Crane, The Phillips affair and India

Introducing India’s friend Robert I Crane

India is quite a nationalist country and most people are content with homespun and homegrown heroes. While it serves the greater populace, the many others who were hugely influential in its creation and existence as a modern democracy are hardly known to the teeming masses, not that it would get noticed, even if one were to write an article about it. I will nevertheless try to tell you all about one such person, an American, born in India and who went on to make an impact on the American government’s stance on India during a period when Britain and America were firmly tied up as allies in the WW II.

As Churchill leaned heavily on America’s president FDR, forcing him to withdraw tacit support for India’s independence, the Indian lobby being so created in Washington DC was working overtime to at least tilt the state department’s stance in favor of Indian independence. At one point of time, there was a lone American driven by his convictions, a young upstart named Robert I Crane, firmly supporting the Indian lobby. See I told you, you would never have heard that name or of that fascinating gentlemen, one of the best friends India ever had. This is his story.

But many people did notice that the turning point in Indo US relations was when the Phillips affair hit the wires in 1944. In those days, many with influence to boot, read the very popular column written by one Drew Pearson, entitled ‘Washington Merry-go-round’ in the Washington Post. He was without doubt ‘a larger than life’ media man. Pearson’s articles bordered on sensationalism, using journalism as a weapon against those he judged to be working against the public interest.

Pearson’s description of himself is interesting, his promo brochure states – Pearson is a tall, slender, professorial-looking individualist, whose prime amusement and occupation is observing the merry-go-round of national politics. He had travelled around the world, and along the way had even met Gandhiji in an Indian prison.

Not that there were no reports in the US on the problems in India, even before the Phiilips affair. A recap would therefore be a good idea. The first seeds of discontent started with the Gadhar movement in the second decade of the 20th century, in the US West Coast where a number of Sikhs had settled, moving in mainly from Canada, after some oppression there. Lala Har Dayal led the effort with the publication Gadhar. Within a year he had fled America to Germany, after the British complained, leaving the organization in Rama Chandra’s hands. An uprising planned in Punjab was scuttled by the British and many leaders were being arrested in California. Taraknath Das was a later spearhead, and new efforts were mooted by Lajpat Rai, who started the home rule league. He addressed the US senate, without avail, and then came Syud Hossein, whom I had written in detail about, earlier (See these articles, one and two). WJ Bryan and JH Holmes toured India and wrote about the issues there, and Gandhiji’s salt marches in the 30’s were compared to the Boston tea party. Durant and Emerson wrote persuasive articles. Margret Wilson, President Woodrow Wilson’s daughter tried to persuade FDR to address a message to India, but that did not quite bear fruit. Subramanya Iyer’s letter to Wilson was widely circulated and home rule was proposed as a solution, considering India’s willingness to support the Allied war interests with fighting men. Things dragged on until 1942, which was when Louis Fischer visited India and wrote about India in many articles and books. Gunther, Pearl S Buck, Dorothy Norman and many others joined the fray in India’s support. Syud Hossein was usurped by the dynamic JJ Singh as the head of the India league. FDR himself had his sympathies with India, and raised the issue with Churchill in 1941 only to be rebuffed by the boorish Churchill, in the most vehement manner.

FDR was also obligated by the Atlantic charter of 1941, cosigned by the US which guaranteed self-rule. Churchill sidestepped the US contention by saying that the charter was applicable to only those under Nazi Germany’s occupation. FDR tried again to reason with Churchill in private, but did not succeed. He then wrote to Churchill in more detail about how Indians could form a multi representative government etc. In March 1942, Stafford Cripps was deputed to India to obtain her support for the war and to placate FDR, but Cripps did not have Churchill’s overt support in the mission. The Americans had in the meanwhile sent Col Louis Johnson for the same purpose and he saw through Churchill’s ploy with Cripps. Churchill won that round and grandly announced that he would not be the one to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire. Johnson returned to America. Gandhiji wrote to FDR insisting that India desired freedom. As Nehru wrote about Sino-Indian friendship and future, and Britain was inclined towards letting Japan capture China (so that they could bargain for its annexation later during a peace treaty stage) Chiang Kai-shek met Gandhiji, and later wrote to FDR supporting India’s independence. By August 1942, the quit India movement was announced. Arrests and unrest followed.

FDR decided to send his personal emissary, William Phillips to India. Phillips, grandson of the great abolitionist Wendell Phillips, brought up amongst Boston gentry and trained at Harvard, had risen quickly in his diplomatic career to become undersecretary in the State Department. He had served at the OSS London office and as ambassador to Italy.

He had a torrid time in India, faced with a total lack of support from the British Viceroy Linlithgow. He was not allowed to meet Gandhiji who was imprisoned in the Agha Khan palace. He sent many gloomy letters and cables to FDR detailing the terrible situation in India. He also saw that that the Indians were quickly losing their belief in American support and the US championship of freedom. Finally he headed back home, disappointed. He wrote a memo detailing his travails in India, to President Roosevelt, who was beleaguered with comments from skeptics about the military prowess of the Poms, or lack of it thereof, what with their failures in Burma. From India, another American Samuel Stokes (the apple missionary whom I had introduced earlier) also wrote to FDR, about the sad state of affairs.

And thus, we get to the Pearson Phillips affair. As it occurred, the confidential memo prepared by Ambassador William Phillips fell into the hands of Drew Pearson. Ambassador Phillips’s memo was a document quite critical of British policy and methods adopted in India. Phillips believed that the British arrogance and rigid stance was not right, and talked about its effect on America’s war in the East. He concluded that it was high time Britain declared their intention to grant independence to India at least after the war ended.

This is what he said, among other things

Assuming that India is bound to be an important base for our future operations against Burma and Japan, it would seem to me of highest importance that we should have around us a sympathetic India rather than an indifferent and possibly a hostile India. It would appear that we will have the primal responsibility in the conduct of the war against Japan. There is no evidence that the British intend to do much more than give token assistance. If that is so, then the conditions surrounding our base in India become of vital importance.

At present the Indian people are at war only in a legal sense as, for various reasons, the British Government declared India in the conflict without the formality of consulting Indian leaders or even the Indian legislature. Indians feel that they have no voice in the Government and therefore no responsibility in the conduct of the war. They feel they have nothing to fight for as they are convinced that the professed war aims of the United Nations do not apply to them. The British Prime Minister, in fact, has stated that the provisions of the Atlantic Charter are not applicable to India, and it is not unnatural therefore that the Indian leaders are beginning to wonder whether the Charter is only for the benefit of the white races. The present Indian Army is purely mercenary and only that part of it which is drawn from the martial races has been tried in actual warfare and these martial soldiers represent only thirty-three percent of that Army. General Stilwell has expressed to me his concern over the situation and in particular in regard to the poor morale of the Indian officers.

The attitude of the general public toward the war is even worse. Lassitude and indifference and bitterness have increased as a result of the famine conditions, the growing high cost of living and the continued political deadlock.  While India is broken politically into various parties and groups, all have one object in common, eventual freedom and independence from British domination. There would seem to be only one remedy to this highly unsatisfactory situation in which we are unfortunately but nevertheless seriously involved, and that is to change the attitude of the people of India towards the war, make them feel that we want them to assume responsibilities to the United Nations and are prepared to give them facilities for doing so, and that the voice of India will play an important part in the reconstruction of the world. The present political conditions do not permit of any improvement in this respect. Even though the British should fail again it is high time that they should make a new effort to improve conditions and to reestablish confidence among the Indian people that their future independence is to be granted. Words are of no avail. They only aggravate the present situation. It is time for the British to act. This they can do by a solemn declaration from the King Emperor that India will achieve her independence at a specified date after the war and as a guarantee of good faith in this respect a provisional representative coalition government will be established at the center and limited powers transferred to it. 

I feel strongly, Mr. President, that in view of our military position in India we should have a voice in these matters. It is not right for the British to say "this is none of your business" when we alone presumably will have the major part to play in the future struggle with Japan. If we do nothing and merely accept the British point of view that conditions in India are none of our business then we must be prepared for various serious consequences in the internal situation in India which may develop as a result of despair and misery and anti-white sentiments of hundreds of millions of subject people.

Pearson’s disclosure of the ambassador’s comments in the Washington Post on July 22nd 1944, but naturally, caused a sensation in Washington, and greatly assisted the efforts of the India Lobby.  

It was a rough period during the Great War. Just the previous month, London had gotten battered by the German V1 rockets, and after courting disaster in Burma had narrowly and decisively pushed away the Japanese Indian threat at Kohima. India’s eastern bastion had withstood a breach. The British were now carpet bombing Normandy, in preparation for the D day, Rommel was wounded, and the war news seesawed back and forth, jangling tired nerves. An allied victory was still years away. Britain has no intention of losing India, the jewel in its crown, the economic lifeline for their miserable citizens under siege in Britain. The Indian lobby did not want to lose any chance of utilizing any advantage it saw and stepped on the gas.

Did the Phillips memo just fall in Pearson’s proximity, like the proverbial apple fell on Newton? Of course not. It found its way to Drew from the hands of our hero Robert Crane, a child of missionary parents who had spent his childhood years in Bengal and at that point of time in history, was but a junior desk officer on South Asia in the State Department Division of Cultural Relations. Time to get to know him better, I suppose.

Nothing explains his actions and his convictions better than the opening paragraph of an obituary by John Hill, in the JOAS. Hill writes - Born in India of American missionary parents at the start of Gandhi's national noncooperation campaign, Crane's adult life was dominated by two intertwined convictions: that the peoples and civilizations of Southern Asia were of immense importance in the world's past and present, and that American understanding of South Asia was vital to the United States future.

Crane joined the State Department at the end of 1943, just 23 years old and after he finished his Having been born in India-my father was in charge of several schools for Indians sponsored by the Methodist Episcopal Church-and, after we returned to the United States, having had the good fortune to meet a fine Indian nationalist living here, I had early developed a strong sense of the rightness and validity of the struggle for Indian independence led by the Indian National Congress.  My graduate studies in Washington only served to reinforce those views…
graduate studies on the history of U.S. (he received a bachelor's degree from Duke University in 1941, a master's degree from American university in 1943) Indian relations and had inclined himself a great supporter of Indian independence. Crane explains –

As the sh%^t hit the fan, the state department was in turmoil. The president was embarrassed, the British Prime minister and his surly bureaucracy were mortified and a witch-hunt started in Washington. Ambassador Phillips was declared persona non grata in London and New Delhi, but Churchill termed him publically ‘a well-meaning ass’. The US state department recommended that FDR release no public statements. The US congress passed a resolution stating that India was important to the US in war and peace, Roosevelt refused to apologize or disassociate himself from Phillips.

British intelligence stated investigations, as the Atlantic ‘pond’ between imperial Britain and the new world - America stormed and fizzed. President Roosevelt speculated that Sumner Welles, the former Undersecretary of State, had leaked the report. Welles was both a personal friend of Pearson’s and a vocal supporter of Indian independence, but today we know that it was none other than the young Robert Crane. Robert Crane, the junior desk officer on South Asia in the State Department Division of Cultural Relations, was therefore one who risked prison to advance the cause of Indian independence, though his role in the affair remained undiscovered for more than four decades.

Quoting Rebecca Solnit from her fine thesis - Well aware of this widespread anti-colonial sentiment, Crane quietly passed a copy of the classified document to some Indian friends in Washington. By doing so, he violated a U.S. legal code addressing wartime disclosure of classified information that had been first established by the controversial 1917 Espionage Act. If convicted of this federal crime, Crane would have lost his government position, faced fines up to $10,000, and/or imprisonment for up to twenty years. Crane risked all of this to help promote Indian independence.

There was much more to the intrigue and the covert business behind this leak, lest all this sound so pat and simple. It was a well-planned act, involving some 12 members of the India Lobby, a few Americans and so many others.

Crane explained in his paper quoted under references - In the fall of 1941, I enrolled for an M.A. in history at The American University in Washington, D.C. My thesis was to be on U.S. opinion vis-a vis India, 1895-1935.' After the United States entered World War II, I joined the government service and by late 1943 was the desk officer on South Asia in the Division of Cultural Relations, U.S. Department of State. My duties as desk officer for South Asia also brought me into close contact with persons in the District of Columbia who were professionally concerned with India. Most of my associates were pro-Indian National Congress (INC), as was I, favoring progress toward independence for India soon after the end of the war.

That was not, however, the official policy of the U.S. government. Nor were there very many people in the U.S. government who supported early independence for India. Public opinion, as far as we could gauge it, was ambiguous. The political desk officer in the Department of State, with whom I had to deal, was quite pro-British and followed the "Churchill line" on India at all times. Meanwhile, the British Information Services were expending a great deal of time, effort, and money trying to influence our media and public opinion in the direction of the official propaganda of His Majesty's government regarding India. They even reissued and handed out copies of the notorious anti-Indian book by Katherine Mayo ‘Mother India’. It painted Indians in an awful light. There was also a lot of disinformation spread about concerning Mahatma Gandhi and the INC, especially after the 1942 Quit India movement.

During the period of 1943-1944, there were a few organizations in the United States that tried to publicize the Indian cause and provide accurate information about Indian nationalism and the Indian scene. I soon came into close contact-unofficially-with two or three such groups. In the District of Columbia there was the National Committee for India's Independence, headed by Dr. Anup Singh and Dr. Syud Hosein; they held public meetings on India and issued a newsletter. I became a close friend of these two men and attended all their public meetings as well as a few of their press conferences. I also got to know J. J. Singh, head of the India League of New York City.

As we follow the story in Crane’s own words, we get to see that he met and became acquainted with Obaid Ur Rahman and Maj Altaf Aqdir, both staunch nationalists. Through them, he met KC Mahendra and KAD Naoroji, and later Kate Mitchell. This committed group decided to influence American opinion about India.

The official position of the US government, as Crane understood from briefings by the political desk officer, was that the British Government of India was the legitimate government as well as US ally against the Nazis and the Japanese. Nothing was to be done to undermine the GOI or to give any aid or comfort to its enemies, including the Indian nationalists who were not cooperating in the war against Japan. But they believed that India would be much more actively enrolled in the war effort if the legitimate demands of the Indian nationalist movement for a political settlement were heeded.

Crane continues - This viewpoint received unexpected support when Drew Pearson published the Report by U.S. Envoy William Phillips, who had gone to India as President Roosevelt's personal representative. The Phillips Report had come routinely across my desk in the Division of Cultural Relations. Impressed and pleased by its contents, I subsequently showed it to two of my close Indian friends in Washington. Though I was not aware of it then, one of them copied the report verbatim and later gave it to Drew Pearson, who published it. The report had a substantial impact on public opinion.

After its publication we were able to use it in support of our long-standing argument in favor of the validity of the posture of the Indian nationalists. Public opinion in the United States remained torn between those who bought the British line and those who did not. Most of the public, as far as I could tell, remained indifferent to the Indian nationalist cause.

But there was a problem. A major problem was that India and its future was far less important to the United States than was China. American interest in and support for the KMT government were strong and continuing. The China lobby-if it may be called that-was far more powerful than the informal, poorly supported efforts of the miniscule India League or the National Committee for India's Independence. India had much less support or understanding among American citizens than did the Republic of China.

Nothing much happened, at least Crane also thought so, but the plight of the Indians were better known now to some powerful Americans. He concluded thus - The American public was either indifferent to India or uninformed. A small group favored Indian independence and the INC, and another small group shared the British view that Indians could not possibly govern themselves. Almost no one envisioned India as an important figure on the postwar world political or economic stage.

As the Indian cauldron simmered with the British ineptness and active stoking, as well as the war efforts, Crane was moved on to the Office of Strategic Services and served mainly in the China-Burma-India Theater of operations. But the CBI Theater was located in the North East corner of India, and their activities, especially the 4,000 or so Americans who spent their war days there, are also largely unknown to most Indians. He spent his time as demanded, scouring all kinds of Indian published works for communist propaganda. He found none, but was soon immersed in South Asian culture, something he enjoyed.

At the tail end of the Pearson Phillips affair, Roald Dahl stepped into the scene from the deep shadows. Now how and why on earth could Norwegian Roald Dahl, the famous writer who wrote Charlie and Matilda and many other children’s books get involved in this caper? Well you see; in those days he served the MI6 in its BSC cloak and dagger American outfit, frequenting cocktail parties and such, hobnobbing with the gentry and peddling pro-British stories, and was involved in the task of finding out the person behind the Pearson leak.

Pearson however got wind of the frantic British attempts and gleefully reported that as well – He stated “following the further leaks, the British went frantic. Six British secret service men and two burglar alarm experts arrived at the British India office here. They combed files, took finger prints from documents, examined locks, windows”…..but nobody could ferret out Crane’s involvement, Qadir kept mum. Initially they established the identity of the person who supplied the Phillips letter as Chaman Lal, but later zoomed into Maj Altaf Qadir, the 3rd secretary of the British Agent-general of India, both of whom got evicted from the USA, Qadir getting sent to the Burmese fighting front. As I could gather, the poor man Altaf Qadir died at the Burmese front, unrecognized for all he did.

The India lobby gamely continued on, but Nehru hated JJ Singh – he had once said “unfortunately, the Indians in American are a very unsatisfactory lot. They shout a lot and do no work. Often they do injury to our cause.” Soon after all this and sensing reluctant support from America, Vijayalakshmi Pandit was sent to America to champion Indian cause.

Crane came back to America, continued his studies at Yale, securing a PhD in 1951, perhaps the first American doctorate in South Asian history. He taught South Asian history at the University of Chicago from 1949-53, University of Michigan from 1956-61, and Duke University from 1961-1968. He was the first person appointed to the Ford-Maxwell Professorship of South Asian history at Syracuse University in 1968. He taught at the Syracuse University until 1990. Among his own varied literary achievements connected to South Asia, he also edited Nehru’s Discovery of India. He created many a graduate South Asian program, always including Hindi and Urdu language instruction. And sadly I did not mention this in my earlier article, he was the person behind the PL 480 Indian book collection spree, an act I thank every time I secure an obscure Indian author’s book, available here due to the ‘grain for books’ scheme.

He struggled with glaucoma in the last two decades of his life, but Lakshmi Crane, his wife was there to support him ardently and ably through those years. Sadly, he passed away in 1997. That my friends, is a little bit on a magnificent man, guided by his convictions, that was Robert Crane, India’s friend.

The next part with deal with the OSS in India and later I will get into the CBI theater related American activities in India. Those desirous of reading about the Pearson affair and those tumultuous days in more detail are recommended to peruse Solnit’s fine thesis and Gould’s book, listed under references.

The Forgotten Lobby: Advocates for India in the U.S. during World War II – Rebecca Solnit
Crane, Robert I. “U.S.-India Relations: The Early Phase, 1941-1945,
United States Department of State / Foreign relations of the United States diplomatic papers, 1943. The Near East and Africa (1943)
Aldrich, Richard. Intelligence and the War against Japan: Britain, America and the Politics of Secret Service
Gould, Harold A. Sikhs, Swamis, Students, and Spies: The India Lobby in the United States, 1900-1946.
Venkataramani, M.S. and B. K. Shrivastava, Roosevelt-Gandhi-Churchill: America and the Last Phase of India’s Freedom Struggle.
Quest for freedom, the United States and India’s independence – Kenton J Clymer

Robert Crane – Obituary - The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 57, No. 2 (May, 1998)
Drew Pearson –


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