A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's Eve, 1942/43: FDR's North African Inside Joke

Seventy years ago today, December 31, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt prepared to celebrate New Year's Eve in the White House with a gathering of family and close friends. The festivities included the showing of a new film that had had its premiere but was not yet in general release, so few would have known of it beforehand.

Meanwhile, in the previous week plans had been firmed up for what had to be one of the closest-held secrets of the war: in the coming weeks Roosevelt was to leave on his first wartime trip outside North America. He was planning to travel secretly in a roundabout way by seaplane and aircraft to recently liberated North Africa, Winston Churchill would also be there, as would the US and British Chiefs of Staff. Security of the secret summit, code-named SYMBOL, had to be absolute. Germany would love to intercept either of the two men.

General Eisenhower, the Allied Commander in North Africa, had been asked to find a suitably secure place (in territory held by Vichy only weeks before). Two days before New Year's Eve, Eisenhower reported to General Marshall:
Reconnaissance by Churchill's secretary and [Gen. Bedell] Smith's representative have found a very suitable site for operation "Symbol." It consists of a hotel surrounded by a group of excellent villas situated five miles south of Casablanca and one mile inland. Area is detached and lends itself to segregation and can be guarded easily. Airfield is two miles away and is suitable  for B-24s except in very rainy weather . . .
The site, at a resort area known as Anfa, was chosen, and thus once it became public, SYMBOL would be better known as the Casablanca Conference.

Roosevelt, of course, could not reveal any of this to most of his New Year's Eve guests. Some did notice that his New Year's Eve toast, usually "To the United States of America," added the phrase, "and the United Nations" [that is, the Allies]. Some guests may have noted this, but few of them could have been aware of his little inside joke. The new film he screened that night, not yet in general release, was a wartime romance with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. It was called Casablanca. You may have heard of it.

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