Churchill, Roosevelt and history’s most momentous press conference

It was noon on 24 January 1943 and around 20 American and British reporters and photographers had gathered on the lawn of the Anfa Hotel in Casablanca. Most had flown in the previous day from Algiers, the location of the headquarters for Allied forces fighting in Tunisia.

They were arranged before three empty chairs. The tight security and the nervous anticipation among their escorts suggested something big was going to be announced. But none were aware that they were to be witnesses to history’s most consequential press conference.

Unknown to them, UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt with their joint chiefs of staff had already been in Morocco for 10 days.

At 1215, Churchill, French High Commissioner General Henri Giraud who had attended the Casablanca conference and General Charles de Gaulle appeared and took their seats.  Unable to walk for 20 years, Roosevelt was carried out on his own chair. He had arrived after an epic and secret five-day journey from Washington via Miami, Brazil and Gambia. Churchill had flown directly from London.

It was the best photo-opportunity of the war so far.

The US had wanted only Giraud to be present. De Gaulle, who had flown into Casablanca from London only two days earlier, was regarded by Roosevelt as difficult and irrelevant. At the prompting of Roosevelt, Giraud and De Gaulle stood to shook hands for the cameras in a sign of unity. They then left

Roosevelt was the first to speak, glancing occasionally at an agreed communiqué in his hand. It was the informal style that had helped him win three presidential elections.

After referring warmly to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and China’s Chiang Kai-shek who couldn’t come to Casablanca, Roosevelt dropped the following bombshell.

“Some of you Britishers know the old story—we had a General called US Grant. His name was Ulysses Simpson Grant, but in my, and the Prime Minister’s, early days he was called “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. The elimination of German, Japanese and Italian war power means the unconditional surrender by Germany, Italy, and Japan. That means a reasonable assurance of future world peace. It does not mean the destruction of the population of Germany, Italy, or Japan, but it does mean the destruction of the philosophies in those countries which are based on conquest and the subjugation of other people.”

When the president mentioned “unconditional surrender,” Churchill’s head whipped toward him. After the war, Churchill suggested that he had never heard the phrase until Roosevelt said it. The records show, however, that Churchill had approved the demand for unconditional surrender but was perhaps expecting it to be announced at another moment.

The Allies’ overarching goal had been stated and was to be reaffirmed by Roosevelt in February.

The implications for Britain were enormous. It wanted the defeat of its enemies in Europe and the Far East and their expulsion from occupied territory. But seeking unconditional surrender was a new departure.

The destruction of Hitler’s regime was the logical consequence of Allied victory. Eliminating Japanese power in the Pacific made sense too, though the shape of post-war Japan was still an open question. But Britain had not previously called for the conquest of Italy or the liquidation of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime.

Churchill’s advisers hoped the invasion of Sicily, approved at Casablanca, would force Rome out of the war and perhaps lead to Mussolini’s deposition. The occupation of Italy and the forced reconstruction of the country’s political system, however, had never been on London’s agenda.

After the Casablanca press conference, the Allies were committed to a course of action that would have terrible consequences for the people of Germany, Italy and Japan.

German cities were to be devastated in bombing campaigns that would lead to up to hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. The prospect of complete submission to an Alliance in which the Soviet Union had the biggest forces was used to stiffen German resistance. German armies fought vigorously, some to the bitter end.

For Japan, unconditional surrender would be brought about through an air campaign against civilian targets that even US air commanders believed could be a war crime and culminated in atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

For Italy, the Casablanca conference led to the invasion and occupation of Sicily in July and August. Allied landings on the Italian mainland began in September.

Desperate to end the war but avoid unconditional surrender following the removal of Mussolini as head of government on 24-25 July, the new Italian regime spent more than five weeks trying to secure terms for an armistice that would spare Italy foreign occupation. This allowed Germany to build up its forces in the country and prepare to fight the Allies the length of the Italian mainland until early May 1945. About 150,000 Italians were to die as a result and divisions were created that echo to this day.


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