“Because this is his country” – FDR & Mohammed V

TALIM Anfa poster

Note: Below are remarks by TALIM Director Gerald Loftus at the January 15 conference commemorating the 70th anniversary of the historic Casablanca – or Anfa, after the hotel where it happened – conference in the aftermath of the Allied landings in North Africa.  A subsequent post will address other parts of the week-long commemoration.

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This panel is charged with considering the past 7 decades, so you will excuse me if I start by looking back a few more years to provide a context of Moroccan-US ties before the Anfa Conference.  I want to focus on American contacts with Moroccan nationalists, pre-independence.  These were at times fragmentary and constrained by diplomatic realities, but nonetheless were an important element in Morocco’s transition from nationalist movement to national governance.

With the Treaty of Fez in 1912, the US at first did not recognize the Protectorate; it was only the French-US alliance in World War I that led to recognition.  After all, the US and Morocco had just, in 1905, elevated their longstanding consular and commercial relations to full diplomatic relations.  In the 1920s, American popular opposition to the Rif War resulted in a French ploy to win over American public opinion: the recreation of the “Lafayette Escadrille” – American pilots who had enrolled in the French Air Force even before US entry into World War I – recreated under the name “l’Escadrille Cherifienne,” the forerunner of the Moroccan Air Force.  The move backfired: the US forbade its citizens to enter a war in which it was neutral, and the Escadrille was disbanded.

In an ironic twist, after less than twenty years, US preparations for the Allied landings in North Africa – Operation Torch in November 1942 – were preceded by OSS agents at the American Legation in Tangier cultivating some of those same Rifian rebels who had been bombarded by the Escadrille Americans.  Why?  Because the Allies feared that General Franco – aided in the Spanish Civil War by Hitler and Mussolini – would join the Axis cause and attack the Torch forces from the Spanish Protectorate.

OSS agent and anthropologist Carleton Coon created a network of Rifian rebels, ready to rise up against the Spanish should they enter the war.  Spain remained officially neutral, and the plan was never enacted.  Tangier Legation Charge d’Affaires J. Rives Childs worried about this OSS officer suffering from “delusions of filling the role of a second Lawrence of Arabia” with his “propaganda work” among Moroccans.  This reached its crescendo when Coon set up shop in Fez “that nerve center of Arab nationalism,” which made French Resident General Nogues livid.  Coon had his say about Childs' overly diplomatic stance in "A North Africa Story," his memoir of his wartime OSS days.

Childs was concerned that seeming US involvement with “undermining France’s position with the native population… could provoke internal disturbances and give a pretext to the Axis to intervene in Morocco for the purpose of preserving order.”  Childs was scrupulously diplomatic: “It was not possible for me to decline to receive Moroccan officials, but whenever I had occasion to entertain them at the Legation, the French Consul General in Tangier was always invited at the same time.”

Despite his concerns over the OSS covert work, Childs ran into difficulties of his own over contacts, in the wartime 1940s, with Moroccan nationalists.  His deputy, David Fritzlan, recalled his time in Tangier:

I had contacts with several political dissidents. Tangier was the abode of any Moroccan from the French zone, or the Spanish zone, who was out of favor. These people could come to Tangier, and there they were relatively safe. Wanting support for their cause, they'd come to the Legation and wind up in my office. The French representative complained strongly about my receiving these Moroccan nationalists but Childs [and his successor] made it plain that we were not closing our doors to anybody.

Fritzlan wrote that these nationalists “later became leaders in the Moroccan government after independence.”

Fritzlan agreed that “during the war nobody wanted to rock the boat” with the French allies, but that contacts with Moroccan nationalists picked up after the war ended.  The Legation’s “despatches on the Moroccan nationalists' activities, their aims, their aspirations, their suppression by the French, were viewed with great hostility by the [American] Embassy in Paris,” according to Fritzlan.

British writer Robin Maugham, in his “North African Notebook,” observed that in 1947 Morocco, “every nationalist we met spoke of the Atlantic Charter; they still believed in the promises of freedom from fear and want which it contained.”  The 1941 Atlantic Charter agreed on by Roosevelt and Churchill had hinted at self-determination for colonized peoples.

And for the ultimate in American-Moroccan pre-independence discussions, there is President Roosevelt and his dinner on 22 January 1943 in Anfa in honor of then-Sultan Mohammed V.  As John Erwin writes in his book – nearing completion – entitled Virtuoso Citizens: Mahlers Roosevelts Gandhis Mohammeds:

As Eleanor Roosevelt would recall her husband telling her, when Prime Minister [Churchill] asked the President why he was organizing a dinner at his villa for Sidi Mohammed he gave F.D.R. the chance to state what was obvious to him but certainly not to either Churchill any more than his French partner in Empire: “…because this is his country.” Yet with unintentionally prophetic irony, the most passionate British spokesman for Empire had assigned to the wartime [Anfa/Casablanca] summit the open, generic code name SYMBOL.

Whatever heat American diplomats in Tangier would take from Paris for contacts with Moroccan nationalists, the dinner would indeed come to symbolize what was just a matter of time: the resumption, along with full Moroccan sovereignty, of direct Moroccan-American relations, just as Sultan Sidi Muhammad ibn 'Abd Allah had intended back in 1777 when he recognized “les Americains.”

Gerald Loftus

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