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“That Hell-hole Of Yours”
In 1943 Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Britain’s poorest, most dismal African colony, and what he saw there fired him with a fervor that helped found the United Nations
October 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 6
President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not look favorably on European colonialism. Like most Americans, he believed that the self-determination clause of the 1941 Atlantic Charter should apply to all peoples, not just Europeans. In the war’s early years he so disagreed with Britain’s prime minister, Winston Churchill, on the future of the British Empire that the two heads of state tacitly agreed to avoid discussing the topic. But Roosevelt ceased skirting the issue and became colonialism’s outspoken foe after he stopped over in Britain’s smallest African colony, Gambia, near the continent’s western tip, on his way to meet Churchill in Casablanca in January 1943. This brief visit put a human face on misery for the President. It was a first strong whiff of the “stench of empire” that helped crystallize Roosevelt’s thinking about the role of the organization he was envisioning to help guide the post-Empire world: the United Nations.
Roosevelt’s son Elliott, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Air Corps, met his father’s C-54 transport the evening the President landed outside Casablanca. Along with Roosevelt’s aide Harry Hopkins, father and son rode the fifteen miles to the President’s villa in a French limousine, its windows plastered over with mud. Roosevelt showed no ill effects from his five days of traveling. “He was in high spirits; not a bit tired,” remembered Elliott. Oddly, though, the President spoke not so much of the momentous issues he and Churchill would be discussing as of where he had been and what he had seen.
At the front of Roosevelt’s mind was his eye-opening ride that morning through Bathurst, Gambia’s capital. Elliott had been there a year earlier on an Army mapping project. “I’ll bet I found out more in one afternoon in Bathurst than you were able to find out in two months,” father told son. Later that night, following a formal dinner with the British prime minister and his staff, Roosevelt got into his wide bed in the fancy presidential villa, loaded his cigarette holder, and again brought up his experiences of the previous morning.
“I must tell Churchill what I found out about his British Gambia today,” he told Elliott. “This morning, at about eight-thirty, we drove through Bathurst to the airfield.” (Elliott notes it was here that his father began speaking with “real feeling in his voice.”) “The natives were just getting to work. In rags…glum-looking.…They told us the natives would look happier around noontime, when the sun should have burned off the dew and the chill. I was told the prevailing wages for these men was one and nine. One shilling ninepence. Less than fifty cents.”
“An hour?” Elliott asked.
“A day! Fifty cents a day! Besides which, they’re given a half-cup of rice. Dirt. Disease. Very high mortality rate. I asked. Life expectancy—you’d never guess what it is. Twenty-six years. Those people are treated worse than the livestock. Their cattle live longer!”
During the flight overseas Roosevelt acted as if he were on “a first class holiday,” Hopkins wrote.
The President grew silent for a moment. Then he vowed, “Churchill may have thought I wasn’t serious, last time. He’ll find out, this time.”
In the bedroom of the presidential villa in Casablanca, Elliott heard his father speak for the first time of the role that an “organization of the United Nations” should play in “bringing education, raising the standards of living, improving the health conditions of all the backward, depressed colonial areas of the world.…
“And when they’ve had a chance to reach maturity,” the reclining President continued, after a third cigarette, three hours past midnight and several thousand miles from home, “they must have the opportunity extended them of independence.” It would be sour music for the ears of Churchill, who, only two months earlier, had made his own public vow: “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.”
What brought Roosevelt to the midwinter conference with Churchill in Casablanca was the apparent turn in the Allied fortunes of war. By the fall of 1942 Americans had blunted Japanese advances in the Pacific. Then, between the last week of October and the end of November, Allied forces had taken the upper hand in North Africa, and the Soviet Red Army had surrounded twenty-two German Army divisions west of Stalingrad. Suddenly a light was glowing at the tunnel’s far end, and there had been little planning for the rest of the drive. The circumstance prompted Roosevelt to sound out Churchill on “a military strategical conference between Great Britain, Russia, and the United States.” Churchill agreed, but Stalin declined, citing the pressing military situation on the Russian front.