Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 16: What Makes the British Commonwealth Hold Together? (1946)

During World War II numerous Americans had direct personal relations with peoples of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

We cooperated with the Canadians in defending North America, in convoying men and supplies across the Atlantic, in constructing land and air routes to Alaska, and in producing vital war supplies for our mutual allies.

We used Newfoundland, the oldest British colony, as a transatlantic aerial springboard.

Our armed forces fought alongside men from the British Commonwealth in North Africa, Europe, the Aleutians, the Pacific islands, and the Far East.

Thousands of Americans lived among the peoples of Great Britain, Australia, and various British colonies—observing them under the stress of war, seeing them at their daily tasks, absorbing their ideas, and developing a better understanding of their backgrounds and current problems.

These and numerous other developments have influenced American impressions of the British Commonwealth peoples, their achievements, and their future. Impressions have varied widely. Some members of your group will probably be able to contribute valuable firsthand information and interesting opinions to your discussion of the British Commonwealth.


Organizing your discussion

The British Commonwealth of Nations is too complex a subject to discuss very extensively during only one meeting. If your schedule will permit, you can profitably devote two or more meetings to it.

Regardless of the number of discussions, it will be helpful to place copies of this pamphlet in reading rooms so members of your group will have an opportunity to read it before the first meeting.

In order to give your group factual backgrounds of the British Commonwealth and to direct thinking along lines of the particular issues to be discussed, you will find it helpful to obtain one or more speakers qualified to present sound information on the subject before general discussion begins.

You can best decide, as discussion leader, whether a forum, panel, symposium, or group type of discussion will be most satisfactory. One factor to consider, of course, in making this decision is the size of your discussion group. Another is the kind of place available for your meeting. Still another factor, and probably the most important, is the availability of speakers who have firsthand knowledge of British Commonwealth backgrounds and current problems.

You will find numerous helpful suggestions for organizing and conducting group discussions in War Department Education Manual, EM 1, GI Roundtable: Guide for Discussion Leaders. If you wish to broadcast your discussion on radio stations or sound systems of the Armed Forces Radio Service, you will find valuable information on radio discussion techniques in War Department Education Manual, EM 90, GI Radio Roundtable.

Some suggestions for discussing the British Commonwealth in one, two, or three meetings are given below. One Meeting: If your schedule compels you to limit discussion to one meeting, it is suggested that you not exceed 15 or 20 minutes in presenting background information. This will enable you to devote most of the time to group discussion. Members of your group may already have intelligent opinions about the Commonwealth and its problems. Their active participation in the discussion is your goal.

You will find various controversial issues raised in questions listed at the end of this section. It is suggested that you concentrate discussion primarily on current problems. Some of these are indicated by the questions in this list, particularly in groups 5 and 6.

Two Meetings: You can cover the subject more extensively in two discussion meetings. You can devote the first meeting to developing a better understanding of the British Commonwealth. By forum, panel, symposium, or group discussion you can present background information that will give members of your group a clearer picture of the Commonwealth’s growth and development. Individuals in your group will probably ask some good questions. You might raise questions from the first four “Questions for Discussion.”

Your second meeting can be devoted almost entirely to discussion of current issues: postwar relations between the United States and the British Commonwealth, the role of the British Commonwealth in the world security organization, effects of the war on Commonwealth unity, and other current political and economic problems. Your second meeting, therefore, can follow a similar procedure to that suggested above for the one-meeting discussion.

Three Meetings: You can cover many more aspects of the British Commonwealth in detail in three meetings. Your first meeting could follow the suggestions for the first meeting of the two-meeting discussion.

The second meeting, however, will give you an opportunity to concentrate on the problems, peoples, and backgrounds of individual dominions and British colonies. A symposium of five-minute talks, each devoted to a dominion or colony, is one interesting way to get this background information across to your group. General discussion at your second meeting can appropriately deal with individual units of the British Commonwealth rather than with its over-all problems.

Your third meeting can concentrate on the over-all problems and larger current issues. You can plan it much as suggested above for the second meeting of the two-meeting discussion.

Questions for discussion

Key questions which appear in the contents and form the major headings for this pamphlet are repeated below in italics. Under each you will find various supplementary questions. These-are either based directly on this pamphlet or grow naturally out of its discussion of the British Commonwealth. You may find them helpful in planning and conducting your discussions.

  1. What’s included in the British Commonwealth? Do you believe the United States has practiced imperialism? Have methods by which the United States acquired new territories differed much from those by which the British built their Empire? Will the development of the dominions into little empires of their own cause them to grow more independent of Great Britain and other members of the Commonwealth?
  2. What happened after we pulled out in 1776? Why was the post of secretary of state for the colonies unpopular after the American Revolution? Did the United States ox Great Britain gain most from the War of 1812? Will British attitudes toward colonies after World War II be likely to resemble those after the Napoleonic Wars? Has the Commonwealth handled its interracial problems successfully? What did the world’s major nations really want when the “new imperialism” developed about 1870? How vital is the Suez Canal to interests of the British Commonwealth? The Panama Canal?
  3. Why haven’t other colonies followed our example? How did the growth of independence among the British dominions differ from that of the American colonies? Are there essential differences between British and American brands of independence and democracy? Is the British or the American form of government more democratic? Why? Do you think it would have made any difference among the American colonies if Durham’s recommendation that a “policy of freedom inspired by faith should replace that of unfreedom inspired by fear” had been presented in 1775 instead of 1839? Why was the Boer War a crucial test of British colonial principles?
  4. Are the dominions really independent? Did achievements of the dominions in World War I justify their desire for greater independence? Did Great Britain gain or lose prestige by granting virtually complete independence to the dominions? How has Ireland “provided the acid test of the reality of dominion autonomy”? Has World War II increased Commonwealth unity on foreign policy or made each dominion more independent in deciding its own foreign policy? Would some sort of imperial union or federation of British nations create a stronger Commonwealth? Why?
  5. Are the colonies moving toward independence? Would dominion status solve the problem of India? Are the people of India really ready for independence? Was the Cripps offer in 1942 fair to India? Why didn’t the people of India accept it? What do you think of Great Britain’s policy that the factions within India should reach an agreement on what they want before they undertake the last step of self-government? Will Newfoundland’s importance as a strategic aerial springboard to Europe during the war increase its postwar importance? Do you believe that 99-year leases by the United States on bases in British colonies will cause peacetime diplomatic complications? Do you believe that enemy-owned territories captured by the British and Americans in North Africa, the Far East, and elsewhere should be: (a) returned to Italy, Germany, and Japan, (b) held as colonies by their captors, (c) given their independence, or (d) made United Nations mandates?
  6. Will the Commonwealth hold together? Do economic interests form an obstacle to closer cooperation among Commonwealth nations? Will the fact that British Commonwealth nations fought Germany and Italy alone for many months during World War II make them stand closer to ether after the war? What disadvantages would a British nation encounter if it should withdraw from the Commonwealth? Would there be advantages? What do you think ire the chief factors that hold the British Commonwealth together? Why are Eire and India still “the uncertain quantities” of Commonwealth affairs? What are the policies of the British Commonwealth regarding: (a) world trade? (b) international air routes? (c) the world security organization? (d) Latin-America? (e) Russia? (f) British colonies not now independent? Has World War II improved relations between the United States and members of the British Commonwealth? Is the United States prepared to cooperate fully with the British Commonwealth on postwar problems? Is the British Commonwealth prepared to cooperate with us? Since United States-British Commonwealth joint commissions proved so successful during World War II, should similar joint commissions be formed to handle mutual peacetime problems? Is a strong British Commonwealth an advantage or a disadvantage to the United States? At international conferences should British Commonwealth nations have separate votes as independent nations, or should they pool their votes into one vote representing the British Commonwealth? Should Canada become a member of the Pan American Union?


For Further Reading

These books are suggested for supplementary reading if it so happens that you have access to them or wish to purchase them from the publishers. They are not approved nor officially supplied by the War Department. They have been selected because they give additional information and represent different points of view.

Empire in the Changing World. By William K. Hancock. Published by Penguin Books, 245 Fifth Ave., New York 16, N. Y. (1943). The author, an Australian, has studied at firsthand the problems of the Empire. He discusses them boldly and meets many of the criticisms expressed in America.

The British Commonwealth: An Experiment in National Self-Government and International Co-Operation. By Frederick G. Marcham. Published by Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N. Y. (1944). In less than a hundred pages this Cornell professor asks most of the questions and supplies answers.

Commonwealth: Pattern for Peace? By Reginald G. Trotter. Published by Canadian Institute of International Affairs, 230 Bloor St., W., Toronto, Canada (1944). One of Canada’s leading historians gives an up-to-date account of the Empire-Commonwealth, its place in the war and in the possible postwar world.

Cooperation for What? United States and British Commonwealth. By Francis R. Scott. Published by Institute of Pacific Relations, 1 East 54th St., New York 22, N. Y. (1944). A Canadian authority on law does the same thing as Trotter from a slightly different angle and in a rather different temper.

The British Empire under Fire. By James F. Green. No. 24 of Headline Books, published by Foreign Policy Association, 22 East 38th St., New York 16, N. Y. (1940). A good account, but a lot of water has gone under the bridge since it was written.

Canada: Our Dominion Neighbor. By Merrill Denison. No. 46 of Headline Series, published by Foreign Policy Association (1944): Deals with Canada’s place in the Commonwealth and in relation to the United States.

The British Commonwealth at War. Edited by William Y. Elliott and H. Duncan Hall. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 501 Madison Ave., New York 22, N. Y. (1943). Emphasizes the unity, especially the wartime unity, of the parts of the Commonwealth rather than their autonomy.

The following Longmans’ Pamphlets on the British Commonwealth are published by Longmans, Green and Company, 55 Fifth Ave., New York 3, N. Y. (1941–1944).

Britain and India, 1600–1941. By Reginald Coupland.

Britain and South Africa. By Eric A. Anderson.

Britain and Ireland. By Nicholas Mansbergh.

Britain and Her Dependencies. By Lord William M. H. Hailey.

Britain and Canada. By Gerald S. Graham.

Britain and New Zealand. By William P. Morrell.

The following Oxford Pamphlets on World Affairs are published by the Clarendon Press, Amen House, Warwick Square, London, EC 4 (1939–40).

The British Empire. By Henry V. Hodson.

Life and Growth of the British Empire. By James A Williamson.

India. By Laurence F. Rushbrook Williams.

South Africa. By Eric A. Anderson.

The British Pacific Islands. By Sir Harry Lake.