On this day in 1943, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill set the standard for product placement by meeting in Casablanca. Perhaps FDR did owe a favor to Warner Bros., the only Democratic studio in Hollywood. Jack Warner was not deeply imbued with liberal principles; however, he felt compelled to be the political opposite of Republican Louis B. Mayer. Churchill went along with the choice of Casablanca, although he hated being mistaken for Sidney Greenstreet.
While the movie had only been planned as a B-list production, the actual Casablanca Conference was a Hollywood extravaganza. The location alone was thrilling. Here were Franklin and Winston in Morocco, which the Allied armies had just coerced from the Pro-Vichy French. (Warner Bros. would have staged better battle scenes than the French did, but heroics is not part of a collaborator’s charm.) If our leading men could meet in Casablanca, it was reassuringly obvious that that the Allies controlled the Atlantic. You did not see Hitler and Mussolini holding a conference in Havana (and I doubt that Meyer Lansky would have made Hitler feel welcome).
Although the North African campaign was not yet over, an Allied victory there was inevitable. True, the Axis still had four corps in Tunisia, but three of them were Italian and had been trying to surrender since 1941. Despite the proximity of Italy, the Axis was unable to either resupply or evacuate the trapped army there; how many men can fit in a U-Boat? Caught between Allied armies advancing from Algeria and Libya, the remnants of the Afrika Korps and Mussolini’s “Legions of Iron” surrendered in May, 1943.
If the ten day conference at Casablanca was supposed to have a memorable quote, it was “unconditional surrender.” The Allies would accept nothing less. The proclamation was meant to reassure Stalin as well as intimidate Hitler. The Soviet leader had been invited to the conference but he was somewhat preoccupied with an invading German army. The ongoing battle of Stalingrad would turn out to be quite gratifying, but Stalin still needed the Americans and British to open a second front against the Germans.
Of course, the Americans felt ready to land in France; after all the Germans had been such pushovers in 1918. However, the British remembered what pushovers the Germans had been in 1914, 1915, 1916 and 1917; and they definitely had a second wind by 1940. No, the British favored an invasion of Italy; it was conveniently close to North Africa and the Italians were a congenial enemy. Roosevelt agreed. The Second Front would be against the Italians; Stalin must have felt so relieved.