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Gandhi's InterpreterA Life of Horace Alexander$

Geoffrey Carnall and Philippa Gregory

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780748640454

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748640454.001.0001

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Campaigning in Britain and the USA

Campaigning in Britain and the USA

(p.172) 8 Campaigning in Britain and the USA
Gandhi's Interpreter

Geoffrey Carnall

Edinburgh University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines Alexander's return to Britain and the campaigns which he mounted in Britain and the USA to raise awareness of the Indian perspective, showing that Alexander tirelessly worked to lessen the mutual incomprehension which affected the relations between Britain and India. It then looks at his concern over the Bengal famine, describes his campaigning efforts in America and Britain, and introduces Rebecca Bradbeer, an American who later became Alexander's second wife.

Keywords:   campaigns, Indian perspective, awareness, mutual incomprehension, Bengal famine, Rebecca Bradbeer

Six months in Britain

Alexander’s return to Britain was of course partly dictated by the fact that his year’s leave of absence from Woodbrooke had expired, and he could in any case feel very reasonably that he had done all that he could to see the Unit well established. And, as the Viceroy remarked, all his Congress friends were in detention where he could be of little service to them as a conciliator. There was much to be done in Britain. The scale of the Bengal famine had not yet been sufficiently realised, and Indian political aspirations were understood even less. Alexander was particularly dismayed by the Government’s continued refusal to acknowledge Gandhi’s essential goodwill. The first thing he did on his return was to seek an interview with Amery in order to brief him on the situation as he saw it, and in particular to urge him to enlist Gandhi’s help in coping with the famine. Amery was too busy to see him. He could see P. J. Patrick instead, and did so on Thursday 23 September.1

Meanwhile Agatha Harrison lost no time in organising a programme for him. In a letter of 19 September, just four days after his arrival, she proposed meetings with concerned Members of Parliament, with journalists such as Crozier of the Manchester Guardian and Kingsley Martin of the New Statesman, with representatives of the religious press, and with the various groups working on India who would have had a sense of great grievance if Alexander’s knowledge had not been shared with them too. She imagined Gandhi saying to himself, (p.173) ‘Horace is now back in England – he will do what Andrews would have done.’2 While Alexander was willing enough to bestir himself in this way, what chiefly preoccupied him at first was his frustration with attitudes in the India Office, in particular their refusal to accept that he might actually be useful to the British Government. In a letter to Harrison, written on 27 September, he remarked on the fact that, at that moment, he was the only person in Britain who had been

in close and intimate touch with Indian leaders of every shade during the past year.… It does not seem to occur to those India Office people that if they are ever going to get anywhere with a settlement, they must pick my brains.

Moreover, like Harrison, he had the confidence of those who were going to matter most if any attempt was made to achieve a settlement. Any negotiations would always be at risk because of misconstructions by either party. ‘The right people have to be behind the scenes to prevent a breakdown of any talks that may begin.’ And who were the right people?

So far as M. K. G. [Gandhi] is concerned the simple fact is that there are only two English people now living who really have his confidence enough to give the help from the English side that Rajaji and Devadas [Gandhi] and the other ‘peacemakers’ on the Indian side will need. They are you and I.3

This, Alexander admits, may all seem ‘horribly conceited – perhaps it is. But there are times when a man knows his destiny’.

His experience in government circles was not altogether discouraging. R. A. Butler remained a warmly supportive presence in the background, although inevitably preoccupied with piloting his Education Bill through the Commons. He told Alexander that India was never out of his mind, that when he saw a Catholic deputation about the Bill, he thought of the Hindus, and when it was a Protestant deputation, he thought of the Muslims.4 Presumably Butler hoped to reconcile these conflicting interests, and if it could be done in Britain, why not in India? More specific than such diffuse goodwill was the reception of an idea that he put to Stafford Cripps’s colleague, David Owen, and through him to Amery. This was the possibility of forming a group in Britain who would explore ways of developing contacts with Indian liberals. The model he had in mind was Alfred Milner’s ‘kindergarten’, the young men who had worked together in the reconstruction of South Africa after the Boer War, and had created the Round Table movement that sought a new role for the British Empire. Amery had been closely associated with this group, and its thinking informed his own relatively liberal approach to Indian constitutional issues. Amery was mildly interested in the idea of an ‘Indian kindergarten’, and David Owen agreed with Alexander that Wavell would be greatly assisted if he could (p.174) turn to a team acceptable to people like Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru. Alexander had drawn up a list of possible recruits, but in the end nothing seems to have come of the proposal.5

As Alexander’s destiny was not going to be fulfilled through the India Office, he turned to the press. He had quickly established his authority after his return by writing to The Times and other newspapers about the famine, its causes and the measures needed to deal with it. He gave a short talk on the overseas service of the BBC on 7 October 1943. An article in The Spectator for 15 October provided a clear account of what had happened, and ended with a sharp reminder that those best able to deal with the crisis were held in detention. But his main preoccupation was with writing his assessment of the issues in a short paperback volume commissioned by Penguin Books, India since Cripps. He wrote this with a vigour commensurate with his frustration.

It should be remarked here that while Alexander was in India his house at 144 Oaktree Lane continued to be occupied by Winifred White, who had cared for Olive, and by others with a Woodbrooke connection. Among these was Dorothy Hogg. She had visited India with Agatha Harrison and, like her, had come to know Gandhi well. Her account of Gandhi in her Memories for Tomorrow (1981) is exceptionally sensitive and understanding. On Alexander’s return she agreed to act as his secretary, and in her letters to Harrison at this time she has left a vivid account of the writing of India since Cripps. It has to be said that Dorothy had a distinctly imperfect sympathy so far as Alexander was concerned, detecting in him more self-indulgence than was proper in a disciple of the Mahatma. When she learnt that Woodbrooke gossip had made a match between her and Alexander she was not well pleased. As she said to the Warden’s wife, Edith Richards,

‘Can you imagine any two people more unlikely to “fall” for each other?’ and I fear our conversation ended in merry laughter. I am convinced that Horace would drive me crackers, and equally that I should drive him to drink!6

But Dorothy’s irritation with his foibles enhanced her descriptive powers, and it is tempting to quote the letters she wrote to Agatha Harrison about Alexander at disproportionate length. The first draft of the book was evidently quite uninhibited, ‘very hot’ as she put it.

I really was staggered. I went into his room late one night when he was rounding off a chapter. He was like an over-excited schoolboy and he just rolled his tongue round the juicy bits as he read them aloud to me. ‘Well, really, Mr Alexander’, said I, ‘you’re a fine Quaker! You’ll make even the outspoken George Fox turn in his grave.’ Of course I loved the bits all the same, but I really did not think he should put them in. What he first wrote about the Secretariat at Delhi was the limit.7

(p.175) One can glean some idea of what this sensational version was like from Alexander’s comments to Agatha Harrison about Sir Gilbert Laithwaite – a man who separates religion and politics absolutely, so he doesn’t have to be too scrupulous in winning a trick. Alexander wanted an honourable agreement between Congress and the Government. To Laithwaite ‘anyone who wants that is an enemy, who must be crushed by any means’.8 Alexander was evidently much refreshed by such dissection of his adversaries, and his zest was infectious. As Dorothy Hogg remarked to Agatha Harrison, being Alexander’s typist was as exciting as racing in the Derby.

As fast as he forges ahead with a chapter, I race with the typing, but so far he manages to lead all the way. Thrilling. I am enjoying it. Don’t ever let him think that it has been anything but a labour of love bringing to me a thrill and joy which far outweighs any energy expended.9

Her most serious disagreement with Alexander was in her assessment of Rajagopalachari. While evidently an important player in any attempt to reach an accommodation in India, she was unhappy with, for example, the sneering way she had heard him speak of the Chinese resistance to Japan. Moreover, Alexander’s insensitivity to Rajagopalachari’s limitations seemed to her a sign of his own inadequacy. She later complained to Harrison that Alexander was tactless and often blind to the reactions of others. The idea of his returning to India as a mediator between the British Government and the Congress alarmed her. ‘I don’t think Horace is safe on his own. He says and does such extraordinary things.’10

These critical comments must, however, be seen in the context of the letter in which they occur. Dorothy Hogg was bent on persuading Harrison that Harrison herself had a better claim than Alexander to being a useful emissary to Gandhi, and one can see that Harrison’s more direct and emphatic mode appealed to her more strongly than the quiet and sometimes unpredictable approach that came naturally to Alexander. In the same letter, she conjures up a dramatic if implausible vision of Harrison in operation.

How good it would be to hear that you were forging straight ahead, irrespective of whatever anybody else thought you ought or ought not to do and that you had swept that bewildered little man [Amery] off his feet with the announcement that you must now go to India because you must, and he must give you a plane because he must, and you must see Mr Gandhi because you must and that was all there was to it!11

Such fantasising was not at all how Harrison saw herself, although she did think that Amery had sensitivities that might be touched, and that were at odds with the Government’s current odious policy. Had he not agreed to forward a letter from herself to Gandhi, and to send the new Viceroy a copy (p.176) of C. F. Andrews’ pamphlet, The Indian Earthquake, as a reminder that Congress leaders might conceivably cooperate with Government on constructive projects?12 Harrison’s irrepressible goodwill to all may well have been a contrast to what Dorothy Hogg found uncommunicative and unapproachable in Alexander in some moods, but she was cheerfully ready to forgive nearly everything after an evening’s merry conversation with him and Elizabeth Fox Howard:

You know what she is like when she really gets going. We had Horace literally weeping with laughter at our ribald renderings of some of the less inspired hymns, and E’s fund of funny stories of course never comes to an end.

Even so, she was uneasy at what Alexander told her about his answers to questions about Gandhi: ‘It seemed to me that he had just missed the point.’13 As she did not enlarge on this criticism, however, it isn’t clear what point he was missing.

She would no doubt have agreed that others were missing the point far more comprehensively, and that Alexander did well to confront the more grotesque misunderstandings of the Congress position at every opportunity. India since Cripps, published in February 1944, was – in its final version – a scrupulously fair analysis of the overall situation in India. India Office officials conceded that it might have been worse, and Krishna Kripalani, in a rather scathing review in the Visva-Bharati Quarterly, was offended by what he saw as an excess of Christian charity.

Gandhiji and Lord Linlithgow were almost equally good men and well-wishers of the Indian people, if only they could have understood each other. Presumably if either of them had had the wisdom and tolerance of Mr Alexander, the Indian tragedy could have been averted. Jinnah, Jawaharlal, Suhrawardy, Nazim-ud-Din, Dr Ambedkar, even M. N. Roy, seem all excellent patriots, if only the Indian politics were free from the poison of mutual suspicion! The author, however, has not lost all hope. For Lord Wavell is there. If only he and Gandhi learn to understand each other, all may yet be well. How nice and simple it all seems, and how truly Christian!14

Certainly when Alexander addressed a private meeting of the Royal Institute of International Affairs on 9 March 1944, he was at pains to emphasise the latent goodwill that might be mobilised to build a united India, an India that would ‘feel itself part of the present world struggle’. This was something that Rajagopalachari was trying to achieve, and more could be done to help him from the British side. Alexander tried to explain the motives that under-laid the utterances of Gandhi and Nehru, describing ‘the real human being, (p.177) a composite mixture of conflicting motives and tendencies, just as we are, behind the mask which almost all public men wear when they make public statements’. But his attempt to show Congress as a potential ally in the war, provided that independence was conceded, seems not to have carried conviction. Even a sympathetic listener like Penderel Moon told him afterwards that he felt Alexander hadn’t disproved the claim that Gandhi thought that the Japanese would win.15

For many months after his return to Britain, Alexander laboured to lessen the mutual incomprehension that bedevilled relations between Britain and India. Besides alerting the press to the appalling scale of the Bengal famine, he was at pains to insist that the governing coalition ministry had not shirked its responsibilities. In a letter to The Times of 2 October 1943 he praised H. S. Suhrawardy for his efforts to achieve effective food distribution, though he hoped that fresh efforts would be made to put the ministry on a broader basis, ‘in order to ensure the fullest co-operation of every section in the province’. This was a continuing preoccupation. Ten months later he wrote to Shyama Prasad Mookherjee urging him to work for a new coalition ministry in Bengal, achieving which would silence critics who complained that you could never get Indians to agree with each other. Hindus, said Alexander, were in a position of strength in Bengal, and could afford to make concessions to the Muslims. ‘I do trust that a supreme effort will be made’.16 Alas, the supreme effort was not forthcoming, and Alexander was hardly in a position to influence events several thousand miles away. Even his mild commendation of Suhrawardy in The Times caused anxiety in Calcutta. Glan Davies wrote that Pandit Kunzru was unhappy at reports, based on this letter, that Alexander was backing the Muslim League ministry.17 Davies tried to explain that Alexander was simply saying that Suhrawardy had put his back into the job, an endorsement he may well have judged necessary for British readers, all too ready as they were to assume that Indians were invariably slack and incompetent.

By far the most difficult task of interpretation, though, was created by Gandhi himself. Suffering from poor health, and from the distress caused by the death of his wife in February 1944, he had been released from detention in May of that year. Almost the first statement he was reported to have made after his release was that he could not ‘withdraw the August [l942] resolution’. As soon as this report was received in Britain, Alexander wrote to Rajagopalochari urging him to persuade Gandhi to say that his main concern – and Alexander was sure that it was his main concern – remained the ending of Indian poverty. As it was, he was only on record as saying that he still stood by the August resolution, which was a source of perplexity to his well-wishers in Britain.18 Towards the end of June, Alexander wrote to Gandhi himself about a number of matters, including his own assessment of the violent resistance to the British in Midnapore in 1942. He described the efforts by the Friends’ (p.178) Ambulance Unit to help in the work of dealing with the Bengal famine, and doing so ‘in happy comradeship with everyone – Government people, Congress people, Ramakrishna Mission, Moslems, missionaries and all.’ This led tactfully up to the main point of his letter:

May it not be that the needs of Bengal, and of other provinces, too, provide the real foundation for a new understanding between Government and Congress, not to mention Moslem League and everyone else? Perhaps you doubt whether the need of the starving millions is really the serious concern of the Government; or perhaps you suspect that their expressed concern in the matter is due to a desire to side-track the political issue.… Far from side-tracking the political issue, an effective joint campaign against famine might surely prove the royal means to its solution.… Can you offer unconditional assistance in fighting the food shortage? If you can, I believe you may find a response.19

Alexander recalled that Gandhi, during his recent fast, had said that if he were free he would wish to give all his energy to fighting the famine conditions that were then spreading over India. Lord Wavell had manifestly shown his determination to deal with the famine as well as he could, and Alexander was glad that Gandhi had been in correspondence with him. But there needed to be a meeting. ‘The mutual trust that is needed can surely never come through correspondence.’

How right he was. If any letter could have influenced Gandhi, Alexander’s surely would have done. But it seems to have had no effect. Gandhi’s reply, sent on 12 July, was warmly affectionate so far as Alexander himself was concerned, but he could not accept his arguments.

Your anxiety that I should offer co-operation at least for the alleviation of hunger I fully understand. My difficulty is that I cannot, for the reason that the alleviation is only apparent. The Viceroy’s good intentions in the matter are not to be doubted. His promptness in rushing to Bengal on arrival was worthy of the soldier that he is. The agency through which he had and has to work is not designed to carry out the work of alleviation.… Sufficient to say that at no time has India been so bound down as now. The remedy is liberty consistent with the movements of Allied troops. But there is deep mutual distrust. Authority distrusts the Congress and every public body including the Muslim League. Public opinion is flouted at almost every turn. In this state of things voluntary co-operation becomes impossible.20

Discouraging though this letter was, it did not close the door altogether. It was evidently written in a mood of depression, and there had not, after all, actually been any meeting with Gandhi. If only this could be accomplished (p.179) there might be progress. Perhaps, as in 1930 and again in 1942, the Society of Friends might exercise its influence in support of a fresh initiative. Its executive body, Meeting for Sufferings, was to meet on 2 September in Manchester, and Agatha Harrison pointed out that India was on the agenda. Alexander should go to explain the context of Gandhi’s letter, and underline the importance of some kind of mission to him.

Now, as it happened, just at this time Alexander was looking forward to a week’s bird-watching in South Wales. Strong though his commitment to India’s aspirations was, the pleasures of bird-watching sometimes tempted him from the path of duty. So it was on this occasion. Once again, Dorothy Hogg has painted a vivid picture. She had agreed with Harrison that Alexander must go to Manchester on the 2nd, and told him so.

‘But it is my holiday.’

‘Yes, and I’m sorry this has come just now, but events won’t always wait.’

‘There are other people who can help on this.’

‘Who? Anna Barlow?’

This was a shrewd blow. Anna Barlow was one of the most conservative members of Friends’ Peace Committee, and as strong a critic as William Graham might have been of anything that suggested appeasement of Gandhi.21 Alexander tried to brush the objection aside, but then realised it had some weight.

‘Shouldn’t think she’d go. Oh yes she might, she’s got relatives in the area.’

‘Then how can you leave things to anyone else? You’ve had the letter [from Gandhi] and you can speak with an authority that no one else can at the moment. Here’s a practical job for the Society of Friends to tackle, but you’ll be needed to show them how.’

‘Agatha might go herself.’

‘Agatha won’t spare herself.… But what can Agatha do really as far as Meeting for Sufferings is concerned? They’ll listen to anything you’ve got to say, but if Agatha says the same thing the weighty friends won’t listen. And Carl [Heath] not there either.’

Still, Alexander insisted that he was not going to have his holiday interfered with. So Dorothy Hogg pointed out that he could both have his holiday and go to Manchester if he travelled by a night train. She then got a ‘terrific diatribe’ about how he could not travel by night: ‘His legs were the sort that got pins and needles and that made him fidget, disturbed his own rest and other people’s.’ She next suggested he might travel first class, but that idea did not commend itself.

(p.180) There was a pause, and then he ventured,

‘Anyhow, I couldn’t go up to Manchester from Haverfordwest because it would mean wasting my return ticket.’ That was supposed to be final.

‘What on earth does that matter? India’s happiness against a mouldy half ticket from Haverfordwest. You’re not even hard up! Besides, you could get part of the money back from the railway.’

‘No, I couldn’t.’

‘Who said you couldn’t? You can fill in a form and get part of it back anyhow.’

She eventually wore him down, and when, next morning, he left for his holiday, and she asked when he would be back, he replied, ‘Not before last thing Thursday night, perhaps Friday, but it all depends on Manchester.’22

It is not clear whether he curtailed his holiday or whether, setting pins and needles at defiance, he travelled through the night, but to Manchester he went, and on 1 September convinced Meeting for Sufferings that something had to be done about Gandhi’s state of mind. His intervention silenced Anna Barlow: Alexander told Harrison that ‘she lay low in Meeting for Sufferings, and only whispered to me as I was going out of the meeting, “You’ve put it across them again”.’23

The following day Alexander wrote to Gandhi once more, pleading with him to go to Bengal and ‘bring new strength to the work of Dr B. C. Roy’s committee,24 and other such voluntary efforts, cooperating, not with the Government perhaps, but with all the voluntary societies, in the spirit that you showed in Bihar after the earthquake’. Such a move might produce incalculable results. Public opinion in Britain had been deeply stirred and shocked by the Bengal famine, and Alexander wanted them to learn that Gandhi and his friends were ‘bending every energy to rescue the people from this menace of famine’. He ended: ‘How I wish we could talk it all over; or better, that Agatha could be with you soon’.25

Gandhi’s response came in the form of a telegram: ‘YOU AGATHA MURIEL WELCOME. LOVE.’26 It arrived, opportunely, just in time for the October session of Meeting for Sufferings, which accordingly agreed to approach Leo Amery for permission to despatch Agatha Harrison to India. Amery was not willing to allow this, so the idea petered out.27 The India Office would certainly have been deeply suspicious of anyone as closely associated with Gandhi as she and Alexander were, and there was probably little awareness of the extent to which they attempted to interpret British concerns to Congress representatives. So the negative decision was almost inevitable. But it was shortsighted. As Alexander assured R. A. Butler, ‘if once she were there the official attitude would very soon be that her influence behind the (p.181) scenes was most useful.’28 Agatha understood Gandhi to an extent that few people could match, but she also understood the point of view of the British Government, and thus was uniquely qualified to restore confidence between it and Gandhi. She had, too, an unusually sure grasp of the wider implications of the conflict between Britain and India, enabling her to encourage Gandhi to look beyond the depressing frustrations of the present. In September 1944 she attended a National Peace Council conference on the post-war settlement, and in a letter to Alexander complained about the inadequate attention paid there to India and China. She had broken into the discussion a few minutes before it ended, pointing out how unwise it was to think that, after the ending of the Japanese empire, there would just be an .improved colonial administration. The ‘Far East’ must be taken in on the ground floor of thinking and planning, otherwise we were heading for disaster. ‘The trouble is [that] the Far East’s contribution is never really recognised – save temporarily. If they could only get a knowledge of the intense irritation people like Nehru feel, Above all what the West is missing.’29

Alexander was certainly doing his best to raise awareness of the Indian perspective on current events in his travels round Britain, speaking to groups of all kinds. In the second week of March 1944, for example, he spoke to three meetings in Manchester: a public meeting on the famine, a meeting for Friends on the political situation in India, and a repeat of his talk in London to the Royal Institute of International Affairs, given to its Manchester branch. He told Symonds that the local ‘progressives’ had heard that the ‘imperialists’ were boycotting this last meeting, ‘so they rallied round and it was a very good attendance’. Doubtless a more sympathetic one, too, than he had found in London. Letters from colleagues in Bengal kept him up to date with developments and picturesque details. Speaking to an audience of businessmen in the Rotary Club in Bilston, Alexander quoted Symonds’ ‘account of the Indian children as chipmunks in a Walt Disney film’. This moved them extremely. In another letter, Pamela Bankart illustrated the hazards Unit members had to cope with in travelling through the Ganges delta. Returning from a milk canteen by country boat, she found herself in the middle of a fierce storm. The sail broke loose, and nearly turned the boat over.

It was just like a vision of Hell (except that it was very cold – but why should Hell necessarily be hot?), seeing the figures of the three boatmen wrestling with the sail, silhouetted grotesquely in the flashes of lightning against an apparently solid sheet of water.

But this was a mere detail. She was chiefly concerned to emphasise her admiration for the local people’s competence, shown in the way the canteens were organised. Hindus and Muslims were treated alike: there was no discrimination. ‘I feel there lies the real hope for India – in the peasant class.’30 (p.182) The competence of Indian voluntary organisations was an important issue when raising money in Britain for famine relief. It was affirmed very strongly by Richard Symonds in person when he was recalled home for two months in the summer of 1944, in order to help with discussions on the future of the FAU in India. At a meeting on 26 July in the House of Commons, organised by the India Relief Committee, he thanked that committee for the £1,000 recently despatched to India, and sharply criticised people who said such funds were not well used. They were well used, and voluntary efforts created more confidence than those of the Government.31

Symonds was in fact about to accept an invitation from the Governor of Bengal, Richard Casey, to join the Government to help with its relief programme. There was a good deal of correspondence between Symonds and Alexander about the way the Unit worked and the suitability of various people for its activities. Symonds remarked of Duncan Wood that he had clearly acquired ‘the appropriate qualities for high command in the Unit’, being an ornithologist and therefore having ‘long experience of what has always seemed to me a pretty dreary occupation in which nothing ever particularly happens’.32 There seems to have been a kind of family joke that morale in the Unit was sustained by large quantities of alcohol. When it was proposed to despatch Christopher Taylor to India, Alexander did not feel happy at the idea, thinking his manner might be too cold and forbidding. A talk with him, however, was reassuring; ‘and then Ralph [Barlow] joined us and asked C.B.T. [Taylor] how he would get on with a section whose members were more often drunk than sober. He did not seem to mind at all.’ Symonds, for his part, welcomed the opening of the Mediterranean to Allied shipping because it had slightly improved the drink situation. He hoped that Meeting for Sufferings, edified as it had been by letters from him, appreciated ‘how much of our grand strategy has been planned in the Park Street Restaurant’.33 This kind of manly badinage was one aspect of Alexander’s continuing identification with the convivial Cambridge ethos of King’s College.

Alexander had returned to Woodbrooke with some thought of galvanising the place into new life. He said that he felt about ten years younger than he did when he left England, chiefly as the result of working with men and women more than twenty years younger than himself. ‘I had to try to become young again too, and to some extent I seem to have succeeded’.34 But the demands of the work he had left behind in India were too unremitting for him to insist on the ‘wild revolutionary changes’ he had in mind, and he concluded that it was only right for him to withdraw. On 25 February 1944, the Woodbrooke Council accepted his resignation from the post of Director of Studies, to take effect ‘within the next twelve months’. It became clear that one useful task he could perform would be to go to the United States to speak about the work in India and China, and to consult with American Friends about the shape of (p.183) post-war Quaker initiatives in Asia. As early as November 1943 the Executive Secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, Clarence Pickett, had warned him that he would be invited soon, and in December a formal invitation was made to him to come to the USA in the summer of 1944.35 In March 1944 Alexander wrote to Leo Amery pointing out that a visit of this kind would be helpful in enhancing American interest in Indian relief. Amery, who by this time had come to feel that the FAU was a political asset, was sympathetic, but sympathetic in vain.36 An apologetic official in the Ministry of Information told Alexander that new regulations had made it more difficult to authorise private visits abroad, so the whole project had to be cancelled.37 But by the end of the year the regulations must have been relaxed again, for Alexander started making preparations for an Atlantic crossing, and the meetings and committees with which he was associated prepared supportive minutes to accompany him. After a brief bird-watching holiday in the island of Jura, off the west coast of Scotland, Alexander set sail, arriving in New York in the morning of 26 March.

USA 1945

Alexander spent four-and-a-half months in America, and during that time he was almost always either attending meetings or travelling between meetings. It was only during a fortnight in early July, when he visited Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine, that he had an extended period of rest. He arrived from Britain just in time to attend four Yearly Meetings, two in Philadelphia, one in New York, and another in Baltimore. He was impressed by the amount of business transacted in a short space of time. Friends there ‘said what they had to say in three sentences, or even two, and then sat down again’ – a striking contrast this to the longwindedness which speakers in London Yearly Meeting seemed to feel was indispensable. A sign too of a quicker pace and more energetic temper than Alexander was to find altogether congenial. At some later date Dorothy Hogg told Agatha Harrison of a letter in which he complained that he sometimes wanted to say to kind friends, ‘Oh can’t you just be silent for a moment, and stop and listen and think.’ And he often felt more at home with servicemen he encountered on his train journeys than with some of the vociferous pacifists he was with when he arrived.38 In retrospect, though, he saw himself as fulfilling the concern that Olive had always had to visit America at some time:

Once I got into the swing of your life I discovered that Olive’s companionship was very close – above all when I met her old friends in State after State, all across the Continent. It was to me a very moving circumstance that I was with friends of hers, in the silent beauty of the woods by the Brandywine river, when the distant sound of sirens told us of the (p.184) end of the war in the East; and as we bowed our spirits in thanksgiving and fresh resolve, I pictured in mind the little home where we spent our first year of married life in Kent, and how on November 11th, 1918, we resolved together, though no word spoken, to work for the healing of the nations.39

In many ways he found the well-filled days exhilarating, encouraged as he was by reports that large sums of money were being raised for medical supplies and rehabilitation programmes in India. And there were many congenial meetings in the first few weeks, some with old friends like Bertram and Irene Pickard, others with notable American Quakers like Rufus Jones, Henry Cadbury, Robert Yarnall and Clarence Pickett. He came across Mrs Pandit in New York, and was pleased by the warmth with which she spoke of Pamela Bankart and Richard Symonds. ‘She said she had never met an English girl who had such a sure touch and genuine understanding of the way to work alongside Indians.’ As for Symonds, she was confident that his working for the Government would not undermine his natural friendliness to India. Alas, he also found that Mrs Pandit had not made a good public impression in the US. She had lost her temper with the ebullient English politician Robert Boothby, and had compared Churchill to Hitler.40 She was having to learn the hard way that what passes as commonplace in one culture may be mortally offensive in another.

Although Alexander was in America primarily to win financial support for Indian relief and rehabilitation, his visit coincided with the major international conference in San Francisco which set up the United Nations Organization. He had in any case to visit California in order to carry out his fund-raising mission, and by doing so in the last week of April and the beginning of May he was able to attend a number of the initial sessions. Hubert Peet, editor of the London Quaker weekly The Friend, organised press credentials for him, so that he had the advantage of facilities provided for journalists. His reports appeared in The Friend for 4 and 11 May.

The San Francisco Conference attracted immense interest in North America, stimulated in part by the report from the Dumbarton Oaks meetings the previous year. Representatives of the three major allies had met at this centre near Washington DC from 21 August to 28 September 1944, and drafted proposals for a post-war world organisation. These proposals were the focus of much discussion by civic and religious groups. In January 1945 the US Federal Council of Churches held a study conference in Cleveland, Ohio, which agreed to recommend fourteen amendments to the Dumbarton Oaks plan. These amendments sought to limit the privileges of the Great Powers and to strengthen the role of international law. Similar amendments had already been outlined by the Friends Committee on National Legislation, which saw Dumbarton Oaks (p.185) as ‘opening the way for progress’, an opportunity to develop ‘a democratic and satisfying system for achieving international peace, justice, and good will’.

Such resolute hopefulness was an American rather than a British phenomenon. At its March 1945 session, Meeting for Sufferings in London agreed a statement about the forthcoming conference in which it spoke of a ‘current cynicism’ about the United Nations idea, a cynicism which saw it only as a step towards a precarious and transient peace. The statement admittedly rejected this cynicism, but made no commitment to anything like an endorsement of the Dumbarton Oaks proposals. It called for the building of a new world on moral foundations, and saw the hope of peace lying in ‘mutual co-operation in international reconstruction’. A month later, in early April, Carl Heath formulated a series of questions for Alexander to keep in mind when he represented The Friend in San Francisco. He was, he said, ‘not exactly the smiling optimist as regards this gathering’. Pooled sovereignty didn’t seem to be on the agenda, the Security Council idea was apparently taken for granted, Switzerland and Sweden played no part and the vanquished were altogether excluded. ‘Is there’, he asked, ‘anything basically democratic in the whole “frame-up”?’ – a rhetorical question to which the answer was clearly ‘No’.41

Even among internationally minded Americans there were those who saw no good coming out of San Francisco. The veteran pacifist A. J. Muste saw the Dumbarton Oaks proposals as radically flawed. He published a vigorous attack on them in Fellowship, the journal of the American Fellowship of Reconciliation. He wanted the US to offer an immediate end to the war with Germany and Japan, and, for good measure, to renounce imperialism and power politics as well. (He added, with a refreshing touch of realism, that he was ‘well aware that what we have proposed cannot be accomplished at one stroke’.)42

Sympathetic or hostile, there was a high level of interest in these issues in North America which generated a non-governmental involvement in the conference proceedings that greatly impressed Alexander. As he wrote to Paul Sturge,

the presence of large numbers of representatives of independent organisations, most of them keen to get a really effective peace charter out of the conference, had real value. The public galleries and press galleries were well filled every day, even through the dullest speeches.

The American delegation in particular paid considerable attention to these organisations, arranging frequent briefings and consultations.43

The visiting Quakers from the eastern states, together with Alexander, stayed with William and Anna James in Berkeley, across the Bay. This meant a daily journey across the eight-mile bridge and back again. At night they could gaze down from the heights of Berkeley to the twinkling lights all round the (p.186) Bay. In the morning they woke up to the twitterings of strange birds – which could hardly have made it easy to drag Alexander away to the conference proceedings. It was clear from discussion among themselves that American Friends held views as various as the statesmen about what should be the outcome. Alexander, for his part, tried to indicate where British Friends stood, and indeed what he thought some continental Friends might have to say on some issues.44

Alexander’s main despatch to The Friend, published on 4 May, is a reminder of how different the international scene looked before the advent of the atomic bomb. He took for granted that the USA and the USSR would be nearly impregnable to an invader. ‘Neither USA nor USSR could destroy the other. Therefore a war between them is unlikely.’ But that other Great Power, the British Empire, might well come into conflict with the USSR, in Iran or in central Europe. In that event, would it make sense for one party to be declared the aggressor, with sanctions to be enforced against it? Alexander argued that it would be unrealistic to expect anything of the kind. The Great Powers had to be unanimous. But if a Great Power proved recalcitrant to measures recommended by a majority of states not party to the dispute, then it was still possible to mobilise ‘a steady pressure of world opinion.… If there is a vigorous minority opinion inside the guilty State, demanding a change of policy, such a change may soon happen and justice will thus be vindicated.’ The crucial element in a successful world order would thus be ‘a constantly informed, wakeful, vigorous world opinion’. Without this, even the wisest and most ingenious arrangements would not work.45

In the letter to Paul Sturge, mentioned earlier, Alexander remarked that ‘the Russians were on the whole more co-operative than had been feared’, and that the press had tended to exaggerate tensions between Russia and the West. But even if Alexander were too sanguine in this assessment, it is clear that substantial hopes were embodied in the UN Charter, and these were dealt a severe blow by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the message it contained of America’s overwhelming military power. Still that catastrophe did not happen until just before Alexander’s departure for Britain. For the greater part of his visit he was able to speak in an atmosphere of some confidence about the future. After San Francisco he spent a few meeting-packed days in Los Angeles, and then travelled eastwards. He visited a Quaker school near Iowa City, invited by Hans Buchinger with whom he had had strenuous discussions on Nazism in 1933. Now Buchinger was a political exile, and the conversation was about the environmentally friendly practices adopted on the school farm. The next stop was in a rain-soaked Chicago, where he spent three nights, one of them with his old colleague in anti-opium campaigning, Tarini Sinha. Sinha chaired a meeting for him at the International Club, and evidently organised some much-needed laundering. Alexander told Paul Sturge that (p.187) ‘when he discovered the rather sad condition of my underclothes his comment was “There is another likeness between you and C. F. A. [Andrews]”.’

After Chicago Alexander travelled south-east to Richmond, Indiana, where he spent a few days in the neighbourhood of Earlham College, a major centre of Middle West Quakerism. Amid the usual round of meetings and discussions, he found time to reflect on what he hoped to do with his life after Woodbrooke. He set down his reflections in a long letter to Ralph Barlow, a sympathetic and knowledgeable listener whose judgement he respected. In the immediate future he had been promised Friends Service Council funding to support a return to India as a kind of ‘Quaker commissioner’ to involve himself in and advise on the development of Quaker work in India and elsewhere. (He facetiously described the role as one of ‘chaplain-general of the Quaker forces in the East’.) Of course, Quaker work might come to an end, or restrict itself to the rehabilitation schemes in eastern India. But Alexander also found himself ‘dreaming strange dreams’. He foresaw the possibility of an unprecedented expansion of Quaker work, with centres in the major cities of India, and in Burma, Malaya, Siam and so on, right through to China and Japan. The reason was this:

Because the whole ‘Orient’ will be in revolt against western politico-economic domination after the war, and Quakers as a body are about the only people who are fairly generally trusted (where they are known) by even the most nationalistic leaders in those lands as disinterested friends and servants, reliable, trustworthy, without racial arrogance. Therefore we have a duty to go into new territories, if we can find the man for the job.

Alexander had the temerity to suppose that he just might be the man, although he lacked confidence in his ability to ‘give the spiritual support needed to men struggling with impossible technical jobs among an often stiff-necked and irresponsive populace’. Still, he felt that his experience with the FAU in India had some relevance to the task he envisaged., in particular his ability to identify work that would be useful and then to get people to do it without quite realising that it was his idea. His return to Bengal to act as an adviser in Quaker work there might be the beginning of a more ambitious project. But at this point in the letter he was evidently overcome with self-doubts. What after all was he going to do with the rest of his life? ‘I gad about to Geneva, to the Saar, to Berlin, to Spain, to Poona, to San Francisco – and what does it all lead to? Nothing, so far as I can see.’

The kind of fulfilment which he sought might be found in political action, ‘a big job if you are fit for big responsibilities’ (which he seems to have felt that he wasn’t); or in influencing minds, as he had been trying to do at Woodbrooke for the past twenty-five years. He regretted that his energies (p.188) had been dissipated in writing pamphlets and articles to meet an immediate situation. He was haunted by the desire to do something of more ‘permanent’ significance, a biography of C. F. Andrews or of Gandhi perhaps.

But in the back of my mind I have for years had other things lurking. I believe, for instance, that the Indian genius and culture (by which I don’t just mean ‘Hinduism’, or Gandhi, or Tagore, or any of the usual subjects, but that curiously elusive quality in Indian life which somehow captivates nearly every European who lives in India for a time – Ralph Barlow excepted) has something to say to the world, to a world perishing of falsehood and expediency and power-politics and the worship of bodily comforts, and that a rather matter-of-fact person like myself, who won’t go all sloppy and sentimental about it, might in the course of years work out a volume of ‘Indian Essays’ which really would have some value for the world – not only for 1950, but for 3000 even.

Once again his confidence failed him. He thought it most unlikely that he would ever ‘head up a great Quaker drive into the “Orient”, or write a book of “permanent” significance in the re-shaping of the world’. But still he wanted Barlow’s advice on which dream seemed the more appropriate for him.46

It is not clear what, if anything, Barlow would have said to Alexander on his return to England. By then he was so taken up with the immediate problem of how he should secure a passage to India, and take part in the rapidly developing situation there, that these long-term reflections were pushed to the back of his mind. But it is interesting that he was evidently already thinking of the ideas that were to find expression some fifteen years later in Consider India (1961).

He continued his journey eastwards through Indianapolis and Ann Arbor, pausing in Pittsburgh to look at a coal mine and see the remarkable housing project in the model village of Penncraft undertaken by unemployed miners during the depression. Back in Philadelphia he continued his unremitting programme of meetings and conferences. Day by day he sat in on committees of the AFSC and other Quaker groups. He addressed large audiences at Friends’ schools. He had to do so on one occasion without warning, when he attended the George School commencement ceremony to witness the graduation of the youngest daughter of the Pickards. Sitting quietly in the audience, he was startled to find himself summoned up to the platform to make an impromptu speech. Apparently the Principal’s father had been put through a similar ordeal by John William Graham when he visited England in 1903, and at Graham’s urging had attended the Bootham ‘speech day’. Now, forty-two years later, the son took his revenge on the son-in-law. Alexander began by assuring his audience that ‘J.W.G. would certainly have been equal to the occasion’ – a slightly barbed remark when one recalls the many lectures that Graham gave in the Indian sub-continent, thus shutting himself off from what was actually (p.189) happening there.47 Alexander may well have felt that he was giving too many lectures for the good of his own understanding of the American scene. He complained to Paul Sturge after nearly three months in the country that he understood no more about American political life than he did before he arrived.48 He was constantly on the move – up to New York City for a Fellowship of Reconciliation event, and down to Nashville, Tennessee, to give the commencement address at Fiske Negro University (its President, Tom Jones, was an Old Woodbrooker). Then at the end of June there was New England Yearly Meeting and Canada Yearly Meeting. One experience stood out when he looked back on his travels – a visit, on 6 June, to Byberry Mental Hospital in north Philadelphia. The staff there included conscientious objectors, who were working under the Civilian Public Service scheme, and Alexander felt that their experience could lead to a complete reform of mental health treatment. He gave his usual talk on India, and was surprised by the warmth of the men’s appreciation. ‘Can it be, I wonder, that India has some special gift of healing to offer … ?’49

As always there were the occasional days of bird-watching, one in particular in the John Woolman country in New Jersey at the beginning of June. He was accompanied by several fellow Quakers, including one Rebecca Bradbeer, the widow of an English Friend, Frank Bradbeer, who had died some ten years earlier. Frank Bradbeer had taken part in famine relief work in Russia in the aftermath of the First World War, and had later been in charge of the Quaker centre in Frankfurt am Main. Bertram Pickard met him in Philadelphia in May 1935, and remarked that his wife was ‘a fine looking girl of 30 odd’.50 She came from the Biddle family, very much part of the Quaker establishment in Philadelphia. She and Alexander had met soon after his arrival at one of the Philadelphia Yearly Meetings, and were to meet again when he visited Washington towards the end of July. In that holiday month she was temporarily in charge of the Davis House, a Quaker centre in the capital where he stayed overnight. Her daughter Cecilia was fifteen at the time, and mentioned the visit in her diary. He was, she wrote, a wonderful person with ‘an amazing equilibrium (according to Mum) and is very objective about India and England and the problems of the world’. That was on Monday 23 July, and the following morning there was a lively conversation over breakfast. Since the diary mentions Nehru, who had been released from detention a month earlier, the talk was evidently of post-war developments in India. Later in the morning Alexander was taken to the British Embassy to see a Major Lockhart, almost certainly about the prospects for travelling to India.51

Rebecca Bradbeer’s friendship proved to be of greater significance than any other of his American encounters. Fourteen years later she was to become his wife.


(1.) HGA to L. S. Amery, 16 September 1943 and Amery to HGA, 19 September 1943, LSF Temp. MSS 577/106.

(2.) Agatha Harrison to HGA, ibid. 971/2/2/2.

(3.) HGA to Agatha Harrison, ibid. 577/82b.

(4.) HGA to the Graham family, 5 January 1944, Sibinga MS 3.

(5.) David Owen to HGA, 28 January 1944, LSF Temp. MSS 971/2/2/2. See Nimocks 1970 and Symonds 1986: 63–6.

(6.) Dorothy Hogg to Edith Richards, 28 October 1943, LSF Temp. MSS 577/82b.

(7.) Ibid.

(8.) HGA to Agatha Harrison, 27 September 1943, ibid.

(9.) Dorothy Hogg to Agatha Harrison, 26 October 1943, ibid.

(10.) Dorothy Hogg to Agatha Harrison, 13 November 1943, ibid.

(11.) Ibid.

(12.) Agatha Harrison to HGA and Dorothy Hogg, 15 November 1943, ibid.

(13.) Dorothy Hogg to Agatha Harrison, 15 November 1943, ibid.

(14.) Visva-Bharati Quarterly, new ser., vol. 10, no.1, May–July 1944: 44. Kripalani later wrote to Alexander conceding that he had misunderstood Alexander’s purpose in writing the book, and regretting that he had caused him pain 30 March 1945, (LSF Temp. MSS 971/2/1/3).

(15.) Transcript of discussion on 9 March 1944; Penderel Moon to HGA, 14 March 1944, LSF Temp. MSS 577/11.

(16.) HGA to S. P. Mookherjee, 2 August 1944, ibid. 577/114.

(p.285) (17.) Glan Davies to HGA, 31 October 1943, ibid. 577/17.

(18.) Gandhi 1979, vol. 77: 1979 275. Gandhi to M. R. Jayakar, 20 May 1944, published in The Bombay Chronicle, 1 June, after a ‘garbled and unauthorized version’ had appeared in another newspaper. Also HGA to C. Rajagopalachari, 8 June 1944, LSF Temp. MSS 577/114.

(19.) ‘Copy of airgraph letter from H. G. Alexander to Mr Gandhi’, 22 June 1944, Sibinga MS 4.

(20.) Gandhi to HGA, 12 July 1944, quoted in Alexander 1984: 208. The date given in the book is incorrect.

(21.) Anna Barlow was personally on friendly terms with Alexander, and when he needed to stay in London at this time it was with her that he stayed. But on India she was uncompromising, and in Alexander’s absence she could be formidable on the subject. In a letter of 3 March 1945, Agatha Harrison complained to Alexander that she had had ‘a horrid time with Anna Barlow at the Peace Committee. With neither Carl [Heath] nor you present – it was most difficult. Quite honestly I thought she was outrageous’ (LSF Temp. MSS 577/82c).

(22.) Dorothy Hogg to Agatha Harrison, 25 August 1944, ibid.

(23.) HGA to Agatha Harrison, 2 September 1944, ibid. 577/84.

(24.) The Bengal Civil Protection Committee. See Chapter 14, above.

(25.) HGA to Gandhi, 2 September 1944, Sibinga MS 4.

(26.) Gandhi 1979, vol. 78: 155. ‘Agatha’, of course, is Agatha Harrison, ‘Muriel’, Muriel Lester.

(27.) L. S. Amery to Arthur Eddington, 19 October 1944, LSF Temp. MSS 577/114.

(28.) HGA to R. A. Butler, 9 January 1945, ibid. 577/82c.

(29.) 11 September 1944, ibid. 577/82c. This appears to be the letter referred to by Suhash Chakravarty as an illustration of Harrison’s anxiety about the prospect of India’s severance from the Empire (Chakravarty 1991: 194). If so, it is an odd misreading of her impatience with those who were blind to the end of empires. Dr Chakravarty dates the letter 19 September 1944. but Dr H. D. Sharma of the Nehru Memorial Library informed me that this must be a misprint for 11 September.

(30.) HGA to Symonds, 17 March, and 24 April 1944, ibid., 577/17; Pamela Bankart to HGA, 1 April 1944, ibid. 577/17. The chipmunks were charming but rather helpless characters in Bambi (1942).

(31.) Papers of the India Relief Committee, organised by Krishna Menon and Clement Davies, a Liberal MP, ibid. 577/114.

(32.) Symonds to HGA, 9 March 1944, ibid., 971/2/2/1.

(33.) HGA to Symonds, 28 February 1944, ibid., 577/17; Symonds to HGA, 11 November 1943, ibid. 577/17.

(34.) Woodbrooke International Journal, no. 46, December 1943, p. 1. Certainly his cavalier attitude to drink is in contrast to that implied in a lecture he gave in February 1942, when he reluctantly admitted that ‘many of the early Quakers were brewers’. The genial Edith Adams, who lived in a cottage in the Woodbrooke grounds, and took part in Woodbrooke social occasions, mocked his reluctance in a poem preserved in the log-book for the spring term, 1942.

  • I’m sure those early Quakers were conscientious makers
  • And ale of their concoction would breed a pious mind,
  • And godly soberiety, run through the whole society –
  • Yet everybody cheerful – after having dined.

Many a solemn Quaker would be rejuvenated.

  • (p.286) Just think of Horace Alexander – so lean and lank and long.
  • Did ever drinking cocoa make him break into a song
  • Or give him rosy countenance, or a nice big enbonpoint?

(35.) Clarence Pickett to HGA, 16 November and Anna Brinton to HGA. 15 December 1943, Sibinga MS 3.

(36.) HGA to Amery, 17 March 1944, ibid.; HGA to Symonds, 31 March 1944, LSF Temp. MSS 577/17. In a letter dated 13 March, Symonds mentioned a report in the Indian press about a meeting in Birmingham addressed by Amery. ‘Mr Amery went on to speak of the work of the FAU … (a voice) Don’t you go taking credit for them … (Mr Amery) It’s not a question of taking credit … Mr Amery’s words could not be heard owing to heckling.’

(37.) R. R. Williams to HGA, 8 May 1944, Sibinga MS 3.

(38.) HGA to Tegla Davies, 6 April 1945, and Dorothy Hogg to Agatha Harrison, ? May 1945, LSF Temp. MSS 577/82c.

(39.) A circular letter to Friends he had met in North America, November 1945, Sibinga MS 3.

(40.) HGA to Tegla Davies, 6 April 1945, ibid.

(41.) Sibinga MS 3 has a copy of the Meeting for Sufferings statement, printed as a leaflet for general circulation. Heath’s questions are in a letter to Hubert Peet, 7 April 1945, also in Sibinga MS 3.

(42.) ‘Dumbarton Oaks or Chaos?’ Fellowship, vol. 17, pp. 69–84, April 1945.

(43.) HGA to Paul Sturgt, 5 June 1945, Sibinga MS 3.

(44.) Ibid.

(45.) The Friend, 4 May 1945, pp. 277–9.

(46.) HGA to Ralph Barlow, 19 May 1945, Sibinga MS 3.

(47.) HGA to Richard Graham, 17 June 1945, ibid.

(48.) HGA to Paul Sturge, 5 June 1945, ibid.

(49.) Circular letter to Friends he had met in North America, ibid., November 1945.

(50.) Bertram Pickard to friends and family, 1999: 13. 14 May 1935, in Pickard.

(51.) Information from Cecilia Sibinga. The following December Alexnder wrote that his name had been entered for a passage to India since July. See HGA to P. J. Patrick, 7 December 1945, LSF Temp. MSS 577/90.