On today’s date, January 14 in 1943, the two main Allied leaders arrived in Casablanca in French Morocco to plan their strategy for the next stage of the war. Allied troops had invaded North Africa in November of 1942 and had been successful, but showed many of the difficulties of sending green inexperienced and ill-equipped troops at experienced veterans such as the Germans were at that time. So there were several questions to be decided. One was where the Allies should strike next, when they should move and also the thorny question of what to do about French participation in the war ahead.
The Participants at Casablanca
The Conference (codenamed SYMBOL) was held at the Anfa Hotel in Casablanca and began on this date with the arrival U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin (below) was invited, but said he
could not come with his country still fighting the Battle of Stalingrad. So it was that FDR and Churchill arrived in fine spirits, happy to get away from the daily grind of politics in their respective capitals. The two men who had already become fast friends in past meetings were delighted to see each other and share relaxed conversations about important issues over dinner with cigars and martinis. But serious decisions had to be made about what the next Allied move should be. Stalin’s Russia had borne the full attack of the Nazis thus far and was adamant that the Western Allies should launch a second front by attacking France as soon as possible.
“The Soft Underbelly…”
Churchill and his advisers favored an attack on what he called “the Soft Underbelly” of the Axis empire, which was Hitler’s weak-willing ally in Italy starting with an invasion of Sicily, and then proceeding up through the Italian “boot”. This would divert thousands of German troops from the Russian front Churchill believed, and it could be begun in 1943. FDR’s men, Harry Hopkins and Gen. George Marshall preferred the frontal assault on France that Stalin wanted, but agreed that until U.S. production levels of shipping especially of landing craft were brought to adequate levels, the more intermediate levels of attack offered by the Italian campaign were the only choice available. A major cross-channel assault on France would not be possible until 1944 at the earliest. And the question of French participation was a major problem all its own.
The Problem of France
When Germany invaded and conquered France in 1940, the southern half of the country was left under the control of a traitorous puppet government called Vichy, which nominally controlled French colonial possessions. This was separate from the Free-French government in exile under the leadership of General Charles de Gualle. Allied forces invaded Morocco and Algeria on Nov. 8, 1942 in Operation “Torch”, and found themselves being fired upon by the French forces as so commanded by Vichy French leaders. But this was overcome, and eventually the French troops and their leaders came over to the Allied side. With Ike’s backing, General Henri Giraud was appointed Commander of the French forces in North Africa. There was considerable bad blood between de Gualle, who viewed Giraud as an extension of the Vichy government.
Neither FDR nor Churchill much liked either of the men, as both were proud difficult. Nevertheless their joint support was needed for a united Allied front. It took tremendous effort from FDR and Churchill to bring the two rivals together. FDR said: “My job was to produce the bride in the person of General Giraud, while Churchill was to bring in General de Gualle to play the role of the groom at a shotgun wedding.” But after much argument and discussion, the two men agreed to a posed handshake for the cameras. And boy does it (above) ever look posed! But FDR and Churchill had finally brought the two together in public, at least.
The press was well aware that the Conference was underway, but they were not given access to the participants and the decisions made until a press conference held on the final day, January 24, 1943. And at this came a surprise item served up by FDR with his announcement that victory would only be achieved with the unconditional surrender of Germany, Japan and Italy. This left Churchill shocked. The two men had discussed the idea in the past, but has made no definite decision on it. This would leave no room for
negotiation, should Hitler be killed. And Churchill was convinced that it would make the enemy fight all the harder. U.S. adviser Avril Harriman said that Churchill was “offended that FDR would make such a momentous announcement without prior consultation.” Historians argue to this day on why FDR did this. Maybe he thought of General U.S. Grant from the Civil War and his terms of “Unconditional Surrender” in wanting to write an unquestionable end to the war. Unlike the end of World War I where the army was able to blame the defeat on the politician’s “stab in the back” – a myth which made room for the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. We’ll probably never know for sure what motivated FDR to make his surprise announcement. But after that it became policy.
The American Heritage Picture History of World War II” by C.L. Sulzberger, American Heritage Publishers, New York, 1966.