Despite Wilson's efforts, the principle of self-determination was not explicitly written into the League of Nations Covenant. Therefore, many predicted that it would soon be forgotten. Moreover, after the war U.S. officials tended to regard the Slavic states of Europe as politically corrupt, economically unstable, and strategically insignificant. During the interwar years, U.S. concern for the region was limited to occasional statements on behalf of religious freedom and self-determination of peoples. U.S. officials never formulated any specific policies to achieve such aims for the simple reason that Eastern Europe lay outside the region of historic American interest. It was obvious, therefore, that America would not oppose any serious German or Russian challenge to the newly created states. Thus, when Nazi power destroyed Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1939 and overran all of Eastern Europe in 1940, the American people were reluctant to offer anything more than deep sympathy. Nevertheless, nationalists in Asia such as Mahatma Gandhi in India and Ho Chi Minh in Indochina continued to seek national liberation, inspired in part by Wilson's ideal of self-determination.
However, as events were to demonstrate, the view that self-determination was merely an anomaly of World War I proved to be false. Amid the confusion of World War II, the outline of the future world settlement began to appear and take shape. Franklin D. Roosevelt was as challenged and as baffled by the idea of self-determination as Wilson had been. Just as Wilson believed that an international organization was needed to transform the doctrine of self-determination into political reality, so Roosevelt saw the United Nations, Wilson's grandchild, as hopefully playing the role in which Wilson had cast it. The United Nations was to accept "the fact of nationalism and the need for internationalism." Just as Wilson had experienced difficulties in interpreting and applying the doctrine of self-determination in the face of Allied objections, the secret treaties, and Bolshevik competition, Franklin Roosevelt had similar problems. In the Atlantic Charter of August 1941, he and Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain joined to make known certain common principles and national policies on which they based their hopes for a better future. Once again the principle of self-determination of peoples was affirmed and the desire expressed "to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned." Respect was also reaffirmed for "the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live" and "to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them."
As in World War I, both the meaning and the scope of these abstract principles were open to conflicting interpretations. For example, the Atlantic Charter ignored the burgeoning interests of the Soviet Union in European politics. For Joseph Stalin the charter's repudiation of any alteration in the prewar political and territorial status of Eastern Europe—the only region that offered the Soviets any tangible and lasting fruits of victory—rendered it totally unacceptable as a basis of action. That the Soviet Union, unlike both the United States and Britain, suffered incalculable physical destruction and twenty million deaths at the hands of the invading Nazis made inevitable vast disagreements over the applicability of the Atlantic Charter to the territories of Germany and Eastern Europe. While both Britain and the United States recognized that without the continued and unlimited military efforts of the Soviet Union the West could hardly hope to defeat Germany, the Atlantic Charter assumed that the two Western democracies, even before the United States had formally entered the war, could dominate the postwar settlements in a region that comprised not only the historic territorial objectives of the Russian nation but also the area the Soviet armies might actually occupy.
Fighting for their existence, the Russians were in no position to antagonize their Western allies. At the meeting of the Allies in London in September 1941, they accepted the principle of self-determination; clearly, though, the Soviet Union would follow the precepts of the Atlantic Charter only to the extent that they served its security interests. That the immediate military requirements far outweighed ultimate political intention was illustrated in January 1942, when the Soviet Union and twenty-five other nations signed the United Nations Declaration, the opening paragraph of which accepted the purpose and principles of the Atlantic Charter.
In 1944, as the Allies began to free vast areas of Europe from Nazi control, their political differences could no longer be submerged. As the Russian armies rolled across Eastern Europe, what the United States had denied Stalin by refusing to accede to a spheres-of-influence agreement, now fell to the Soviet Union through rapid military advancement. But as late as April 1944, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, committed to the Wilsonian vision of self-determination, not only opposed any negotiation of spheres of influence with the Soviet Union but also promised the American people a postwar world based on the principles of the Atlantic Charter. Whatever security Stalin required along his western boundaries, said Hull, he could obtain through a strong postwar peace organization. When it became clear to Stalin that free governments in such nations as Poland and Romania would not do his bidding, he employed his military advantage to impose governments friendly to the Soviet Union through the agency of communist puppet regimes. This eliminated the possibility of any serious negotiation on the postwar Soviet frontiers of Eastern Europe. By 1945 the Western powers could no longer assure even limited self-determination for the Slavic peoples of Europe. What remained for the United States was the cruel choice of compromising the principles of the Atlantic Charter or sacrificing the alliance itself.