Excerpts from the Press Conference
THE PRESIDENT: I thought today that the first thing I want to do before we get down to warlike things, is to thank the press and the radio of the United States for living up so very faithfully to the requests of the Offices of Censorship and Information, in regard to keeping the movements of the Commander in Chief and the other high-ranking officers secret [referring to the President's trip to Casablanca from which he returned on January 31, 1943]. It was beautifully done, and I am very appreciative of it; and I think you all ought to know that I do appreciate how well it was covered.
Incidentally, on the whole trip—the 22 days—we were literally in constant touch, even when in the air, with Washington. I got various dispatches and things which were answered immediately, such as, for example, the coal strike, which as you know took only a few hours between the time that I was told of the conditions before the reply came back from me somewhere in Africa—the appeal to the miners to go back to work.
The conference, in fact the whole trip, was essentially a military conference- military, naval, and air. And everything else had to be thought of in that particular light. In other words, it was a conference to win the war, to make plans for the winning of the war, as far as one can plan ahead, which in this particular case was the calendar year 1943.
I want to emphasize what I said in the Annual Message to Congress- just a short paragraph:
(Reading): "I cannot prophesy. I cannot tell you when or where the United Nations are going to strike next in Europe. But we are going to strike- and strike hard. I cannot tell you whether we are going to hit them in Norway, or through the Low Countries, or in France, or through Sardinia or Sicily, or through the Balkans, or through Poland—or at several points simultaneously. But I can tell you that no matter where and when we strike by land, we and the British and the Russians will hit them from the air heavily and relentlessly. Day in and day out we shall heap tons upon tons of high explosives on their war factories and utilities and seaports."
And it was in fulfillment of that statement that we have worked with the other Combined Staffs, and have reached a unanimous agreement.
And, of course, we are in complete touch with Mr. [Joseph] Stalin, and the Generalissimo [Chiang Kai-shek]. I understand, although I didn't discover it until I got back, that there were certain people that thought we could very easily have Mr. Stalin and the Generalissimo in the same conference, forgetting, of course, the fact—which most people caught on to afterwards—that Russia is not at war with Japan, and that China, while officially at war with Germany is so located geographically that China can do nothing in the way of an offensive against Germany. However, a little thought on the part of anybody thinking it through will obviate mistakes—happy thought- perhaps in the future.
And then just a few—what do you call them?—human interest touches. I had a birthday party in a plane, 8,000 feet above Haiti, including a cake with six candies around it, and one in the middle. (Laughter) And a lot of very nice presents which my companions had discovered in Trinidad.
Now I have been trying to think up some other things that happened. When we were in Casablanca, quite a lot of people, including General Patton, were very much worried over air attacks, the general theory being that we ought to move from place to place about every 48 hours. But we were so comfortable in Casablanca, the accommodations were so delightful, that we decided to risk it and stay right there. And while we were there, we only had two "yellow" alerts, which was doing pretty well. And, needless to say, there were no German planes that actually arrived.
All kinds of rumors- oh, Washington wasn't a patch to Casablanca, and that's saying an awful lot—(laughter) rumors that we were having an important conference with General Franco of Spain. And then there was a rumor that was generally believed, that King Victor Emmanuel of Italy had come over to arrange a surrender. Then there was another story that the Emperor Haile Selassie had arrived in Casablanca to confer with us.
Then, we were very well taken care of. We had an entire regiment of infantry, with barbed wire and all the accessories that surrounded the place where we were.
The Secret Service was extremely efficient, and devised some new gadgets for our protection. They felt that the Moorish population, which of course is about 90 percent of all Morocco, represented a very slim risk; but that some of the French "brethren"—(laughter) might have got so excited about their own political affairs- a little like Washington(more laughter) while I was traveling around by automobile to review the troops.
So I had in the jeep in front of me a couple of Secret Servicemen, and whenever they saw a European along the roadside ahead of me, just as they got to the European they both, "Oh, look! Look- look!"- (laughter, as the President demonstrated the action by raising his eyes and pointing with his arm to the ceiling) with their hands pointing up, evidently at an airplane. Whereupon, the suspects (more laughter) on the road said, "Ah! What is it?"
And then another stunt that they worked out in the jeep. One of them, when they came to a little group of people that they thought might be suspicious, would pretend to fall out of the jeep, getting halfway out, and his companion would grab him and haul him back, thereby diverting attention from the fellow in the next car. (Laughter)
On the last day, I suppose, frankly, largely because we wanted to see it- there wasn't any particular official reason —we went down to Marrakech, which is one of the most amazing cities that I have ever been in. We went down there because Winston Churchill had been there about ten years before, on a little pleasure trip. He said it was a most amazing place. Well, they have this old tower that was built, I think, to celebrate the capture of Spain by the Moors. Well, whatever the date is, I don't know; but it is somewhere between 1100 and 1300. Here is this city, which is in what might be called an enlarged oasis- which, by the way, I suppose the best definition of an oasis is that it isn't dry- (laughter) and you can look out and see this whole chain of the Atlas Mountains- snow-covered. I think it's one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.
And the Prime Minister doesn't collect stamps, but he paints. And he had brought his painting tools—I don't know what you call them—with him. We got there around sunset, and I think he started some sketches of this wonderful scene. I left him at five o'clock the next morning. His whole outfit was ready, and he was going to spend the day in Marrakech painting, and hop off that night for what was then, of course, undisclosed, for Cairo, and thence up to Syria for a meeting. I don't know where the meeting was actually held. I think it was just across the border, in Adana, Turkey. He is going there to talk with President Inonu and his Prime Minister, in regard to a closer relationship with Turkey in the prosecution of the war. Well, you have had that story already.
Oh, yes, I must tell you about the WAACs. We found five WAACs—I think the only ones in Africa. And there they were, doing the telephone work, and the stenographic work for the staff meeting. And I had them in to dine—all five—I had a nice little party for them. They had had a perfectly amazing experience. They had all been on the same ship in December, and the ship was torpedoed. And two of them were taken off in boats. The other three couldn't get into the boats, and they were taken in tow by a British destroyer, I think. And finally all five of them were safely landed in Africa without any clothes whatsoever. They had nothing except what they had on their backs! And their names were Louise Anderson, Ruth Briggs, Mattie Pinette, Martha Rogers, and Aileen Drezmal.
We had a grand visit from the Sultan of Morocco, his Grand Vizier, his Chief of Protocol, and the Crown Prince. I told him I hoped he would come to Washington and see us all; and he said he would, he was going to try to do it just as soon as the war was over.
I don't think there is anything else that I can think of that hasn't already—
Q. (interposing) Mr. President, could you tell us a little more about the Brazil phase of the trip?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think you all got the highlights of that.
In the first place, at Casablanca, as a part of the military agreements, we formally reemphasized what we had all been talking about before, and that is we don't think there should be any kind of a negotiated armistice, for obvious reasons. There ought to be an unconditional surrender. Well, you all got that.
We got down to Brazil, and the highlights of that were two things. The first was the very greatly increased effort of Brazil in combating the submarine danger in the South Atlantic. And the other was what had been started before, but never before formalized, and that was eliminating in the peace any future threat from the African coast against the portion of this hemisphere that lies closest to the African coast, which is a distance of only 1,650 miles—something like that—it's awfully close.
And I think that it is just as well to have that clearly understood by people, not only in this hemisphere but also the people who have territories of various kinds on the African coast. We don't want to have to go through this again. We want to eliminate military, naval, and air threats from one hemisphere against the other hemisphere ....
Q. Mr, President, did you enjoy the meals that the Army served you while you were over there?
THE PRESIDENT: I ate it all! (Laughter) I had a real appetite ....
Q. Mr. President, I believe in your communique after the Casablanca Conference you said that Premier Stalin had been informed of your decisions. Have you heard from him since?
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, yes. Oh my, yes.
Q. Is he in agreement with your decisions which you and the Prime Minister reached?
THE PRESIDENT: I don't think we can talk about agreement or disagreement on any of those things. Of course they are highly confidential—part of the war effort; and things are going extremely well. When I say that, please don't infer from my unwillingness to read you the telegrams between Mr. Stalin and myself (laughter) that anything is going wrong. It is going extremely well.
Q. Mr. President, do you hope to meet with Mr. Stalin at some later time?
THE PRESIDENT: Hope springs eternal! (laughter)...
Q. Mr. President, what did you get out of seeing those American troops there? What was your reaction to them individually? How did they look to you?
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, they were magnificent. I don't know—I had a sort of a feeling up there—these two divisions and combat teams and everything—I felt closer to having tears in my eyes than at any other time, because they were headed up for the front fairly soon, and nearly all of those troops that I reviewed had had actual combat experience in the landing back in November.
There was this port— Fort Mehdia—I think it's just at the mouth of the river, at Port Lyautey. And it was an amazing illustration of the fact that you can't win a war just with artillery. It's an old, old Moorish fort, that is hundreds of years old. It's made of sun-baked brick- a great tower, and very high, thick walls.
Well, this is not derogatory to the American Navy, but it's an illustration: part of the American Navy stood offshore eight or ten thousand yards—and hammered the living lights out of it—firing, firing, firing. They knocked off a corner of the tower. They knocked off the top of a wall, and they dropped shells all afternoon all over this old, sun-baked brick fort.
And there were about-as I remember it-about 400 French troops in it, who the night before had been told—the night of November 7 —by their commanding officer that the Americans were about to land. And they all cheered. They were just thrilled by the fact that the United States was going to use North Africa as a striking point against the Germans.
About two hours later, the commanding officer, who had assumed that there would be no opposition to our landing, gets orders from his general—definite orders—that the American landing was to be opposed.
And he went out and told his men in the fort about the orders he had gotten, and he said, "We have to obey orders. We are soldiers." They immediately resisted, as soon as our boats started to land, and gave us some pretty heavy casualties in the landing.
And the next day, the Navy shelled the place very heavily, killing a large number of them. And it wasn't until, as I remember it, the third day that the Army got some artillery ashore and fired at this same fort at point-blank range. And it wasn't—this sounds like old-fashioned warfare of two hundred, three hundred years ago—until our artillery had made a definite breach in the inner wall—the land side of the wall of this fort—that the final action took place. And part of our infantry surrounding the fort dashed in through this breach, and actually took the fort by assault.
And as I remember the figures very roughly, we lost 94 men killed, and the French, out of a garrison of 400, lost about 200.
Well, most of those—all of our boys, and a good many of the French, are buried in two cemeteries which are side by side- one with the French Tricolor flying over it, and the other with the Stars and Stripes flying over it.
But the interesting thing about it was that those Frenchmen who had fought with extraordinary bravery- and that was true all over—it was true of Casablanca, where our casualties were very heavy—several thousand killed—but when the order "cease fire" took place, there was a complete fraternizing of both forces. In other words, the Frenchmen had carried out their duty. They had obeyed their orders. They didn't want to fight us. From that time on, even the families of the men that were killed came to our people and said, "Yes, I suppose it had to happen, because we had to obey orders." It was a very interesting example of the complete loyalty of the French to their own command, and an understanding of it by their families. And today there is, on the whole, a very good feeling between the French troops and the French Navy with our people ....
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Excerpts from the Press Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/210888