Imperialism at Bay

Wm. Roger Louis, Professor of History at the University of Texas, is an authority on the history of European colonialism. Among his earlier books are: British Strategy in the Far East, 1919-1939; Ruanda-Urundi, 1884-1919; and Great Britain and Germany’s Lost Colonies, 1914-1919, the latter being a study of the origins of the League of Nations Mandate system. Louis has now written a detailed, scholarly study of the Anglo-American debate over colonialism during World War II: Imperialism at Bay. This work is based on the recently opened files of the British and American archives, and on the private papers and personal diaries of British, American, and Australian statesmen and other high officials.

The title, “Imperialism at Bay,” might conjure up the image of a cornered lion about to be shot by a band of hunters. The story the book tells is, however, much less dramatic. The subtitle, “The United States and the Decolonization of the British Empire,” is also somewhat misleading, since Britain did not give up any of her colonies during the period covered in this book. What Louis narrates is not the clash of battle between rival armies, but the struggle between two ideas: “imperialism” versus “trusteeship.”

In 1919, colonial territories taken from the Central Powers had been handed over to various Allied Powers, to be administered by them, subject to the supervision of the Permanent Mandates Council of the League of Nations. After 1945, former colonies of the Axis Powers, together with some former “Mandates,” were administered by various Allied Powers under the supervision of the Trusteeship Council of the United Nations. United Nations supervision of the Trusteeships would prove to be far more vigorous than League of Nations supervision of the Mandates had been. The natives’ right of petition to the United Nations, and the right of that world organization to send inspection teams to the trust territories, helped considerably to accelerate the process of decolonization in the years after World War II. It is to a study of the origins of this Trusteeship system that Louis devotes his new book.

The book consists of four parts. The first is a rather lengthy introduction, in which the author first presents the main themes before dealing with them at length. In part two Louis traces the trusteeship controversy from the time of the Atlantic Charter (August, 1941), when common Anglo-American peace goals were first stated, to the Cairo Declaration of December 1, 1943, in which the abolition of the Japanese colonial empire was proclaimed as an Allied war aim. In part three, the author takes the narrative up to the Yalta Conference of February, 1945, where the “Big Three,” Russia, Britain, and the United States, approved the application of the Trusteeship principle to certain types of dependent territories. In part four, the author shows how, at the San Francisco Conference of April-June, 1945, the Trusteeship principle was formally incorporated in the United Nations Charter. The story the author has to tell is a rather long and complicated one.

As a result of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, the United States formally entered World War II on the side of Britain. Even before that date, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had been de facto allies. In August, 1941, the two leaders, meeting on a ship off the coast of Newfoundland, had proclaimed the so-called “Atlantic Charter.” In this press release, the self-determination of nations had been declared a key Anglo-American goal for the postwar world.

Louis shows that after the stunning defeat of the British Army by the Japanese at Singapore, in February, 1942, there was a wave of criticism of the British Empire by American politicians and journalists. How, it was asked, could Americans fight for the national self-determination mentioned in the Atlantic Charter, while simultaneously defending the colonial Empire of their closest ally? It was in this atmosphere that President Franklin D. Roosevelt began to speak, on numerous occassions, of the need for reform of the British and other European colonial empires. “Imperialism,” he believed, must be abolished.

To Roosevelt, Louis explains, “imperialism” meant the exploitation of colonies by the European Powers for their own benefit, without regard for the welfare of the indigenous peoples. “Trusteeship,” on the other hand, meant the international supervision of the European powers’ administration of their colonies. Under such supervision, Roosevelt believed, the European powers would be forced to improve the standard of living of their colonial charges, and to prepare them for eventual independence.

The author contends, in a somewhat sarcastic fashion, that Roosevelt viewed trusteeship as...

(The entire section is 2003 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Choice. XV, October, 1978, p. 1108.

Reviews in American History. VI, December, 1978, p. 537.