(This story was first published on 30 January 2018 and has been reposted from our archives to mark Franklin Roosevelt’s birth anniversary.)
Franklin D Roosevelt, or FDR, was the US’ longest-serving President, having been elected to four terms – the last two rendered him a wartime President, as WWII broke out.
His birth anniversary is a good time to recount FDR’s efforts to end British colonialism as WWII raged, going against the then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was loathe to give up the jewel in the British crown – India. As the allied powers negotiated victory over their enemies, FDR was instrumental in laying some of the groundwork for ending the British Empire’s stranglehold on its colonies.
In 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill were in discussions about the terms of the Atlantic Charter – the policy statement during WWII that laid out the Allied goals for a postwar order, and which later evolved into the UN Charter. Roosevelt fought to include an article on self-determination, much to Churchill’s horror.
When Churchill was forced to cede ground to Roosevelt, this was the common principle they finally articulated that cemented self-determination as an Allied goal in their Joint Statement:
“[...] they respect the right 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”.
During the negotiations that led up to the Charter being signed, according to the book As He Saw It by Roosevelt’s son Elliot, Roosevelt laid it all out on the table for Churchill:
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.'
‘You mentioned India,’ he [Churchill] 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.’
At the Casablanca Conference of 1943, some two years after the signing of the Atlantic Charter, Roosevelt’s son recounted a conversation with Churchill his father had relayed to him:
‘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 [India] 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.'
There’s no doubt that Roosevelt lobbied hard for the freedom of colonised peoples of the world, including India, against Churchill’s fierce opposition. His determination is best seen in this exchange with Churchill, recounted As He Saw It:
Roosevelt: '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–”
Churchill: '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.'
Two years after the end of WWII, India got its Independence from British rule – in some small part due to Roosevelt’s insistence on the principle of self-determination.