By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
November 06, 2017
In October (2006) I reviewed Colin Palmer’s Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean for the Journal of British Studies. I congratulated Palmer for exposing the intrigue of Britain and the United States against Williams when he fought for the return of Chaguaramas for the federal capital of the Federation of the West Indies. I wrote: “It might come as a shock to many that the United States gave some thought to ‘eliminating’ Williams during the Chaguaramas discussion. The British sought to sabotage his efforts.”
“These revelations should not be taken as empty threats in light of the Central Intelligence Agency’s role in Cuba and Guyana when several attempts were made to eliminate Fidel Castro, and Jagan was removed from office by Britain and the United States.” Although Palmer looked at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) files, he did not tell us that the CIA was monitoring Williams’s activities from 1941, two years after he began to teach at Howard University in 1939.
A lowly assistant professor of Social Sciences, Williams joined a faculty that was concerned with social justice for the Negro race. Its faculty included Alain Locke, a philosopher; Charles Johnson, a father of American sociology; E. Franklin Frazer, sociologist and author of The Negro Family in the United States; and Ralph Bunche, a political scientist and winner of the 1950 Nobel Prize for Peace.
In his foreword to Williams’s Negro in the Caribbean (1942), Locke described Williams as “a citizen of the Americas in the larger sense.” Capitalism and Slavery (1944), Williams’s magnum opus, catapulted him to the front of the historical field in the UK and US.
Recently released documents revealed that the CIA was monitoring Williams from September 1941. They were interested in his activities among campus organizations at Howard. This surveillance increased after he became the premier and prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, began to fight the US for the return of Chaguaramas, and sought to put his stamp on the government of T&T. Sean Douglas has offered a concise description of these activities (Newsday, October 31).
I was interested in information an informant gave to the FBI in November 1956. It stated, “C. L. R. James, international leader and co-founder of the Johnson-Forest Group and former president of a university in Trinidad, British West Indies, has been a close friend of Williams long before James left Trinidad.”
He added that James or Williams rarely made a move without consulting each other and predicted, “that in view of Williams’s political success in Trinidad, James would return to Trinidad” (MurkRock News).
The informer misrepresented James’s position. He must have meant that James was the principal of Pamphilian High School that he started in 1920 around when he met Williams. During his tenure as principal, James staged Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” at a Port of Spain cinema that flopped. Few people attended the performance. “But,” as Jean Besson noted, “Nello [CLR] pressed on. The play was staged in front of the curtain and his pupils performed the whole [play]….When Nello read Shakespeare it wasn’t just a book he was reading but he saw life behind it, and he had to present that life (Caribbean Reflections).
Williams and James left Trinidad for England in 1932. In 1958 Williams brought James back to Trinidad and installed him as the editor of The Nation, the PNM party’s newspaper. James resigned from the Nation in July 1960 when he and Williams fell out. When I interviewed James in his Brixton apartment in London in the early 1980s, he indicated that he broke with Williams because Williams was not willing to go far enough on Chaguaramas. He felt that Williams should have demanded more from the US than he received.
Williams was the practical politician; James was still the theoretician: all theory, little practice.
James and Williams were much closer politically when the latter wrote Capitalism and Slavery. The Johnson-Forest (pseudonyms for James and Raya Dunayevskaya) Tendency was a highly theoretical Marxist group that was founded by James and Dunayevskaya, a former secretary of Leon Trotsky. By 1956, James was far left of Williams, a radical democrat some may have described him.
The USA was watching both James and Williams but they could never get the goods on Williams they wanted. In 1956, he may have been a radical who was committed to bourgeois democracy but that was acceptable for the US, except in his approach to the question of Chaguaramas for which they were ready to eliminate him.
By 1959, Williams had entrenched himself deeply in T&T and West Indian politics. The CIA wanted his ex-wife to give them dirt on his personal life to derail his political career, but it was difficult to remove him from office then.
When the Black Power revolt broke out in 1970, the US was willing to assist him in restoring the peace. By then he was on the US side, managing to retain his progressive democratic tendencies. He was even considered for the post of the UN Secretary-General.
From being a dangerous threat Williams had become an ally, which tells you how strange this game called politics can be.