Lecture given at NYMAS-CUNY Graduate Center

 September 14, 2007

By Robert L.  Miller


Published in French as an article in the

Actes de l’Académie des Sciences d’Outre-Mer 2007






On November 29, 1963 Ngo Dinh Trac arrived in the dorm of my boarding school in Paris.  He was the son of Ngo Dinh Nhu and Madame Nhu best known as the “Dragon Lady,” and stayed only a very short time.  After he left the school I never saw him again.  What he said impressed me at the time and remained with me ever since:


“You Americans want to Americanize everything.  You can’t accept foreign cultures, refuse to learn about them and all you can think about is to want to shape other countries in your own image.  That’s a mistake and it will work against you in Vietnam.  In the end you will have to leave.  Better you go now than after a war you shall lose.”


The boy had just lost his father and uncle in a bloody coup by the South Vietnamese army.  He’d been told that his father had his head ‘squashed’ when he was killed.  With his sister he had been placed in a safe house in Dalat then flown out of Saigon on an American plane.[1]


“Americans want to Americanize”: those words were stuck in my mind as I prepared this paper to examine how the former colonies in Asia and Africa achieved independence and the role played by the United States in that process, which at times turned into full fledged involvement in local disputes and civil wars.


Dr.  Zbiginew Brzezinski stated recently (2007) on television: “America in Iraq is involved in an anachronistic conflict because she appears in the role of a colonial power.”  In a book published in 2002 entitled Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World by Walter Russell Mead you will find the following observation in the form of a question:


“Should the United States supplement British power as it waned propping up Britain as it in turn propped up the global order?  Should the United States instead stand back and let the world order look after itself?  Or should the United States replace Great Britain as the gyroscope of world order, with all the political, military and economic costs, benefits and responsibilities that role would entail?”[2]


The issue of whether the United States is a “colonial” or “imperial” power; if America is comparable to Greece, Rome or the British Empire, remains a favorite of writers and historians.  But parallels of that kind while seductive are often misleading and I will try to avoid them as much as possible. 


American soldiers are currently engaged in combat situations in two former outposts of the British colonial enterprise: Afghanistan and Iraq -- the former Mesopotamia that was carved out of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War. 

I will attempt to show that the reasons for American intervention can be traced to a number of key decisions by various presidents and many other officials, some of them obscure, that began a logical and probably inevitable process leading to military presence and later intervention.


In 1919 Lord Milner, the British Colonial Secretary, sensing the direction of Woodrow Wilson’s policies in favor of self-determination, attempted to draw the United States into becoming a mandatory power of the League of Nations in the Middle East and perhaps even accepting the mandate to the former Ottoman colony known as Palestine.  In Milner’s long-term view this was to be a device to secure future American support for and participation in the British Empire itself.  Some Americans did in fact admire imperial Britain and Lord Milner even expected that the highly respected Columbia University Professor George Louis Beer would become Director of Mandates at the League of Nations.  But all these hopes and plans were cast away when the U.S.  Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles and Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy and the Democratic Party ticket lost the presidential elections of 1920 to Warren G.  Harding.[3]


After 1945 the United States became directly involved in France’s former colonial empire, mainly in Indochina from 1945 to 1975; in Korea, a former Japanese protectorate, from 1905 to 1945, temporarily partitioned at the 38th Parallel by the Soviet Union and the United States at the Potsdam Conference;  America was unable to avoid playing a role in the Belgian Congo during and after independence in 1960; in Indonesia-- the former Dutch East Indies --from 1945 to the present;  in British India from 1941 to independence in 1947;  in the former British Mandate in Palestine that became Israel in 1948;  in the independence of Morocco and Tunisia in 1956;  in the war in Algeria and in the civil wars in the former Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique since 1975.  These being the best-known cases with the common denominator of some form of colonial rule, by Europeans or by Asians. 


The colonial heritage of wars of independence didn’t always draw American soldiers but always implicated the United States at least politically in one way or another.


The Cold War, however, is the true  “monster in the attic,” of this story, encouraging a continuous struggle that included “wars of national liberation” that caused the deaths of over 45 million people in the sixty-two years since 1945, almost as many as the entire Second World War. 




1.  The First Turning Point in U.S.  Policy—March 16, 1945


On March 9, 1945, the Japanese army of occupation in Indochina that had limited itself to a largely military role staged a violent coup, overthrowing the Vichy French colonial administration.  French administrators, officers and soldiers in Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina were tortured and massacred.  Most of them, including the governor general, Admiral Jean Decoux, were imprisoned by the Japanese only to find themselves indicted as traitors by the Free French a few months later.  The most damaging consequence of the disputes among Frenchmen was that the most knowledgeable officers and colonial administrators were suddenly in concentration camps while Indochina was sinking into crisis and chaos.


The confusion created by the Japanese army coup of March 9, 1945 was of particular interest to General Albert Wedemeyer, the American commander in China who had replaced General Stillwell and Ambassador Patrick Hurley, who all understood their orders from the President to be that the overarching priority was to fight Imperial Japan, uphold the Atlantic Charter and prevent the French from returning to Indochina.  For months the China command was seeking ways to undermine the Japanese forces in the area.  OSS officers were under orders from General William J.  Donovan to discourage a return of both Vichy French colonial administrators and Free French military forces to Indochina.[4] The initiatives of several low level OSS officers such as Capt.  Peter Dewey in Saigon and Capt.  Archimedes Patti in Tonkin, were interpreted by both French and Vietnamese to imply American support for Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh in favor of the immediate independence of Vietnam.  Ho Chi Minh would in fact proclaim independence in Hanoi on September 2, 1945 in the presence of several U.  S.  officers borrowing a few sentences from the Bill of Rights that Captain Patti had recited to him from memory.


As of January 1, 1945, FDR wanted to avoid taking any action that would help France return to Indochina.  The British and principally Lord Mountbatten were requesting permission to help the French and actually went ahead and did so in India.  Officially the fear was that sending Anglo-American forces to Indochina might distract from the main goal of attacking the Japanese home islands (the effectiveness of the Atomic Bomb remained unknown) Roosevelt is quoted as saying:


“I still do not want to get mixed up in any Indochina decision.  It is a matter for post-war.  By the same token, I do not want to get mixed up in any military effort toward the liberation of Indochina from the Japanese…action at this time is premature.”[5]


At both Teheran in November 1943 and the Yalta Conference in February 1945, FDR and Stalin agreed that France should not be restored to her colonies in Indochina.

But the Japanese coup suddenly and unexpectedly forced a radical change in the American position and Roosevelt under the pressure of events was compelled to reverse his well-publicized policy of keeping the French out of Indochina.  On March 13, 1945, a meeting between U.S.  Ambassador Jefferson Caffrey and General De Gaulle—President of the French Provisional Government -- four days after the Japanese action in Indochina, took a dramatic turn:


In De Gaulle’s words as reported by Caffrey:


“As I told Mr.  [Harry] Hopkins when he was here, we do not understand your policy.  What are you driving at! Do you want us to become, for example, one of the federated states under Russian aegis? The Russians are advancing apace as you well know.  When Germany falls they will be upon us.  If the public here comes to realize that you are against us in Indochina there will be terrific disappointment and nobody knows to what that will lead.  We do not want to become Communist; we do not want to fall into the Russian orbit, but I hope that you do not push us into it.”[6]


FDR read Caffrey’s report on March 16 and was alarmed by De Gaulle’s remarks indicating that a potentially catastrophic break with the French Provisional Government was a possibility.  An openly negative attitude toward the United States by a major ally such as France while the war was still raging in Germany would impact the entire western alliance and gravely jeopardize the precarious situation in Western Europe.  As of March 16 no one could predict how fast and how far the Soviet armies would advance nor how long the hostilities with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan would actually last. 


Within two days FDR made a key tactical decision amounting to a change in policy and ordered that help be provided by air to the beleaguered Free French officers isolated in the jungles of Indochina.  It should be noted that in characteristic fashion Roosevelt didn’t mention his decision to General Wedemeyer who visited the White House on March 19 or at least the general makes no mention of it in his memoirs other than to note the poor impression he had of FDR’s physical appearance that day.


De Gaulle’s exasperation about delays in parachuting supplies is clear in a further meeting also reported by Ambassador Caffrey on March 24:[7]


“General De Gaulle said to me as we were leaving: “It seems clear now that your Government does not want to help our troops in Indochina.  Nothing has yet been dropped to them by parachute.” I spoke of the distances and he said: “No, that is not the question; the question is one of policy I assume.”[8]

FDR’s earlier comment that Indochina was a “matter for post-war” was consistent with his long-term decision to prevent France from returning to her former colony.  The strategic importance of Indochina to the United States for the future military, communications control of South East Asia, access to vital raw materials such as rubber and oil, and the key role the U.S.  expected to play in Asia after the war were all in play.  Roosevelt’s well publicized but progressively de-emphasized anti-colonial policy was also seriously affected.[9]


FDR understood that France, though weakened by the war, must remain a key ally of the United States, vital for the post war stability of the entire continent and in a sense the world.  Roosevelt was aware of the antagonism and aggressive attitude taken by the USSR immediately following Yalta as he attempted to preserve even a semblance of democracy in Poland for example and sensed that his entire policy of international cooperation, the United Nations and world peace was in jeopardy.  The decolonization process, that was intended to come under the umbrella of the trusteeship formula, was suddenly being preempted by the first moves made by the “monster in the attic”,  that is, the Cold War, which hadn’t yet been given its name.


In May and June 1945 the American delegation at the inaugural UN conference in San Francisco heard an impassioned plea to retain the Roosevelt position on decolonization.[10] New Dealer Charles Taussig, one of the President’s long time advisors on colonial issues, recalled his last meeting with FDR on March 15, 1945, less than one month before his death but the day before his reading of Ambassador Caffrey’s cable:


“The President had felt that we should take the leadership and indicate to the Oriental peoples that we do not back the imperial role of the handful of non-Asiatics.”[11]

Taussig also recalled how at that same meeting Roosevelt said:

 “…French Indo-China and New Caledonia should be taken from France and put under a trusteeship.  The President hesitated a moment and then said--well, if we can get the proper pledge from France to assume for herself the obligations of a trustee, then I would agree to France retaining these colonies with the proviso that independence was the ultimate goal.  I asked the President if he would settle for self-government.  He said no.  I asked him if he would settle for dominion status.  He said no--it must be independence.  He said that is to be the policy and you can quote me in the State Department.”[12]



FDR’s closing jab at the State Department confirmed not only the resistance he regularly encountered among traditional career diplomats, such as James Dunn of the European Desk or H. Freeman Matthews, the French specialist, and even from Robert Murphy and Sumner Welles who had resigned under pressure in August 1943.  Secretary of State Cordell Hull and the president’s closest advisor Harry Hopkins were expressing doubts about those anti-colonial positions as early as 1944.


The participants at San Francisco at the end of April 1945 could already feel the coming of the “Cold War” and voiced support for Great Britain in many colonial matters including the Jewish-Arab crisis in Palestine.[13]   FDR’s long-term plans had been modified by March-April, 1945, weeks before his death, a change now identifiable in the archives that was not clearly understood at the time and remains a subject of intense debate among historians today.[14]


When Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945 assistance was finally reaching the French and the tension with De Gaulle subsided.  The New Deal foreign policy would continue to be promoted by Harry Truman as he took office and promised to carry on the work of Franklin D.  Roosevelt, which included the subtle change in policy in Indochina.  At the San Francisco United Nations conference in June, Indochina came up once again in an animated conversation between French Foreign Minister Georges Bidault and Secretary of State Edward R.  Stettinius who filed this report:


“[Bidault said] …although the French Government interpreted Mr.  [Sumner] Welles’ statement of 1942 concerning the restoration of French sovereignty over the French Empire as including Indochina, the American press continued to imply that a special status will be reserved for this colonial area.  The Secretary made it clear to Bidault that the record was entirely innocent of any official statement of this government questioning, even by implication, French sovereignty over Indochina but that certain elements of American public opinion condemned French policies and practices in Indochina.”[15]

The word “innocent” sounds curiously defensive in this context and shows that the State Department was sensitive to accusations of malicious neglect or even betrayal coming from General De Gaulle and the French provisional government.


In France in 1945 there existed a wide consensus to restore the country’s past grandeur, erase the shameful Vichy period and thus reclaim full sovereignty over the colonial empire.  Even the French Communist Party, then a full-fledged member of the French Provisional Government, was very explicit regarding Indochina in April 1945 through its mouthpiece, the newspaper L’Humanité:


“France must make an effort to dispatch forces to the Far East in order to collaborate with the Allies and the peoples of Indochina to free that territory for the greater good of Franco-Indochinese relations.”[16]


The Cold War would soon change that position of the French Communist Party.

The intricacies of the final months of the war with Japan brought about the occupation of Indochina by British forces in the south and Chinese nationalists in the north.  After long negotiations, broken promises, and misunderstandings between France and Ho Chi Minh, the French Provisional Government, with the meager forces it had, reoccupied most of Indochina by the end of 1946.  Since 1850 France had built up considerable strategic, agricultural and business interests throughout Southeast Asia.  With only 40,000 French nationals among 24 million Indochinese, Indochina can be called a true colony, exploited for its valuable materials, mainly rubber and agricultural products, and its strategic position in Asia. 


By December 1946 France was facing a full-scale insurrection by the Vietminh led by Ho Chi Minh, a coalition dominated by the communist party.  The French army was engaged in guerrilla-type warfare with the Vietminh operating mostly in remote areas of northern Tonkin.  With few resources and minimal Anglo-American assistance during the first three years of the war, 1946-1949, the French managed with ragtag forces to maintain control of most of Indochina.  The United States was regularly encouraging the French to grant full independence to the three countries of Indochina but France feared that this would lead to the unraveling of the entire French colonial empire including North Africa.  By 1947-1949 war became a long term counter insurgency conflict against the highly motivated and idealistic Vietminh led by General Vo Nguyen Giap.[17]


At the same time France was struggling internally with reconstruction, a deep financial crisis and a strong and aggressive Communist Party that appeared poised to top its record electoral high of 28.5% in 1945-46 thereby posing a serious threat to democratic institutions.  With the Cold War in full swing in May 1947 the French Communists were expelled from the socialist government of Paul Ramadier.  The Communist Party in opposition switched its position to the new line taken by Moscow of uncompromising anti-colonialism and opposition to the war in Indochina.  By the 1951 elections the French Communist Party had lost ground because of the Cold War and the invasion of South Korea in June 1950 that appeared to be the spark that would ignite World War III.



2.  The Origins of the Indochina War


The Japanese Empire’s policy known as the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” had elicited an enthusiastic response among nationalist groups –especially in India, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and Burma (Myanmar) – enough for Britain, France and the Netherlands to be concerned about their colonial possessions.  It had less of an impact on the Indochinese nationalists who were more impressed by France’s vulnerability and loss of face than by Japan’s promises of freedom from European rule.

Indochina was the first French colony to come under Axis occupation as French forces were cut off from a defeated France.  An appeal by the French ambassador to Washington for help in Indochina in June 1940 received a reply,


“…by Sumner Welles that the United States wished to avoid any possible conflict with Japan.”[18]


General Catroux, the governor general of Indochina was dismissed and went to Singapore where he joined De Gaulle.  Vichy immediately replaced him with Admiral Jean Decoux.


After a series of ultimatums and a surprise attack by Japanese forces, an agreement was reached between Admiral Decoux and the Japanese army in July of 1940 whereby 25,000 Japanese troops would be stationed in Tonkin and several airfields made available to the Japanese air force.  Japan’s immediate objective was to sever the supply route through the port of Haiphong of military and other supplies coming from the Philippines and Australia to Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese army.  Japan’s long-range goals included seizing the raw materials, food and rice that Indochina could provide for further expansion into South East Asia at the appropriate time.


The United States reacted to the Japanese move into Indochina and on July 25, 1940 FDR signed a Treasury Department order – thereby avoiding any violation of the Neutrality Act -- limiting the export of oil and scrap metal to Japan.[19]  In July 1941 the Japanese demanded new air bases and the right to station 50,000 troops in southern Indochina in anticipation of their planned moves into British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies.  The Vichy Government agreed, fearing the possible massacre of the population by the Japanese army.  But the United States viewed this new expansion as an extremely threatening action on the part of Japan and froze all Japanese assets in the United States. 


As Professor Walter LaFeber wrote:

“Japan’s decision to change the status quo in Southeast Asia by invading Indochina was perhaps the crucial factor that caused war between the United States and Japan.”[20]


The defeat suffered by France in Europe and Asia in 1940 was seen as an opportunity by all Indochinese nationalists from Ngo Dinh Diem to Ho Chi Minh.[21] It is worth noting that French military historian General Yves Gras in his military history of the French Indochina war, states that Indochinese nationalism, as of 1940, was viewed by colonial administrators as a negligible quantity:


“…it was not a danger taken very seriously by the French colonists and administrators…They felt that France was strongly implanted in Indochina, its contribution was expected to last and its tutelage could count on the loyalty and support of the population.”[22]

As Arthur Schlesinger Jr.  and other historians have stated, it appears that there was no policy break between Roosevelt and Truman and in fact, the principle of U.S.  intervention in South East Asia and East Asia against any aggression was being implemented even if it meant supporting a colonial situation.


American support for the French war effort grew proportionately to the Cold War crises: prior to 1949 the Truman administration remained at least verbally committed to anti-colonialism and supported independence for the three countries of Indochina.  After the traumatic defeat of Chiang Kai-shek, Communist victory in China, the Soviet Atomic bomb test in 1949 and the Korean War from 1950 to 1952, the U.S.  greatly increased its military funding.  Several French governments took significant steps toward granting greater autonomy to Indochina, recognizing three separate governments within the French Union by 1949 but falling short of complete and full independence.  The lingering doubt remained that France intended to retain full control.  The Eisenhower presidency brought more direct American involvement in the war culminating with the battle of Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva peace conference of 1954.[23]



3.  The Second Turning Point: Eisenhower and Indochina—March 26, 1953


The month of March 1953 was one of momentous changes: Stalin died and the world found out on March 5, there was sudden hope that the USSR would crumble after the dictator’s death.  Beria and Malenkov emerged as the new Soviet leaders, and negotiations were proceeding with some difficulty leading to the July armistice agreement at Pan Mun Jom.  On March 26, 1953, two months after his inauguration, President Eisenhower accompanied by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, U.N.  Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and a number of State Department officials working on European and French affairs received French Premier René Mayer and a delegation that included Foreign Minister Georges Bidault, Finance Minister Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury and the Minister for the Associated States (Indochina) Jean Letourneau.  The main meeting took place in the morning aboard the presidential yacht the U.S.S.  Williamsburg.  Eisenhower said according to the record:


“The United States is very sympathetic and has tried to help.  Indeed we recognize that it (the war in Indochina) is part of the general struggle against Communism and that it is not merely a French colonial effort.”[24]

Eisenhower pressed the French to explain their short term plans for a military solution in Indochina or prepare to withdraw from Indochina as soon as possible.  The French government and the army had no specific plan to achieve a decisive victory in Indochina and General Raoul Salan, the French commander, was considered by American military observers as too timid and unwilling to take the offensive.  Eisenhower and the Pentagon were hoping that the French army would produce someone with the charisma of General de Lattre in 1950-51 who had fired up the imagination of U.S. public opinion when he visited this country.  At a meeting at the Pentagon the following day Minister Letourneau outlined a vague plan that would entail a decisive battle against Vietminh forces that the American military was pressing for, thereby planting the seed for the battle of Dien Bien Phu.  It was, roughly speaking, the plan proposed by General Salan in 1952, simplified for the occasion.  In May 1953, just before his government resigned, Premier Mayer bowing to American complaints, appointed General Henri Navarre to replace Salan as overall commander in Indochina.  Navarre had never set foot in South East Asia, was originally an intelligence officer and didn’t want the job, nevertheless he drew up a new plan for a battle that would attract large numbers of Vietminh regulars into the valley of Dien Bien Phu in the mountainous terrain of western Tonkin near the border with Laos.

As Dien Bien Phu began to sour by early March 1954 French officers in Saigon drew up the so-called “Vulture” plan aimed at breaking the siege both by strategic bombing of the hills surrounding the French base and through relief columns marching up from Laos.  An intense debate took place within the Eisenhower administration in March and April 1954 on both the bombing issue and providing relief to the French base: Admiral Radford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Air Force Chief of Staff General Twining and Vice President Richard Nixon were in favor of a bombing mission while Army chief of staff General Ridgway, who was close to President Eisenhower, was opposed, fearing that the involvement of American ground forces would inevitably follow.  Politically such a development would have been unacceptable only one year after the end of hostilities in Korea in a stalemate.  Furthermore Eisenhower required that any action be subject to British approval and participation.  Churchill who was again prime minister and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden refused, citing the high risk of Chinese Communist and Soviet intervention as well as possible retaliation against British interests in Asia.  Eisenhower had the last word on June 1, 1954 speaking to Special Assistant for National Security Robert Cutler as quoted in the Pentagon Papers:


“The United States should in no event undertake alone to support French colonialism.  Unilateral action by the United States in cases of this kind would destroy us.”[25]


American intervention was seriously contemplated given the various plans and studies made by the Air Force to bomb Dien Bien Phu using B-29 bombers flying round trip from bases in the Philippines and Okinawa, as would later take place during the Vietnam War.  The bulk of the best Vietminh forces (estimated at 40,000) was concentrated on the highground, and theoretically repeated bombing would destroy ninety percent of Ho Chi Minh’s army and presumably end the Indochina war. 


Another much debated point was the statement by Foreign Minister Georges Bidault who said that John Foster Dulles at a meeting in Paris suddenly offered France two Atomic Bombs to destroy the Vietminh forces at Dien Bien Phu.[26]  The French government under extreme political pressure had already agreed to end the war through negotiation at Geneva.  The new government of Pierre Mendès-France did just that in August 1954 while the U.S.  and the new government of South Vietnam appointed by Emperor Bao Dai refused to sign the final armistice accords.



4.  The Final Act in Vietnam: November 1, 1963


In the vacuum created by the French exit the United States was compelled to support an independent South Vietnam south of the 17th Parallel under Ngo Dinh Diem, a highly motivated and capable anti-Communist nationalist.  The debate over whether the Diem regime was or was not democratic enough to suit the sensibilities of American public opinion, while important, has little bearing on the reality of Vietnam and on this point I tend to agree with Mark Moyar in his book Triumph Foresaken.[27]


The American war of escalation in Vietnam with massive American troop involvement began once the Diem regime was eliminated by a military coup where both Diem and Nhu were assassinated on November 1, 1963.  The question of whether the U.S.  was involved or had even instigated the coup remains unanswered.  According to most historians the U.S.  government simply abandoned Diem and his brother Nhu in 1963 because of the religious crisis created by Diem’s conflict with the Buddhists inside South Vietnam and intense pressure from the American press and reporting by David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan in the New York Times and the Washington Post.  Newsreels and television showed Buddhist monks cremating themselves in public squares in protest against Diem.


There is, however, a larger American political reality behind these events and a key move by President Kennedy was the replacement of Ambassador Frederick Nolting, who had established an excellent personal relationship with Diem.  JFK named Henry Cabot Lodge as ambassador at a time he was considered the Republican front-runner in the 1964 election against John F.  Kennedy.  Why Lodge took the job while having everything to lose in such a difficult assignment remains a mystery.  This change took place in the summer of 1963 and was probably a major blunder.  Nolting would have certainly rejected a policy leading to Diem’s overthrow or at least would have made sure that Diem was safely secreted out of the country for a possible return should the generals fail in their efforts to create a viable government and effectively pursue the war effort.


Moyar quotes the North Vietnamese Communist Party in 1963 that Diem was indeed, “The most competent lackey of the Americans.” And Ho Chi Minh said much the same thing to Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, a well-known Communist fellow traveler and frequent visitor to North Vietnam.  In the military anarchy that followed the Diem overthrow the war in Vietnam absorbed some 550,000 American troops in 1966-1971 in an effort that proved unable to achieve even the limited mission of persuading North Vietnam to end the war.



5.  The Origins: Roosevelt and the Colonial Empires


a.  Roosevelt’s anti-colonialist position

In 1939 Franklin D.  Roosevelt, along with most of his key advisors and cabinet members, was convinced that the British Empire and its worldwide presence was to be feared more than the comparatively weak Soviet Union that posed no direct threat to the United States.   As Warren Kimball wrotes: “To Americans of Franklin Roosevelt’s generation, Britain epitomized much of what was wrong with the world.”[28]

Anti-British Empire sentiment was a component of the American psyche going back to the war of Independence and King George III.  It was alive and well within FDR’s entourage before WWII. 

Sumner Welles, “…and many of his colleagues …often saw Britain as a greater threat to their world aims than either China or the USSR.”[29]

Roosevelt as a former member of the Wilson administration admired the ideas of the former president and especially the League of Nations.  However one recent study by Dr.  Wilson D.  Miscamble argues:


“Roosevelt’s global design, dependent on cooperation among the major powers, bore more resemblance to his cousin Theodore’s geopolitical approach to international affairs than it did to universalist Wilsonian notions involving a world organization.  But FDR could not escape the clutches of the man whom he had served as assistant secretary of the navy.”[30]


During the 1928 gubernatorial election in New York FDR surrounded himself with the initial elements of the famous New Deal “brains trust” some of whom would remain with him until 1945.  A key adviser was Sumner Welles, a personal friend of the First Lady and the President, as well as a financial contributor to FDR’s gubernatorial campaign.  He was to play an important role in U.S.  foreign policy from 1932 to 1943 and beyond.[31]   Welles became ambassador to Cuba in 1933 and promoted the Monroe Doctrine in the Caribbean and South America.  In 1937 he was appointed under -secretary of state.  By 1940 a number of Central American and Caribbean dictators—all of them beholden to the United States--- were in power with the acquiescence of the State Department.[32]


In 1917 Woodrow Wilson asked his advisor Colonel Edward House to study the war aims of the belligerent powers and prepare a plan for the peace settlement.[33] State Department experts were excluded from the Inquiry Commission that was operating almost in secret as a discreet panel of experts. 


On September 3, 1939, as war broke out in Europe, FDR, anticipating that the United States would become involved, ordered Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles to head up a “post-war planning group” modeled on Wilson’s Inquiry but that this time would include selected State Department personnel and outside experts.  Before Pearl Harbor the study group remained secret and worked intermittently since political pressure from pacifists and isolationists could have embarrassed the administration.


Roosevelt had decided from the beginning to effectively be his own secretary of state.  He appointed former judge and Tennessee senator Cordell Hull to the top diplomatic post.[34] Hull had little foreign affairs experience, but he was a respected Democrat in the Wilsonian tradition focused on promoting peace through free trade.  He retained a very strong political following in the Democratic Party and carried out FDR’s foreign policy decisions faithfully.  Much to Hull’s distaste, the president also relied on other advisors and principally his personal friend Under Secretary Sumner Welles, for strategic policy making.  The post-war study group widened its scope as the war got underway and provided the blueprints for most of the postwar institutions, the United Nations among them.


After a long personal feud with Hull and the threat of scandal, Welles was forced to resign in August 1943.  Cordell Hull resigned a year later in 1944 for health reasons. 


b.  The State Department Planners

A key issue debated with the British at the Atlantic Conference of August 1941 concerned the “Imperial Preference” or in its French equivalent the “colonial pact” that prevented the United States from trading directly with individual countries of the British or French Empires.  FDR and Cordell Hull wanted to have economic access to those lucrative markets.  Freedom also meant political freedom and FDR favored “trusteeship,” for most of the colonial territories, an improved version of the League of Nations “mandates”.  Trusteeships were expected to bridge the transition from colonial status to independence that was expected to take at least one generation. 


However foreign policy issues were of little interest to the public at large.  Isolationism was growing rapidly from 1939 to 1941.  Just before Pearl Harbor an estimated 65% of American public opinion opposed any involvement in the war.  The America First Committee led by Charles Lindbergh and other conservatives included Anglophobes who hated the British Empire, Francophobes, pro-Nazi anti-Semites and an assortment of other right-wingers.[35] The Reverend Charles Coughlin had a radio audience of 15 million listeners on Sundays in the late 1930s eager to hear his anti-Semitic and pro-Fascist propaganda.


c.  The British Empire

In August 1941 at the Atlantic Conference Sumner Welles had prepared a first draft of the Atlantic Charter.  FDR, after experiencing some nervousness on the part of the British, asked Churchill to rewrite the text that was to be widely quoted and reproduced with far reaching repercussions.  Besides the immediate wrath of the Axis leaders, the interpretation created unrealistically high expectations for liberation and emancipation among the colonial elites even though Churchill hadn’t intended it that way at all.[36]


The Atlantic Charter stated in its third point:

“…they [Great Britain and the United States] 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.”[37]

In Churchill’s mind the third point of the Atlantic Charter was aimed at the captive nations of Europe and Asia that had fallen under Axis control and did not concern the imperial colonies of the European powers that were already “free.”  The document however was read and understood by nationalists in the British, French and Dutch colonies as the promise of their coming liberation and emancipation at war’s end.  They eagerly used the Charter to stake their claims for immediate independence.


When Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister of Supply in Churchill’s cabinet and England’s most powerful press baron (he owned the conservative Daily Express), arrived at the close of the Atlantic Conference at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland on August 12, he reacted angrily to the text of the Atlantic Charter[38] precisely because of the real damage he saw done to the British Empire.  On August 21, 1941 after FDR returned from the conference, Eleanor Roosevelt sent her husband a report that was extremely critical of British colonial policies in India.  FDR replied in writing: “I can have no thoughts about India.”[39]


In early 1942 British India was perceived by American opinion as the most urgent of all the colonial issues because of the rapid advance of the Japanese army throughout South East Asia.  The British feared a Japanese attack through Burma that could reach the Indian subcontinent and encourage widespread revolt.  German and Italian forces were also advancing into Egypt at that time.  Demonstrations in favor of independence rocked Indian urban centers, and articles were published in Life magazine and elsewhere attacking Great Britain and its imperial policies.  The United States feared a violent anti-British revolt similar to the Easter Rebellion in Ireland in 1916, but having far more disastrous implications.


Japanese propaganda promising freedom from European oppression within the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” also supported Indian nationalists such as Subhas Chandra Bose who traveled by submarine from Germany to the Indian Ocean and transferred to a Japanese sub to return to India and organize a grass roots rebellion.[40]  The rebellion never materialized and Bose formed an Indian government in exile in Signapore under Japanese control.


The Indian crisis receded as the nationalist leadership understood how brutal and ruthless Japanese domination could be.


Writer Louis Adamic summed up FDR’s view when he said in the presence of Winston Churchill:  “There are many kinds of Americans, of course, but as a people, as a country, we’re opposed to imperialism---we can’t stomach it.”[41]


On November 10, 1942 just three days after the landings in Morocco and Algeria, Churchill made a famous speech published the next day in the Times where he declared:


“We mean to hold our own.  I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.”

Churchill was responding to the Republican challenger in the 1940 presidential race, Wendell Willkie, who was issuing a number of public statements, and published a report and a book about his trip around the world in 1942.  The book, entitled One World, contained his impressions and a number of foreign policy ideas that matched FDR’s, inaugurating a new liberal Republican internationalism.  In a radio speech on October 26, 1942 Willkie stated:

“…there is no more place for imperialism within our own society than in the society of nations.”[42]

He was even more specific in his written report:

“We believe it is the world’s job to find some system for helping the colonial peoples who join the United Nations’ cause to become free and independent nations.  We must set up firm timetables under which they can work out and train governments of their own choosing.”[43]


A few days after Willkie’s speech, FDR publicly remarked that the Atlantic Charter of August 1941 applied to “all humanity” thereby promising freedom and independence to the colonial peoples.  This was a challenge to the existence of all colonial empires that controlled the lives of one third of the world’s population and as much territory. 


Roosevelt was especially aggressive towards the British and French Empires throughout the war.[44]   FDR, in his often-quoted remarks on colonialism to his son Elliott, was committed to dismantling the empires:


“Why does Morocco inhabited by Moroccans belong to France? Or take Indochina.  The Japanese control that colony now.  Why was it a cinch for the Japanese to conquer that land? The native Indochinese have been so flagrantly downtrodden that they thought to themselves: Anything must be better than to live under French colonial rule?”[45]


In many instances FDR used the exact words of Sumner Welles who met with the president regularly to report on the post war planning committee’s progress.[46]  In preparation for the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 Welles spent over three hours briefing FDR on all foreign policy matters including colonial issues as they related to France and Britain.  But as the planning committees delved deeper into the intricate realities of local situations, as with French Indochina for example, they tended to shy away from recommending immediate changes in the colonial structure at war’s end. 



6.  The Peace of 1945 and the Cold War


By 1944-45 General Marshall, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and later James Forrestal, were critical of the trusteeship principles and demanded the outright annexation of large areas of the Pacific islands to ensure that no hostile Asian power would gain the strategic advantage and directly threaten the United States mainland.  Roosevelt understood the point made by the military leadership but refused to modify his anti-annexationist views insisting on trusteeships instead.[47]


FDR was trying to accelerate the opening of world markets to free trade, thereby helping American exports and encouraging the colonial powers to remove all trade barriers and accept the new trusteeship system that was to become part of the United Nations.  In his view a gradual and progressive colonial disengagement was to take place in orderly fashion over a number of years, perhaps 25 or 30, through the mechanism of UN “trusteeship”. 


FDR successfully maneuvered to avoid a repetition of the Senate’s rejection of the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations that had dampened the American presence in international affairs for two crucial decades after 1920.  Between 1939 and 1943 some of the most radical thinking about the post war organization of the world was taking place in Washington and was reflected in the increasingly nuanced positions and statements made by the President.  Under the pressure of wartime events, FDR began softening his position on the colonial issue without abandoning his trademark ideas on decolonization.


The colonial powers were expected to agree to a system of “trusteeships,” to replace the “mandates” created by the League of Nations with the new system eventually to be extended to all colonial possessions.  The example used by the State Department planners was the independence of the Philippines in its various phases from commonwealth to complete independence in 1946.  In FDR’s early vision, for example, Palestine under the British mandate would become a “trusteeship” and whoever became the “trustee” would replace the former “mandatory power” and be responsible to the United Nations for the evolution toward independence.  The UN was to be the ultimate arbiter of the trustees’ actions and plans as a prelude to independence.


The trusteeship system was never applied to Palestine since it became independent Israel in May 1948; it was also not applied to Lebanon and Syria that were granted outright independence by France in 1943-1946.  Trusteeships were successfully applied after the Second World War, to Libya, Somalia, Togo, Cameroon, Namibia, Western Samoa,  and the Marshall Islands to mention some of the best known examples. 


At the San Francisco UN conference Harold Stassen expressed some American misgivings about decolonization:


“[We]…did not wish to find ourselves committed to breaking up the British Empire.”[48]


The idea that far greater problems would be created if the colonial empires were dismantled too quickly and chaotically was gaining ground among American leaders before Roosevelt’s death.  The Atlantic Charter, had raised vast expectations among the colonial peoples making major upheavals inevitable. 



7.  The Casablanca Conference, North Africa, Palestine and the Arab World


France, following its defeat in six weeks in June 1940, had simply vanished as a major world power.  The armistice of June 23, 1940 would be held bitterly against her for many years to come by the Allied nations and in particular by Roosevelt and Stalin at the Teheran conference.[49]


One factor in the difficult relationship between President Roosevelt and French General Charles De Gaulle was De Gaulle’s plan to reestablishing French sovereignty over the French Empire and most urgently to Indochina.  U.S.  policy, after having pragmatically recognized the Vichy Government as the legitimate government of France for practical and strategic reasons, shifted its support to General Henri Giraud after the Torch landings in November 1942.  FDR would consent to recognize De Gaulle only in October 1944 as the Provisional Government of France. 


As historian Walter LaFeber wrote:

 “To FDR’s mind De Gaulle was too close to Churchill, too impervious to American wishes, and too egocentric and intelligent to be manipulated.”[50]


By formally recognizing the French Provisional Government returned to a liberated Paris the U.S.  and Great Britain also agreed to France’s right to its former colonial possessions which was part of the provisional government’s program. 

FDR took the opportunity to discuss issues relating to the colonial empires with Muslim Arab leaders at two key meetings.  The first encounter took place on January 22, 1943 during Roosevelt’s first wartime trip overseas when he traveled to Morocco to the Casablanca Conference.  He met with the Sultan of Morocco Sidi Mohammed Ben Youssef -- also known as King Mohammed V - a title he took in 1957—who was an important and symbolic Muslim leader.  Historically the Kingdom of Morocco had been the first sovereign state to recognize the newly independent United States in 1777 and had since then entertained friendly relations with the independent American republic. 

Morocco had been a French Protectorate since the treaty of Fez of 1912.[51] France provided its army to protect and control the kingdom from internal revolt and foreign aggression; handled foreign affairs; and administered the country while obtaining important economic and political concessions from the Moroccan Sultan for French nationals and other foreigners to do business and own land and property. 

In the wake of France’s defeat in June 1940, Franco’s Spain took over the police and administration of Tangier until the end of the war when the signatories of the Act of Algesiras reinstituted the international administration.  The Tangier arrangement was a model of the successful internationalization of a major strategic waterway that would hold until 1962 when Morocco officially annexed the city and its surrounding area.


FDR invited the Sultan and his son, Crown Prince Hassan, to dinner and took the opportunity in the presence of Winston Churchill, who was clearly embarrassed, to voice some of his anti-imperialist thoughts regarding colonial empires and the future of Morocco in particular.  As reported by Elliott Roosevelt, FDR’s remarks were of the greatest interest to the Sultan:


“Father, balancing his fork, remarked cheerfully enough that the postwar scene and the prewar scene would of course differ sharply especially as they related to the colonial question.  Churchill coughed and again plunged into conversation along different lines.  Politely the Sultan inquired more specifically what did Father mean “differ sharply”? Father went on to raise the question of possible oil deposits in French Morocco.  The Sultan eagerly pounced on this; declared himself decidedly in favor of developing any such potentialities…deplored the lack of trained scientists and engineers among his countrymen…Churchill shifted uneasily in his chair…As we rose from the table the Sultan assured Father that promptly on heels of the war’s close he would petition the United States for aid in the development of his country.  His face glowed: “A new future for my country!” Glowering and biting his cigar Britain’s Prime Minister followed the Sultan out of the dining room.”[52]


There was also a slightly more private conversation between FDR and the Sultan while the Resident General, General Charles Noguès appeared to be straining to hear what was being said since he had been placed out of earshot from where the President and the Sultan were sitting.[53] FDR tested some of his post war ideas regarding the colonial empires on the Moroccan Sultan who was more than eager to listen.

During Operation Torch on November 7, 1942 General Noguès following orders from Vichy ordered his troops to fire on American soldiers landing on the beaches near Casablanca.  In the confusion that existed in North Africa in November 1942 Noguès was maintained at his post temporarily much like Admiral Darlan in Algiers (who was mysteriously assassinated on December 24, 1942) pending the conclusion of military operations.  In June 1943 Noguès was relieved of his command and managed to escape to Portugal.  He was condemned to 20 years hard labor in absentia in 1947 but returned to France to stand trial again in 1956 and received a suspended sentence.  Regarding the meeting with Roosevelt, King Hassan II later reminisced about attending that memorable dinner with his father the Sultan:


“The confidential talk between the Sultan and President Roosevelt was very important.  They were able to speak freely.  Had Roosevelt not died so soon he would have played a major role in the emancipation of Morocco and of the entire African continent.”[54]


While the issues discussed at the conference were mainly political and military regarding the coming invasion of Sicily in “Operation Husky”, Casablanca is remembered chiefly for the momentous declaration that the Allies would only accept “unconditional surrender” from the Axis, and the symbolic handshake between the two feuding Free French generals De Gaulle and Giraud brought together in forced reconciliation. 


The French protectorate continued for another decade until unrest, terrorism and the war in neighboring Algeria forced France to grant Morocco its independence.[55]  The assistance Roosevelt and the Sultan discussed by the United States to Morocco did eventually take place and relations remained excellent before and after full independence was achieved in March 1956.


More importantly, most high-ranking French intelligence officers on Giraud’s staff such as Col.  Paul Paillole, remained convinced that the nationalist troubles of 1944-45 in Morocco and Algeria were provoked mostly by stay-behind pro-Nazi agents.  A general resentment existed toward a number of Arab leaders who had been openly pro-Nazi such as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Amin El Husseini.  The French press, including the newspapers controlled by the Communists, repeated this assertion that would influence the thinking of many French officials.  The May 8, 1945 revolt at Sétif in Algeria where 147 French nationals were killed and probably over 5,000 Algerian Muslims were executed in retaliation served as a prelude to the Algerian War.[56]


French public opinion in the late 1940s and 50s would repeatedly blame American policy and FDR for having undermined French presence in Morocco and by reflection in the rest of the French colonial empire in Asia and Africa.  As French General Georges Spillman, a high-ranking Arab specialist who could speak some 200 local dialects – would write several years later about the changed relationship with the Sultan:


“…The appearance of a powerful third party, the United States of America, made any understanding impossible no matter how good the Residents General were…The United States bears a heavy responsibility in the precipitous and disorderly manner in which decolonization took place since it openly encouraged it during and after the war.  Because of the Americans any form of dialog had become impossible in Morocco.”[57]




Kenneth Pendar[58]who was U.S.  vice consul in Marrakech and part of FDR’s entourage in Morocco in January 1943 offered a different view that happens to coincide with that of Sumner Welles:


“The President’s greatest concern was how in the future, France weakened by defeat, could possibly control her vast empire.”[59]


In March 1945 on his way back from the Yalta Conference, FDR stopped in Egypt and met with King Farouk, the Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie, and King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia.  The more important of these meetings was with King Ibn Saud.  The USS Quincy was anchored on the Great Bitter Lake at the entrance of the Suez Canal where FDR received the King and his colorful entourage of ministers, food tasters, slaves and bodyguards armed to the teeth.  The King proved to be one of the most difficult heads of state the president would ever encounter, including Joseph Stalin.  In the course of the conversation -- the interpreter was OSS Colonel William Eddy, a former U.S.  vice consul in Tangier who had prepared Operation Torch and now the American Minister to Saudi Arabia.  Eddy had native fluency in Arabic -- the issue of Palestine came up and Ibn Saud voiced his adamant opposition to any kind of a Jewish State:

“Jews would establish a culture entirely different from the Arabs and eventually the Muslim world would have to fight it.  As a true believer Ibn Saud would have to fight with the Arabs.”[60]

Harry Hopkins also summarized his recollections:

“When the President asked Ibn Saud to admit some more Jews into Palestine, indicating that it was such a small percentage of the total population of the Arab world, he was greatly shocked when Ibn Saud, without a smile, said “No.” Ibn Saud emphasized the fact that the Jews in Palestine were successful in making the countryside bloom only because American and British capital had poured in millions of dollars and said if those same millions had been given to the Arabs they could have done quite as well.  He also said that there was a Palestine army of Jews all armed to the teeth and he remarked that they did not seem to be fighting the Germans but were aiming at the Arabs.  He stated plainly that the Arab world would not permit a further extension beyond the commitment already made for future Jewish settlement in Palestine.  He clearly inferred that the Arabs would take up arms before they would consent to that and he, as religious leader of the Arab world, must, naturally, support the Arabs in and about Palestine.  …I fancy Ibn Saud was fully prepared for the President’s plea to which he, the President, was wholly committed publicly and privately and by conviction.

There is no doubt that Ibn Saud made a great impression on the President that the Arabs meant business.”[61]

FDR had consistently supported the view that a Jewish homeland should be created in Palestine.  As he declared in 1944: “Palestine should be for the Jews, and no Arab should be in it.”[62]


Roosevelt was concerned about his meeting and wrote a letter to Ibn Saud on April 5, 1945 offering assurances that the United States would do nothing to oppose the Arabs, a promise that Ibn Saud would certainly hold the U.S.  to in the future. 


      “Your Majesty will recall that on previous occasions I communicated to you the attitude of the American Government toward Palestine and made clear our desire that no decision be taken with respect to the basic situation in that country without full consultation with both Arabs and Jews.  Your Majesty will also doubtless recall that during our recent conversation I assured you that I would take no action, in my capacity as Chief of the Executive Branch of this Government, which might prove hostile to the Arab people.”

Roosevelt understood that the problems related to former or existing European colonial possessions were far from simple and that they defied simple solutions.  In the case of Palestine we must admit that Harry Truman—against the advice of Secretary of State George Marshall and Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal --decided to reverse the Roosevelt policy in his 1946 letter to King Ibn Saud where he invited the monarch to visit the United States to discuss the issue but that the U.S. was committed to the plans for admitting Jewish refugees from the Holocaust into Palestine.  In May 1948 President Truman supported the proclamation of the State of Israel while behind the scenes Sumner Welles acted as the successful broker for the Jewish State at the U.N.  We tend to guess that FDR would have supported those decisions.



A Few Conclusions


The roots of American involvment were inherent to the position taken on decolonization by Woodrow Wilson and FDR: neither had foreseen the vacuum that would be created and that appeared much sooner than expected since the local elites required to run scores of new countries were virtually non-existent.  These new states had been carved out of the colonial possessions of much older empires.  As an example I refer to Churchill’s friend, the archeologist Gertrude Bell arbitrarily drawing the boundaries of Palestine, Jordan and Iraq in the 1920s from the spoils of the Ottoman Empire: an exercise in colonial arrogance if ever there was one.  Roosevelt expected the process of decolonization to be a gradual one and never imagined that the nationalists would become so impatient or that violence in the colonies would be so brutal.  How he would have reacted to those events is a matter of speculation but surely he would have used the United Nations as the main forum to achieve workable solutions. 


At the Yalta Conference Churchill voiced his opposition to any idea of trusteeships or dependent colonial areas to be placed under the supervision of the United Nations.


“Under no circumstances would he ever consent to forty or fifty nations thrusting interfering fingers into the life’s existence of the British Empire.  As long as he was Minister he would never yield one scrap of their heritage.”


Secretary of State Stettinius placated Churchill saying that trusteeships would include only existing League of Nations Mandates, territory detached from the enemy, and other territory placed voluntarily under United Nations control.[63]


A number of incidents cut into the spirit of universal good will as the war ended.  Given Stalin’s actions in Eastern Europe and Asia in the summer of 1945, western diplomats and intelligence officials became increasingly convinced that difficulties with the Soviet Union were a to be expected in the short-term.  Among the many signs of a hardening Soviet attitude came the sudden discovery in September 1945, made public in early 1946, of the various espionage networks active in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom since the 1930s.  Early signs had been minimized by the Roosevelt administration as far back as 1939 when Soviet defectors Walter G.  Krivitsky and Whittaker Chambers brought their warnings directly to the attention of A.A.  Berle.[64]


At that time and with some justification FDR felt that the Soviet Union posed no direct threat to the United States.  The defection in Ottawa of Soviet embassy cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko in 1945 revealed massive espionage efforts to steal military and scientific secrets.  A report from J.  Edgar Hoover to President Harry Truman on September 18, 1945 confirmed the extent of the danger reaching into the highest levels of government.[65]  Shortly after, Elizabeth Bentley decided to cooperate with the FBI providing information about yet other Soviet espionage networks in the United States and corroborating the pervasive Russian efforts to obtain top-secret political and military information.  In March President Truman went to Fulton, Missouri to hear Churchill deliver his “Iron Curtain” speech.  The Cold War was quickly becoming the dominant foreign policy issue in 1946-1948.


The colonial issue immediately became an integral part of the Cold War and was used at every level by the USSR and Communist China.  The colonial problem therefore became an element in the need to stop Communist aggression.  Yet the aspirations to national independence on the part of the colonial peoples clashed with the desire of the old empires to retain control of their territories, even as they declared themselves ready to grant independence in an orderly fashion and with the best intentions.


In the late 1940s and during the 1950s the loss of the colonies was considered a sign of the irreversible decline of the West.  Admiral Jean Decoux expressed this view in his memoirs written in 1950 reflecting the sentiments of many Europeans at the time.

 “Should France ever resign herself to losing Indochina she would then be permanently swept out of Asia and therefore the Pacific and would risk losing her key positions in Africa.  Our country would then have betrayed its mission and turned its back on its own history.  France would cease to be a great power and would deserve its downfall.”[66]

Henry Kissinger in his book Diplomacy writes that Roosevelt was “prescient” about decolonization, but while FDR had very practical reasons to want to encourage and support the independence of colonial peoples he did not foresee the complications, the violence and extremism that characterized many nationalist movements as the Cold War further complicated colonial matters.  Neither FDR nor his most trusted State Department personnel had factored in the rising expectations and impatience of the colonial populations and especially their elites, making them unwilling to wait another generation to achieve independence.  Poor economic conditions and the high unemployment levels among young men and especially war veterans in many instances encouraged the rise of the most radical elements eager to promote their ideology through violence and terrorism.  Emancipation and independence then quickly turned into a law and order issue for the colonial authorities, even when the European powers were willing to discuss the transition to national independence. 


It was also clear to anyone in Indochina that Ho Chi Minh would take over the entire country regardless of the wishes of the majority of the population, forcing it to accept a brutal Marxist Leninist system, which is what he actually did.


Franklin D.  Roosevelt crafted a policy that could be called Wilsonian realism aimed at preventing violence and revolt by the colonial masses.  But this approach applied uniformly without taking individual circumstances into consideration—the Atlantic Charter strategy -- achieved precisely what it was attempting to prevent and set the stage for the inevitable involvement by the United States in the colonial wars.  America would be compelled to take over from the exhausted British and French empires and fight the rear guard battles of decolonization not to maintain a colonial presence but to prevent the most extreme elements from prevailing.  Decolonization came at a much higher price and its consequences are very much with us today.





[1] Howard Jones Death of a Generation.  How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War (New York: Oxford, 2003) pp.431-432. 

[2] Walter Russell Mead Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed The World (NewYork: Routledge , 2002) p.83.

[3] Wm Roger Louis Imperialism At Bay (New York: Oxford, 1974) p.5-6.

[4] D.R.  Bartholomew-Feis, The OSS and Ho Chi Minh Unexpected Allies In The War Against Japan, (Lawrence: Kansas UP, 2006) “Many in the OSS believed they were acting on the wishes of President Franklin Roosevelt, who was on record as opposing French colonialism…” p.  7.  The author doesn’t point out the vacillations of FDR’s anti-colonialist policies as the war progressed and the increasing hesitation on the part of State Department personnel toward rapid decolonization.  Patti and other OSS officers were favorably impressed by the fervor displayed by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap and believed that they were genuine nationalists seeking independence and eager to fight the Japanese rather than seeking to create a “pure” Marxist Leninist dictatorship.

[5]U.S.  Dept.  of State FRUS Diplomatic papers, 1945.  The British Commonwealth, the Far East, Volume VI (1945) (FRUS, Washington D.C., 1968) p.293. 

[6] Ibid.  p.300.

[7] General De Gaulle issued an official statement on Indochina on March 24, 1945 announcing that the French colony would become part of the Union Française as announced at the Brazzaville conference.  De Gaulle appointed Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu to the post of high commissioner in Indochina on August 22, 1945.  By January 1946, however, De Gaulle had resigned as president of the provisional government.  The new constitution of France’s Fourth Republic would be approved by a referendum in October 1946.

[8] FRUS Volume VI (1945) cit., p.302.

[9] Keith Eubank, Summit at Teheran, (New York: Morrow, 1985) p.247.  At Teheran, in November 1943, both Roosevelt and Stalin agreed that France should not return to Indochina. 

[10] Bernard B.  Fall, The Two Vietnams, (New York: Praeger, 1967) p.40-59.  Gives a summary of the situation in 1940-1945.

[11] Louis, Imperialism, cit.  p.538.

[12] Major Problems in American Foreign Policy, Volume II: Since 1914, 4th edition, edited by Thomas G.  Paterson and Dennis Merrill (Lexington, MA: D.C.  Heath and Company, 1995), p.  190. 

[13] American positions on the issue of Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel would evolve over the 1945-1948 period ending in the immediate recognition of the new state by President Truman in 1948.

[14] M.A.  Atwood and F.  Logevall The First Vietnam War (Cambridge: Harvard, 2007)

[15] FRUS Volume VI (1945)  cit., p.312.

[16]  L’Humanité, April 13, 1945.  See Philippe Franchini, Les mensonges de la guerre d’Indochine (Paris: Perrin, 2005)

[17] On September 2, 1945 during the ceremony of the Japanese surrender on the deck of the Missouri in Tokyo Bay, General Douglas Mac Arthur told the French military commander in Indochina, General Leclerc, newly appointed by De Gaulle: “Bring in troops and more troops, as many as you can.” Mac Arthur was opposed to FDR’s plans for French Indochina.  See Jacques de Folin, Indochine la fin d’un rêve 1945-1955 cit., p.100. 

[18] J.B.  Duroselle, L’Abîme 1939-1944, (Paris: Imp.  Nationale, 1986) p.252.

[19] Robert Dallek, cit.  p.240.

[20] Walter LaFeber, “Roosevelt, Churchill and Indochina”, in American Historical Review, December 1975 pp.1277-1295.  The issue of the reversal of FDR’s policy by Harry Truman as he took office has been resolved by LaFeber in his article, Truman was actually following FDR’s policy that just before his death was undergoing momentous changes in light of the difficulties with Soviet Russia.  As early as March 1945 Stalin appeared to be breaking the agreements reached at Yalta in February.  The aggressive Soviet attitude prefigured an imminent danger to Western Europe that could not be ignored and Roosevelt chose to de-emphasize his views on colonialism in favor of European stability and security.  Therefore there was no discontinuity in the policy choices made by President Truman with respect to Indochina and France from 1945 to the end of his term.

[21] Ho Chi Minh was a dedicated Marxist-Leninist ideologue and revolutionary since 1919, his rhetoric and ideas closely resembled those of Lenin and carried a frighteningly messianic fanaticism with them: “We must start over from the naked earth.  It will give us the purity of our evolution after having wiped the slate clean of the past.” Raoul Salan, Mémoires, Vol.I, (Paris: Presses de la Cité, 1970) p.  386.

[22] Yves Gras, Histoire de la guerre d’Indochine, (Paris: Denoël, 1992) p.275

[23] Irwin M.  Wall The United States and Making of Postwar France 1945-1954 (New York: Canbridge, 1991) p.233.

[24] FRUS 1952-1954 Indochina Vol.  XIII, Part 1 p.  429-432.

[25] As quoted by John Prados The Sky Would Fall (New York: Dial Press, 1983) p.  188-189.

[26] Conversation of the author with G.  Bidault in Paris on November 6, 1968.

[27] Mark Moyar Triumph Foresaken.  The Vietnam War 1954-1965 (New York: Cambridge, 2006).

[28] Warren F.  Kimball The Juggler.  Franklin Roosevelt as Wartime Statesman (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1991) p.61.

[29] Christopher D.  O’Sullivan, Sumner Welles, Postwar Planning and the Quest for a New Order, 1937-1943, (New York: Columbia, 2003) p.114.

[30] Wilson D.  Miscamble From Roosevelt to TrumanPotsdam, Hiroshima and the Cold war (New York: Cambridge, 2007) p.  40.

[31] Young Sumner and Eleanor were childhood friends and Welles was a page at the wedding of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in 1905.  He went to Groton and Harvard and became immensely wealthy through marriage.  He was a contributor to Roosevelt’s presidential campaign in 1932 and in 1933 would be rewarded with the post of ambassador to Cuba.  In 1937 he was appointed under secretary of state.  FDR would often visit Welles at his private estate at Oxon Hill near Washington D.C.  These meetings would continue even after Welles had resigned in August 1943.

[32] Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, Getulio Vargas in Brazil and Juan Peròn in Argentina the latter would take the most anti-Allied stance in South America openly flirting with the Axis and harboring Nazi refugees after the war.

[33] Godfrey Hodgson Woodrow Wilson’s Right Hand.  The Life of Colonel Edward M.  House, (New Haven: Yale, 2007) p.  157.

[34] “Hull told Stimson that he had acquiesced in Roosevlt’s intention to act as his own secretary of state.” Irwin F.  Gellman Good Neighbor Diplomacy: United Sattes Policies in Latin America 1933-1945 (Baltimore: J.  Hopkins, 1979) p.  12-13.

[35] Christopher D.  O’Sullivan, Sumner Welles, Postwar Planning and the Quest for a New Order, 1937-1943, (New York: Columbia, 2003) p.114.

[36] Roger Le Tourneau Evolution politique de l’Afrqiue du nord musulmane (Paris: A.  Colin, 1962) See the message addressed to FDR by Ferhat Abbas dated December 20, 1942: “If this war is, as the president of the United States has declared, a war of liberation of peoples and individuals, regardless of race and religion, the Algerian Muslims would associate themselves with all their strength and by any sacrifice to this liberating struggle.  They would thereby ensure their own political freedom as well as the liberation of metropolitan France.” Significantly the pharmacist from Sétif, Ferhat Abbas would later become the president of the Provisional government of Algeria (GPRA) and his home town would see the first massive riots against French colonial rule on May 8, 1945.

[37] Winston S.  Churchill, The Grand Alliance.  The Second World War  Vol.  III, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950) p.443

[38] “Despite the earlier failure of Wilson's Fourteen Points, the Atlantic Charter made a significant impression throughout the world.  It heightened the already high expectations about the postwar world and thus perhaps contributed to some of the disillusionment that followed, particularly over matters in Eastern Europe and the colonial world.” Christopher D.  O’Sullivan, Sumner Welles, Postwar Planning and the Quest for a New Order, 1937-1943, (New York: Columbia, 2003) p.70.  Also FDR was careful to avoid some of the more aggressive language prepared by Sumner Welles in the first draft of the Atlantic Charter regarding colonial empires and free trade.  “The Wells document seemed likely to provoke a fight over colonialism and trade discrimination.” Robert Dallek, Franklin D.  Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy 1933-1945, (New York: Oxford, 1979) p.282-283.  Churchill’s proposed text was adopted in the end.

[39] Theodore A.  Wilson The First Summit.  Roosevelt and Churchill at Placentia Bay 1941 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969) p.123-124.

[40] Gerhard L.  Weinberg A World At Arms, (New York: Cambridge, 1994) p.325 “…many [Indian nationalists] had great doubts about the intentions of the Germans and the Japanese, neither having acquired especially good reputations for treating subject peoples well.”

[41] Robert Dallek, Franklin D.  Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy 1933-1945, (New York: Oxford, 1979) p.511.

[42] Wm.  Roger Louis, Imperialism at Bay, (New York: Oxford, 1974) p.199.

[43] See Kenneth S.  Davis, FDR The War President 1940-1943, (New York: Random House, 2000) p.  640, from: Wendell L.  Willkie’s Report to the People (1942)

[44]  “The British would take land anywhere even if it were only a rock or a sandbar, the president said.  They would not give in on any colony belonging to another country, such as French Indochina, because they were afraid we would ask them to do the same in some of their possessions such as Burma or the Malay Peninsula.” FDR to Edward R.  Stettinius, Jr.  on March 17, 1944 in Ted Morgan, FDR, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985) p.712.

[45] Elliott Roosevelt As He Saw It, (New York: Duell, Sloan, 1946) p.115.

[46] “The truth concerning Indo-China is that in the hundred years the French have had it, very little has been done for the benefit of the dependent peoples in that area, and according to the present Chinese government the people there are far better fitted to obtain their independence that the people of any other protected area in the Far East.” Sumner Welles to his planning staff in Christopher D.  O’Sullivan, Sumner Welles, Postwar Planning and the Quest for a New Order, 1937-1943, (New York: Columbia, 2003) p.163.

[47] “He repeatedly and emphatically informed his military and political subordinates that the United States was not about to annex anything anywhere.  The islands that had been mandates of Japan would become trusteeships of the United States…” Gerhard L.  Weinberg Visions of Victory, cit.  p.193.

[48] Louis, Imperialism, cit.  p.  537

[49] The issue of France’s humiliating defeat has been debated since 1940 in particular by Ernest May in his book Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001) where the case is made for revising the view of a decadent and corrupt France crushed by the better armed and motivated Germany.  Or that the French army did not put up enough of a fight.  Actually France lost 126,000 dead in just six weeks of fighting against 97,000 German dead.  The fighting was intense and the battle could have had a very different conclusion according to May’s book. 

[50]  Walter LaFeber, art.  cit. 

[51] The Kaiser’s Germany at first encouraged France’s ambitions in Morocco: “[He] favored the idea that France should become involved in Morocco and establish herself there in order that she might in time forget Alsace-Lorraine and weaken herself from a military point of view.” Later the Kaiser provoked a series of crises, in 1905-06 and 1911 that would result in the establishment of the French protectorate.  Luigi Albertini, The Origins of the War of 1914, Vol.  I, (New York: Enigma, 2005) p.  153-159.

[52] Elliott Roosevelt, As He Saw It, cit.  p.  111-112.

[53] William A.  Hoisington, Jr.  The Casablanca Connection.  French Colonial Policy 1936-1943, (Chapel Hill: U.  North Carolina Press, 1984).  This study provides a detailed analysis of General Charles Noguès’ role in Morocco and the colonial situation in the 1940s.

[54] Georges Vaucher Sous les cèdres d’Ifrane, (Paris: Julliard, 1963) p.118

[55] In 1945 General De Gaulle as president of the provisional government invited the Sultan of Morocco and the Bey of Tunis to Paris.  He told the Sultan: “When at Anfa, President Roosevelt promised Your Majesty a marvelous and immediate independence what was he offering other than dollars and a spot as one of his client states?” The Sultan politely concurred, “…my country’s progress must take place with France’s help.” Charles De Gaulle, Mémoires de Guerre, Le Salut Vol.  III (Paris: Plon, 1959) p.262-263.

[56] French and Algerian historians agree that strong pro-Axis sentiment existed in North Africa as in most of the Arab world during the 1930s and the war but the motivations for the revolt in Algeria in 1945 included both genuine anti-colonialist feeling and disappointment with harsh economic conditions and high unemployment among younger men.  See Annie Rey-Goldzeiguer, Aux origines de la guerre d’Algérie 1940-1945, (Paris: La Découverte, 2002)

[57] Georges Spillman, Du Protectorat à l’indépendance, Maroc 1912-1955, (Paris: Plon, 1967) pp.243-244.

[58] Kenneth Pendar offers a second hand observation on the dinner between the Sultan and FDR as told him by Roosevelt himself: “The French Resident General was present, as he always was in any contact the Sultan had with foreigners, to insulate the Moors from any foreign influence.  Yet during this dinner the President and the Sultan had a long talk together out of earshot of the Resident General, an episode extremely irritating to local French officialdom.  It was, I believe, the first time in the history of Morocco that the Sultan had met the head of any other foreign state than France.  While the French fumed, however, the Sultan and the very politically minded Moors were overjoyed.  They didn’t to my surprise, jump to the conclusion that we were going to take over the Protectorate, but they did see themselves being treated at last as a sovereign state.  They considered it a proof of our sincerity in the Atlantic Charter.  It was amusing later to find that almost every Arab in Morocco thought he knew the whole story of this dinner and everything that was said, just as if he had been there.  I’m sure every detail of King Farouk’s, Haile Selassie’s and Ibn Saud’s visits to the President at Cairo were known to their subjects in the same way.” Kenneth Pendar, Adventure in Diplomacy, (London: Cassell,1966) p.  142.

[59] Kenneth Pendar, Adventure in Diplomacy, cit.  p.  149.

[60] Jim Bishop, FDR’s Last Year, (New York: Times Books, 1975) p.407

[61] Robert E.  Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins, (New York: Enigma, 2002) p.684

[62] Quoted by Gerhard L.  Weinberg, Visions, cit.  p.  207.

[63] R.  Dallek cit.  p.511.

[64] As the first defector to sound the alarm Krivitsky testified before House Committee on Un-American Activities chaired by Congressman Martin Dies in 1939 but the investigators did not follow up his testimony.  Whittaker Chambers with Isaac Don Levine met with A.A.  Berle on September 1, 1939 the day war broke out in Europe.  Berle didn’t take Chambers and Krivitsky seriously and was told to drop the issue of Soviet espionage.  Krivitsky feared giving any secret information to the U.S.  government because of the presence of Soviet espionage networks in the State Department.  See Gary Kern, A Death in Washington, (New York: Enigma, 2004) p.233.

[65] See Amy Knight How the Cold War Began.  The Igor Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies, (New York: Carroll&Graf, 2006).

[66] Quoted in Philippe Héduy Histoire de l’Indochine (Paris: A.  Michel, 1998) p.  448.


Robert L. Miller is the Executive Director of the New York Military Affairs Symposium and  founder and publisher of Enigma Books, an independent publishing company specializing in contemporary American and European history as well as historical thriller fiction.  The company was founded in 1999.  Mr. Miller is also a college professor, as well as a book editor and translator from French and Italian into English.  Some of the more significant titles he has translated are Renzo De Felice The Jews in Fascist Italy. A History,(Storia degli ebrei italiani sotto il fascismo); Giorgio Fabre Hitler’s Contract, (Il Contratto); Galeazzo Ciano Diary 1937-1943 (Diario 1937-1943); Santi Corvaja Hitler and Mussolini. The Secret Meetings; Emilio Gentile The Origins of Fascist Ideology 1918-1925. From the French: J.B. Duroselle France and the Nazi Threat,(La Décadence 1932-1939); Georges Poisson Hitler’s Gift to France. The Return of the Remains of Napoleon II (Le Retour des cendres de l’Aiglon); Paul Aussaresses The Battle of the Casbah (Services spéciaux Algérie 1955-1957); Paul Paillole Fighting the Nazis (Services spéciaux). He is currently translating  Giuseppe Conti Mussolini’s Spies. A History of Italian Military Espionage at War SIM (1940-1943) (

Many Enigma titles have been sold and published in Europe in France: Nouveau Monde and Italy Goriziana, Il Mulino, Mondadori and Dom Quixote Leya Group in Portugal. Other rights sales include Latvia, Poland, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, and Hungary.

As author he has co-authored the Encyclopedia of Cold War Espionage 3rd edition to be published in 2012.


In his publishing career Mr. Miller was vice president for international marketing at Macmillan Publishing Company in New York for Berlitz Publications products for over twelve years and a manager at Rizzoli International prior to that. Prior to his publishing career Mr. Miller taught at Herbert H. Lehman College CUNY; Pace College; St. Peter’s College in Jersey City and Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. Mr. Miller holds a Licence in contemporary history from the University of Paris-Nanterre where he studied with Professor Charles Bloch, an M.A. from Middlebury College and has pursued doctoral studies at New York University.


            Mr. Miller has lectured widely on twentieth century history and has appeared on C-Span’s television’s Book TV series, Europe in Crisis 1932-1939: Nazi Germany and its path to war at Pace University White Plains; The Rosenberg Spy Case at the Bryant Public Library and the Mid-Manhattan Library; The Battle of Algiers and Terrorism at the New York Association of Scholars and CUNY Graduate Center in 2006; Mussolini The Secrets of His Death at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center in 2005 and FDR and Decolonization at the FDR Library in Hyde Park at the NY Political Science Association in April 2007. In May 2008 he lectured at NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimo on The Welles Mission to Rome in 1940. FDR’s Search for Peace. In 2007 he was a speaker on a panel of journalists to interview Italian television personality Bruno Vespa at the Italian Cultural Institute in New York.

            He has also lectured in France: Les États Unis et la décolonization 1945-1963 at the Académie des sciences d’outre-mer in Paris in June 2007 and at CUNY Graduate Center in September of 2007 The United States and the Colonial Wars 1945-1963. An article by the same title was published in 2009 in the Bulletin de l’Académie des sciences d’outre-mer ; and again at CUNY Graduate Center in 2008: Hitler’s Gift to France: The Return of the Remains of Napoleon II.

Mr. Miller has frequently received translation awards from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for his translation of major Italian historical works and his many contributions to Italian culture in the United States in the English language.


            He is also the author of several works of fiction under the pen name Arno Baker: Operation Neptune and Codename Kalistrat: Secrets of the Rosenberg Spy Case.


 Personal data:

            Robert L. Miller was born in Pisa, Italy. His father was a lawyer and U.S. Army major in the military police and Allied Military Government, U.S. Fifth Army; his mother was an art historian from Lucca, Italy. He came to the United States when his father was demobilized in 1947. In 1954 the family moved first to Tangier and then to Casablanca, Morocco then a French protectorate where he attended French schools and continued his education in the French language from that point on. In 1962 the family moved to Paris where he attended the Collège Stanislas, passed the baccalauréat in philosophy and then attended the University at Nanterre from 1964 to 1969. In 1967 Mr. Miller was appointed lecturer of French at Mercer University in Macon, GA and was therefore absent from France during the 1968 student riots. He returned to the university at Nanterre in September 1968 to complete his studies with Prof. Charles Bloch, a disciple of J.B. Duroselle, and obtained the Licence in 1969 with a thesis on the Birth of the Rome–Berlin Axis 1933-1938. He returned to the United States and taught French and Italian languages and literatures until 1974 when joined Rizzoli international and then Macmillan Publishing Co. He started his first publishing company, Language Publications in 1993 which is known for the award winning software learning product line Who Is Oscar Lake? currently distributed in all major electronic stores and most high schools in the United States.

Robert Miller's email is

The direct address of this paper is: Miller - US & Colonial Wars.doc.html

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