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This Week in History:
February 2-8, 1944
Attacking Churchill, FDR Denounces the Enslavement of Africa and Asia by the British and French Empires

by Anton Chaitkin
February 2014

Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

We present here two war-time press conferences of Franklin Roosevelt, one on February 5, 1944, the other February 23, 1945. 

Seventy years ago this week, President Franklin D. Roosevelt reported his observations of the horrifying effects of British imperialism. He had taken advantage of his travel to Casablanca, Morocco for a war-time conference, to visit the British colony of Gambia. His report-back occurred in the following interchange with African-American newspaper publishers: 

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Press Conference for the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association,” February 5, 1944.       

….Last year I went to a place called Gambia in Africa, at the mouth of the Gambia River. Bathurst is the capital. I think there are about three million inhabitants, of whom one hundred and fifty are white. And it's the most horrible thing I have ever seen in my life. I was there twice. The natives are five thousand years back of us. Disease is rampant, absolutely. It's a terrible place for disease.

And I looked it up, with a little study, and I got to the point of view that for every dollar that the British, who have been there for two hundred years, have put into Gambia, they have taken out ten. It's just plain exploitation of those people. There is no education whatsoever….

Now the agriculture there is perfectly pitiful. The one main asset is peanuts, and the natives grow a lot of peanuts. How do they grow them? They have been growing them now for years, and they still use a pointed stick. Nobody ever saw a plow in Gambia. The British have never done a thing about it. The only road out of Bathurst, the capital, we built out to the airport. The rest of the travel is up the Gambia River, but not back into the country at all, only right by the river.

Now, as I say, we have got to realize that in a country like Gambia—and there are a lot of them down there—the people, who are in the overwhelming majority, have no possibility of self-government for a long time. But we have got to move, the way we did in the Philippines, to teach them self-government. That means education, it means sanitation, it means all those things. And that would be just as good for every white American to know as every colored American; but we don't know.

Now, because of your traditional, historic Association, it would be a perfectly grand thing if your Association could send two or three people out there, as a committee, to write stories about what is needed.

Casablanca Conference - Seated: President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill. Standing, front row, left to right: General Arnold, Admiral King, General Marshall, Admiral Pound, Air Chief Marshal Portal, General Brooke, Field Marshal Dill, and Admiral Mountbatten. January 1943.

I am taking up with Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the present time—I think he will see the point—the general thought that the United Nations ought to have an inspection committee of all these colonies that are way, way down the line, that are not ready to have anything to say yet because the owning country has given them no facilities.

And if we sent a committee from the United Nations, and I used the example of Gambia, to go down to Gambia, "If you Britishers don't come up to scratch—toe the mark—then we will let all the world know."

Well, the Prime Minister doesn't like that idea. And his comeback was, "All right, the United Nations will send an inspection committee to your own South in America." (Laughter)

He thought he had me.

I said, "Winston, that's all right with me. Go ahead and do it. Tell the world. We call it freedom of the press, and you also call it 'pitiless publicity'—you can right a lot of wrongs with 'pitiless publicity.'"

It would be a grand thing. I wouldn't mind if we had a committee of the United Nations come here and make a report on us. Why not? We have got some things to be ashamed of, and other things that are not as bad as they are painted. It wouldn't hurt at all—bring it all out.

So, if your Association could do something like that -- teach us a little bit more about the world .....   []  

A year later, near the end of the war, Roosevelt addressed the scandal of the French and British empires conniving to put Vietnam back under French rule --  even after France’s Vichy government had given up Vietnam to the Japanese invaders.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 992nd press conference, February 23, 1945, aboard the U.S.S. Quincy, en route home from the Yalta Conference:

The President: [after discussing the need for economic development of Iran and the Arab countries, based on the sovereign use of their oil revenues] .... I have been terribly worried about Indo-China [Vietnam and its neighboring countries].  I talked to [Chinese President] Chiang Kai-shek in Cairo, [and Soviet leader Joseph] Stalin in Teheran. They both agree with me. The French have been in there some hundred years.

.... [Chiang] said that [Indo-China] should not go back to the French, that they have been there for over 100 years and had done nothing about educating them, that for every dollar they have put in, they have taken out ten...

With the Indo-Chinese, there is a feeling that they ought to be independent but they are not ready for it. I suggested at the time, that Indo-China be set up under trusteeship--have a Frenchman, one or two Indo-Chinese, a Chinese, and a Russian because they are on the coast, and maybe a Filipino and an American--to educate them for self-government...

Stalin liked the idea. Chiang liked the idea. The British don't like it. It might bust up their empire, because if the Indo- Chinese were to work together and eventually get their independence, the Burmese might do the same thing to England....

Q: Is that Churchill's idea on all territory out there, that he wants it back just the way they were?

The President: Yes, he is mid-Victorian on all things like that....

Q: Do you remember that speech the Prime Minister made about the fact that he was not made Prime Minister of Great Britain to see the empire fall apart?

The President: Dear old Winston will never learn on that point. He has made his specialty on that point....

Truman Betrays Roosevelt and America’s Heritage 

President Roosevelt died just before the end of World War II (April 12, 1945). After Vice President Harry Truman succeeded to the Presidency, Truman merged the U.S. security and intelligence apparatus with the United Kingdom and defended the interests of the British and French Empires against the rights of man. 

Yet the Vietnamese insisted on reminding the world of America’s own heritage, and appealed to America to aid them in gaining national sovereignty. On the day Japan surrendered (September 2, 1945), the Vietnamese issued their Declaration of Independence, modeled directly on America’s.

The following February, Vietnam President Ho Chi Minh answered the message given out one year earlier by President Roosevelt in FDR’s February 23, 1945 press conference. In a letter to President Harry Truman (February 16, 1946) Ho asked the United States to treat Vietnam as it had the Philippines, just as Roosevelt had called for.  The two Vietnamese documents are reproduced below.

Truman did not even answer Ho Chi Minh’s letter, and kept it secret from the American people. The letter was declassified in 1972.

After Truman’s betrayal of Roosevelt, Africa remained under colonial control. The British granted Gambia nominal independence in 1965 – but with Elizabeth II as Queen of Gambia, her representative as Governor-General, and British banks in control of the economy. The people remained backward and suffocated in poverty. On October 2, 2013, the Gambian government announced that the country had "withdrawn its membership of the British Commonwealth," and had "decided that The Gambia will never be a member of any neo-colonial institution and will never be a party to any institution that represents an extension of colonialism".

Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, September 2, 1945

"All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.

The Declaration of The French Revolution made in 1791 on the Rights of Man and the Citizen also states: "All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights."

Those are undeniable truths.

Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow citizens. The have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.

In the field of politics, they have deprived our people of every democratic liberty.

They have enforced inhuman laws; they have set up three distinct political regimes in the North, the Center, and the South of Viet-Nam in order to wreck our national unity and prevent our people from being united.

They have built more prisons than schools. They have mercilessly slain our patriots; they have drowned our uprisings in rivers of blood….

To weaken our race they have forced us to use opium and alcohol.

In the field of economics, they have fleeced us to the backbone, impoverished our people and devastated our land.

They have robbed us of our rice fields, our mines, our forests, our raw materials. They have monopolized the issuing of bank notes and the export trade.

They have invented numerous unjustifiable taxes and reduced people, especially our peasantry, to a state of extreme poverty.

They have hampered the prospering of our national bourgeoisie, they have mercilessly exploited our workers.

In the autumn of 1940, when the Japanese fascists violated Indochina's territory to establish new bases in their fight against the Allies, the French imperialists went down on their bended knees and handed over our country to them….

For these reasons, we, members of the Provisional Government, representing the whole Vietnamese people, declare that from now on we break off all relations of a colonial character with France; we repeal all the international obligation that France has so far subscribed to on behalf of Viet-Nam, and we abolish all the special rights the French have unlawfully acquired in our Fatherland.

The whole Vietnamese people, animated by a common purpose, are determined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists to reconquer their country….

For these reasons, we, members of the Provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam, solemnly declare to the world that Viet-Nam has the right to be a free and independent country and in fact it is so already. Theentire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilize all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty.

Ho Chi Minh, Letter to President Harry Truman, February 16, 1946.

Dear Mr. President:

I avail myself of this opportunity to thank you and the people of the United States for the interest shown by your representatives at the United Nations Organization in favour of the dependent peoples.

Our VIETNAM people, as early as 1941, stood by the Allies' side and fought against the Japanese and their associates, the French colonialists.

From 1941 to 1945 we fought bitterly, sustained by the patriotism, of our fellow-countrymen and by the promises made by the Allies at Yalta, San Francisco and Potsdam.

When the Japanese were defeated in August 1945, the whole Vietnam territory was united under a Provisional Republican Government, which immediately set out to work. In five months, peace and order were restored, a democratic republic was established on legal bases, and adequate help was given to the Allies in the carrying out of their disarmament mission.

But the French Colonialists, who betrayed in wartime both the Allies and the Vietnamese, have come back, and are waging on us a murderous and pitiless war in order reestablish their domination. Their invasion has extended to South Vietnam and is menacing us in North Vietnam. It would take volumes to give even an abbreviated report of the crisis and assassinations they are committing everyday in this fighting area.

This aggression is contrary to all principles of international law and the pledge made by the Allies during World War II. It is a challenge to the noble attitude shown before, during, and after the war by the United States Government and People. It violently contrasts with the firm stand you have taken in your twelve point declaration, and with the idealistic loftiness and generosity expressed by your delegates to the United Nations Assembly…

The French aggression on a peace-loving people is a direct menace to world security. It implies the complicity, or at least the connivance of the Great Democracies. The United Nations ought to keep their words. They ought to interfere to stop this unjust war, and to show that they mean to carry out in peacetime the principles for which they fought in wartime.

Our Vietnamese people, after so many years of spoliation and devastation, is just beginning its building-up work. It needs security and freedom, first to achieve internal prosperity and welfare, and later to bring its small contribution to world-reconstruction.

These security and freedom can only be guaranteed by our independence from any colonial power, and our free cooperation with all other powers. It is with this firm conviction that we request of the United Sates as guardians and champions of World Justice to take a decisive step in support of our independence.

What we ask has been graciously granted to the Philippines. Like the Philippines our goal is full independence and full cooperation with the UNITED STATES. We will do our best to make this independence and cooperation profitable to the whole world.

I am Dear Mr. PRESIDENT,

Respectfully Yours,

(Signed) Ho Chi Minh