Military history

The Sinners’ Concourse

EARLY that afternoon, while the hacks pounded their keyboards, Roosevelt and Churchill slipped out of Anfa in the olive-drab Daimler. For four hours they drove due south on Highway 9, stopping only for a roadside picnic of boiled eggs, mincemeat tarts, and Scotch packed in a wicker hamper. American fighter planes patrolled overhead and Patton’s sentries stood guard every hundred yards for 150 miles. Late-afternoon shadows stretched toward the Atlas Mountains as the motorcade pulled into Marrakesh in a moil of dust, luggage, and swaggering Secret Service agents.

Churchill had beguiled the president with tales of the thousand-year-old “Paris of the Sahara,” a red adobe caravanserai of desert nomads and snake charmers and “the largest and most elaborately organized brothels in the African continent.” General Marshall’s stern demand that Roosevelt “refuse any invitation of the prime minister” to visit this suspected nest of Axis agents had been ignored. For a few sweet hours president and prime minister, respectively code-named A-1 and B-1, would retreat as far from the war as possible.

Their refuge was the estate of La Saadia, loaned for the occasion by the rich American widow who owned it. The russet stucco villa (fifteen bedrooms) was embellished with intricate Moorish carvings, sunken baths, and ceiling frescoes in gold and royal blue. Five gardeners tended the lush grounds and the immense emerald-green swimming pool. As at Anfa, Army engineers had feverishly installed wheelchair ramps, secure scrambler phones, and extra electrical transformers. The villa’s French butlers were supplanted by American soldiers who received a quick course in dining room etiquette and practice in serving food from huge platters to other GIs pretending to be the president, the prime minister, and their courtiers. It was all too much for the supervising American lieutenant, who suffered a nervous breakdown and was locked in a bedroom after heavy sedation with a bottle of bourbon.

Looming above La Saadia was a six-story observation tower with a winding staircase. At Churchill’s insistence, two aides fashioned a chair with their clasped hands and carried Roosevelt up sixty steps to a wicker chair on the open terrace; Lord Moran, the prime minister’s physician, later recalled the president’s “paralyzed legs dangling like the limbs of a ventriloquist dummy.” The Atlas soared ten miles distant, a mesmerizing spectacle of pinks and violets that deepened as the sun sank. “It’s the most lovely spot in the whole world,” Churchill murmured. He sent down for the president’s coat and draped it across Roosevelt’s shoulders tenderly.

They sat in reverent silence. Arabs rode their swaying camels through the city gate called Bab Khemis. The red walls of Marrakesh dissolved to an oxblood hue. Electric lights twinkled around the great souk and the square known as the Sinners’ Concourse, where shackled slaves from central Africa once stood at auction and where sultans had staged mass executions to discourage revolt. From every minaret in Marrakesh the muezzins’ cry called believers to evening prayer as the Atlas darkened and the mingled scents of honeysuckle and orange rose on the evening airs, wafting across the little terrace like the precise odor of piety.

Darkness and hunger finally drove them down. The president took a last wistful look at the indigo mountains before hooking his arms around the necks of his porters. Churchill followed, softly singing a tuneless ditty of his own composition: “Oh, there ain’t no war, there ain’t no war.”

In the world where there was a war, the transactions at Casablanca would help chart its course until, thirty-two months later, Berlin and Tokyo lay in ruins. The main strategic consequence of the eighteen meetings held by the combined chiefs at Anfa was a year’s postponement of a cross-Channel invasion, a delay that probably saved the Allies from catastrophe. The weight of numbers accumulating in North Africa, and the decisions taken in the TORCH debates the previous summer, gave the Mediterranean strategy a certain inevitability, which Casablanca simply confirmed.

But what should happen after Sicily remained unclear; the British no less than the Americans lacked a comprehensive vision for winning the war. American chiefs so frequently asked, “Where do we go from here?” that the British grew huffy. The danger inherent in a Mediterranean strategy was that war against the European Axis would veer into a protracted fight against Germany’s junior partner, Italy; the soft underbelly might also have “chrome steel baseboards,” in Marshall’s ominous phrase. And as Admiral King had observed at Anfa, for at least another year “our main reliance in Europe is on Russia.” That would hardly please the Russians, who were still locked in titanic struggle at Stalingrad. “Nothing in the world will be accepted by Stalin as an alternative to our placing fifty or sixty divisions in France by the spring of this year,” Churchill acknowledged.

The compromises at Anfa had been greased with ambiguity, and the coming months would show that some of the chiefs’ plans were either unsound, unfeasible, or simply undone by events. Schemes to invade Burma and attack the Japanese naval base at Rabaul died a-borning. Shipping shortages—an arcane subject understood by almost no one outside a small, briny priesthood—put “a stranglehold on all offensive operations,” in Brooke’s words. To refit eleven French divisions, as Roosevelt had blithely promised Giraud, would require 325 cargo vessels the Americans simply could not spare.

Hopes for an Anglo-American bomber offensive to pummel German targets had also faltered. “I note that the Americans have not yet succeeded in dropping a single bomb on Germany,” Churchill observed in early January. That was unfair: not only had more than 600 planes been diverted from the U.S. Eighth Air Force in Britain for use in Africa, but nearly all aircrews and support units had been stripped bare; the paltry force of American bombers and fighters remaining in the United Kingdom pounded German submarine pens in France, as the British wanted. Many months would pass before air commanders could fulfill the chiefs’ January 21 order to wreak “the progressive destruction of the German military, industrial, and economic systems, and [undermine] the morale of the German people to a point where their armed resistance is fatally weakened.”

Many months would also pass before the demand for unconditional surrender seemed germane. Some strategists agreed with J.F.C. Fuller that the term would “hang like a putrefying albatross around the necks of America and Britain,” needlessly prolonging the war and turning its end into an Armageddon. Yet certain clear advantages accrued, as Roosevelt knew. The unambiguous demand reflected Allied public opinion, provided a moral lode star, and seemed a natural corollary of total war. Britain now was committed to smashing Japan even after Germany collapsed. Most important, the Russians would worry less that their Western allies might sign a separate peace of the sort made with Admiral Darlan. Little evidence ever emerged that the declaration fundamentally altered the military course of the war; perhaps it discouraged membership in German resistance cabals, which remained pitifully weak. If uttered without sober reflection, the demand could also be considered “a word of encouragement and exhortation addressed by companions to each other at a turning point on a journey which promised still to be long and arduous,” as the British historian Michael Howard has concluded.

A sense of companionship was among the most enduring legacies of Casablanca. True, the Americans had been outgeneraled at the conference table. British guile and imperial heft had won through on most issues—“We were a reluctant tail to the British kite,” Robert Murphy lamented. The wariness that characterized the Roosevelt-Churchill relationship throughout the war persisted. British commanders remained supercilious. “[Americans] are difficult though charming people to work with,” Brooke told his diary, and “Marshall…arrived here without a single real strategic concept.” American resentment could be seen even in a typed British transcript of the daily meetings: before the document was sent to Washington, some pencil turned aerodromes to airdromes, defence to defense, and honour to honor.

Yet Roosevelt’s assertion that “each man has become a definite personal friend of his opposite number” sold the real relationships short. Something closer to kinship was developing, albeit with all the fraternal squabbles and envies to which brothers are heir.

Vice President Henry Wallace had observed that Franklin Roosevelt was a great waterman who could look in one direction while rowing a straight line in another. The president was at the oars with Churchill but he was looking at other horizons. Roosevelt recognized that the prime minister was “pretty much a 19th century colonialist,” as the diplomat Averell Harriman put it, and “that the old order could not last.” The war was a fault line. American strength was here for all to see, even in those bored soldiers lining the road for 150 miles to Marrakesh. Yes, the Yanks had been outgeneraled, and their shortcomings as strategic planners revealed—to none more clearly than themselves. But the British would never impose their will so easily again. Casablanca, like the African campaign as a whole, was part of the American coming of age, a hinge on which world history would swing for the next half century.

Dinner at La Saadia that Sunday night was fabulous, served without a faux pas by the GI butlers. The president and prime minister began with cocktails at eight in the salon. Their host was the senior American diplomat in Marrakesh, Kenneth Pendar, who as one of the Twelve Apostles had briefly been held under arrest with Murphy in Algiers during those early hours of TORCH. Sprawled on a divan with his arm extended, Roosevelt joked to Pendar, “I am the pasha. You may kiss my hand.” At table, filet mignon and lobster were followed by a three-foot-high nougat sculpture of a Moorish tower; a candle flickered inside to dramatic effect, and spun sugar on the platter’s edge approximated the distant mountains.

Many a toast was drunk—to king, to country, to president, to unconditional surrender—and many a song was sung. At midnight Roosevelt and Churchill repaired to two cleared tables in an adjoining room to write their communiqués to Stalin and to Chiang Kai-shek, the generalissimo who led the Chinese resistance against the Japanese. When the dispatches were finished at 3:30 A.M., they contained a “catching quality” of optimism, Pendar later wrote. “The prime minister seemed much more in the present and more of an extrovert,” he added. “The president on the other hand often sat gazing into space as he worked. That night he had a look that was not exactly sad, yet it was the look of someone who comprehended sadness.”

Four hours later, Roosevelt was wheeled to La Saadia’s front steps and carried to the Daimler for the short drive to the airport. It was time to go home. Churchill planned to linger in Marrakesh for another two days, but insisted on accompanying the president to the plane. “I love these Americans,” he told the physician Moran. “They have behaved so generously.” Now the bleary prime minister appeared wearing monogrammed black velvet slippers, a quilted dressing gown embellished with red dragons, and an RAF air marshal’s cap, which only partly concealed his deranged hair. Brandishing his cigar at the photographers on the runway, he grumbled, “You simply cannot do this to me.”

Good-byes exchanged, Roosevelt settled into his seat for the long journey. He scribbled a note of thanks to be mailed to Pendar from the White House: “Marrakesh seemed far from wars and rumors of wars.” A cordon of American troops ringed the airfield. Wispy morning fog drifted across the tarmac. To the southeast, the mountains blazed like the thrones of angels in the rising sun. Churchill climbed back into the car. “Don’t tell me when they take off. It makes me too nervous,” he said. The prime minister clutched Pendar’s arm. “If anything happened to that man, I couldn’t stand it. He is the truest friend. He has the farthest vision. He is the greatest man I have ever known.”

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