On January 14, 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt, English Prime Minister Winston Churchill met to discuss war strategy in Casablanca, Morocco with Combined Chiefs of Staff and how they wanted to proceed with their war plans. Also invited were representatives from the Free French, General Charles de Gaulle and General Henri Girard. The French were in effect the government-in-exile and Churchill and Roosevelt wanted to ensure a united France after hostilities ceased.
Roosevelt’s trip was the first time in its short history that a standing U.S. president had left the country during a time of war. Roosevelt, under heavy security, had flown from Miami to Morocco. The meetings took place in the Anfa Hotel from January 14-24, 1943. Josef Stalin was invited to attend as well but due to the ongoing battle at Stalingrad, he declined to keep close tabs on the battle.
The French, though treated cordially, were not warm to the task and had to be persuaded to attend. Even then, there was a forced handshake for the sake of the cameras that was so fast, it had to be done again.to preserve it for the press.However, some of the British in attendance came to the conclusion that the two French generals probably hated each other more than the Germans. The French, however, were not invited to and didn’t participate in the military planning.
Unconditional Surrender Declaration: The announcement by FDR at the conference was that the Allies would only accept the unconditional surrender of the German Army. That raised eyebrows and concerns for all of the Allied politicians including Churchill who was surprised by Roosevelt’s declaration. The President had stolen the idea from Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War who had used the term against the Confederacy on several occasions.
Many of the politicians felt that “unconditional surrender” was too inflexible and left no room for political machinations to take place, similar to how World War I ended. That’s exactly what FDR was shooting for. In a radio address later in February, Roosevelt explained what he meant by unconditional surrender: “we mean no harm to the common people of the Axis nations. But we do mean to impose punishment and retribution upon their guilty, barbaric leaders”
But many of the more pragmatic Allied leaders weren’t too worried about FDR’s declaration. One of them, Allen Dulles from the Intelligence Office of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) which later became the CIA would remark that the Casablanca Declaration was “merely a piece of paper to be scrapped without further ado if Germany would sue for peace. But Hitler had to go.”
Many in the Roosevelt Administration, including his Moscow Ambassador Charles Bohlen believed that FDR wanted to tie down most of the German troops on the Eastern Front and he (Roosevelt) was worried that Stalin may try to make a separate peace with the Germans.
Invasion of France Put Off: Roosevelt, after conferring with General George Marshall was in favor of a quick cross-channel invasion of France. Churchill with his Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Alan Brooke advised against it. They knew the green American army wasn’t ready yet to take on the veteran Germans on French soil.
Churchill sold them on his plan to take on the Axis through the Mediterranean. Churchill pushed for the invasion of Sicily and then Italy, what he called the “soft underbelly of Europe.” Invading Italy will not only take them out of the war but force the Germans to further weaken the western defenses in France by diverting more troops to their south.
That would help them in the future invasion of France, not to mention that the many months before invading France, the Russians would further weaken the German troops with the no-quarter fighting going on in the Eastern Front.
But the compromise by FDR also got Churchill to agree to furnish more troops for the Pacific Theatre and Burma fighting the Japanese. The Allies were fully behind Chiang Kai-Shek’s efforts in China. The US agreed to furnish the British with escorts and landing craft.
The leaders decided on a strategy to deal with the U-Boat wolf packs that scoured the Atlantic and interfered heavily with attempts to resupply and rearm Britain. The two leaders also agreed to help out the Russians in any way possible. Stalin was furious at the Allies for not opening a second front while the Germans had millions of troops in his country.
FDR decided to visit the troops and he went to visit General George Patton and the Americans in Rabat. The troops from the 3rd Infantry Division were shocked and thrilled to see their president so far from home. He sat down for lunch and ate a standard meal out of a mess kit. The Army band serenaded the President with some of his favorite songs and speaking with several of the soldiers moved him to write their families when he returned home.
Churchill and FDR then met with the press who hadn’t been told of the meeting and the two laid out their plans. Roosevelt laid on the charm while Churchill played his part to a tee. The Allies were united in spirit and in their plans. But Churchill had one more request, for FDR to accompany him to Marrakech, which was, as Mr. Churchill said, “the nicest place to spend the afternoon.” The trip and the conference were a huge success, and even the President’s staunchest critics lauded the audacity and the success.
Staunch Republican newspaper editor William Allen White wrote perhaps the best description of the conference. “…we are compelled to admit that Franklin Roosevelt is the most unaccountable and on the whole the most enemy-baffling President that this United States has ever seen… a certain vast impudent courage… Well damn your smiling old picture, here it is… We, who hate your gaudy guts, salute you.”
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