Anfa 1943: President Roosevelt’s Geography Lesson

This is the second of two posts (in the first, my remarks on American contacts with Moroccan nationalists) on this week's conference commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Casablanca or Anfa Conference of January 1943.  Below, a photo (courtesy the US Consulate General in Casablanca) of American soldiers mounting the guard at Anfa.

TALIM Anfa US flagOur panel's star power was definitely James Roosevelt, grandson of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on his first trip to Morocco, along with wife Anne.  Mr. Roosevelt said that if the Anfa conference, with its announcement of Allied terms of unconditional surrender "was bad news for Germany, Japan, and Italy, it was good news for Morocco."  He, like several subsequent speakers, referred to the historic dinner that FDR gave for Sultan Mohammed V, future King of independent Morocco.

James Roosevelt also recalled that his grandfather's views on colonialism were reinforced by  his long, record-making flight (previously, no US president had flown across the Atlantic) to Morocco, stopping in colonial Africa en route.  In fact, de Gaulle was reluctant to take part in Anfa because he knew of the US President's anti-colonial views, even to the point of agreeing with Vichy Resident General Nogues on the threat this posed to the French position in Morocco.  Michael Collins Dunn, in his great MEI blog, quotes the wartime memoirs of Diplomat Among Warriors Robert Murphy, where the latter whispers to Harry Hopkins, the President's adviser, about Nogues' evident displeasure at the dinner table:

Perhaps the President’s approaches to the Sultan also aggravate Nogues’s fears about American designs on the French Empire. From the point of view of any imperialist — including De Gaulle and Churchill— the President’s conversation with the Sultan could seem subversive.

As a young nationalist student in Fez, Abdelhadi Tazi, the grand old man of Moroccan diplomatic history (94 years young and still addressing audiences, God bless him), was very much aware of the significance of the American President reaching out to his Sultan. Tazi traced Mohammed V's forebears' overtures to the United States, and noted that Roosevelt later spoke to Saudi King Abdelaziz of the significance of his talks with the Moroccan Sultan when they met on board a cruiser in the Suez Canal.  Tazi also raised the intriguing question as to whether Roosevelt's literal gesture to Moroccan sovereignty in January 1943 had a direct correlation, almost a year to the day later, to the Moroccan "independence manifesto" of January 1944.  Istiqlal, or independence, became the name of the premier nationalist party that led the country to a return to sovereignty.

Dr. James Miller, who in addition to serving as the Executive Secretary of the Fulbright Commission in Morocco (MACECE) is Professor Emeritus of Geography at Clemson University, also referred to the bookend conferences of 1943 (Casablanca/Anfa in January; Tehran in December) as "Roosevelt's big geography lesson," especially in MENA – Middle East North Africa – geopolitics.  Jim then treated the audience to a British Pathe newsreel of Anfa.  He brought us up to date with a survey of one of the postwar period's greatest peace initiatives, Senator Fulbright's educational exchange scholarships, which have done so much to foster US-Moroccan mutual knowledge.

Finally, Dr. Tarik Tlaty of CMES, the Centre Marocain d'Etudes Strategiques, carried us up to present day bilateral cooperation, laying the stress, as befits his think tank, on security ties.

The Anfa 70th festivities continue, with the Roosevelts taking part.  There was a memorable meal at the legendary (literally) "Rick's Cafe," and there will be a showing of "Casablanca," of course, which has special sentimental resonance to the Roosevelts, but I daresay to millions of others who have seen the film that came out almost as American troops were hitting the shores of the city of the same name.


"Play it again, Issam" – Mr. and Mrs. James Roosevelt at Rick's Cafe, photo courtesy of Rick's proprietor Kathy Kriger

Chaired by Dr. Karim Bejjit, the panel discussion reached the audience and beyond, carried by a wide range of Moroccan print, TV, and radio outlets.  All in all, a very fitting Moroccan-American theme to this "beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Gerald Loftus

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