Dr. Susmit Kumar

World War II had a profound effect on the colonial powers because it completely destroyed their economies. Although Hitler committed crimes against humanity, I give him credit—and not Gandhi—for India’s independence immediately after World War II. Hitler destroyed the economies of Britain and France to such an extent that they were no longer able to financially maintain their military forces, and were hence incapable of containing the burgeoning freedom movements in their colonies. It is worth noting that Britain was in such bad shape that it received about one-fourth of the total aid given under the Marshall Plan. Regardless of Gandhi or any other charismatic leader, Britain would have left India in 1947 purely for financial reasons, due to its wholly collapsed economy. After WWII, Britain left not only India but nearly all its other holdings, including Jordan in 1946, Palestine in 1947, Sri Lanka in 1948, Myanmar in 1948, and Egypt in 1952. For the same reason, France also had to grant independence to Laos in 1949 and Cambodia in 1953, and had to leave Vietnam in 1954. Had there been no Hitler and no World War II, it most probably would have taken another 30 or more years for India and some of the other colonies to achieve independence.

The destruction of industrial facilities in Britain and other European countries was immense and far exceeded the damage wrought during WWI, when damage was largely confined to battle areas. France estimated the total cost of damages as equivalent to three times the total French annual national income. In Great Britain, about 30 percent of residential homes were destroyed or at least partially damaged, first by the German aerial blitz of 1940-41 and later by German V-bombs and rockets.[1]

Britain had incurred a huge debt in order to finance the war. The war stripped it of virtually all its foreign financial resources. In addition, it had accumulated “sterling credits”— debts owed to other countries that required repayment to those countries in their own currencies —amounting to several billion pounds. Its domestic economy was in tatters. The adjustment from a war economy to a civilian economy was painful, as for some time the war industries overproduced goods no longer required in a non-war economy at the same time essential goods for railways and coal mines were not being produced in enough abundance to serve the British population. The economic turmoil was made worse because the British had nothing to export and had no way to pay for imports or even for basic daily necessities such as food. To further exacerbate an already disastrous situation, American president Harry S. Truman, as required by law, ended the Lend-Lease Act on which Britain had depended for the basic necessities of its  population as well as its war weaponry. Under the 1941 Lend-Lease Act, a total of $50.1 billion (equivalent to nearly $700 billion at 2007 prices) worth of supplies had been shipped—$31.4 billion to Britain, $11.3 billion to the Soviet Union, $3.2 billion to France, and $1.6 billion to China. One of the final actions of British economist John Maynard Keynes was to negotiate a $3.75 billion loan from the U.S. and a smaller one from Canada. In other words, Britain was bankrupt.[2]

Prior to both world wars, the civilian population of the United States was not at all interested in going to war in Europe. Its mentality was isolationist, and Americans saw no personal gain coming to them from these wars. Which country maintained hegemony in Europe was simply irrelevant to the American people during both world wars.

According to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, President Roosevelt was far closer to Winston Churchill than he was to any American. Yet, sometimes he was highly acerbic towards the British prime minister, far more than he was towards Stalin. As Kissinger writes, “In Churchill, he found a wartime comrade-in-arms; in Stalin, he saw a partner in preserving postwar peace.”[3] At his first meeting with Churchill, during which the two leaders signed the Atlantic Charter, Roosevelt insisted that the charter apply not just to Europe, but to the entire world, including the colonies. He said, “I am firmly of the belief that if we are to arrive at a stable peace it must involve the development of backward countries…I can’t believe that we can fight fascist slavery, and at the same time not work to free people all over the world from a backward colonial policy.”[4]

The British War Cabinet completely rejected Roosevelt’s interpretation, however, declaring in response that “... the Atlantic Charter… was directed to the nations of Europe whom we hoped to free from Nazi tyranny, and was not intended to deal with the internal affairs of the British Empire.”[5]

In a 1942 Memorial Day address, Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles reiterated America’s historic opposition to colonialism by declaring: “If this war is in fact a war for the liberation of peoples it must assure the sovereign equality of peoples throughout the world, as well as in the world of all Americas. Our victory must bring in its train the liberation of all peoples… The age of imperialism is ended.”[6] These were great words, and led later to his dismissal from office.

In November 1943, at the Tehran war conference, Roosevelt openly accused Churchill of being an imperialist. In 1944, he sent silver worth $26 million to Stalin so as to improve ties between the two countries. However, a German submarine sank the U.S.S. John Barry, carrying the silver. Dr. John Charmley of the British University of East Anglia wrote in his biography of Churchill that this was clear proof that relations between the U.S. and Britain were not as warm as the world supposed them to be.[7]

After the war, both Britain and France made attempts to re-establish their colonial powers, but failed, primarily due to American intervention. When the Suez Canal was nationalized by Egypt in 1956, both Britain and France attempted to convince the U.S. to invade Egypt so as to regain control of the canal. President Eisenhower declined. As a result, Britain and France, along with Israel, moved independently and invaded Egypt. Within 48 hours they were forced to withdraw, however, because the U.S. took the issue immediately to the U.N. General Assembly. In addition, the British pound collapsed in world financial markets and the U.S. refused to provide Britain any assistance. This was the one instance in history when the U.S. voted with the U.S.S.R. at the U.N. against its own close allies, because Britain had openly defied Eisenhower’s clear disinclination to invade Egypt. This impromptu invasion became the death knell for the erstwhile colonial powers, Britain and France.


1 The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 29, Ed. 15, Chicago, 1991, p. 1024.

2 Ibid., p. 93.

3 Kissinger, Henry A., Diplomacy, Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, 1994, p. 401.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., p. 402.

7 Pilkington, Edward, “Sunk silver reveals US deal with Stalin,” The Guardian, UK, Nov. 13, 1995.

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