Establishment historians were the first to write the “story” of India’s Independence. It was their self-
interest to credit Gandhi and the party in power. Though leftist historians did not relish established Congress myths, neither could they bring themselves to credit capitalist America. Hindutva historians want to explode myths that favour the Congress, but their Swadeshi predisposition makes it impossible for them to be honest about historical truths.
Every historian knows that the Second World War ended European colonialism. Not just in India, but practically every colony received independence after 1945, even if it had not been educated to govern itself. Historians also know that the moral might that forced imperial prime minister Winston Churchill’s hand was the Atlantic Charter, announced on 14 August 1941.
Elliott Roosevelt, son of and aide to American president Franklin Roosevelt, was an eyewitness to all but three of the eleven meetings Roosevelt had with Churchill during WW II. In his book, As He Saw It (1946) Elliott describes the climax of the conversation about colonialism between his father and Churchill in one of those meetings, 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.
The 8-point Atlantic Charter ensured that after the war, the victors created the United Nations, not a “United Empires”. The third of the eight points was about the resolve of the USA and UK to respect every colony’s right to self-determination. Even after agreeing to the charter, Churchill wanted to give that right only to people colonized by Germany, not to the British colonies. Yet, given Roosevelt’s resolve, the charter had already created ripples that became the tsunami that swept aside the reservations of British
colonialists such as Churchill.
Why Roosevelt opposed colonialism
• Why was Roosevelt opposed to colonialism?
• Why did he succeed in mounting a moral pressure on Britain?
• Are empires and colonialism morally evil?
• Are “nations” spiritual entities with a divine right to “self-determination” (independence) and the responsibility to use it morally?
The American opinion on these issues was formulated in fierce theological debates that resulted in the peace of 1555 (between Lutherans and Roman Catholics) and in 1648 in the Peace of Westphalia (between Calvinists, Lutherans and Catholics). It was the American theological understanding of national independence that enabled Roosevelt to dismantle the British Empire. This short article cannot digress into explaining how biblical theology helped liberate India. The historical point will become easy to grasp if I take the literary licence to imagine this rather simplistic (apocryphal) conversation between Roosevelt and Churchill.
In August 1941, when Churchill steps out of HMS Prince of Wales on to Roosevelt’s “fishing boat” USS Augusta, he is the head of history’s largest empire and the war leader of the free world. Roosevelt is simply the president of a nation on the margins of global geo-politics, hesitant to join the war. They have not met, even though the two have been talking about drawing America into the war since it began in 1939. Churchill is desperate because he fears that Germany could colonize Britain.
Roosevelt: So, Mr Prime Minister, you want us to join the war?
Churchill: Yes! Mr President.
Roosevelt: And, why should we expend our blood and money to fight a war that is not ours? Didn’t we shed enough American blood to save you in the previous war? Our economy is vulnerable. We are yet to emerge from the Great Depression.
Churchill: You should join the war because if the Nazis take over Europe and Japan begins to rule Asia, America will be defenceless between two superpowers.
Roosevelt: My people prefer isolation. They don’t want to be dragged into a war which is not ours.
Churchill: Isolation is an illusion. Two ruthless powers could soon be coveting your wealth. They will see you as a potential threat that has to be eliminated.
Roosevelt: Suppose we help you win this war; what happens then? Will you colonize Germany and Japan? Might Britain as the world’s sole superpower want its American colonies back within its empire?
Churchill: Well . . . to be honest, Mr President, I have not given much thought to what happens if we win. Most of my private fears have been about what happens to us and our empire if we lose. I’d hate to see India team up with the Nazis on the basis of their mutually shared ideology of Aryan supremacy.
Roosevelt: But . . . what’s the difference between Hitler and you. He has taken control of a part of Europe; you control a quarter of the world.
Churchill: Are you really comparing me to Hitler?
Roosevelt: You know perfectly well, Mr Prime Minister, that America is deeply religious. I can’t possibly ask my people to send their sons to their death unless you make this a moral war. In 1776 our ancestors fought against Britain because they believed that God is free. He made human beings to be His image – free. God destroyed Babel’s imperial city (Genesis 11) in order to create free nations. So, if you lose this war, our theologians will interpret that as God’s judgment on yet another empire. If this war is about preserving the British Empire then you have to fight it yourself. If you want America to support your war, then you have to help me sell it to my people as a moral crusade for freedom, against the tyranny of dictatorship and colonialism.
Churchill: That is not a problem. The Westminster Statutes of 1931 have already given independence to our dominions such as Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. Australia has been given the right to choose independence whenever it so desires.
Roosevelt: I know. That is all good, but not good enough. India should be given dominion status right away, and as soon as feasible, say in five years or at the most ten, it should be given the right to self-determination, like Australia.
The force of moral argument
At this point let me move away from my imaginary, simplified, conversation, back to Elliott Roosevelt’s memoirs of the conversation between Roosevelt and Churchill. Elliott recalls that his father said,
“. . . after the war, one of the preconditions of any lasting peace will have to be the greatest possible freedom of trade.”
He paused. The PM’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. [One of Roosevelt’s closest advisers, Harry Lloyd] Hopkins was grinning. Commander Thompson, Churchill’s aide, was looking glum and alarmed. The PM 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.”
It should not be difficult for a thoughtful reader to grasp why the Congress, communist, socialist and Hindutva historians have never told us about the American influence on Indian Independence. For many of them it is far too embarrassing to confess that America – then a Christian capitalist country – was not interested in teaming up with a fellow, English-speaking capitalistic empire to loot the world by continuing to colonize it. Ultimately, despite selfish motivations and calculations on all sides, it was the force of moral suasion that dismantled the British Empire, starting with its crown jewel.
Published in the August 2014 issue of the Forward Press magazine
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