When President Franklin Roosevelt clashed with Winston Churchill over India’s future

When President Franklin Roosevelt clashed with Winston Churchill over India’s future

Pittsburgh Courier, June 6, 1942, pg. 1

In a provocative article in the Washington Post last week, Indian member of parliament Shashi Tharoor, author of “Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India”, remarked at the continued adulation of Winston Churchill in the West, most recently by the  American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. British actor Gary Oldman went home from the 2018 Academy Awards with an Oscar for his role as Churchill in yet another hagiography of Churchill – the movie, Darkest Hour. However, as Tharoor points out, to Indians, the “blinkered imperialist” Churchill’s “darkest hour” was in fact “his constant effort to deny us (Indians) freedom”.

Much has been made of the “special relationship” between the US and Great Britain. The term was in fact popularized by Churchill who frequently evoked the close cultural, historical, linguistic and religious ties between the two nations. But it was over the question of India’s future after the end of World War 2, and Churchill’s insistence on “denying Indians their freedom”, that this special relationship was tested.

President Roosevelt’s vision for a postwar world was one that restored self-government to all colonized and occupied nations. This vision was articulated in a document called the Atlantic Charter, authored jointly in 1941 by Winston Churchill and the President. The Atlantic Charter, according to Churchill, would “reassure the world of our righteous purpose in wartime”. Sadly, Churchill’s righteousness did not extend to the Indian people, who he described famously as “a beastly people with a beastly religion”.

The third clause of the Atlantic Charter, that Britain and the US would support the “restoration of self-governments for all countries”, seemed to augur well for India, engaged as it was in a long drawn out freedom struggle. However, Churchill dashed any hopes for independence when he stated categorically in the British Parliament in September of 1941, that the Atlantic Charter were never intended for India at all:

“the Joint Declaration (the Atlantic Charter) does not qualify in any way the various statements of policy which have been made from time to time about the developments of constitutional government in India, Burma, and other parts of the British Empire (…) At the Atlantic meeting we have had in mind, primarily, the restoration of the sovereignty, self-government, and natural life of the states and nations of Europe now under the Nazi yoke, quite a separate problem from (…) regions and peoples which owe allegiance to the British Crown.”

Churchill’s decision to withhold the Atlantic Charter’s principles from India was strongly criticized not only by Indians but also by President Roosevelt. In fact differences of opinion had emerged as early as the initial meeting in Newfoundland (incidentally, the first time the President and Prime Minister met in person) where the two leaders had got together to draft the document. Captain Elliott Roosevelt, FDR’s son and military aide, was present at those meetings and describes their conversations in his book, “As He Saw It” (1946). Here’s an excerpt:

FDR: “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—”

Churchill: “Who’s talking eighteenth-century methods?”

FDR: “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.” (…)

“Those (British) 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: “There can be no tampering with the Empire’s economic agreements.”

FDR: “They’re artificial. . .”

Churchill: “They’re the foundation of our greatness.”

FDR: “The peace, 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?” (…)

Churchill: “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.”

It is to President Roosevelt’s everlasting credit that he continued to put pressure on Churchill to extend the Atlantic Charter to India and other British colonies. On Memorial Day in 1942, at Arlington National Cemetery, FDR’s Under Secretary of State, Sumner Welles, who no doubt spoke for FDR, declared in a speech that the age of imperialism had ended and that “the principles of the Atlantic Charter must be guaranteed to the world as a whole – in all oceans and in all continents.”

Shefali Chandan
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