Retired U.S. Foreign Service Office Harland Eastman served as Consul-General in Tangier in 1976, the year that the Department of State agreed to allow the Tangier American Legation to be converted into a private museum honoring the historic U.S.-Moroccan friendship. In this podcast, Emily Albrecht of Dartmouth College interviews Mr. Eastman, who recounts the enormous efforts made to restore the Legation in time for the celebrations of the U.S. Bicentennial. Ms. Albrecht’s interviews form part of a series of oral histories she recorded for her senior honors thesis, entitled, “Mapping Memories, Creating History: The Tangier American Legation” (May 2016).
Here are two photos from the November 3 performance of “Burroughs: The Tangier Letters” at the Espace Beckett. Performers Anne-James Chaton and Carolyn McDaniel gave readings in French and English of correspondence between William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. The letters ranged from ribald to hallucinogenic, mundane to shocking, and both performers movingly conveyed the wry genius of one of the 20th century’s most complex and controversial authors.
When I came to Morocco on a Fulbright Fellowship in 2008 I was surprised to learn that almost no one knew that the celebrated African American writer Claude McKay had lived and worked in the country. Even more surprising were the people who knew of Claude McKay’s importance as a writer, without knowing that he had written most of his books in Morocco. Back in the United States, almost no one seemed to take seriously the author’s time in Morocco. To date there hasn’t been any examination of the influence living in Morocco had on the author’s work and the development and clarification of both his anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist ideas. This is a lacunae still waiting to be filled, as this is but a brief introduction to Claude McKay and some of the work that he did in Morocco.
When he first came to Morocco in 1928, Claude McKay was in an upbeat mood. His first novel, Home to Harlem, had just been published and was steadily climbing up the New York Times best-seller list, one of the earliest such feats for an African American writer. McKay had money in his pocket and was well on his way to writing his second and perhaps most celebrated novel, Banjo, which he would complete in Morocco.
In fact the time McKay would spend in Morocco, roughly from 1928-1934, would see the author producing an astonishing body of work in the country — not only did he complete Banjo on his first trip in 1928; but he would go on to complete the short story collection Gingertown and the novel Banana Bottom while living in Morocco. He would also revise the novel Savage Loving (which would later be re-titled Romance in Marseilles) while living in Tangier. Sometime in 1933, McKay thought of a new novel and began to write what would eventually become Harlem Glory. In addition, he wrote several poems and various sketches of Moroccan life while still living there. Later he dedicates a significant portion of his autobiography to his time in Morocco and the country would keep showing up in subsequent works as well. Though McKay would eventually leave Morocco to return to the United States, Morocco would not leave McKay and he would be preoccupied with the country, and all the relationships he forged there, until the end of his life in 1948.
What made Morocco, more than any of the other countries that McKay lived in, so conducive to his producing such a substantial body of creative work? I believe the answers can be found in his biography.
Born in 1889 on the island of Jamaica, McKay would come to the United States as a youthful twenty two year-old after having publishing two collections of dialect poems on the island. More publications would follow in the United States, but McKay was an ever restless and wandering person; after only a few years in the United States he set off for Europe, where he would end up living for a decade and a half, primarily in England and France. But always there was the pull to Africa. McKay writes in his autobiography that he was first invited to visit Morocco by a sailor from Martinique he met while working in France. In time McKay would take the sailor up on his offer to visit Morocco.
From the very start McKay fell in love with Morocco, and his published works – particularly his moving poems about Morocco – give us some sense of why the country became so meaningful to him. There was, of course, the colorful landscape, so reminiscent of his native Jamaica. His poem “Two Songs of Morocco” is a love song to the northern landscape of Morocco, where McKay lived for most of his time in the country. Here, in the breathtakingly beautiful cities of Tetouan, Chefchaouen and Tangier were the flaming “yellow daisies” that McKay remembered from his Caribbean childhood. Here too was a landscape of abundance, in which “fishes leap up like tumblers in the air.” In his lovely poem Xauen, McKay is particularly taken with the tiny all-blue mountain municipality, where the waters kept “… flowing like the dawn … [in] the gem the Moors call Xauen.”
On July 16, 1987, the New York Times noted the passing of J. Rives Childs, a “former American diplomat and authority on Casanova.”
Childs had led many lives: volunteer ambulance driver à la Hemingway and U.S. Army cryptographer in France during World War I (he later received the Medal of Freedom for cracking German codes); postwar White House correspondent; American Relief Administration official (one of “Hoover’s Boys”) in the famine-stricken USSR of the 1920s; and a Foreign Service officer whose 30-year career culminated with ambassadorships to Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia after World War II.
Childs also wrote 14 books, ranging from definitive studies of Casanova and French writers of the 18th century (some written in French) to several works touching on his Foreign Service career. His final memoir, Let the Credit Go (1983), recounts his tenure as chargé d’affaires at the American Legation in Tangier, Morocco, between 1941 and 1945.
Despite the wealth of material generated by and about Childs, he remains an enigma. Was it just luck that he came unscathed through the McCarthy-era witch hunts despite some unconventional views on the Soviet Union? Just how effective a diplomat was a man some called an “insufferable prig” for driving his staff up the wall–including agents from the wartime Office of Strategic Services who were just trying to do their job?
And is Childs an unsung hero of the Holocaust, whose name belongs among the “righteous gentiles” at Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial? Or all of the above?
Franco’s Spain and Petain’s France Meet in Morocco
For sheer complexity and strategic importance, Childs’ four-plus years in Tangier as chargé d’affaires (1941-1945) overshadow his later assignments as ambassador.
Though he resided at the American Legation in the city’s International Zone, Childs was accredited to Morocco, which was divided into French and Spanish protectorates. The U.S. had never recognized the Spanish zone, and the situation was further complicated when the forces of General Francisco Franco, recently victorious in the Spanish Civil War, occupied the International Zone after France fell to German forces in June 1940.
The U.S. continued to recognize the Petain government in Vichy, and American policy was to cultivate relations with Vichy representatives in North Africa. Childs applied himself energetically to that task, cultivating officials favorable to the Allied cause and probing French and Spanish officials about their attitudes on a hypothetical Allied landing.
In particular, would Franco abandon his official neutrality and allow German forces to sweep down from Spain and through Morocco once American troops landed, as they did in November 1942 (Operation Torch)? (Franco did maintain Spanish neutrality, angering Adolf Hitler.)
These concerns were shared by the new clandestine service set up in the wake of Pearl Harbor, the Office of Strategic Services. This precursor to the CIA chose the American Legation in Tangier as its headquarters for Mediterranean operations, and recruited a Harvard anthropologist, Carleton Coon, who was given diplomatic cover as a vice consul. Coon’s anthropological fieldwork in the northern Moroccan Rif Mountains in the 1920s and 1930s gave him an entrée with the Berber tribes who had rebelled against Spanish occupation.
The OSS plan was to furnish financial support and weapons so the Berbers would be ready to rise up in rebellion should Franco join the Axis and threaten the Allies (which he never did). Vice Consul Coon invented fanciful code names for his chief Moroccan contacts like “Tassels” and “Strings.” He later described his cloak-and-dagger work in North Africa Story, an entertaining compilation of his wartime reports.
Coon’s exploits did not amuse Childs, however. Though he didn’t name Coon, the chargé later wrote that one of his vice consuls had harbored delusions of becoming “a second Lawrence of Arabia.”
For his part, Coon paints a damning picture of Childs as so out of touch about the nature of clandestine work that he had the OSS communication operation moved out of the legation because the tapping of the telegraph kept his wife awake at night. Retired Ambassador Carleton Coon Jr. recalls “This appeared treasonable to my father, and after I had started on my own diplomatic career, my father swore he would never allow his son to serve under ‘that SOB’.”
Whether this was “treasonable” conduct or just extreme micromanagement is a matter of opinion. What is less debatable is that many of Childs’ colleagues saw him as priggish. For instance, he proudly recounted his success in prohibiting female American dependents from wearing slacks and shorts within the residential compound in Addis Ababa, his last diplomatic posting, in the early 1950s. When the women protested this vestige of Puritanism, Childs threatened to have any offenders and their husbands transferred out of Ethiopia.
Fascist Visas Save Jewish Lives
During his time in Spanish-occupied Tangier of the 1940s, Chargé Childs had initially approached the Spanish authorities with circumspection, assuming that High Commissioner General Luis Orgaz was a Franco fascist. But working contacts fostered warmer relations, which would lead to an important humanitarian action.
Tangier, like the Casablanca depicted in the film of that title, was an important hub for refugees fleeing both the war and the Holocaust. Renée Reichmann, herself a refugee from Hungary, was a key figure in relief efforts from Tangier, and was affiliated with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Reichmann’s efforts in sending tons of food parcels to occupied Europe were herculean, and she even performed the unimaginable: a trip back through fascist Europe to Hungary in 1942 to see her parents for what proved to be the last time. By early 1944, the Jewish community of Hungary was targeted for the Final Solution, and Reichmann’s focus shifted from relief to rescue.
She approached Childs to enlist his help in extricating hundreds of Jews in Budapest from the clutches of the Nazis. Reichmann’s request came just after the Roosevelt administration created the War Refugee Board, a belated attempt to intervene on behalf of Jews and other threatened populations. Childs was therefore able to add official U.S. government weight to what was initially a personal, humanitarian gesture.
It turns out that Spanish High Commissioner General Orgaz was not the fascist that Childs had assumed him to be. He issued several tranches of visas for Tangier, which was sufficient for the Nazis to consider the threatened Jews to be protected by a friendly power. On the eve of Childs’ departure from Tangier in June 1945, Reichmann wrote him to express thanks “for your extremely noble and generous assistance in the affair of the entry visas for Tangier … Thus, 1,200 innocent souls owe their survival to Your Excellency.”
At the Tangier American Legation’s museum, we display the full text of Reichmann’s letter, and note the fact that J. Rives Childs kept the letter in his pocket for years afterwards. For this action, worthy of Raoul Wallenberg and other World War II diplomats who saved Jews by the thousand, Childs–as in the title of his autobiography– “let the credit go” to Reichmann for proposing the action and to Orgaz for issuing the visas.
An Arabist, but Not an Anti-Semite
The operation, however, clearly left its mark on the seemingly stiff diplomat. Responding to Reichmann, he wrote: “I do not know of any work which I have done in my whole career which has given me greater personal satisfaction than the efforts made on behalf of these friendless persons."