Roosevelt and Churchill forged a close friendship as their countries struggled against Hitler, but their relationship did not begin well. They had first met in 1918 at a dinner in London, when Churchill was minister of munitions and Roosevelt the young assistant secretary of the navy. Churchill quickly forgot the encounter, but Roosevelt did not. Years later he recalled that Churchill acted like a stinker and was one of the few men in public life who was rude to me. As president, Roosevelt put his feelings aside in 1939, when Churchill returned to the post of first lord of the admiralty. It is because you and I occupied similar positions in the First World War that I want you to know how glad I am that you are back in the Admiralty, he wrote. After Churchill became prime minister in 1940, he and Roosevelt met a second time for a wartime conference aboard ship off the Newfoundland coast in August 1941. And Churchill traveled to Washington several times after the United States entered the war, even spending the Christmas holidays at the White House after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Following the start of Operation Torch, Roosevelt planned to meet with Churchill in Casablanca early in 1943. It would not be an easy trip for the 60-year-old president, and his aides worried that he might not be up to it. Polio had confined Roosevelt to a wheelchair since 1921, making an already strenuous round-trip journey of nearly 17,000 miles even more of a challenge. But the president was determined to make the journey, and a thorough physical examination put presidential physician Admiral Ross T. McIntire’s worries to rest.
Roosevelt loved an adventure, and he loved to travel — even if his travels, at least as president, had been confined to leisurely train trips and jaunts by car. Roosevelt had not flown since 1932, when he traveled from Albany, New York, to Chicago to accept his nomination at the Democratic national convention. In fact, no U.S. president had ever flown while in office. The Secret Service still regarded flying as a dangerous mode of transport. For the trip to Casablanca, however, air travel was the only realistic option, as German submarines lurking in the Atlantic made a surface crossing too risky. Early in the morning of January 11, Roosevelt’s train reached Miami. Waiting there were two flying boats, Boeing 314s chartered by the navy from Pan American for wartime duty. The four-engine 314s were the largest commercial aircraft of their day. They could carry 40 overnight passengers in relative luxury and had a range of 3,500 miles. One of them, the Dixie Clipper, had inaugurated the first regularly scheduled service across the Atlantic in June 1939. This was the airplane designated for the president and his personal staff, including Admiral McIntire, Admiral William D. Leahy, the president’s chief of staff, and Harry Hopkins, the former social worker turned presidential aide and advisor. The pilot, navy reserve Lieutenant Howard Cone, held the title Master of Ocean Flying, the highest commercial pilot rating. Other members of the party boarded the second flying boat, the Atlantic Clipper. Once everyone was aboard, the two flying boats taxied out to begin the long journey to Trinidad, the first stop.
Lieutenant Cone had a happy passenger that day. Hopkins wrote that the president was so thrilled to be making the trip that he acted like a sixteen year old. Over Haiti Roosevelt asked Cone to detour over the Citadel, a fortress FDR had visited in 1917 when he was assistant navy secretary. But Admiral McIntire worried as the unpressurized plane reached its cruising altitude of 9,000 feet, and he saw the president occasionally turn pale in the thin air.
Admiral Leahy had contracted the flu, and he remained behind in Trinidad. Roosevelt wrote to Margaret Suckley, his cousin and confidante, I shall miss him, as he is such an old friend and a wise counselor. Leahy would have been especially valuable as an advisor on the knotty problems of French politics. By 1940 Germany had occupied most of France but had allowed a French regime based at Vichy nominal independence over the remainder, and Leahy had served as Roosevelt’s ambassador to the Vichy government. Issues relating to France were especially convoluted in North Africa. Algeria and Morocco were French colonies, and the Americans coming ashore for Operation Torch had initially fought against defending Vichy troops.
On the morning of January 12, the two flying boats left Trinidad and headed southeast along the South American coast and across the equator to Belm, Brazil, on the Amazon delta. Late that afternoon, as the clippers refueled, the president visited with the air transport command officers who ferried aircraft across the South Atlantic to West Africa and on to the North African theater. Then it was time to begin the longest leg of the trip, the 2,100-mile crossing to Bathurst, in the British West African colony of Gambia. The two Boeings had to fight stiff headwinds during a 19-hour flight, but Roosevelt endured it with equanimity, enjoying cocktails, dinner, and a good night’s sleep. At the U.S. base in Bathurst the cruiser USS Memphis was waiting, but the president felt so energetic when he arrived that he insisted on touring the harbor for nearly an hour before boarding. That night, while other members of the party watched a film on the deck of the Memphis, Roosevelt retired to his cabin to deal with dispatches and write letters. Roosevelt rose early the next day and was driven across Bathurst to Yundum Field, where an army C-54 transport plane was waiting to take him to Casablanca. Roosevelt had always been a staunch critic of colonialism, and what he saw on his drive through the crowded British port to the airfield only reinforced his views. Writing to Suckley, he described the crowds of semi-dressed natives — thatched huts — great poverty and emaciation and added that Bathurst was an awful, pestiferous hole.
The final flight required the C-54 to climb to nearly 15,000 feet to cross the Atlas Mountains, and Admiral McIntire grew concerned about the effect the altitude would have on Roosevelt. The president did have to take what he described to Suckley as a few whiffs of oxygen, but the flight went smoothly, and the president’s plane reached Casablanca on the evening of January 14. It taxied to a stop near a bomb crater left by the recent fighting, a stark reminder that the president was now within range of Axis bombers.
U.S. forces had taken over the Anfa Hotel for the conference. A compound of several luxurious villas in an exclusive Casablanca suburb, the hotel revealed another side of colonialism — the wealth it offered to a fortunate few. But the hotel provided Roosevelt and Churchill separate quarters in close proximity, and it was a perfect choice for the summit.
Roosevelt had watched the newly released film Casablanca during the past New Year’s celebrations, and the intrigue portrayed in the Humphrey Bogart/Ingrid Bergman classic was still a characteristic of the newly liberated city. Before the president arrived, Secret Service agents had discovered and destroyed several recording devices that unknown parties had placed in some of the Anfa villas. Medical officers tested all the food and liquor the two leaders would consume in Casablanca, and the supplies remained under heavy guard. Barbed wire surrounded the hotel, American troops guarded the buildings, and antiaircraft batteries and fighter planes protected the area.
Soon after Roosevelt arrived, Churchill came to the president’s door, eager to greet him. Less than an hour later, the conference began over a candlelit dinner. Roosevelt invited Churchill and his military chiefs to dine with him and his chiefs and aides. The meeting was relaxed and went on until the early hours of the morning. The talks were spread out over eight days. Although the British and American chiefs of staff of the armed forces dealt with much of the hard work of negotiations, the presence of Roosevelt and Churchill was vital in assuring that the chiefs came to an agreement. But the two leaders did confer most evenings, sometimes until after midnight. Churchill kept the president up until 2:30 a.m. on January 23 working on a joint communiqu to Stalin. The success at Casablanca was partly due to Roosevelt’s sympathy for aspects of the British position. The president wanted a massive invasion of the European mainland as quickly as possible, but he also wanted to intensify the fighting against Japan and keep U.S. troops in action and advancing. Furthermore, Roosevelt needed some early victories for U.S. forces. By ousting German forces from North Africa and then moving on to Mediterranean targets — as Churchill proposed — the U.S. could demonstrate to the American public that the tide of war had turned. At the same time, Roosevelt and Churchill could show Stalin they were continuing to press German armed forces on a second front, however limited.
Because Churchill’s strategy prevailed, some have declared the Casablanca conference a victory for British negotiators. But this view overlooks the fact that the Americans also gained British commitments to long-term goals that went well beyond the immediate objectives in the Mediterranean. While the Americans agreed to follow victory in North Africa with an assault on Sicily, the British agreed to begin a massive buildup of Allied forces in Britain for an invasion of France by a specific target date — May 1, 1944 — or sooner if the German war machine unexpectedly faltered. (The actual invasion would take place on June 6, 1944.) For the Pacific theater, the negotiators agreed on compromise language stating that operations would continue using the forces already allocated, with the goal of attaining a position of readiness for a full-scale offensive against Japan after Germany’s defeat. The Casablanca agreement also called for an expanded bombing campaign against Germany, continued efforts to provide war supplies to the Soviet Union, and increased efforts to assist the Nationalist Chinese against Japan. Roosevelt spent much time and effort attempting to arrange a reconciliation between rival French leaders, General Charles de Gaulle, commander of the Britain-based Free French; and General Henri Giraud, high commissioner of French North and West Africa. Many Americans wanted the United States to throw its weight entirely behind de Gaulle, but Roosevelt did not trust the general, whom he viewed as an imperialist and potential autocrat. Yet some arrangement was necessary. We will call Giraud the bridegroom, and I shall send for him from Algiers, Roosevelt told Churchill. On your side, you will send to London for the bride, de Gaulle, and we will arrange a shotgun wedding. While Roosevelt’s plans for a wedding fell short, he did get the two rivals to shake hands for photographers before the conference ended.
The president enjoyed the conviviality and relaxation of the cocktail hour and a dinner party, and both leaders found time for lighter moments at Casablanca. According to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commander of Operation Torch, Roosevelt behaved with optimism and buoyancy, amounting almost to lightheartedness… Successful in shaking loose for a few days many burdens of state, he seemed to experience a tremendous uplift from the fact that he had secretly slipped away from Washington and was engaged in a historic meeting on territory that only two months before had been a battleground. The presence of family members added to the pleasant social atmosphere. Lieutenant Colonel Elliott Roosevelt served as greeter to distinguished guests at the presidential villa, and Lieutenant Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., whose destroyer had taken part in the Operation Torch landings, was present too. Churchill’s son Randolph, recently recovered from injuries sustained returning from a commando raid on Benghazi, Libya, joined the prime minister, while Sergeant Robert Hopkins had been ordered off the frontlines in Tunisia to be with his father. Safety concerns kept Roosevelt away from the front, but he greatly enjoyed a drive he made up the coast on January 21 with the commander of U.S. troops in Morocco, General George S. Patton. With a fighter escort flying cover, the party traveled past American troop encampments and vast stores of gasoline and ammunition. North of Rabat, the president reviewed thousands of American troops who expected to see General Mark Clark, the Fifth Army commander drive past. Most kept their composure when they saw the president, thought to be in the United States. As he slowly drove past the ranks of troops, Roosevelt roared with laughter when he heard one soldier exclaim, Jesus, it’s the old man himself! On the evening of January 22, the president invited Churchill and Morocco’s Sultan Sidi Muhammad to dinner. Harry Hopkins later wrote that the sultan came loaded with presents — a gold dagger for the president, and some gold bracelets for Mrs. Roosevelt and a gold tiara which looked to me like the kind the gals wear in the circus, riding on white horses. In deference to the sultan’s Islamic faith, Roosevelt served no alcohol, much to Churchill’s chagrin. The prime minister’s dismay increased when Roosevelt steered the conversation toward colonialism, a particular sore point between the president and Churchill, who wanted to maintain Britain’s colonies after the war. Morocco had been a French protectorate since 1912, and Roosevelt sketched out for the sultan the role that America could play in post-colonial Morocco. Churchill knew that Roosevelt’s views on France’s colonies applied to Britain’s as well, and the prime minister moved uneasily in his chair until the conversation changed to another subject.
At the final Casablanca press conference on January 24, Roosevelt announced that the Allies would seek the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan. Churchill later claimed he was surprised by the president’s statement, as they had only briefly discussed the subject. Roosevelt himself said that the idea simply popped into my mind as he reflected on General Ulysses S. Grant’s strategy toward the South during the American Civil War. Previously, Britain aimed only to destroy the German government, leaving open the possibility of dealing with any successor regime. At Casablanca, Roosevelt successfully argued that the experience of two world wars showed that German society had been Prussianized and had to be completely rebuilt.
After the January 24 press conference, Churchill suggested to Roosevelt that they take an overnight trip to Marrakech to see the sunset on the snows of the Atlas Mountains. The two leaders relaxed and enjoyed a picnic during the five-hour journey to Marrakech and arrived at about 6:00 p.m. A six-story sloping tower provided a perfect view of the mountains, but as the narrow, winding stairs couldn’t accommodate Roosevelt’s wheelchair, two Secret Service agents made a cradle of their hands and carried the president to the top of the tower. There the two world leaders sat for half an hour enjoying the view. After dinner, they made toasts to each other, and Churchill sang, with Roosevelt joining in the choruses. Roosevelt and his entourage were preparing to leave Marrakech at 7:30 a.m. on January 25 when Churchill rushed out at the last minute to say goodbye. With his usual disregard for convention, the prime minister appeared wearing a red-dragon dressing gown and black velvet slippers with his initials embroidered on the toes. Photographers begged for a shot but obligingly lowered their cameras when Churchill implored, You simply cannot do this to me.
By the time President Roosevelt arrived in Gambia, he was running a slight fever, and he rested onboard the Memphis. On January 27, before boarding the Dixie Clipper for the Atlantic crossing, Roosevelt took a day trip to Liberia, officially for discussions with President Edwin Barclay over wartime matters — although he seemed more focused on learning just how workers produced latex at Firestone’s vast Liberian plantations. Roosevelt turned 61 during the return trip across the Atlantic, and he and his advisors enjoyed a birthday lunch as they flew over Haiti.
Roosevelt had told the assembled sailors on the Memphis that during 10 days in Casablanca, the United States and Britain had agreed on plans to keep the war going at full speed during the rest of 1943. We hope it will be over by then, but you can never tell. If it is not over, we will be even more ready in 1944 for the final victory. But the president’s timetable was too optimistic, and he did not live to see the unconditional surrender of Germany in May 1945 and of Japan in September. Nevertheless, the Casablanca agreements were a historic achievement, and Roosevelt and Churchill considered the meeting a great success. As Churchill said at the closing press conference, Even when there is some delay there is design and purpose and, as the president has said, the unconquerable will to pursue this quality until we have procured the unconditional surrender of the criminal forces who plunged the world into storm and ruin.
This article was written by Raymond W. Copson and originally published in the April 2002 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!