FDR versus the British Empire

By Nancy Spannaus

Sept. 15, 2022—The current wave of adulation for Queen Elizabeth II here in our republic calls for some serious reflection. After all, this Queen in her 70-year reign presided dutifully over an Empire, the very empire which we wrested our independence from nearly 250 years ago. Does her rule really represent a praiseworthy paragon of stability and decency, as so many have rushed to assert?

It is not surprising that the most critical voices to be raised about Queen Elizabeth’s legacy have come from Africa. That continent not only suffered most grievously from the British-dominated slave trade but was among the last to receive its independence from colonial status. Zimbabwe (formerly Southern Rhodesia) did not become an independent state until 1980, well into this Queen’s rule. Memories of the British military’s brutal suppression of popular revolts are still fresh there, and in India as well.

FDR Understood the British Empire
The Queen with Nigerian President Obasanjo in 2003 (AFP)

In fact, the British still control five colonies in the Caribbean. Barbados, which gained nominal independence in 1966, just became a republic last year, severing its political ties with the British Crown. The barbaric history of slavery in those islands has also by no means been forgotten.

Here in the United States, the history of British imperial oppression seems much more distant, of course. But as recently as the 1940s, President Franklin Roosevelt had to face off against British determination to hold onto its Empire, as he sought to form an alliance against the Nazi threat. It should be noted that, 160 years after losing the American colonies, the British Empire was alive and well in those years, spanning the globe from India to Africa and the Caribbean. And Roosevelt was dead set on ending it.

The following report on FDR’s confrontations with Winston Churchill on the subject comes from As He Saw It,[1] a book written in 1946 by FDR’s son Elliott, who participated with him at various conferences on war strategy. I believe FDR’s insights into the nature of Empire should give us pause, as we grapple with our own conduct as a republic today.

FDR to Churchill: End Colonialism

The first conflicts between FDR and Churchill which Elliott Roosevelt discusses occurred in Argentia, the Canadian harbor where the two met in August of 1941.

FDR came prepared for conflict. He told Elliott on the eve of his discussion that “Churchill told me that he was not his Majesty’s Prime Minister for the purpose of presiding over the dissolution of the British Empire. I think I speak as America’s President when I say that America won’t help England in this war simply so that she will be able to continue to ride roughshod over colonial peoples.”

FDR versus the British Empire
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill  at the Argentia conference.

The first confrontation occurred a couple days into the discussions, during after-dinner conversation. Elliott reports that his father started off by declaring that after the war, “one of the preconditions of any lasting peace will have to be the greatest possible freedom of trade. No artificial barriers. As few favored economic agreements as possible…”

Churchill rose to the bait: “The British Empire trade agreements are…”

FDR interrupted: “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 responded: “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.”

FDR countered sharply: “I am firmly of the belief that if we are to arrive at a stable peace, it must involve the development of backward countries.[2] Backward peoples. How can this be done? It can’t be done, obviously, by eighteenth-century methods. …”

Churchill virtually growled a response: “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,” FDR replied. “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.”[3]

FDR Versus the British Empire
The 1943 Bengal famine, which killed 3 million Indians, is widely attributed to British imperial policy.

The argument went on, with FDR insisting that “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.” Churchill objected: “There can be no tampering with the Empire’s economic agreements.” But FDR was firm: “The peace cannot include any continued despotism. The structure of the peace demands and will get equality of peoples.”

FDR’s insistence can be seen in the text of the Atlantic Charter which was issued following these meetings, a charter that set the aim of freely chosen governments and access to economic security for all nations, large and small.

The matter remained unresolved, of course. It was Churchill who brought it up again on the eve of the parties’ departure. “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 …”[4]

Imperialism Means War

Elliott’s next extended report on FDR’s attacks on the British imperial system comes in his chapter on the Casablanca conference, which occurred in January of 1943. On the agenda was military strategy, including the question of the French role. Most of what Elliott reports are discussions between him and his father, without Churchill present.

“The colonial system means war,” FDR told his son. “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.”

Mining by hand — a hallmark of 18th century colonial methods.

“I must tell Churchill what I found out about British Gambia today,” FDR went on. “This morning 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?” Elliott interrupted.

“A day!” FDR replied. “Fifty cents a day! Besides which, they’re given a half-cup of rice.” “Dirt. Disease. Very high mortality rate. I asked. Life expectancy –you’d never guess what it is. Twenty-six years. Those people are treated worse than the livestock. Their cattle live longer!”

FDR went on to discuss his intention to ensure this colonial oppression was reversed. Responsibility was to lie with the United Nations’ “Big Four” for “bringing education, raising the standards of living, improving the health conditions – of all the backward, depressed colonial areas of the world.”

And, he concluded, “If this isn’t done, we might as well agree that we’re in for another war.”

A Final Note

FDR’s determination to end imperialism stemmed from his deep appreciation of the United States’ own republican roots, and his commitment to reapplying the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution in the crises of the Great Depression[5] and the world war. How desperately our world needs such insight and determination today.

[1] The book is still available.

[2] It should be clear that by “backward countries,” FDR meant countries who had been denied the fruits of education, infrastructure, and modern technology to improve their living standards.

[3] FDR’s idea of 20th century methods can be seen in his New Deal policies. See https://americansystemnow.com/how-fdr-built-vital-infrastructure/

[4] Elliott adds that this admission by Churchill meant that he recognized that British colonial policy would be a “dead duck” under FDR’s postwar plans. Ruefully, he concludes this would have been the case had FDR lived to lead the postwar policy.

[5] For an elaboration of FDR’s commitment to the American System, see chapter VI in my book Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics, available at https://www.iuniverse.com/en/bookstore/bookdetails/788568-hamilton-versus-wall-street