The Summit: Seventy Years Later

by Robert Morrison

Seventy years ago this week, British prime minister Winston Churchill crossed the U-boat-infested North Atlantic to have a top-secret rendezvous with Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Churchill’s vessel, the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, had just undergone extensive repairs following her bloody encounter with the German pocket battleship Bismarck. Both warships lost hundreds of men in the battle. Bismarck left behind thousands of men in the water following its sinking. Almost all of these were abandoned to cruel death when British efforts to rescue survivors were suspended. Sonar had picked up German submarines contacts.

Churchill was desperate for U.S. aid. And Roosevelt was eager to help. But he would not commit the United States to go to war against Nazi Germany or Japan. The U.S. was still officially neutral in 1941, that last American summer of peace.

The president stood under an awning on the deck of the USS Augusta, a cruiser anchored in Placentia Bay, off Newfoundland. It was August 9, 1941. He was supported on the arm of his son, Elliott, wearing his Army officer’s uniform. Any movement on land was hazardous for the polio-stricken president. Aboard a ship, with sudden pitches and rolls, every step he took was perilous. But Roosevelt, like Churchill, was an experienced sailor who loved the sea.

The prime minister bowed to the president, handing him a letter of introduction from King George VI. Churchill was then the most famous man in the world, but he was acutely conscious of the fact that he was head of government, while FDR was head of state. The two men met and at once hit it off. This was the first “summit,” so named by Churchill.

The next day, Sunday, was the spiritual summit of this summit. Thousands of British and American sailors crowded together for worship aboard Prince of Wales. “My father is a very religious man,” Elliott had told Churchill in a private meeting. Churchill already knew that. He had planned every detail of the elaborate divine service. He ordered British and American flags placed on the chaplain’s pulpit.

The president and the prime minister led their ships’ companies in a church parade. The sailors shared hymnals. The prime minister selected the hymns — Roosevelt’s favorites, and ones that Winston judged would be known by most of his battle-hardened English ratings. “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers” were the familiar tunes voiced by 4,000 male voices, their sound reverberating from the forbidding gray mountains that ringed this sheltered bay.

The Royal Navy chaplain read from the book of Joshua. “I will not fail thee nor forsake thee, saith the Lord. Be strong and of good courage.” Roosevelt choked back tears, so moved was he by the scene played out for him. Churchill wept openly.

The young sailors stationed before their leaders that day would need strength; they would need courage. Within just months, although few suspected it that quiet Sunday morning in August, a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on another Sunday would plunge the U.S. and Britain into a war in the Pacific. Many of these same British sailors would die in a Japanese air attack on Prince of Wales the following December. Off Singapore, this warship would become the first capital ship to be sunk by air attack.

For now, though, they delighted in a special gift from America. Each of the visiting British sailors, and the Americans, got a box with chocolate, oranges, and cigarettes. Many of these British fighting men had not seen an orange in years, due to wartime rationing. On top of the box were inscribed the presidential seal and this message: “The Commander-in-Chief, United States Navy, sends his compliments and best wishes, Franklin D. Roosevelt.”

The communiqué that Churchill and Roosevelt issued following their four-day summit soon became known as the Atlantic Charter. It formed the basis for the United Nations. It laid out the principles for which untold millions would fight to rid the world of Nazi tyranny and Japanese imperialism.

This 70th anniversary of the first summit comes just as the U.S. Air Force has backed down ignominiously when challenged by a small, militant group of atheizers. For 20 years, Air Force chaplains have been offering training to those who might be called upon to launch nuclear missiles in the event of a Doomsday scenario. In the course, the Air Force chaplains dared to invoke biblical imagery and offer quotes from Scripture.

Britain’s normally conservative Daily Telegraph hooted at the now-banned course, dubbing it “Jesus Loves Nukes.” Banned as well is anything taught by Augustine of Hippo. His philosophy served for 1,600 years as the basis for just-war doctrine. It is to Augustine we looked to know why the Holocaust was wrong, why the builders of the Gulag were an evil empire. In place of Augustine, we will be directed to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, where slaughterers of innocents outvote the craven representatives of once-civilized states.

They were the kind of nations whose chosen leaders met at the first summit. Would Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill recognize the world their successors are making? Have we forsaken them and all they did for our freedom? Are we yet men of strength and courage?

Bob Morrison is a senior fellow at the Family Research Council and served in the Reagan administration.