From Atlas to Atlanticists

By Mark Nichol

Intrigued by a reference to the political term Atlanticism, heretofore unbeknownst to me, I researched the history of the name of the ocean that separates the western and eastern hemispheres. This post defines and discusses these and related terms.

Atlanticism, a term coined in 1950, refers to the concept of cooperation between the United States (and, to a lesser extent, Canada) and the countries of Europe, an idea that developed during World War II and was codified in the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949. An advocate of the belief that this relationship is fundamental to geopolitical stability is an Atlanticist.

The term, of course, is based on the name of the Atlantic Ocean, the body of water that separates North America and Europe. But where does Atlantic come from?

That word, in reference to the seas beyond the Pillars of Hercules (a poetic name for the portal of the Mediterranean Ocean), dates to the classical Greek era and derives from the name of Atlas, a Titan who is said to have been condemned by the Olympic gods to hold up the heavens in perpetuity. (Titan is often depicted bearing Earth on his shoulders, but this image is based on confusion of the sky as a celestial sphere with a planetary globe.)

This myth is associated with the Atlas Mountains, located in northwest Africa and flanking the southern side of the Pillars of Hercules, which metaphorically brace the sky. Because illustrations of Atlas were often prominently featured on illustrated maps during the Age of Exploration (starting in the fifteenth century), bound collections of maps came to be called atlases. (The origin of Atlas’s name is disputed; it is said to be either from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “uphold” or a Berber word for mountain.)

Another name derived from Atlas, by way of Atlantic, is Atlantis. This was the name Plato gave to an imaginary island employed allegorically in one of his philosophical commentaries. Unfortunately, later readers misinterpreted this fictional location as a real one, and pseudoscientific speculation has run rampant ever since, to the point that Atlantis is held up as a psychically and spiritually fueled utopia that tragically met its end by divinely caused inundation. (The name for an inhabitant of Atlantis is Atlantean.)

Transatlantic (compare transpacific) describes something pertaining to a connection between the western and eastern hemispheres. Atlanta, the name of the capital of Georgia, resulted from the originally suggested designation Atlantica-Pacifica, inspired by the names of the oceans bordering the United States. (The name of the Pacific Ocean is from the adjective pacific, meaning “peaceful,” ultimately from the Latin word pax, meaning “peace.”)

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4 Responses to “From Atlas to Atlanticists”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Oh, venqax, there used to be large parts of the United States that were very isolationist, and the people and the state governments “did not give a hoot” about the Atlantic Ocean and whatever lies on the other side of it.
    This was particularly true about the middle of the country, and when Woodrow Wilson wanted to take the United States into World War I in 1917 (or earlier), he faced a lot of opposition from Senators and Congressmen from states like these: Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.
    ————————————————————————-
    Then at the conference at Versailles in France in 1919, Wilson pushed for the establishment of the League of Nations, but the necessary treaty was never ratified by the Senate. The United States never ratified the Treaty of Versailles, and it neither joined nor supported the League of Nations.
    ——————————————————————–
    Atlanticism came into force in the United States during the second and third terms of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
    Roosevelt and Churchill issued the Atlantic Charter in August of 1941, and that laid a lot of the foundations for the United Nations. Roosevelt, Cordell Hull (who won the Nobel Prize for Peace for his work), George C. Marshall, and other American leaders really pushed for the United Nations. The treaty establishing the U.N. was signed in San Francisco in 1945, and then New York City became the home city of the three main bodies of the U.N. – the General Assembly, the Security Council, and the Secretariat (the office of the Secretary-General).

    This was a complete turnaround from the status of the 1920s & 30s. The League of Nations had its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, and as far as most Americans were concerned, and their Congressman, and their President, it could be safely ignored. All of Europe and Africa could be ignored, and most Americans were more concerned with what was going on in China, Japan, the Philippines, and Latin America.

  • venqax

    @Dale: I can’t speak for MN but I think you’re reading a lot that wasn’t written. The term “Atlanticism” became relatively current in late WWII and its aftermath more as a term of contemporary British politics referring to Britain’s historically close ties to the US as opposed to the continental European powers. It was a major point of cleavage in British politics between those who favored looking “toward the Atlantic”– for closer ties with America, and those looking “the other way” toward Europe for closer ties there. Canada was always “there” as a point between the US and UK, literally and figuratively, which had its own ups and downs with its US relations, but was always a part of that “Atlantic” focus. I don’t see any attempt to minimize Canada’s role in either of the wars or of Canada’s history as part of the British Empire or Commonweath.

    FWIW, the place where I recall seeing the term “Atlanticists” used most was in journals like Foreign Affairs where is was discussed as the British outlook that emphasized the “special relationship” with the US, and was not so eager to join the EC, for example.

    However, it has always also been a term associated with the “Atlantic Alliance”, or NATO, to some extent. I believe that identification, like NATO itself, came a bit later. Just my tuppence based on my own recollections.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Canada shown once again its close ties to Britain and France in 1939. Britain and France both declared war against Nazi Germany on September 3, 1939, in response to the German invasion of Poland. The Canadian Parliament did hesitate until September 10th before following suit. (Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Burma, etc., had declared war on the 3rd or the 4th, depending on the International Date Line.) The obstacle in Canada came from the French-Canadian members of Parliament, mostly from Quebec, who did not want to see Canada in another war overseas, and especially not on behalf of the British King, and certainly not in France and Belgium again.
    The agreement was reached in Parliament that Canada would declare war, but none but volunteers would be sent overseas to fight. Note that all sailors in the Royal Canadian Navy were volunteers already. Then most of the French-Canadian representatives agreed to declare war on September 10th. (A similar agreement was made in Australia and New Zealand, in which only volunteers for overseas fighting would be sent away. This ended in early 1942, when those countries were threatened with invasion by the Japanese. The Australian Army was recalled from North Africa and sent to New Guinea to defend the homeland.) As for South Africa, the ruling was that South Africans would only fight in Africa, and that took them all the way to the northern tip of Tunisia. After that, the South African government changed its mind, and a South African division and South African aviators were sent to Italy.
    South Africans, New Zealanders, Americans, British, Brazilians, Belgians, Czechs, and Poles remained in Italy for the rest of the war. In fact, the division of New Zealanders liberated Trieste in the final week of World War II in Europe. At about the same time, the German Army in the Netherlands surrendered to the CANADIAN Army.

    Canada and Newfoundland finally decided to send draftee soldiers (nonvolunteers) to fight overseas after the Invasion of Normandy in June 1944. The Canadian Army suffered from immense casualties during the breakout from Normandy, such as in the Battle for Caen, and in the charge up the northwestern coasts of France and Belgium, on their way to Antwerp and Holland. Antwerp has the only large seaport on the coast of Belgium, and that was a vital target for keeping the Allied armies supplied for the invasion of Nazi Germany.
    Also the first Allied merchant ship to enter the Port of Antwerp in late 1944 was a CANADIAN cargo ship!

  • Dale A. Wood

    Mr. Nichol, you have implied that Canada is an “insular” country that cooperates less with Europe than the United States does:
    “Atlanticism, a term coined in 1950, refers to the concept of cooperation between the United States (and, to a lesser extent, Canada) and the countries of Europe.”
    Huh? Canada and the United Kingdom have the same monarch, and before 1947, Canada was an (internally self-governing) Dominion of the British Empire. Before 1949, Newfoundland & Labrador was also a Dominion under King George VI. Then in the first half of 1949, that Dominion became the 10th province of Canada, and shortly thereafter, Canada became a founding member of NATO.
    Canada has a LONG history of cooperation with Great Britain and France, more so than United States. For example, Canada & Newfoundland entered World War I in August 1914 along with Britain and France, rather than waiting until April 1917 (as a neutral country) like the United States did. Canadian troops and aviators were sent to France & Belgium to fight the Germans – most notably in and around the Belgian border town of Ypres – and the Royal Canadian Navy battled German U-boats in the Atlantic. Those Canadian troops became the first victims of poison gas in warfare in 1915. The German Army brought an entire trainload of chlorine gas to the front, and the Germans unleased this against the Canadians and British around Ypres.
    In an article about language, this is a notable item: The Canadian soldiers around Ypres pronounced this name “Wipers” (though the French-Canadian soldiers might have done differently).

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