The United States of America and the delayed independence of British Guiana
By Winston McGowan
June 3, 2004
Last week Guyana celebrated the 38th anniversary of its political independence from Great Britain. The grant of independence status on 26th May 1966, however, occurred later than had been expected.
At a Constitutional Conference in London in March 1960, the British government had committed itself to the principle of political independence for British Guiana "at any time not later than two years after the 1961 general election". In short, the country was expected to become independent by 1963 at the latest.
The August 1961 election was won by the People's Progressive Party (PPP), led by Cheddi Jagan, which gained 42.6 per cent of the votes cast and 20 seats in the Legislative Council. The People's National Congress, led by Forbes Burnham, received 41 per cent of the votes and 11 seats and the United Force, led by Peter d'Aguiar, obtained 16.4 per cent of the votes and the remaining four seats.
In November 1961 the legislature passed a resolution calling on the British government in the United Kingdom to grant independence to British Guiana as promised. In response to this resolution the British government announced its willingness to hold a conference of British Guiana's political leaders to determine the form of the independence constitution and to fix a date for independence. This response was much to the satisfaction of the PPP which hoped to lead the country to independence within the promised time, that is, by 1963.
Eventually, however, the British government reneged on this promise and the date of independence was deferred until May 1966. This delay of at least three years was due to several factors. Among them were the inability of the three main political parties to agree on an independence constitution and a date for independence and the civil strife in the country in 1962, 1963 and 1964. The main reason for the delay, however, was probably a somewhat invisible factor, namely, the influence of the government of the United States of America, which is the focus of this article.
The United States had demonstrated a special interest in the Caribbean at least from the famous declaration of 1823 of the so-called Munroe Doctrine in which its government claimed exclusive right to the American hemisphere. This interest was shown initially and for a long time in periodic American intervention particularly in three countries, namely, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. No similar intervention or even significant interest was witnessed in the affairs of the British Caribbean apart from the exigencies of the Second World War which prompted Washington to secure air and/or naval bases in British Guiana and elsewhere in the Anglophone Caribbean.
The United States government only began to show obvious interest in the politics of British Guiana after the formation in 1950 of the PPP, a Marxist-oriented party in the era of the Cold War, marked by intense fear in the U.S of Communism. This interest became more serious when the PPP, then led by Cheddi Jagan with Forbes Burnham as its chairman, won the 1953 general election decisively, securing 51 per cent of the votes cast and 18 of the 24 seats.
One of the main expressed objectives of the PPP from its inception was the early independence of British Guiana. The U.S government, however, was completely opposed to the idea of British Guiana proceeding to independence under a PPP government. It was therefore very pleased when the British government suspended the constitution and put the PPP out of office in October 1953 after only 133 days in power. This satisfaction in Washington, however, was replaced by dismay, concern and anger when the PPP returned to office in 1957 after four years of an interim government and the party's success in the 1957 general election.
American concern about British Guiana grew significantly after Fidel Castro's successful revolution in Cuba in 1959 and Cuba's subsequent emergence as a Marxist state. The U.S authorities were determined that another independent Marxist state would not emerge in the Caribbean in British Guiana. They therefore began to exert pressure on the British government to persuade it to abandon its apparent intention to grant independence to British Guiana under a PPP government. They were particularly disturbed when late in 1961 the British representative at the United Nations reiterated Britain's commitment to independence for British Guiana.
Initially U.S pressure failed to achieve its intention. The British government continued to declare its intention to grant independence to British Guiana under the PPP government, although the U.S authorities made it clear to London that such a step would be considered "an unfriendly act."
By the beginning of 1962 Dean Rusk, the American Secretary of State, acknowledged that the question of the independence of British Guiana was beginning to place strain on the Anglo-American alliance along with other issues such as Britain's refusal to sever ties with Cuba and her reluctance to take the U.S into confidence about her plans for Rhodesia. The U.S. State Department was also peeved that the British government had not kept them directly informed about details about its plans in relation to British Guiana. As a senior official in the British embassy in Washington stated in February 1962, "I think the State Department feels strongly that we have not kept them fully consulted about British Guiana on a Government-to-Government basis, I have been asked why we did not tell them that our plans were laid to move troops and ships to Georgetown."
The British government, however, continued to resist American pressure for at least three reasons. Firstly, it felt that British Guiana was as ready for independence as many of her other colonies which were proceeding to or had been granted that status. Secondly, it believed that the PPP had a right to govern British Guiana in view of its victory in three successive elections in 1953, 1957 and 1961. Thirdly, it feared that failure to proceed as planned would bring Britain criticism in the United Nations and cause its empire and the rest of the world to question the sincerity of its declared general policy of decolonisation.
In 1962 the U.S. State Department suggested to Britain several alternatives to granting independence to British Guiana under the leadership of the Marxist, Cheddi Jagan. One alternative suggested was to hold another election in British Guiana to see if there would be a change of government, though the State Department was not very optimistic about this approach. Washington also suggested that if Britain delayed the grant of independence, the allegedly "more moderate" element in the PPP led possibly by Balram Singh Rai, might be persuaded to secede from the party and join the PNC and the UF to form a multi-racial coalition.
Thirdly the State Department suggested that the British government should suspend the constitution of British Guiana again, put the PPP out of office and reimpose direct British rule. It in fact preferred this suggestion to others, including one in favour of independence under a PNC/UF coalition.
The British government found this suggestion of the reintroduction of direct British rule totally unacceptable for several reasons, especially because it" would arouse the strongest opposition inside and outside British Guiana…a territory in which she [Britain] had no profound interest." In any event such a step would have "very considerable long-term political, military and financial implications."
Thus initially, at least until the early months of 1962, Britain rejected the overtures of the United States to persuade her to abandon her willingness to allow British Guiana to proceed to independence under the Jagan-led PPP or at least to defer the grant of independence. The British government, however, eventually succumbed to the unrelenting American pressure as will be shown in the second instalment of this article.
In the first instalment of this article it was established that in 1960 the British government promised to grant British Guiana political independence by 1963 at the latest. This coveted status, however, was not accorded until May 26, 1966.
One of the principal reasons for this delay was the intervention of the government of the United States of America. The Washington authorities were extremely disturbed by the prospect that British Guiana seemed destined to proceed to independence under the government of the Marxist People's Progressive Party, led by Cheddi Jagan, which won the 1961 general election. They were particularly fearful of the possibility of the emergence in British Guiana of "a second Cuba", which might become a base for the spread of communism into the entire continent of South America.
This fear was expressed by the Americans to the British government repeatedly in their communications about what they called "the British Guiana situation." For example, this concern was emphasized by Wright, a British official who had a conversation with Dean Rusk, the American Secretary of State, at a Disarmament Conference in Geneva in March 1963. According to Wright, Rusk "said that the United States was terrified of another Cuba on their continent. All the South American States joined with them in hoping we could find ways and means of stopping Dr. Jagan from taking his country into the Communist orbit. He asked how the United States and others could help prevent this."
U.S. policy was centred on pressing the British government to abandon its intention to allow the PPP to lead British Guiana into independence. Initially, at least until the early months of 1962, U.S pressure failed to achieve this objective. Washington became increasingly exasperated over British policy toward the colony. This frustration was reflected in a letter from Rusk to Lord Home, the British Foreign Secretary, early in 1962 which the British government described as "impertinent." In this letter Rusk complained that British policy towards British Guiana was placing a strain on the alliance between the United States and Britain.
The U.S. authorities felt that a British decision to defer the independence of British Guiana was a small price for Britain to pay to maintain the health and intimacy of the alliance.
They also felt peeved that they had to depend on the British to achieve their objective in relation to British Guiana. As John Hennings, a leading officer in the British embassy in Washington, observed in February 1962, "The most difficult thing for Americans who are worried about British Guiana is to accept that theirs is not the prime responsibility… Agitated Americans, including Congressmen, who write to the State Department urging that America do something about British Guiana, are told this is primarily a British responsibility. Back comes the rejoinder, why don't you make the British do something.
The U.S. resorted to a variety of tactics in their effort to get the British government to modify its plans for the independence of British Guiana. One of the tactics was to try to persuade the British government to re-examine the apparent premise of its policy that there was no reasonable alternative to working with the PPP. At least as late as March 1962, for example, the British authorities did not regard Forbes Burnham and the People's National Congress as a viable alternative, even in the unlikely event that the PNC defeated the PPP in an election which the US government was advocating.
The thinking of the Colonial Office on this issue was clearly outlined in a "Top Secret Note", dated March 5, 1962, on a letter sent by Dean Rusk to the British Foreign Secretary. The Note stated "If new elections are held…it is by no means certain that Dr. Jagan would be defeated…If, however, Dr. Jagan's Party were defeated, it is likely that Mr. Burnham would become Premier and few who know him can imagine that a Government led by him would be any better. Certainly, the new Ministers would be less experienced than Dr. Jagan's Ministers, and it should be remembered that quite apart from their share of responsibility for the recent demonstrations and disorders, it is the Burnham party which has been mainly responsible for fanning racial enmities."
The U.S. administration welcomed the 1962 disturbances which grew largely out of a strike by civil servants over conditions of service and a trade union strike over the controversial Kaldor budget of January 1962. These disturbances were exploited not only by the local opposition political parties, the PNC and the Untied Force, but also by the United States.
The US authorities be-lieved that the disturbances would make Britain decide to defer the independence of British Guiana as they desired. They also hoped that the disturbances would give Britain an excuse to hold fresh elections in the colony which would result in the defeat of the PPP.
The disturbances in fact did make the British government review the wisdom of its plans for British Guiana and give greater consideration to American advice to seek to remove the PPP from power. This development was reflected in a Colonial Office memorandum of February 1962.
In the memorandum it was stated that "unless Dr. Jagan's Government can in the near future show that it can govern, it may in the interest of British Guiana become necessary to remove it. This is a matter which is being closely studied. But whatever administration were to succeed the present one, it would have to demonstrate real and substantial economic progress if it were to have any chance of success. This is impossible without substantial US aid. Before any steps are taken to replace Dr. Jagan's government by another, we should seek a prior US commitment to underwrite a large part of British Guiana's development plan".
The British government was particularly concerned about the fact that the disturbances required the dispatch of British troops to British Guiana. Some British officials, however, also saw possible benefits which could be derived from the disturbances and the deferral of the colony's independence. In their view this not only would remove some of the strains on the Anglo-American alliance, but also might enable Britain as compensation to claim US support for some of its policies elsewhere in its empire, such as financial aid for the West Indies Federation.
These were some of the earliest signs of the willingness of the British government, in response to US pressure and developments in British Guiana, to modify its declared policy in relation to the independence of British Guiana. Washington seized every opportunity to thrust its views about the colony on the British authorities.
The US administration received encouragement and pressure from some of its nationals. In March 1962, for example, A.G.E Vander Tuuk, an American businessman who had recently visited British Guiana on a business trip, sent a letter and a memorandum to the US President, John Kennedy, about political developments in the colony. In this correspondence he warned against "independence in the near future" because "it can only lead to complete communist control" which "will create an explosive basis for spreading communism to Suriname, Brazil, Venezuela and throughout South America.
This communication took place at a time when the US government was reviewing its policy towards British Guiana and President Kennedy was becoming more interested and involved in the situation in the colony. The considerations preoccupying the President were clearly stated in an instructive document which Kennedy sent to Dean Rusk in March 1962 and copied to other leading American officials, including the Attorney General, the Secretary of Defence and the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
In this document, entitled "National Security Action Memorandum No. 135", Kennedy stated:
"No final decision will be taken on our policy toward British Guiana and the Jagan government until (a) the Secretary of State has a chance to discuss the matter with Lord Home (the British Foreign Secretary) in Geneva and (b) Hugh Fraser (a British Colonial Official) completes his on-the-spot survey in British Guiana for the Colonial Office.
The questions which we must answer before we reach our decision include the following:
1. Can Great Britain be persuaded to delay independence for a year?
2. If Great Britain refused to delay the independence, would a new election be possible? Is so, would Jagan win or lose? If he lost what are the alternatives?
3. What are the possibilities and limitations of United States action in the situation?"
This proved to be the prelude to important new developments in the US policy towards British Guiana which had significant influence on the colony's movement to independence. These developments will be discussed in another instalment of this article.