Two Casablanca anniversaries

The Moroccan city of Casablanca in North Africa celebrated two anniversaries recently.

Late November of 2017 was the 75th anniversary of the classic Hollywood movie “Casablanca”, starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Dooley Wilson, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains. It’s my favorite movie of all time.

“Casablanca”, filmed in black and white, produced some of the all-time best-known movie lines, including “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “We’ll always have Paris,” “Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake. Play ‘As Time Goes By’,” and “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

I have a good friend who now lives in Minnesota who always greets me with a raspy “Rick, Rick, Rick,” channeling Peter Lorre from “Casablanca” who’s desperately trying to get his hands on letters of free passage out of German-dominated Morocco which rumor has are in Rick’s possession.

It’s important to remember what the world was like in November 1942, when “Casablanca” was filmed. Germany controlled all of Western and Central Europe except Great Britain, was dropping thousands of bombs on that nation, and was besieging a number of Soviet Union cities, including Leningrad and Stalingrad.

Hitler’s “Final Solution” extermination of European Jews was well underway.     The United States, while officially at war with the Axis Powers, was months away from its first military ground engagement with German troops.

The outlook for the Good Guys was bleak. The courageous and optimistic tone of “Casablanca” made the movie an instant success, as well as the fact that it was artistically magnificent.

But as significant as the movie “Casablanca” was, the Casablanca Declaration was even more so.

The Casablanca Declaration grew out of the 10-day Casablanca Conference between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill and their staffs, held at the Anfa Hotel in Casablanca. The declaration was announced Jan. 23, 1943, 75 years ago this past Tuesday.

Free French leaders Charles de Gaulle and Henri Giraud were also present, but played only minor roles and took no part in the military planning at the conference. Soviet Union Premier Joseph Stalin did not attend, stating that the Battle of Stalingrad required his presence at home.

The conference discussed plans for an Allied invasion of Europe, military logistics, and other topics. But perhaps the most significant outcome was the announcement in the Casablanca Declaration that the Allies were committed to the “unconditional surrender” of Germany, Italy and Japan and their partners.

The announcement of unconditional surrender as the Allied goal was entirely Roosevelt’s doing. He borrowed the term from Ulysses S. Grant’s demands on the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Roosevelt wanted to encourage the Soviet Union to continue engaging Germany on the Eastern Front, rather than consider a separate peace with Germany as Russia had signed in 1917 during World War I.

It was important to the United States, in Roosevelt’s thinking, to reduce Germany’s war machine as much as possible, in order to limit the expected heavy losses of men and equipment that would accompany the eventual Allied invasion of Northern Europe (which took place on D-Day June 6, 1944, some 16 months later). The Soviet Union’s engagement on the Eastern Front was doing that.

But for Churchill, unconditional surrender was a problem. Churchill feared a resurgent Soviet Union which could push Germany back across Eastern Europe and take control of that region (which is exactly what happened).

Churchill preferred to consider eventual peace negotiations with Germany which could create a bulwark against the Soviets, thereby maintaining England’s historic goal of a balance of powers in continental Europe.

Roosevelt’s announcement of unconditional surrender, however, presented Churchill with an accomplished fact. Churchill couldn’t very well argue against the policy, once Roosevelt had publicly announced it.

Instead, Churchill got at Casablanca an agreement from Roosevelt that, rather an an immediate cross-channel invasion of France, the Allied forces would concentrate on the Mediterranean theater of operations, mopping up in North Africa and pointing toward eventual invasion of Sicily and a push up the Italian peninsula.

American military leadership, especially Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, saw a D-Day-type invasion of the French coast as the only meaningful way to advance military operations. But that had to wait.

As a result, Allied troops slogged their way north through Italy for many, many months, achieving little in strategic terms. The Soviet Union turned the corner in early 1943 on the Eastern Front and went on the offensive. But World War Two cost that nation some 20 million lives, and the delay in the cross-channel invasion of France contributed to that enormous toll.

“Unconditional surrender”, conceived as a wartime pronouncement to encourage the Soviet Union to keep fighting, embedded itself in the American consciousness and proved a stimulus for American troops for the next 2 ½ years.

And total victory as a military goal, rather than negotiated peace, has very strong support in millions of American minds today

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