American Portraits

Defeating the Forces of Darkness: Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Atlantic Charter, and Responsibility

In this lesson, students will learn about the actions of President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the development of the Atlantic Charter. They will learn from Roosevelt’s example of how they can be responsible in their own lives.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.


President Franklin D. Roosevelt was steaming out into the Atlantic with a heavy weight on his shoulders. He was on his way to meet with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to discuss a joint response to German expansion in Europe as well as Russia. Roosevelt and his advisors expected that Churchill sought an American declaration of war. President Roosevelt wanted to help Great Britain and Russia as much as possible, but he feared that any misstep with an aggressive policy would provoke the isolationists and American public opinion. Instead, Roosevelt hoped to slowly convince citizens that the country ought to enter the war to defend liberty. He also wanted to lay down certain principles in fighting the war that would shape the postwar world. Roosevelt knew that Churchill desperately wanted American men and arms in the war, a fact that placed the United States as the senior partner in an alliance. The president had a great responsibility weighing on his mind to support the free peoples of the world and enter the world war, but also to follow the Constitution. All of this was on his mind as the rocky shores of Newfoundland entered into view….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can acting responsibly help contribute to something greater than yourself?

Virtue Defined

Responsibility is accountability to myself and others.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about the actions of President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the development of the Atlantic Charter. They will learn from Roosevelt’s example of how they can be responsible in their own lives.


  • Students will examine how Franklin D. Roosevelt acted responsibly in developing the Atlantic Charter.
  • Students will understand the importance of acting responsibly.
  • Students will apply their knowledge toward being responsible in their own lives.


In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland to start World War II in Europe. Germany invaded and won a quick victory over France in the spring of 1940 before turning its sights on England. The British turned to Winston Churchill in May 1940 as prime minister for his defiant stance against the Nazis.

The Germans then launched the Battle of Britain aerial campaign against England to prepare for crossing the English Channel to invade in Operation Sea Lion. The steely resolve and nerve of British fighter pilots, the British population, and Churchill defeated the German Air Force in the summer and fall. Meanwhile, the Germans turned their attention to preparing for the massive invasion of Russia which was launched on June 22, 1941. Before this attack, Britain stood virtually alone against Nazi tyranny and desperately needed the United States and its manpower and industrial might to enter the war.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was sympathetic to the plight of the British and wanted to bring the United States into the war as an ally of Great Britain to defend civilization against the forces of conquest and darkness. As the New Deal reform movement waned with the onset of the World War II, Roosevelt began preparing America for war. However, many Americans thought President Woodrow Wilson and Wall Street bankers had dragged the U.S. into World War I and were determined to prevent the same mistake again and keep the U.S. out of this Second World War.

These “isolationists” included many important and famous people such as aviation hero Charles Lindbergh. Many American people were against entering the war and felt that the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans protected them against the Axis powers of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. Roosevelt thought that meeting with his counterpart, Churchill, would give them an opportunity to state the universal principles they would fight for and defend in the postwar world, as well as promise much greater U.S. aid to the British and Russians without alienating the isolationist sentiment in America. Roosevelt felt a heavy responsibility to promote liberty and self-government for all peoples, especially in that dark time. However, he needed to help the Allies while abiding by the Constitution and not fighting in a war that Congress had yet to declare. It was a fine line to skirt, but Roosevelt wanted to do what was right.


  • Pugnacious
  • Aerial
  • Steely
  • Resolve
  • Virtually
  • Plight
  • Onset
  • Isolationists
  • Axis Powers
  • Sentiment
  • Misstep
  • Provoke
  • Cruiser
  • Pomp and circumstance
  • Protocol
  • Polio
  • Orchestrated
  • Altar
  • Aggrandizement
  • Marshaling
  • Coy

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was Franklin D. Roosevelt? What was his role on this trip?
  • What was Roosevelt’s purpose on the Augusta?
  • How did Roosevelt show responsibility in his discussion with Churchill?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Bercuson, David, and Holger Herwig. One Christmas in Washington: The Secret Meeting Between Roosevelt and Churchill that Changed the World. New York: Overlook, 2005.
  • Brands, H.W. Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. New York: Doubleday, 2008.
  • Gilbert, Martin. Churchill and America. New York: Free Press, 2005.
  • Manchester, William, with Paul Reid. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965. New York: Little Brown, 2012.
  • Meacham, Jon. Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship. New York: Random House, 2003.

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