Fickle friends by the Potomac

Roosevelt, Gandhi, Churchill
November 14, 1997

It has been believed for a long time that in the final years of negotiations about India's independence, the Americans played a pro-India role. Once the United States had joined the war after Pearl Harbor, there were continuous negotiations between Roosevelt and Churchill. The war had brought these two together, but in India, as long ago as 1939, Congress had resigned from all the provincial governments it held and attempts to bring the government of India to the negotiating table had failed. Congress pointed out the irony that India was fighting for the freedom of Poland while being herself enslaved. Would it not be better for India's war effort if Congress was to have a role at the centre helping the governor-general fight the war better ?

The British answer was no and no again. India was already contributing two million soldiers and quite a lot by way of war production. Much of the British effort was financed by sterling debt owed to India when the war ended. But Congress was thought to be nothing but trouble and a distraction from the war effort. Gandhi had reservations about violence and had even thought that faced with spiritual power (ie himself) even Hitler might think better of fighting. He was also not sure he wanted India to fight if it was free. Congress dithered back and forth on this. Nehru appreciated the importance of the war for democracy but still thought Britain should concede Congress a place at the top table.

Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor brought America in and this is just what Churchill wanted. But Indians also thought the Americans would back their case against the British. After all, the Atlantic Charter had celebrated the Four Freedoms. Churchill had of course made it clear to Roosevelt that this did not mean the British Empire had to be dismantled. Roosevelt, politician as ever, made soothing noises. As Japan came closer to India, the urgency of doing something to get greater Indian cooperation increased. The question was, should America push Churchill to concede to Congress demands?

This book is an investigation of the efforts by the US to help India by putting pressure on Britain. Although the book was originally issued in 1983 it has been reissued without any revision or updating for the 50 years of independence. It is a consistently negative judgement on America's case. The authors want to show that the Americans did much less than it is thought they did, or they let it be thought they did.

The bulk of the book has to do with the stay in India of William Phillips, who went to India as the personal representative of the president. This was an ambiguous position. He was not a fully accredited diplomat and had no powers. This suited Roosevelt and the State Department. They did not wish to annoy Churchill in any way, since winning the war was the top priority for them as much as it was for Churchill. Phillips faced Linlithgow as the viceroy, who as an aristocratic Scot and a Tory had no time for Phillips's hand-wringing and meddling on the Congress side.

Americans understood India very little and, except at moments when American lives were at stake in the Asian theatre, cared for it even less. The situation is no better today than it was then. Indians on the other hand then (as now) thought that their country is at the centre of the universe and their struggle should take priority over everything else: whosoever did not take this view was failing in their moral duty. So Congress thought, and the authors agree, that the primary task in 1942 and 1943 was some agreement on India's independence and some active role for Congress in the running of the war effort. Winning against Japan or Germany took a distinct second place to this urgent demand. And so the authors condemn American pusillanimity in the face of Churchill's determination not to yield.

At the start Roosevelt thought he was getting somewhere when Cripps was sent by Churchill in early 1942 to negotiate. But Cripps's brief was limited to less than Congress was asking for. Churchill did not want Cripps to succeed, if merely for the reason that he saw him as a rival in British terms. Cripps could easily have been the replacement for Churchill had the war gone wrong for much longer. So Churchill and Linlithgow sabotaged Cripps's mission. Roosevelt's friend, Colonel Johnson, was in New Delhi at this time but he failed to reverse Cripps's failure. William Phillips, who followed, did little better.

It is too much to expect that Roosevelt would have antagonised Churchill on such an issue. As the authors point out, interest in India, in American political circles, flagged soon after 1943. The priority was winning the war and India's freedom could wait - as indeed proved to be the case. Congress did not strengthen its case by launching the 1942 Quit India movement; very good for nationalist history but lousy for winning friends in the middle of the war. Gandhi was of course a great master at manipulating global media, indeed perhaps the pioneer in this respect. But even he did not help his case by veering from no fighting the Japanese to "do or die" against the British.

In the end the war was won and India got its freedom, though with a partition. In hindsight one wonders if the Congress party would have done better to cooperate with the British through the war rather than go into exile, battle and prison. This strengthened Jinnah's hands, and when the war ended Congress found that Jinnah had become a formidable opponent. Jinnah did all that without relenting from his anti-British stance, and without throwing a tantrum. In the event he got his way.

American relations with India are still covered in misunderstandings, frustrated expectations, hypocritical rhetoric and at the end very little genuine interest in each other. This is not because the two are different but because they are similar - large subcontinental countries that are insular and isolationist because they have the world within them and do not need the outside world. A pity though.

Lord Desai is professor of economics, London School of Economics.

Roosevelt, Gandhi, Churchill

Author - M. S. Venkata-Ramani and B. K. Shrivastava
ISBN - 0 86132 364 5
Publisher - Sangam
Price - £17.95
Pages - 412

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