The Casablanca Conference

World War II saw an unprecedented level of inter-Allied cooperation that led to the formation of new staff organizations like the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and the US-British Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS).

Casablanca Conference

Top image: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Casablanca. Courtesy National Archives and Research Administration, National Archives Identifier: 196991.

World War II saw an unprecedented level of inter-Allied cooperation that led to the formation of new staff organizations like the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and the US-British Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS). To ensure the Allies’ military strategy aligned properly with their political aims, the Allied leaders and their staffs met in a series of conferences. The third of these meetings, known as the Casablanca Conference, took place at the Anfa Hotel in Casablanca, French Morocco, from January 14-24, 1943.

The attendees included President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the French generals Charles de Gaulle and Henri Giraud, and the CCS. Joseph Stalin, the Soviet premier, could not attend. The conference took place at an early stage in the in the development of the Alliance. The Allies dealt with a range of issues dealing with every aspect of wartime strategy and policy, but a few key issues occupied much of their time.

One of the main topics of discussion, and the one most important to Stalin, was the opening of a second front. In January 1943, with the Battle of Stalingrad raging, the Soviet Union was struggling for survival as the sole Allied power fighting against the Wehrmacht in Europe. Stalin needed help from the Western allies to relieve the pressure on his overstretched army. Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa in November 1942, had not appreciably slowed the transfer of fresh German divisions to the eastern front. Stalin told Roosevelt that only a second front on the European continent would force Hitler to redeploy significant combat power from the eastern front.

Roosevelt agreed that the best Allied strategy entailed invading France later that year, but Churchill saw it differently. The CCS hotly debated the issue the previous year, settling on an indirect strategy, much to the Americans’ chagrin. Now, in early 1943, the same issue resurfaced with each party making similar arguments. Marshall was determined to win the debate this time. He argued that military principle held that the best strategy involved a direct approach; the Mediterranean was just a diversion that would suck Allied resources like a vacuum pump.

Once again, Churchill and his military advisors insisted that the Allies were no more ready to invade France than they had been in 1942. Availability of landing craft remained a major concern, as did mobilization timelines and military equipment production rates. Churchill reminded Roosevelt that the Allies were already in North Africa and insisted that it made more sense to continue the campaign in the Mediterranean than risk a major strategic failure in western Europe.

As they debated the issue, divisions among the American chiefs of staff weakened their position. Although Marshall insisted on a cross-Channel invasion later that year, Admiral Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Operations, wanted more resources for the Pacific theater, while the American air chiefs began to argue that airpower alone could bring about Germany’s defeat. Roosevelt also lacked the political strength in January 1943 to dictate Allied strategy. The United States was a critically important ally, but the nation’s production of manpower and equipment had not yet reached the levels it would attain in 1944.

With American ascendency still on the horizon, Roosevelt had to compromise with Churchill, and their post-conference agreement reflected this reality. Operations in the Mediterranean would continue with an invasion of Sicily, and then of Italy—the “underbelly strategy.” To alleviate some of the pressure on Stalin, they developed the plan for a Combined Bomber Offensive that would punish Germany from the air twenty-four hours a day. They also agreed to double the percentage of Allied resources distributed to the Pacific theater, while committing to a renewed effort to win the Battle of the Atlantic.

While none of the Allied leaders were completely happy with the agreement, Stalin was furious. In just a few months his armies would win the Battle of Stalingrad, ensuring the Soviet Union’s survival and enabling a strategic transition to the offensive, but in January 1943 Stalin’s position was tenuous at best. Thus, possibly out of frustration, Roosevelt made a surprise post-conference pronouncement to the press, calling for the “unconditional surrender” of Germany, Italy, and Japan. While this was likely meant as a signal of strength and resolve, it reflected Roosevelt’s frustration with Casablanca’s compromise agreement. It was also perhaps a conscious move to delay significant political negotiations on the post-war world order until the United States was in a position of greater strength. Regardless, the cross-Channel invasion of France would have to wait until 1944, leaving the Soviets to face Hitler’s armies alone in Europe for another year.

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Dr. Mark T. Calhoun

Dr. Mark T. Calhoun is the Military Historian at the Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.

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