A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, January 11, 2013

January 11, 1943: FDR Leaves for North Africa

FDR aboard the Dixie Clipper on return flight from
Casablanca, toasting his 61st birthday (Jan 30, 1943)

January 11, 1943: Seventy years ago today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt prepared to become the first US President to leave North America during wartime. He was also about to become the first sitting US President to visit the Arab world, although he would have thought of it as French North Africa. (Ulysses S. Grant had visited Egypt after his Presidency, as had Teddy Roosevelt, who'd also been there as a young man on a world tour, but no President had gone while in office.) (If I've missed any Presidents leave a comment.)

On  New Year's Eve, I noted how FDR had enjoyed an inside joke by showing his guests the film Casablanca, though the imminent Casablanca Conference was of course a tightly held secret, since the President, Winston Churchill, and all the US and UK Chiefs of Staff would be crossing an ocean full of German U-boats and meeting in a city that had been controlled by Vichy only weeks before.

A Pan Am Clipper
The trip itself was roundabout and difficult. Roosevelt took his train to Miami, Florida, where they met two Boeing 314 Clipper flying boats on loan from Pan Am. Roosevelt used the Dixie Clipper,which had been the first to provide regularly scheduled commercial trans-Atlantic air service in 1939. His closest advisers traveled with him, while the rest of the party boarded the sister ship, the Atlantic Clipper. On the 11th, the two planes flew to Trinidad. Admiral William Leahy, Roosevelt's personal Chief of Staff, who had been US Ambassador to Vichy and was needed for his expertise on France, stayed behind in Trinidad with a fever from influenza. The planes flew the next day to Belem, Brazil, then crossed the Atlantic to Bathurst (now Banjul) in Gambia (then a British colony). They dined aboard the USS Memphis, which was in port. From there a military C-54 flew the party to Casablanca.

Roosevelt, who had not flown for some years, was having a grand time. According to Harry Hopkins, who traveled with him:
I sat with him, strapped him in, as the plane rose from the water — and he acted like a sixteen-year-old, for he had done no flying since he was President.
Hopkins also noted that they served cocktails aboard the Clipper.

Next week, I'll discuss the anniverserary of the Casablanca Conference in greater detail.
Roosevelt reviews troops in Morocco

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