Atlantic Charter 1941 Boris Johnson Joe Biden

HMS Prince Of Wales: Enduring Symbol Of The US/UK Special Relationship

How HMS Prince Of Wales is tied to its predecessor and the first Second World War meeting between Churchill and FDR.

Atlantic Charter 1941 Boris Johnson Joe Biden

HMS Prince of Wales is today serving as a symbolic backdrop to the first meeting between US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

As part of President Biden's eight-day trip to Europe, he is meeting the Prime Minister in Cornwall, where HMS Prince of Wales is sailing along the coast.

The two leaders are discussing a new Atlantic Charter, meant to focus on the threats and issues Mr Biden outlined in his speech to US military personnel at RAF Mildenhall yesterday, issues like COVID-19, future pandemics, global warming and security issues.

At one point in his speech yesterday, the US president said:

"We have to build the shared future we seek: a future where nations are free from coercion or dominance by more powerful states; where the global commons – the seas, the air, the space – and space – remain open and accessible for the benefit of all."

Atlantic Charter 1941 Boris Johnson Joe Biden
President Joe Biden addresses US Air Force personnel at RAF Mildenhall yesterday (Picture: Alamy).

Like HMS Prince of Wales currently off the coast of Cornwall, this language also reflects the wording and circumstances of the original Atlantic Charter. 

It was produced aboard another HMS Prince of Wales, as well as the USS Augusta, being signed on 14 August 1941. 

The earlier HMS Prince of Wales was a Second World War-era battleship rather than a 21st Century aircraft carrier, and it had brought Prime Minister Winston Churchill across the Atlantic to meet then-US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, also known as FDR. 

The meeting took place at Placentia Bay, which lies off the coast of Newfoundland, now part of Canada. FDR and Churchill had actually met before, but their Atlantic Charter meeting was the first time that either man had met as leaders of their respective countries, something else that echoes the current first meeting between Johnson and Biden.

Winston Churchill on board battleship HMS Prince of Wales during his journey to America to meet President Roosevelt August 1941 CREDIT MCCOOL, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
Churchill aboard HMS Prince of Wales as it journeyed to Newfoundland in 1941 (Picture: Alamy).

At the time of the original charter, the US and UK were not yet wartime allies. The Pearl Harbor attack, which would bring the US into the Second World War, would not happen until December 1941, almost four months after the meeting.

Yet, the charter expressed the common vision and goals for the post-war world that the US shared with the UK at that time. Just as Joe Biden spoke at RAF Mildenhall of the need for nations to be free from coercion or the aggression of other nations, and for the seas, air and space to be free to be accessed by all nations, so, too, did the original charter refer to these ideals in the context of the time.

Articles one and two of the original charter deal with the territorial status of the US and UK at that time, saying that neither of them aimed to expand their reach beyond what it was then. The British Empire had, of course, been in existence for centuries, while American power and influence had spread first across the continent, and then the Pacific, something that had and would put it on an eventual collision course with Japan

The second and third principles set out in the charter concerned the rights of peoples to not have their territories altered without their consent and to have the kind of government they desired. This vision of a free world was, of course, in sharp contrast to the aggressive expansion of Nazi Germany in 1939, and then just the previous year, in 1940, which had seen the invasion of France and the low countries

The fourth, fifth and seventh principles dealt with economics, labour conditions and trade and free travel. The Great Depression had, of course, hugely impacted global trade and led to mass unemployment in the years before the war, helping to fuel the social and political conditions that led to the conflict. The charter envisioned a world where free trade was guaranteed for all nations, both the victors in the war and those they defeated, and for this to run along with economic co-operation and mutual development between nations, leading to improved social security within each.

Finally, the sixth and eighth principles concerned the need to defeat and disarm Nazi Germany and to ensure a future without aggressors in general. This was deemed necessary so sovereign nations and their peoples could live to trade freely and without economic deprivation or fear of invasion. 

The principles in the charter were subsequently adopted by other Allied nations during the war and inspired the creation of the United Nations in the years that followed. 

Cover image: HMS Prince of Wales shown in Portsmouth Harbour (Picture: Alamy).

Special relationship World War 2 Britain and the US
FDR and Churchill on board HMS Prince of Wales during the Atlantic Conference in 1941 (Picture: Alamy).