Aboard HMS Duke of York · December 12, 1941

On this date in 1941 British Prime Minister Winston Chur­chill, fearing that the im­medi­ate im­pact of Japan’s attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii would be a re­treat into an “Amer­ica-comes-first” pos­ture, boarded the battle­ship HMS Duke of York for an Atlantic cross­ing to con­fer with Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt about co­or­di­nating stra­tegies in their joint war against Japan (since Decem­ber 8), Ger­many, and Italy. (The latter two nations had been at war with Great Brit­ain for many months, but with the U.S. only since Decem­ber 11, 1941.) Chur­chill arrived in the nation’s capi­tal on Decem­ber 22 in great secrecy—even the presi­dent’s wife, Elea­nor, was one of the last to be told of the White House’s new guest, much to her ire. While the Roose­velts and Chur­chill’s party sat down to a Christ­mas din­ner of oysters, tur­key, chest­nut dressing with giblet gravy, beans, cauli­flower, and sweet-potato cas­se­role, the two nations’ chiefs of staff con­vened and em­braced Roose­velt’s em­pha­sis that Amer­i­can troops had to be seen “in active fighting across the Atlan­tic.” Driving their thinking was the need to relieve pres­sure on the besieged Soviets, whose anni­hi­la­tion Adolf Hitler sought in his now fal­tering Opera­tion Bar­ba­rossa, by forcing the Ger­man Wehr­macht to with­draw pre­cious divi­sions on the East­ern Front and move them to the West, to occupied France. This would, it was hoped, dis­suade Soviet dic­ta­tor Joseph Stalin from pur­sing a sep­a­rate peace with Hitler—a peace that could mark the Soviet Union’s exit from the war and di­vert mil­lions of the enemy to the West just as a simi­lar peace between Russia and Ger­many in March 1918 had done. (That sep­a­rate peace with Russia nearly resulted in Kaiser Wilhelm’s Ger­many winning World War I.) Hence, the origins and the ur­gency of Opera­tion Torch, begun Novem­ber 8, 1942, the first Anglo-Amer­i­can assault on Axis forces since the war’s out­break. The landings in North­west Africa finally stopped the swings of for­tune, un­matched in any other theater of war, where first one side then the other had the upper hand. Over­whelming Allied resources whittled down, squeezed, and finally cap­tured the last Ital­ian and Ger­man forces in Tuni­sia in May 1943, setting the stage for Opera­tion Husky, the ini­tial Anglo-Amer­i­can assault on Mussolini’s Italy.

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First Washington Conference (Arcadia Conference), December 22, 1941, to January 14, 1942

Churchill and Roosevelt, White House, December 22, 1941First Washington (Arcadia) Conference, late 1941 to mid-January 1942

Left: Prime Minister Winston Churchill, left, and Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt face each other at a con­fer­ence table in the White House, Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Decem­ber 22, 1941. Roose­velt had ini­tially resisted Chur­chill’s urgent request for face-to-face dis­cus­sions, coming as it did one day after both nations had declared war on Japan—Roose­velt wanting more time to come up to speed on the drama­tic un­folding events. The presi­dent changed his mind when he learned that the Japa­nese had sunk the Brit­ish battle­ship HMS Prince of Wales and the battle crui­ser HMS Repulse off the east coast of Brit­ish Malaya. Chur­chill’s three-week stay as the Roose­velts’ White House guest helped forge a close working friendship between the two world leaders that lasted until Roosevelt’s death in April 1945.

Right: Roosevelt (center rear) flanked by Churchill (on the Presi­dent’s right) and Cana­dian Prime Minis­ter Mac­kenzie King (on Presi­dent’s left) at the First Wash­ing­ton Con­fer­ence (Arca­dia Con­fer­ence), Decem­ber 22, 1941, to Janu­ary 14, 1942. The second of nine face-to-face con­fer­ences between Roose­velt and Chur­chill had its start aboard the HMS Duke of York in Ches­a­peake Bay, Mary­land, on the day of Chur­chill’s arri­val. (Their first meeting had been the Pla­cen­tia Bay Con­fer­ence the pre­vious August aboard the cruiser USS Augusta off the coast of New­found­land.) The First Wash­ing­ton Con­fer­ence estab­lished the Com­bined (Amer­i­can and Brit­ish) Chiefs of Staff, to be head­quartered in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.; estab­lished a com­bined Amer­i­can-British-Dutch-Austra­lian (ABDA) com­mand for the South­east Asia theater; and framed the United Nations Declaration, announced to the world on January 1, 1942.

Winston Churchill Speaking Before the British House of Commons, December 8, 1941, Announcing War Against Japan