World War II: Casablanca Conference

Casablanca Conference, 1943
President Franklin Roosevelt & Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Casablanca Conference. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Casablanca Conference - Background:

The Casablanca Conference occurred on January 1943 and was the third time the President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill met during World War II. In November 1942, Allied forces landed in Morocco and Algeria as part of Operation Torch. Overseeing operations against Casablanca, Rear Admiral Henry K. Hewitt and Major General George S. Patton captured the city after a brief campaign which included a naval battle with Vichy French vessels.

While Patton remained in Morocco, Allied forces under the direction of Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower pressed east into Tunisia where a stalemate with Axis forces ensued.

Casablanca Conference - Planning:

Believing that the campaign in North Africa would be quickly concluded, American and British leaders began debating the future strategic course of the war. While the British favored pushing north through Sicily and Italy, their American counterparts desired a direct, cross-Channel attack directly into the heart of Germany. As this issue, as well as several others, including plans for the Pacific, required extensive discussion, it was decided to schedule a conference between Roosevelt, Churchill, and their respective senior leaderships under the codename SYMBOL. The two leaders selected Casablanca as the site of the meeting and organization and security for the conference fell to Patton.

Choosing the Anfa Hotel to host, Patton moved forward with meeting the logistical needs of the conference. Though Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was invited, he declined to attend due to the ongoing Battle of Stalingrad.

Casablanca Conference - The Meetings Begin:

The first time an American president had left the country during wartime, Roosevelt's trip to Casablanca consisted of a train to Miami, FL then a series of chartered Pan Am flying boat flights that saw him make stops in Trinidad, Brazil, and Gambia before finally arriving at his destination.

Departing from Oxford, Churchill, weakly disguised as a Royal Air Force officer, flew from Oxford aboard an unheated bomber. Arriving in Morocco, both leaders were quickly whisked to the Anfa Hotel. The center of a one-mile square compound that had been built by Patton, the hotel had previously served as housing for the German Armistice Commission. Here, the first meetings of the conference commenced on January 14. The next day, the combined leaderships received a briefing on the campaign in Tunisia from Eisenhower.

As talks pushed forward, agreement was quickly reached on the need to bolster the Soviet Union, focus bombing efforts on Germany, and win the Battle of the Atlantic. The discussions then bogged down when the focus shifted to allocating resources between Europe and the Pacific. While the British favored a defensive stance in the Pacific and a total focus on defeating Germany in 1943, their American counterparts feared allowing Japan time to consolidate their gains. Further disagreement arose in regard to plans for Europe after victory in North Africa. While American leaders were willing to mount an invasion of Sicily, others, such as US Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall desired to know Britain's ideas for striking a killer blow against Germany.

Casablanca Conference - The Talks Continue:

These largely consisted of a thrust through southern Europe into what Churchill termed Germany's "soft underbelly." It was felt that an attack against Italy would take Benito Mussolini's government out of the war forcing Germany to shift forces south to meet the Allied threat. This would weaken the Nazi position in France allowing for a cross-Channel invasion at a later date. Though the Americans would have preferred a direct strike into France in 1943, they lacked a defined plan to counter the British proposals and experience in North Africa had shown that additional men and training would be required. As it would be impossible to obtain these quickly, it was determined to pursue the Mediterranean strategy. Before conceding this point, Marshall was able to secure a compromise calling for the Allies to maintain the initiative in the Pacific without undermining efforts to defeat Germany.

While the agreement allowed the Americans to continue seeking retribution against Japan, it also showed that they had been badly outmaneuvered by the better-prepared British. Among the other topics of discussion was obtaining a degree of unity between French leaders General Charles de Gaulle and General Henri Giraud. While de Gaulle considered Giraud an Anglo-American puppet, the latter believed the former to be a self-seeking, weak commander. Though both met with Roosevelt, neither impressed the American leader. On January 24, twenty-seven reporters were called to the hotel for an announcement. Surprised to find a large number of senior Allied military leaders there, they were stunned when Roosevelt and Churchill appeared for a press conference. Accompanied by de Gaulle and Giraud, Roosevelt forced the two Frenchmen to shake hands in a show of unity.

Casablanca Conference - The Casablanca Declaration:

Addressing the reporters, Roosevelt offered vague details about the nature of the conference and stated that the meetings had allowed the British and American staffs to discuss a variety of key issues. Moving forward, he stated that "peace can come to the world only by the total elimination of German and Japanese war power." Continuing, Roosevelt declared that this meant the "unconditional surrender of Germany, Italy, and Japan." Though Roosevelt and Churchill had discussed and agreed on the concept of unconditional surrender in the preceding days, the British leader did not expect his counterpart to make such a blunt statement at that time.

In concluding his remarks, Roosevelt stressed that unconditional surrender did not "mean the destruction of the population of Germany, Italy, or Japan, but it [did] mean the destruction of the philosophies in those countries which [were] based on conquest and subjugation of other people." Though the consequences of Roosevelt's statement have been greatly debated, it was clear that he desired to avoid the vague type of armistice that had ended World War I.

Casablanca Conference - Aftermath:

Following an excursion to Marrakesh, the two leaders departed for Washington, DC and London. The meetings at Casablanca saw the mounting of a cross-Channel invasion delayed by a year and given the Allied troop strength in North Africa, the pursuance of a Mediterranean strategy had a degree of inevitability. While the two sides had formally agreed on the invasion of Sicily, the specifics of future campaigns remained ambiguous. Though many were concerned that the unconditional surrender demand would reduce the Allies' latitude to end the war and would increase enemy resistance, it provided a clear statement of war aims which reflected public opinion. Despite the disagreements and debates at Casablanca, the conference did work to establish a degree of kinship between the senior leaders of the American and British militaries. These would prove key as the conflict pushed forward. The Allied leaders, including Stalin, would meet again that November at the Tehran Conference.

Selected Sources

  • US Department of State: Casablanca Conference