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Lessons of Casablanca

By David L. Roll


Seventy years ago this month, Americans came to know Casablanca as more than a steamy city on the northwest coast of Africa. On 23 January 1943, the film Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, a tale of doomed love and taking the moral high ground, was released to packed movie houses. The next day, a Sunday, President Franklin Roosevelt ended two weeks of secret World War II meetings in Casablanca with Prime Minister Winston Churchill by announcing at a noon press conference, in a sunlit villa garden fragrant with mimosa and begonia, that “peace can come to the world,” only through the “unconditional surrender by Germany, Italy and Japan.”

The Academy Award-winning movie, of course, became a classic.

Title screen of Casablanca, the Academy-Award winning classic directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid. Image in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Similarly, Roosevelt’s supremely confident proclamation reverberated throughout the world and shortly entered the history books. Choosing just a few words, the president for the first time sought to firmly establish Allied war aims and determine the framework of the peace.

But both the emotional power of the film and the president’s lofty words blurred if not obscured some inconvenient facts. American audiences must have been persuaded that their government, like Bogart’s Rick, would do the right thing by turning its back on the Nazi collaborators (the French puppet government, the Vichy regime) and casting its lot to fight alongside Charles de Gaulle’s Free French. In fact, the Roosevelt administration did not act to cut its ties with Vichy, continued to rely on Nazi sympathizers to run the Moroccan government, and did not officially recognize de Gaulle until October 1944. Like the political and military realities confronting the Obama administration today in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Iran, the situation on the ground in North Africa in 1943 was murky, complicated and ambiguous. It did not lend itself to the high-minded moral clarity that Hollywood screenwriters enjoy.

So too the policy of unconditional surrender announced by the US president at Casablanca, and endorsed by the British prime minister, masked some stark realities. Unless and until the Soviet Union decided once and for all to reject German peace-feelers and its Red Army had achieved sufficient size and strength to break the back of Germany’s military machine, “unconditional surrender” could be nothing more than a hollow slogan. Though the president’s confident rhetoric was ostensibly aimed at lifting the morale of the populations of the United States and Great Britain, it was in fact directed at the man who was conspicuously absent from the Casablanca conference—Joseph Stalin. Roosevelt was aware that many would argue that the unconditional surrender policy would prolong the war by encouraging the Nazis to fight to the last man and woman, but he believed that this danger was outweighed by the need to allay Soviet suspicions that the Americans and British would conspire to negotiate a separate armistice with Germany. Roosevelt saw his policy as another way to convince Stalin of his goodwill, a political and psychological substitute for a second front—a phrase that would keep the Soviets in the war, killing German soldiers by the bushel.

President Roosevelt, with Prime Minister Winston Churchill at his side, reading the “unconditional surrender” announcement to the assembled war correspondents. Casablanca, French Morocco, Jan 1943. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

The policy announced by Roosevelt at Casablanca not only failed to acknowledge the essential role of the Soviets, it also did not have the impact on surrender and peace that he intended. Italy would soon surrender under “conditional” terms. Japan would eventually surrender on condition that her Emperor would be retained. And FDR’s dream that he would turn the page on balance-of-power diplomacy in central Europe and broker the postwar peace would be shattered by the man who could not attend the Casablanca conference in January 1943 because he was busy directing the crucial struggle at Stalingrad.

In the years since Casablanca, experience has shown that presidents would do well to emulate Roosevelt by defining war goals and outlining a framework for peace before engaging the enemy (or at least at an early stage of the conflict). Indeed, the failures of presidents Truman, Johnson, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush to do so in Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan seriously soiled their legacies.

Still, the lessons of Casablanca run much deeper and are far more nuanced than the articulation of war aims and peace terms. Casablanca—the movie and the conference—teaches us that human conflict, particularly armed conflict, usually does not end on predictable terms and in conformance with unilateral decrees. Often family, clan, or tribal affiliations trump national loyalties making it difficult if not impossible to distinguish between friends and enemies, neutrals and belligerents. Religious and cultural differences befuddle American peacekeepers. These problems test the mettle of the Obama administration today in places like Benghazi, Waziristan, Damascus, and Teheran.

In Casablanca, Rick was led to believe that he had come to that city because of the healthful waters. Told by Captain Renault that he was in the desert, Rick responded, “I was misinformed.” When it comes to waging wars and structuring peace, US presidents and policymakers should humbly revisit the lessons of Casablanca.

David L. Roll is a partner at Steptoe & Johnson, LLP and founder/director of the Lex Mundi Pro Bono Foundation, a public interest organization that provides pro bono legal services to social entrepreneurs around the world. His latest book is The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler.

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