Roosevelt VS British Colonialism


Aesthetic Education | John Winthrop | Cotton Mather | Benjamin Franklin | Alexander Hamilton | Roosevelt VS British Colonialism

President Franklin Roosevelt's Battle against Colonialism

American System

By Robert Trout

October 15, 2000

An eyewitness account of the struggle between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, over the fate of the post-war world is contained in the book by the President's son, Elliott Roosevelt, 'As He
Saw It,' (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1946). Elliott Roosevelt was an aide to his father at all but one of the Big Three conferences during World War II. Elliott Roosevelt recounts how his father, the American President laid out his determination to shape a post-war world free of colonialism, and his perspective for the economic development of the former colonies to eradicate poverty and illiteracy.

The following are two excerpts from Elliott Roosevelt's book. The first is from a meeting of Roosevelt and Churchill at the Bay of Argentia, of the coast of Newfoundland. It was at this meeting where Roosevelt forced Churchill to sign the Atlantic Charter on August 14, 1941. This charter contained key aspects of Roosevelt's vision of the post-war world.

The first section is Elliott Roosevelt's account of the conference between Roosevelt and Churchill at Argentia Bay off Newfoundland. The Atlantic Charter was signed at this meeting on Aug 14, 1941.

(It should be emphasized that Roosevelt is not promoting the British doctrine of free trade. Indeed the British only followed the free trade approach when it was to their benefit. The British Empire was based on monopolistic trading arrangements that enriched Great Britain and impoverished the colonies. Trade between British colonies and other countries was severely limited.)

Roosevelt and Churchill Meet in August 1941

It must be remembered that at this time Churchill was the war leader, Father only the President of a state which had indicated its sympathies in a tangible fashion. Thus, Churchill still arrogated the conversational lead, still dominated the after-dinner hours. But the difference was beginning to be felt.

And it was evidenced first, sharply, over Empire.

Father started it.
'Of course,' he remarked, with a sly sort of assurance, 'of course, after the war, one of the preconditions of any lasting peace will have to be the greatest possible freedom of trade.'

He paused. The P.M.'s head was lowered; he was watching Father steadily, from under one eyebrow.

'No artificial barriers,' Father pursued. 'As few favored economic agreements as possible. Opportunities for expansion. Markets open for healthy competition.' His eye wandered innocently around the room.

Churchill shifted in his armchair. 'The British Empire trade agreements' he began heavily, 'are--'

Father broke in. 'Yes. Those Empire trade agreements are a case in point. It's because of them that the people of India and Africa, of all the colonial Near East and Far East, are still as backward as they are.'

Churchill's neck reddened and he crouched forward. 'Mr. President, England does not propose for a moment to lose its favored position among the British Dominions. The trade that has made England great shall continue, and under conditions prescribed by England's ministers.'

'You see,' said Father slowly, 'it is along in here somewhere that there is likely to be some disagreement between you, Winston, and me.

'I am firmly of the belief that if we are to arrive at a stable peace it must involve the development of backward countries. Backward peoples. How can this be done? It can't be done, obviously, by eighteenth-century methods. Now--'

'Who's talking eighteenth-century methods?'

'Whichever of your ministers recommends a policy which takes wealth in raw materials out of a colonial country, but which returns nothing to the people of that country in consideration. Twentieth-century methods involve bringing industry to these colonies. Twentieth-century methods include increasing the wealth of a people by increasing their standard of living, by educating them, by bringing them sanitation--by making sure that they get a return for the raw wealth of their community.'

Around the room, all of us were leaning forward attentively. Hopkins was grinning. Commander Thompson, Churchill's aide, was looking glum and alarmed. The P.M. himself was beginning to look apoplectic.

'You mentioned India,' he growled.

'Yes. I can't believe that we can fight a war against fascist slavery, and at the same time not work to free people all over the world from a backward colonial policy.'

'What about the Philippines?'

'I'm glad you mentioned them. They get their independence, you know, in 1946. And they've gotten modern sanitation, modern education; their rate of illiteracy has gone steadily down....'

'There can be no tampering with the Empire's economic agreements.'

'They're artificial....'

'They're the foundation of our greatness.'

'The peace,' said Father firmly, 'cannot include any continued despotism. The structure of the peace demands and will get equality of peoples. Equality of peoples involves the utmost freedom of competitive trade. Will anyone suggest that Germany's attempt to dominate trade in central Europe was not a major contributing factor to war?'

It was an argument that could have no resolution between these two men....

The conversation resumed the following evening:

Gradually, very gradually, and very quietly, the mantle of leadership was slipping from British shoulders to American. We saw it when, late in the evening, there came one flash of the argument that had held us hushed the night before. In a sense, it was to be the valedictory of Churchill's outspoken Toryism, as far as Father was concerned. Churchill had got up to walk about the room. Talking, gesticulating, at length he paused in front of Father, was silent for a moment, looking at him, and then brandished a stubby forefinger under Father's nose.

'Mr. President,' he cried, 'I believe you are trying to do away with the British Empire. Every idea you entertain about the structure of the postwar world demonstrates it. But in spite of that'--and his forefinger waved--'in spite of that, we know that you constitute our only hope. And'--his voice sank
dramatically--'{you} know that {we} know it. {You} know that {we} know that without America, the Empire won't stand.'

Churchill admitted, in that moment, that he knew the peace could only be won according to precepts which the United States of America would lay down. And in saying what he did, he was acknowledging that British colonial policy would be a dead duck, and British attempts to dominate world trade would be a dead duck, and British ambitions to play off the U.S.S.R. against the U.S.A. would be a dead duck.

Or would have been, if Father had lived.

The policies that Roosevelt fought for were embodied in the Atlantic Charter that Roosevelt and Churchill signed at this meeting. However, Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. His successor, Harry Truman shared none of Roosevelt's vision. His Presidency proved to be a tragic failure.

At the Casablanca Conference

A similar kind of discussion occurred between Roosevelt and Churchill at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943. The following is Elliott's description of his father's talk with him one evening during that meeting.

His thoughts turned to the problem of the colonies and the colonial markets, the problem which he felt was at the core of all chance for future peace. 'The thing is,' he remarked thoughtfully, replacing a smoked cigarette in his holder with a fresh one, 'the colonial system means war. Exploit the resources of an India, a Burma, a Java; take all the wealth out of those countries, but never put anything back into them, things like education, decent standards of living, minimum health requirements--all you're doing is storing up the kind of trouble that leads to war. All you're doing is negating the value of any kind of organizational structure for peace before it begins.

'The look that Churchill gets on his face when you mention India!

'India should be made a commonwealth at once. After a certain number of years--five perhaps, or ten--she should be able to choose whether she wants to remain in the Empire or have complete independence.

'As a commonwealth, she would be entitled to a modern form of government, an adequate health and educational standard. But how can she have these things, when Britain is taking all the wealth of her national resources away from her, every year? Every year the Indian people have one thing to look forward to, like death and taxes. Sure as shooting, they have a famine. The season of the famine,
they call it.'

He paused for a moment, thinking.

'I must tell Churchill what I found out about his British Gambia today,' he said, with a note of determination.

'At Bathurst?' I prompted.

'This morning,' he said, and now there was real feeling in his voice, 'at about eight-thirty, we drove through Bathurst to the airfield. The natives were just getting to work. In rags ... glum-looking... They told us the natives would look happier around noontime, when the sun should have burned off the dew and the chill. I was told the prevailing wages for these men was one and nine. One shilling, ninepence. Less than fifty cents.'

'An hour?' I asked, foolishly.

'A {day!} Fifty cents a {day!} Besides which, they're given a half-cup of rice.' He shifted uneasily in his big bed. 'Dirt, disease. Very high mortality rate. I asked. Life expectancy--you'd never guess what it was. Twenty-six years. Those people are treated worse than the livestock. Their cattle live longer!'

He was silent for a moment.

'Churchill may have thought I wasn't serious, last time. He'll find out, this time.' He looked at me thoughtfully for a moment. 'How is it, where you are? How is it in Algeria?' he asked.

I told him it was the same story. Rich country, rich resources, natives desperately poor, a few white colonials that lived very well, a few native princes that lived very well, otherwise poverty, disease, ignorance. He nodded.

And then he went on to tell of what he thought should be done: France to be restored as a world power, then to be entrusted with her former colonies, as a trustee. As trustee, she was to report each year on the progress of her stewardship, how the literacy rate was improving, how the death rate declining, how disease being stamped out, how...

'Wait a minute,' I interrupted. 'Who's she going to report all this to?'

'The organization of the United Nations, when it's been set up,' answered Father. It was the first time I'd ever heard of this plan. 'How else?' I asked Father. 'The Big Four--ourselves, Britain, China, the Soviet Union--we'll be responsible for the peace of the world after....

'...It's already high time for us to be thinking of the future, building for it.... These great powers will have to assume the tasks of bringing education, raising the standards of living, improving the health conditions--of all the backward, depressed colonial areas of the world.

'And when they've had a chance to reach maturity, they must have the opportunity extended them of independence. After the United Nations as a whole have decided that they are prepared for it.

'If this isn't done, we might as well agree that we're in for another war.'

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