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Editorial Note on the Atlantic Conference
August 7-12, 1941
Marshall was suddenly called to the White House on the evening of July 30, and directed by the president to prepare, in utmost secrecy, to leave for a meeting at sea with British Prime Minister Churchill and his military advisers. The chief of staff could take only Major General H. H. Arnold and two other assistants. The Atlantic Conference “came as a complete surprise,” Marshall recalled. “The army members. . ., saving myself, had no knowledge of it until we were well up the coast on the cruiser Augusta.” Marshall had only instructed Arnold to take cool weather uniforms and to be prepared for an absence of about ten days. Even Secretary of War Stimson was not told where they were going. (Marshall Interviews, p. 285; H. H. Arnold, Global Mission [New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949], pp. 246-47; Yale/H. L. Stimson Papers [Diary, 35: 14].)
General Marshall, Admiral Harold R. Stark, and their assistants boarded ship in New York’s East River on August 3. The chief of staff and the chief of naval operations traveled to the meeting site on the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Augusta, while Arnold and the other military men were berthed on the U.S.S. Tuscaloosa. Accordingly, there were no army-navy conferences until August 7, when the ships anchored in Placentia Bay, near the United States base at Argentia, Newfoundland. Major General Arnold, who had recently returned from a trip to England, was impressed with “the thoroughness with which the British prepare for such conferences. As far as I knew, we were going into this one cold.” Marshall later recalled: “There was not much opportunity to plan for a specific meeting. To me the meeting was largely a get-together for the first time, an opportunity to meet the British chiefs of staff, and to come to some understanding with them as to how they worked and what their principal problems were. We were in no position at that time to lay very heavy matters before them. . . We had so little basis for planning at the time of the meeting on the Augusta. So only the things that were almost self-evident could be discussed by us.” (Arnold, Global Mission, pp. 247-48; Marshall Interviews, p. 285-86.)
In his memoirs Arnold wrote that he had advocated—and had gained acceptance from President Roosevelt, General Marshall, and Admiral Stark for—a three-point program of general principles: “(1) Development of our Army, Navy, and Air Force to meet the present international situation; (2) As a policy, give to the British, the Chinese, and other foreign governments only such items as they could use effectively, after first meeting our own requirements under our adopted plan; (3) No commitments to be made until our experts had an opportunity to study the proposals and requests, with all their ramifications, made by the British.” (Arnold, Global Mission, p. 248.)
Saturday morning, August 9, the battleship H.M.S. Prince of Wales entered Placentia Bay carrying Churchill and his party, including a thirteen man military mission headed by Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound; General Sir John Dill, chief of the Imperial General Staff; and Air Chief Marshal Sir Wilfrid R. Freeman, vice-chief of the Air Staff. A continuous round of business meetings and social gatherings ensued which lasted until the conference ended three days later.
The British service chiefs had prepared a “General Strategy Review” with which they hoped the American leaders would agree. Marshall, Stark, and Arnold received copies of the review on August 10 in preparation for the next day’s meeting. The British Army, the document stated, was “immeasurably stronger than it was last September,” but still deficient in armor. Moreover, there had been “considerable improvement” in the British position in the battle for the North Atlantic sea lanes, “though this may be only temporary.” In West Africa the British possessed no forces with which to contain German and Vichy French threats to Allied communications and shipping. The Middle East had to be held; the loss of the British position in that region “would have disastrous effects.” In the Far East, it was essential that Singapore be held in order to maintain communications and supply lines “vital to the successful continuance of our war effort,” and the British were “making constant efforts to provide the requisite forces.” The review then made a strong plea for immediate United States intervention in the war, which “would revolutionize the whole situation.” But the intervention had to come soon; “the longer it is delayed the greater will be the leeway to be made up in every direction.”
The British chiefs of staff foresaw four important areas in which United States intervention would help to win the war. First, control of the seas and their adjacent lands by the Allies would be assured, “even if Japan intervened.” Second, the British assumed that the German Army could not be defeated, “even if the Russians are able to maintain an Eastern Front,” until the Allies destroyed “the foundations upon which the war machine rests—the economy which feeds it, the morale which sustains it, the supplies which nourish it and the hopes of victory which inspire it.” This could not be accomplished by massive armies attacking along definite fronts, as in 1914-18, but by a bombing offensive “on the heaviest possible scale,” supplemented by blockade, partisan activities, and a propaganda campaign. United States bombers would “swell the air offensive against Germany.” Third, when Germany was driven to its knees, United States armored forces would join the British in suppressing remaining resistance and in occupation duties. Fourth, American entry into the conflict would bolster Allied and undermine Axis morale; it “would not only make victory certain, but might also make it swift.” (General Strategy Review by the British Chiefs of Staff, July 31, 1941, attached to L. C. Hollis to Marshall, August 10, 1941, NA/RG 165 [WPD, 4402-62].)
At a lengthy meeting on August 11, Admiral Pound began to discuss the review point by point. Admiral Stark emphasized that while the United States military was willing to cooperate as much as possible with the British, under current national policies, there were definite limits to this cooperation. Careful planning and coordination were essential, and he told the British chiefs that they would receive a formal reply after United States military leaders had studied the document on return to the United States. Marshall commented briefly on the commitment of army forces to Iceland and perhaps also to the Azores and the bulge of Brazil, but he noted that these forces had to be taken from the limited supply of trained forces at his disposal. He also emphasized the serious drain on United States supplies and shipping that the British efforts in the Middle East were causing and noted that each new commitment of forces worsened matters. Marshall cautioned the British to improve their internal coordination before making supply requests of the United States, so as not to exacerbate further the production priorities battle.
Marshall and Stark informed the British chiefs of staff that the United States was determined to reinforce its defenses in the Philippine Islands, which would serve to strengthen Britain’s position in the Indian Ocean and at Singapore. Could the British, they inquired, assist this project by modifying their aid requests? The supply question was the chief subject of discussion at the August 12 meeting. (Charles W. Bundy Memorandum for the Chief of Staff, August 20, 1941, NA/RG 165 [WPD, 4402-62].)
Upon their return to Washington, Marshall and Arnold briefed Secretary Stimson on the meetings, particularly on the supply discussions. The secretary noted: “I found that what the practical British were after was action and that they had no idea at all of how the cupboard was bare so far as the United States was concerned. In that respect we are going to have a hard time. All they want now is great big 4-engine bombers, regardless of the fact that we are behind in those bombers mainly because they knocked them so hard in the beginning.” (August 14, 1941, Yale/H. L. Stimson Papers [Diary, 35: 31])
While the British were disappointed with the outcome of the Atlantic Conference, it did produce certain significant political results. The leaders agreed upon greater coordination in supply, a warning to Japan against further expansion into Southeast Asia and the Pacific, and a declaration of peace aims called the “Atlantic Charter.” Released to the press on August 14, the eight-point charter declared that the two nations sought: no new territories or any territorial changes without the consent of the people affected; world political and economic freedom; and the disarmament of aggressor nations, “pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security.” (Foreign Relations, 1941, 1: 368-69.) Churchill later wrote: “The profound and far-reaching importance of this Joint Declaration was apparent. The fact alone of the United States, still technically neutral, joining with a belligerent Power in making such a declaration was astonishing.” (Winston S. Churchill, The Grand Alliance [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1950], p. 444.)
An important result of the conference was the personal relationships established or strengthened between British and American leaders. Of all the British representatives at the conference, Sir John Dill most impressed General Marshall, and the two chiefs of staff formed a friendship, lasting until Dill’s death in 1944, that was of great importance in Anglo-American relations. (Katherine Tupper Marshall, Together: Annals of an Army Wife [New York and Atlanta: Tupper and Love, 1946], p. 96.)
Recommended Citation: The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, ed. Larry I. Bland, Sharon Ritenour Stevens, and Clarence E. Wunderlin, Jr. (Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 2, “We Cannot Delay,” July 1, 1939-December 6, 1941 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 585-588.