, Wilson proposes, needed Churchill and Roosevelt to find common ground. Without their mutual support and cooperation, it is entirely possible they would have lost World War II. The First Summit
emphasizes the importance of building strong and stable alliances to survive a war.
Wilson considers, at length, the political and diplomatic problems facing Roosevelt at home before the summit. He had recently pushed the controversial Lend-Lease Act through Congress, which promised some form of aid for Britain. Many criticized Roosevelt for ignoring American domestic problems while he spent so long refining the Act.
The Lend-Lease Act, essentially guaranteeing American aid for British convoys, passed before the summit, though its passing triggered more problems for Roosevelt than it solved. First, and most obviously, he lost the confidence of the American people and his own government. Second, Churchill saw the Lend-Lease Act as the first step toward full American engagement in World War II.
According to Wilson, Roosevelt didn’t know how to deal with his conflicting priorities. At the summit, however, he planned to stay in full control of the negotiations. He claimed he wouldn’t offer any more aid to the British other than basic convoy support. Churchill had other ideas. He hoped to convince Roosevelt that there is no such thing as neutrality in a world war.
The summit brought together two incompatible political perspectives. In America, Roosevelt quickly established a reputation for indecisiveness. He relied so heavily on opinion polls that he couldn’t make firm decisions. Wilson claims, if the Americans had wanted Roosevelt to offer more aid, he probably would have. Churchill, on the other hand, came with a very clear agenda of what he hoped to achieve. He was not swayed by any opinions other than his own and what Britain needed from its ally.
Ultimately, both parties left the summit feeling somewhat satisfied. They had established a solid working relationship, which served both countries well in the months and years to come. The Atlantic Charter, serving as an early blueprint for the United Nations, is still widely regarded as one of the most significant political documents of World War II.