The Anglo-American Leased Bases Agreement

The United States obtained the right to build military bases in Newfoundland by means of the Leased Bases Agreement with Britain signed on March 27, 1941. A preliminary deal had been reached six months earlier on September 2, 1940. Under the arrangement, America would provide Britain with 50 of its older naval destroyers in exchange for 99-year leases on areas to be used for bases in eight of the United Kingdom’s colonies, including Newfoundland.

Prior to the Leased Bases Agreement, the United States, which had suffered serious casualties in the First World War, had been reluctant to involve itself in another distant war. However, with the fall of France to Nazi Germany in June 1940, the United States recognized a need to establish Atlantic bases that could defend the Western Hemisphere in the event of possible attacks.

Winston Churchill (right) and Franklin Roosevelt, 1941
During the Second World War, American President Franklin Roosevelt agreed to supply Britain with 50 destroyers.
Photographer unknown. From: Morton, H.V. Atlantic Meeting. Toronto: Methuen and Co., Ltd., 1943.
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Winston Churchill (right) and Franklin Roosevelt, 1941

At the same time, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had been asking the United States to help Britain defend itself against Germany since he took office on May 10, 1940. Britain’s greatest need, Churchill told American President Franklin Roosevelt, was for between 40 and 50 American destroyers.

Roosevelt decided that summer to couple America’s desire to better defend the Western Hemisphere with Britain’s request for warships by proposing a trade: 50 aging American destroyers for 99-year leases on areas in Newfoundland, Bermuda and the British West Indies. The leased areas would be used to establish American military bases.

Churchill accepted the proposal, but noted that it would be necessary to consult both the Newfoundland and Canadian governments before any agreements concerning Newfoundland were finalized. Canada was also establishing a military presence in Newfoundland and Churchill felt it important to coordinate Canadian and American defence plans for the island.

Preliminary negotiations

The United States and Britain began negotiating a preliminary Leased Bases Agreement during the summer months of 1940, with minimal input from Newfoundland’s Commission of Government. Official talks leading up to a final agreement were scheduled for January 1941 in London, at which point Newfoundland was assured of an opportunity to comment.

Prior to those discussions, an agreement in principle was reached on September 2, 1940, which stated that the United States would supply Britain with naval destroyers in exchange for permission to establish military bases in the West Indies. As a show of goodwill, however, it was decided that base rights in Newfoundland and Bermuda would not be contingent upon the delivery of the American destroyers, as with the West Indies. Base rights in those two colonies would instead be free from all charges, except for compensation the United States would have to pay owners of expropriated private property. By 1945, the United States had paid out more than $3 million to 604 property owners in Newfoundland.

On September 3, 1940, a day after the preliminary agreement had been reached, Newfoundland’s government announced that American forces would soon establish military bases on the island. Public reaction to the agreement was largely positive.

Two weeks later, a commission of American army and navy personnel headed by Admiral John W. Greenslade arrived in Newfoundland to scout for possible base sites and to determine the area’s defence requirements. By November, the group had recommended building an airfield at Stephenville, an army base at St. John’s and large naval and air bases at Argentia.

The London talks

The Newfoundland government, meanwhile, was preparing for the forthcoming London talks, which would determine the final shape of the Leased Bases Agreement. The Commission decided to send two representatives: L.E. Emerson, Commissioner for Justice and Defence, and J.H. Penson, Commissioner of Finance.

L.E. Emerson L.E. Emerson, Commissioner for Justice and Defence, ca. 1940s
In January 1941, Newfoundland and Labrador Commissioner for Justice and Defence L.E. Emerson traveled to London to attended negotiations for the Leased Bases Agreement.
Photographer: Yosuf Karsh. From: Young, Ewart (editor). This is Newfoundland. Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1949.
Larger Version with more information(56 kb)

The negotiations, which began on January 28, 1941, were originally intended to last two weeks, but ran for eight. A major stumbling block in the talks about Newfoundland was the extent of legal jurisdiction the Americans would possess on the island.

The American negotiators argued that their country should have jurisdiction over all persons – including Newfoundlanders – committing military offenses within the leased areas, and over non-British subjects committing such offenses outside them. Emerson and Penson objected to granting such jurisdiction to a foreign power, believing it would undermine the authority of the Newfoundland government.

In the end, however, the British government acquiesced. Churchill met Emerson and Penson on March 18 to personally ask for their cooperation, despite their misgivings. Otherwise, the prime minister warned, the United States might be less likely to lend its support in the war effort. Both men agreed to Churchill’s request and, in response, received an assurance from the US State Department that the jurisdiction would be treated as a reserve power only. The talks also resulted in better access to the American market for Newfoundland fish and an improved immigration policy for Newfoundlanders going to the United States.

Despite their compliance, both Emerson and Penson later complained to their Newfoundland colleagues that the negotiations with the Americans had been much too one-sided. Newfoundland, they believed, was asked to make numerous concessions while few favours were granted in return.

On March 27, 1941, the Leased Bases Agreement was signed by British and American officials. It granted the United States:

  • All the rights, power and authority within the leased areas necessary to establish, operate and defend military bases.
  • Jurisdiction over all people, including Newfoundlanders and other British subjects, committing military offenses inside the leased areas and over non-British subjects committing such offenses outside those areas.
  • The right to acquire additional areas as necessary for the use and protection of the bases.

Fearing public unrest over the concessions that Newfoundland would have to make under the agreement, the Commission of Government took pains to portray the accord as fair, equitable and a critical part of the war effort. Moreover, British Prime Minister Churchill also wrote a public letter to the people of Newfoundland applauding their self-sacrifice and personally requesting that they support the terms of the agreement, “for the sake of the Empire, of liberty and of the welfare of all mankind.”

The strategy was largely successful and the agreement was accepted without any serious objection from the public. Instead, many people welcomed the Americans, anticipating the numerous employment opportunities that base construction would bring.

In the coming months, Newfoundland became one of the most highly militarized places in North America as the United States spent more than $100 million to transform thousands of acres of land into air and naval bases.

Not long after Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949, the Leased Bases Agreement was renegotiated, and by 1952 the United States had given up its jurisdiction over non-American subjects in its leased areas.

By 1980, the only base built under this agreement still being used by the Americans was the naval base in Argentia, which was later decommissioned in 1994. The facilities at Stephenville, St. John's and Argentia were eventually converted to civilian uses when the military forces withdrew.

Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2006, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site


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