The Casablanca Conference Gets the Credit It Deserves

Journal of International Affairs
June 13, 2023

The record of World War Two history closely documents the “Big Three” conferences: Tehran in 1943, Yalta in 1945, and Potsdam later that year. Three is the number in reference not because there were three convenings, but because the leaders of the three main Allied powers—Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin—were all in attendance.

The Casablanca Conference of early 1943, attended only by Roosevelt and Churchill, receives less fanfare. However, as James B. Conroy illuminates in The Devils Will Get No Rest, the event’s first full recount, it was at Casablanca where the United States and Britain reached several strategic decisions crucial to the war‘s trajectory. Though Conroy’s book is primarily an historical account, it adds insightful context for American strategic vision of the period and offers an important reminder for practitioners of American foreign policy today. 

Held from January 14, 1943, to January 23, 1943, at the Anfa Hotel, the Casablanca Conference is also known to some as the Anfa Conference. Following the success in late 1942 of Operation Torch, the Anglo-American invasion of large portions of Vichy-controlled French North Africa, military leaders of the United States and Great Britain (referred to as the Combined Chiefs of Staff, or CCS) recognized the need to convene to chart a course forward. With the Battle of Stalingrad raging on the Eastern Front, Stalin and the Soviet leadership were unable to join.

Conroy chronicles with vivid detail the frictions between American and British counterparts, often owing to Casablana’s bilateral nature. Throughout The Devils Will Get No Rest, a central point of contention is the two countries’ distinct approaches with which they sought to fight the war moving forward.

Namely, Churchill’s military advisors thought it best to attack the ‘underbelly’ of the Axis powers by defeating a wavering Fascist Italy and opening shipping lanes in the Mediterranean. The American brass meanwhile were keen on an invasion of Nazi-occupied France in 1943 (Operation Roundup), opening the Western front in Europe. This was sure to appease Stalin, whose soldiers were doing the brunt of the fighting in the East. Churchill and his advisors were convinced that a continental invasion was not feasible, however, massaging their American counterparts into accord over the course of the Conference.

In detailing these disputes, Conroy employs various levels of analyses. Concerning whether the next Allied military operation would take place in France or Italy, each countries’ preference was, at least in part, informed by its geostrategic history. The British, as to avoid losses comparable to the First World War, would deploy, “land, air, and sea power in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and elsewhere on the German periphery, they would make the enemy spread his forces thin.” Conversely, American strategy was “rooted in the bludgeoning style of Ulysses S. Grant. Americans won their wars with enormous wealth, industry, manpower, and hubris.”[1]

Disputes also stemmed from conflicts of interest. With the United States carrying most of the Pacific burden and fresh off the victory at Midway, American Admiral Ernest J. King lobbied hard for a Japan-first strategy and greater Pacific commitment from the British. It was evident early in the conference that this would be abandoned, though, as George C. Marshall (then-US Army Chief of Staff) recognized the pressing need to reopen Mediterranean shipping. This created another source of friction, however. To free up shipping, the American brass estimated that it was necessary to first seize the island of Sicily.[2] However, many in the British planning staff as well as Lord Mountbatten (also present at Casablanca) were keen to instead invade Sardinia, a location which would give the Allies a better base from which to bomb Axis industry.

As in any resolution of geopolitical differences, the individual level of analysis is relevant, and here, The Devils Will Get No Rest shines. In addition to Roosevelt and Churchill, Allied leaders such as General George Patton, then General Dwight Eisenhower, Sir Alan Brooke, Sir Charles Portal and many more were all at Casablanca. With the introduction of each ‘character’, Conroy goes to great lengths to describe their backstory, personality, and antics.

Negotiations at Casablanca naturally had a personal air. Conroy presents General Albert C. Wedemeyer and Admiral Charles “Savvy” Cooke, Americans whose Anglophobia informed suspicion of British intentions to commit to the Pacific war effort following Germany’s defeat.[3] He writes of Brooke’s “rapid speech, pedantic air, and, persistent, cocksure righteousness [that] got under American skins.”[4]

So too did the Americans frustrate their counterparts. Throughout the Conference, the British leadership and staff members often noted American lack of preparedness and inability to comprehend strategy. Furthermore, despite the Americans’ insistence that they dictate the terms of the Conference, the British had thus far borne far more of the cost of the war–the Battle of Britain had taken a huge toll on its homefront, and at the time of the Conference, the British had committed three times as many troops to the North African theater.

Day Five of the Conference saw arguably its biggest breakthrough when Sir John Cotesworth Slessor, Portal’s Chief of Staff and his "American whisperer”,[5] produced two draft agreements pertaining to the European and Pacific theaters which Conroy describes as a “mediator’s tour de force”.[6] Slessor, who spent months in Washington prior to arriving in  Casablanca, saw that the British and American positions were closer than they thought due to a “misunderstanding of words” and “mutual suspicions”[7] of which neither were well-founded.

This diplomatic episode—relatively minor in the totality of World War Two—suggests an important lesson for the precarious moment we find ourselves in today. United States-China relations have worsened substantially as mutual suspicion festers. In the US, hawkish foreign policy towards China is now firmly bipartisan, with episodes such as the early-2023 spy balloon incident only stoking these sentiments.

On a recent episode of the New York Times podcast The Ezra Klein Show, guest Fareed Zakaria lamented that the foreign policy body of the United States increasingly lacks a true understanding of counterparty nations necessary for reciprocal and effective diplomacy. Representative Mike Gallagher (R-WI), for instance, chairs the House Select Committee on China, despite having never visited the country.[8] It is not difficult to imagine that had Britain lacked its skilled “American whisperer”, the degree of mutual accord reached at Casablanca may have given way to mutual suspicion.

Conroy’s book offers insight too into the attitudes of the American leadership, particularly of Roosevelt, towards the fate of European colonial possessions. On his way to Casablanca, Roosevelt and his security detail stopped in Bathurst, British Gambia, where the poverty he encountered, “confirmed his contempt for empires.”[9] Roosevelt insisted in numerous instances throughout the Conference that in the aftermath of the war the great powers abandon imperialist practices, much to the dismay of his British and French partners. This anti-colonial disposition, reinforced by American interests in eliminating Great Britain as a rival, went on to inform American policy. As Benn Steil details in The Battle of Bretton Woods, a chief goal of American policymakers at the Bretton Woods Conference of 1944 was to ensure that colonies would play no role in the postwar economic order.[10]

The Conference saw breakthroughs outside the Slessor draft agreement as well. One of the central developments was that following the war’s conclusion, the Allies would seek an unconditional surrender from Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan rather than a negotiated peace. Conroy also provides an intimate account of Roosevelt and Churchill’s efforts to wrangle the obstinate French General Charles de Gaulle into accepting a political arrangement with General Henri Giraud for control of the Free French Forces, an episode which illustrates the deeply personal and fragile nature of diplomacy.

Though The Devils Will Get No Rest is foremost a history book, the crucial role of the events of Casablanca offer insight for foreign policy scholars and practitioners. Written with painstaking detail covering the palace intrigue and geopolitics that dictated this underappreciated conference, Conroy’s book makes an invaluable addition to the record of World War Two history.

James B. Conroy is an award-winning author and an Honorary Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Having worked on Capitol Hill as a Senate press secretary and a congressman’s chief of staff and served for six years in the Naval Air Reserve, Conroy graduated magna cum laude from the Georgetown University Law Center and practiced law in Boston until 2020. His first book, Our One Common Country, was a finalist for the prestigious Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize. His second, Lincoln’s White House, shared the Lincoln Prize and won the Abraham Lincoln Institute’s annual book award.           

Staff Writer: Zachary Krivine is pursuing a Master of International Affairs degree at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, concentrating in International Financial and Economic Policy. Zachary previously worked in sales and trading for several European investment banks.

[1] Conroy, James B. The Devils Will Get No Rest. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2023, 19

[2] Ibid, 103

[3] Ibid, 126

[4]Ibid, 114

[5] Ibid, 197

[6] Ibid, 197

[7] Ibid, 197

[8] Klein, Ezra, host. “Fareed Zakaria on Where Russia’s War in Ukraine Stands – and Much More.” The Ezra Klein Show, New York Times, 2nd June, 2023

[9]  Conroy, James B. The Devils Will Get No Rest. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2023, 106

[10] Steil, Benn. The Battle of Bretton Woods. New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2013