Roosevelt - Warrior for Freedom (and The Gambia's part in his fight)
Thursday, February 14, 2008
President Roosevelt understood very well the threat posed to world peace by the continuation of imperialism, as was recorded by his son Elliott in his book, As He Saw It. The President told his son,
``The colonial system means war. Exploit the resources of an India, a Burma, a Java; take all the wealth out of these countries, but never put anything back into them, things like education, decent standards of living, minimum health requirements1-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.''
At the Casablanca conference in January of 1943, Roosevelt was even more emphatic:
``I'm talking about another war. I'm talking about what will happen to our world, if after this war we allow millions of people to slide back into the same semi-slavery! Don't think for a moment, Elliott, that Americans would be dying in the Pacific tonight, if it hadn't been for the shortsighted greed of the French and the British and the Dutch. Shall we allow them to do it all, all over again? Your son will be about the right age, fifteen or twenty years from now.''
On January 5, 1941 Roosevelt stood before the Congress, and spoke of ``a moment unprecedented in the history of the Union.'' He presented, as a single concept, both the domestic program for the United States and the principles of his global ``grand design.'' First he spelled out his economic bill of rights:
. Equality of opportunity for youth and for others;
. Jobs for those who can work;
. Security for those who need it;
. The ending of special privilege for the few;
. The preservation of civil liberties for all;
. The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.
Differences with Britian
The fundamental and unbridgeable difference between the United States and the British Empire, is the fact that the United States represents, if imperfectly, the embodiment of the nation-state, and that Great Britain is the modern form of the oligarchical, monarchical and imperialist system of rule.
It was obvious to Churchill and the British establishment, that Roosevelt's American Century vision of the postwar period was antithetical to the very existence of their Empire. It came down to this: the determination of the American President to nurture the existence of a community of republican nation-states in opposition to British insistence on maintaining their oppressive colonial system.
This fundamental conflict was more than evident at their meeting in August 1941 at Argentia, Newfoundland, before America's entry into the war.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the American President, Franklin Roosevelt, had heated conversations over the burning issue of Roosevelt's insistence on guaranteeing sovereignty for those nations still controlled by the colonial empires.
Churchill was forced to sign the Atlantic Charter, with its eight articles outlining the principles of freedom and economic development to ensure peace, ``after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny.''
Churchill made clear his reluctance to sign the Charter, when he said to FDR, ``Mr. President, 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, we know that you constitute our only hope. And you know that we know it. You know that we know that without America, the Empire won't stand.''
The Atlantic Charter, signed by Churchill and Roosevelt on August 12 1941, outlined the basic rights of nations to independence, peace, economic development and freedom from tyranny. It was seen by those people around the globe, struggling under the brutal boot of colonialism, as a sign of hope. They were inspired by the outlook of the American President and what he had uniquely put forward in the Charter.
As word of its signing spread, Roosevelt became a hero to oppressed people all over the world for his opposition to the imperialist policies of the British, French, and Dutch. Sumner Welles, Roosevelt's Assistant Secretary of State, who worked closely with the President on the wording of the Charter commented years later:
``The principles he had proclaimed in the Atlantic Charter were regarded as a source of hope and as a guarantee of a better day to come.''
The final version of Article III adopted at the conference reads as follows:
``Third, they respect the rights of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.''
British leadership correctly understood that Roosevelt was attempting to use the language of the Atlantic Charter to force an end to British colonialism.
Roosevelt succeeded in binding the British to a set of principles, which expressed his own unique vision of the future.
The Charter was signed even before the United States had entered the war as a combatant.
Churchill knew, all too well, the implications of the Atlantic Charter for the British Empire. Only a few days after the signing, the Labour Party newspaper, the Daily Herald, carried the headline: ``The Atlantic Charter--It Means Dark Races as well -Coloured people as well as white, will share the benefits of the Churchill-Roosevelt Atlantic Charter.''
The news of the signing of the Charter affected anti-colonial movements around the globe. According to Louis, within days of signing the document, Churchill received a message from the British Governor of Burma, warning that the Burmese people would use the literal meaning of Article III to call for independence after the war.
In Africa, Roosevelt's Atlantic Charter was praised by Sudan independence forces, as an encouragement to their efforts to liberate their country from the Anglo-Egyptian condominium. Mohamed Ahmed Mahgoub, the first Foreign Minister of Sudan put it this way:
``In the Sudan, we had been reading the liberal literature published in Britain, which spoke of a free world after the war. We had read and studied the Atlantic Charter of Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt after their meetings in August 1941, which declared that after the war all people should have the right of self-determination and self-government - a declaration which Churchill later qualified with his famous remark `I did not become
His Majesty's First Minister to preside over the liquidation of the Empire.' We had high hopes that after the war we too would get the right of self-determination and independence.''
Churchill's racist and imperialist attitude came to the surface in his anger at the implications of Article III, for Britain's colonial possessions in the resource-rich African continent. Churchill said that he was sure that it was not meant to apply so:
``that the natives of Nigeria or of East Africa, who could by a majority vote chose the form of government under which they live ... [and] that prior obligations require to be considered and respected and that circumstances alter cases.''
The ``prior obligations'' and ``circumstances'' to which Churchill referred, were the British Empire's intent to control the natural wealth and population of the Nigerian state, which was, and is, economically key to all of West Africa.
Roosevelt was generally distrustful of pro-British attitudes in the State Department, and attempts by the British to win over Department personnel to their side.
However, Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles had a healthy hatred of British colonialism, and shared Roosevelt's view that Britain's ``Imperial Preference,'' which the British considered a right of the Empire, was in fact a danger to world peace.
In 1942, Stanley Hornbeck, Advisor on Far Eastern Affairs, in an effort to counter Churchill's attempted sabotage of Roosevelt's grand design, wrote to Welles:
``Ought not thought be directed rather to the formulation and publishing of a world Charter which might be build upon, which might absorb, and which might be the logical, legal and political successor to the Atlantic Charter?''
Hornbeck's draft of the ``Declaration on National Independence'' quoted heavily from America's own Declaration of Independence (in which the word `independence' appeared 19 times) to project America's own experience to ``all the peoples of the world.''
The preamble to this proposed new declaration read in part:
``That the independence of those nations which now possess independence shall be maintained; that the independence of those nations which have been forcibly deprived of independence shall be restored; that opportunity to achieve independence for those peoples who aspire to independence shall be preserved, respected, and made more effective....''
The draft also included the specific timetable for de-colonization:
``It is, accordingly, the duty and the purpose of each nation having political ties with colonial peoples ... to fix, at the earliest practicable moment, dates upon which the colonial peoples shall be accorded status of full independence.''
Consistent with his earlier efforts, Hornbeck, in December 1943 spoke about the irreconcilable differences between the British and American outlooks:
``In the U.S. we place a much higher valuation upon the concept of political freedom and independence than do the British ... We assume to a far greater extent that various sundry now-dependent or quasi-dependent national groups have capacity for self-government.''
``If this war is, in fact, a war for liberation of peoples, it must assure sovereign equality of peoples throughout the world, as well as in the world of the Americas. Our victory must bring in its train the liberation of all peoples.
Discrimination between peoples because of their race, creed, or color must be abolished. The age of imperialism is ended.''
Secretary of State Hull, two months later, echoed Well's remarks:
``We have always believed--and we believe today that all peoples without distinction of race, color, or religion, who are prepared and willing to accept the responsibilities of liberty, are entitled to its enjoyment.''
Churchill fought Roosevelt throughout the entire war to maintain every inch of Britain's imperial possessions. The American President, looked at the world from an entirely different hypothesis, one that saw the end of the war as synonymous with the end of all forms of oppression, and the beginning of a new era of development, especially for those countries who had suffered under colonial rule.
Roosevelt's Banjul Declaration, 1943
In Africa, Roosevelt saw, as we can unfortunately still see today, the horrendous, abysmal conditions of life which have resulted from British rule.
When Roosevelt visited British Gambia on the West African coast in 1943, and saw the appalling conditions there, it created a strong image in the President's mind of the truly ugly nature of British colonialism. He later spoke about it in his press conference:
``I think there are about three million inhabitants, of whom, one hundred and fifty are white. And it's most horrible thing I have ever seen in my life.... The natives are five thousand years back of us. Disease is rampant, absolutely.
It's a terrible place for disease. ``And I looked it up, with a little study, and I got to the point of view that for every dollar that the British, who have been there for two hundred years, have put into Gambia, they have taken out ten. It's just plain exploitation of those people.''
He told his son after his visit to Bathurst (now Banjul), the capital of Gambia, that workers were paid only fifty cents a day. ``Besides which,'' he added, ``they're given a half-cup of rice. Dirt. Disease. Very high mortality rate.... Life expectancy - you'd never guess what it is. Twenty-six years. These people are treated worse than livestock. Their cattle live longer!''
Roosevelt threatened the British, that he would expose what they were doing in Gambia:
'' ... if you Britishers don't come up to scratch - toe the mark - then we will let all the world know.''
Roosevelt wouldn't let Churchill forget about what he saw in his visit to Gambia. Years later, when he became seriously ill, he quipped to Churchill, that he was sick with ``Gambia fever'' from ``that hell hole of yours called Bathurst.''
Before Roosevelt had ever been to Africa, he understood the enormous potential to create new wealth on the continent through infrastructural development, as opposed to the imperialistic looting policies as practiced by the British, the French, and the Dutch. He talked to Elliott about a plan to irrigate Tunisia that would,
``make the Imperial Valley in California look like a cabbage patch.... The Sahara would bloom for hundreds of miles.''
``Wealth. Imperialists don't realize what they can do, what they can create! They've robbed this continent of billions, and all because they were too shortsighted to understand that their billions were pennies, compared to the possibilities. Possibilities that must include a better life for the people who inhabit this land.''
No Return to Colonialism
At Casablanca in 1943, Roosevelt was able to talk to de Gaulle, as well as Churchill again. He was determined not to allow the French to return to their imperialistic practices after the war. Even though there were clear differences between de Gaulle and Churchill, the anti-imperialist Roosevelt knew that the British were sympathetic to France's desire to reoccupy Indochina in order to strengthen their own imperialist plans after the war.
Roosevelt was fearful of that the French would attempt to retake their colonies after the war:
``Interests coincide. The English mean to maintain their hold on the colonies. They mean to help the French maintain their hold on their colonies.''
He told Elliott that although de Gaulle expected the Allies to give France back her colonies,
``I'm by no means sure in my own mind that we'd be right to return France her colonies at all, ever, without first obtaining ... some sort of pledge ... of just exactly what was planned.''
When Elliott questioned not returning the colonies, Roosevelt replid,
''How do they belong to France? Why does Morocco, inhabited by Moroccans, belong to France? Or take Indochina.... The native Indo-Chinese have been so flagrantly downtrodden that they thought to themselves: Anything must be better, than to live under French colonial rule. Should a land belong to France? By what logic and what custom and by what historical rule?''
In a conversation with Secretary Hull, Roosevelt said:
``Each case must, of course, stand on its own feet, but the case of Indochina is perfectly clear. France has milked it for one hundred years. The people of Indochina are entitled to something better than that.''
One question this raises is: If ``Roosevelt's scheme'' for the postwar period had been implemented, would the French have been prevented from being involved in Indochina, and might this have spared the United States the nightmare known as the Vietnam War, and its devastating political consequences? At the Casablanca summit, Roosevelt made clear what he intended for the future:
``When we've won the war, I will work with all my might and main to see to it that the United States is not wheeled into the position of accepting any plan that will further France's imperialistic ambitions, or that will aid or abet the British Empire in its imperial ambitions.''
A few days later he told Elliott:
``I've tried to make it clear to Winston--and the others--that while we're their allies, and in it to victory by their side, they must never get the idea that we're in it just to help them hang on to the archaic, medieval Empire ideas.
Great Britain signed the Atlantic Charter. I hope they realize that the United States government means to make them live up to it.''
Roosevelt remained concerned, right up until up his death in 1945, about France's postwar imperialist plans for Indochina, Burns reports:
``Independence for Indochina had become a near-obsession of the President during the past year or two. He told Stalin at Yalta that he had in mind a temporary trusteeship for Indochina, but that the British wished to give it back to France, since they feared the implications of a trusteeship for their own rule in Burma.
De Gaulle, he said, had asked for ships to carry Free French forces to Indochina. Was he going to get them? Stalin asked. The President answered archly that he had been unable to find any ships for de Gaulle.'' Regarding his idea of a trusteeship, Roosevelt said that, ``Stalin liked it. China liked the idea. The British don't like it. It might bust up their empire.''
India and Burma
Roosevelt was particularly outraged about the British policy towards India and Burma. One evening, after a day of formal discussions at the Casablanca Conference, Roosevelt told Elliott: ``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 ... she should chose whether she wants to remain in the Empire.... ``As a commonwealth, she should 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? Ever 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.''
When Churchill got upset over the mentioning of India as one of the countries to be liberated, Roosevelt responded:
``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.''
Roosevelt sought to replace the ``Mandate system'' set up in 1919 with one of ``Trusteeship'' which would be internationally supervised and open for inspection.
The British recognized this as another effort by Roosevelt to dismantle their colonial empire, since, as Louis reports: ``At least during the inter-war years the mandates were treated as though they were British colonies.'' Oliver Stanley, head of the British Colonial Office, knew what Roosevelt was up to and objected to having ``a motley international assembly'' look into British affairs.
Stanley correctly feared that the United States would put, ``the whole of our Colonial administration under international review.''
Churchill made clear that he would not allow the Empire to be put ``in the dock,'' by having the international community scrutinizing their possessions.
The British paternal defense of their colonial system in Africa, for which we can see the ugly results today, was expressed in a 1923 policy paper on Kenya: ``In the administration of Kenya, His Majesty's Government regard themselves as exercising a trust on behalf of the African population, and they are unable to delegate or share this trust, the object of which may be defined as the protection and advancement of the native races.
``We are the Trustees of many great African Dependencies ... and our duty is to do justice and right between races ... remembering, above all, that we are the trustees before the world for the African population.''
The British knew that the Americans disliked the mandates, because in fact, they saw them as colonies, and the British tried to rationalize this objection to the American position and appease it through semantics. This is expressed in a letter to the Colonial Office in 1944, concerning the United States opposition:
``The tradition stems of course from the Revolution which produced fundamental attitudes, ideas, and symbols that are still at the core of the national thinking ... the attitude springs from this emotional source.... ``We can only by-pass this emotion by presenting our policy through ideas and symbols ... which are in line with positive American traditions.
Conceptions like `union', `partnership', `self government', `federation' fit this tradition; `trusteeship', `colony', `Empire', `British subject'--any words that smell of subjection--do not.''
The British were not going to let any outsiders hold them accountable for the colonial administration of their mandates and ``they bitterly rejected Americans sticking their fingers into colonial pies.'' Hornbeck said that,
``He felt like replying to the British that it happened to be their pie which was under our nose and which did not smell too good to us ... what becomes of these dependent peoples was everybody's concern.''
Churchill: The Empire will Survive
Under Roosevelt's assault, the British leadership were quite hysterical and defensive about protecting ``The Empire'' at all costs. In the summer of 1942, Lord Cranborne, the British Colonial Secretary, who later became the 5th Marquess of Salisbury, remarked:
``The British Empire is not dead, it is not dying, it is not even going into decline.'' He defended the Empire's colonial policy against the Americans:
``Our record was, in general, a good and progressive one, not a thing to be ashamed of, and ... the British had a useful mission to continue in the Colonies.''
Churchill himself responded to non-stop American attacks on the British Empire on November 10, 1942, in his most well known wartime remark:
``Let me however make this perfectly clear, in case they should be any mistake about it in any quarter. We mean to hold our own. I have not become the King's First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.''
One can imagine how, upon hearing this, Roosevelt must have had a hearty laugh, accompanied by one of his famous, large smiles. Lord Lugard, a member of the British elite in formulating colonial policy, and the first British Governor General of Nigeria, immediately rushed off a letter to The Times of London, in an attempt to soften Churchill's remarks, by stating that the British Empire really had the interests of its colonies at heart, and that,
``His Majesty's Government ... as trustees for the dependent peoples would never surrender that trust, which they alone could fulfill.'' The British thought the colonies were their obligations, i.e., their property, not anyone else's business, nor did anyone else have a right to interfere with them.
A month later, in December 1942 Churchill repeated his defense of the Empire, in his more typical, racist and pugnacious language:
``We also have our traditions and as long as I am here, we will hold to them and the Empire. We will not let the Hottentots by popular vote throw white people into the sea.''
Margery Perham, one of a stable of Oxford scholars employed by the oligarchy, wrote two articles for The Times to try to deal with criticisms of the British commitment to maintain their Empire. On November 26, she wrote one of the most elaborate attempts to assuage the anger of Americans at the British:
``It was not to be expected that Americans whose ancestors broke away from the British Empire in 1776 should march to its direct defense without asking themselves and us uncomfortable questions.... America was born out of negation of the British Empire; her democracy has been bred in the tradition of anti-imperialism.
When Americans wake up to find their soldiers besides ours in India and Africa, and marshaled, it may be, for the recovery of Burma and Malaya, they have to put their minds suddenly into reverse; and this jarring process has been freely reflected in their Press during the last nine months.''
Academic excursions aside, the British meant to hold what they had. In the December 28, 1942 issue of Life magazine, General Smuts, the Prime Minister of South Africa for the British Empire, repeated the salient point:
``Mother countries should remain exclusively responsible for the administration of their colonies and interference by others should be avoided.''
In December 1944, before the Yalta Conference, when Churchill was going to meet with Roosevelt and Stalin to plan out the postwar period, he found it necessary to warn them of his intent on maintaining the Empire:
``There must be no question of our being hustled or seduced into declarations affecting British sovereignty in any Dominions or Colonies. Pray remember my declaration against liquidating the British Empire.... `Hands off the British Empire' is our maxim and it must not be weakened or smirched to please sob stuff merchants at home or foreigners of any hue.''
Roosevelt's Vision Dies
On April 12, 1945 Franklin Delano Roosevelt died, and, tragically for humanity, the potential for a brighter postwar era died with him, as that ``little man,'' Harry Truman, took over the reigns of the U.S. Presidency.
The British were confident that with Roosevelt's death, the Empire would live on, and, to the detriment of civilization, it has.
All Roosevelt's plans to dismantle the British colonial empire along with the French, Dutch, and Belgium, and his vision of entering a new era of development, especially for the ``colonial sector,'' with the end of imperialist ``18th century methods,'' vanished, instantaneously, with his death. And, as post-war history has proved, the United States of America became the next exploiting imperial power causing war and destruction around the world in pursuit of American corporate greed.
But the ideals of Roosevelt for freedom live on to inspire, ironically, those now fighting American Imperialism.
Adapted from James MacGregor Burns's Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom