Roosevelt, Commander in Chief

Franklin D. Roosevelt with Winston Churchill at the Casablanca Conference, Casablanca, Morocco. January 18, 1943. NPx 48-22:186

Cooperation, n. 1. Act of cooperating; joint operation; concurrent effort or labor.   

–        Webster’s New International Dictionary (Second Ed.)

By Kevin Thomas, Archives Technician

Since America’s entry into the war in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had recognized the importance of placing US ground troops in combat in Europe as quickly as possible. By the summer of 1942, thousands of US Army personnel were staged on the British Isles, poised to attack. Lend Lease, and with it, the distribution of military equipment to the United Kingdom (UK) and Soviet Union, made the tension strong to deliver results against Germany’s armies. But the adoption of an overall strategy of how to defeat Germany was not so easily agreed upon amongst the Allied Powers.

In July, the disagreement over how to use American resources in the fight against Germany had arrived at a stalemate – straining the patience of the commanders and civilian leadership of the US Army and Navy – to the point that they recommended to the President that perhaps Japan should instead be the primary focus of the country’s military.

At this critical juncture in the Second World War, the President stepped in, and delivered a strong response to the discord.

(July 14, 1942)

Gen Marshall

Copy to Adm. King and Gen. Arnold – I have carefully read your estimate of Sunday. My first impression is that it is exactly what Germany hoped the United States would do following Pearl Harbor. Secondly it does not in fact provide use of American troops in fighting except in a lot of islands whose occupation will not affect the world situation this year or next. Third: it does not help Russia or the Near East

Therefore it is disapproved as of the present.

Roosevelt     C in C

The disagreement over strategy began as soon as America entered the war.

The United Kingdom, fatigued after fighting against Germany for two and a half years, was grateful for US participation in the fight. Axis gains in North Africa, and in Russia, had put considerable pressure on the British military in the Middle East. Concern grew of the potential for the German and Japanese militaries to link up in South Asia and push the British out of the crucial oil supplying regions near the Persian Gulf. Early on in joint planning with the US, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and his military staff, had pressed for US assistance, including troops to help defend the Middle East. This included a US led attack through French Northwest Africa, known then as Operation Gymnast, to help relieve this pressure and stop the enemy’s advance.

In contrast, the US military’s planners, in particular Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, felt it was critical to open a second front in Western Europe as quickly as possible. With that approach, the best way to defeat Germany would be to strike at it directly through France, and not to prolong the conflict by attacking the Axis forces on the periphery of Europe. The Soviet Union also needed relief, and a second front would draw German troops away from their armies – hopefully forestalling a Soviet collapse in the east.

The British military leadership, led by the Prime Minister, disagreed. Their strategy was to avoid a direct confrontation with the German military in Western Europe, at least until the enemy had become considerably weaker through the air war over Germany, and from fighting in Russia. They felt the fastest way to lose the war, or at best to delay victory, was to launch any major ground attack in Western Europe before the Allies were ready with appropriate and overwhelming material, troops, and training. Without these conditions, an attack would be a waste of lives, and would do little to help the Soviet Union.

Informal meeting at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Top Cottage, Hyde Park, New York. Pictured are (left to right): unknown, Winston Churchill, Mrs. Averill Harriman, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Photo by Margaret “Daisy” Suckley. June 20, 1942. NPx 73-113:104

The disagreement between the British and American planners took center stage through the early strategy conferences in the first half of 1942, including the Second Washington Conference in June, which also included private talks in Hyde Park, New York between the President, and the Prime Minister. While President Roosevelt supported his military chiefs and their overall strategy, he was open to different ideas. It may have been at this point that Churchill and Roosevelt agreed in principle to an operation in North Africa that fall, to get US forces engaged as quickly as possible – before US mid-term elections might hand the administration a political defeat – and with it a new Congress pressing for greater attention toward Japan.

There were other factors to consider. US forces were not yet strong enough to mount any significant cross-channel operation into France without the British military providing most of the manpower and equipment – which the British military was reluctant to do without the certainty of success. An invasion of North Africa instead, would allow the untried US forces the opportunity to gain experience and quick victories against weaker Axis forces. It seemed a logical alternative to taking no action at all in 1942. But they needed their military staffs to be behind this strategy, for cooperation and success to follow.

At the end of the conference, both nations remained committed to continuing a buildup of US troops and material in the British Isles, known as Operation Bolero, in preparation for a major assault in France in the spring of 1943. They also agreed that Bolero should take precedence over all other military priorities.

But the second front would have to wait another year. Both parties braced themselves for the reaction of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, who would grow even more frustrated that his country would continue to bear the bulk of the ground war against Germany.

Russian Premier Stalin talks with gestures to his Foreign Minister Molotov at the Palace, Yalta, Crimea, Russia. February 1945. NPx 48-22:3659(48)

While the June conference strengthened cooperation over Operation Bolero, it also widened a divide between the generals and admirals of the United States and United Kingdom – whether to attack Germany in 1942, and if so, where? Roosevelt and Churchill may have settled the first question for them – there would be an attack – but that left the second question to be decided in the weeks ahead.

In addition to a spring 1943 offensive, known then as Operation Round Up, the United States Army wanted to place Allied troops in France in the fall of 1942 as well, to take advantage of conditions on the ground, and gain a small foothold on the continent. This smaller attack, known as Operation Sledgehammer, might also provide some relief for Russia. They had argued their case at the June conference, but received very little interest from the British, who felt such an early attack was destined to fail.

Instead, British commanders, in particular the Prime Minister, felt if an attack was to be made in 1942, North Africa, not France, was a better location. US military planners countered, stating it was a distraction from the primary Allied goal: to attack German forces in Western Europe. It also did not provide much help to the Soviet armies. Most important, such an operation would risk delaying the main assault in France (Operation Round Up) indefinitely, as it would divert resources needed for a second front. They wanted the direct route of attack kept open.

Perhaps unaware of the President’s feelings toward an attack in North Africa, the US military’s planners, including Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower, still held the belief that an attack in Western Europe was still on the table for later that year.

Gen. George C. Marshall and Gen. H.H. Arnold at the OCTAGON Conference in Quebec, Canada. September 1944. NPx 48-22:3916(21)

In frustration at the potential unraveling of US strategy, General Marshall, with the backing of other high-ranking officials, sent a memo to President Roosevelt on July 10, advising that if the United States were unable to dedicate its full attention toward attacking Germany in Western Europe – then they should focus on the Pacific, and strike Japan instead. Whether this opinion was merely to gain leverage, did not matter – it was certainly not cooperation.

This was a critical moment in the war. President Roosevelt understood this. He acted.

After the President’s memo of July 14 to General Marshall (see text of memo above), military planners convened in London. The President left Marshall with instructions that US ground forces must attack Germany someplace that year, whether it be in France or North Africa. That meant cooperate – no matter what.

The US military’s representatives attempted once more to secure British agreement for that attack to take place in France. Without pressure from the President, however, they could go no further, and the allied staffs began to move forward on planning for the invasion of French Northwest Africa.

Subsequently, as US military commanders had feared, the attack in North Africa would demand substantial resources and made any significant attack in Western Europe unrealistic for the foreseeable future. There would simply be too few allied forces to support operations on both continents.

Near Algiers, ‘Torch’ troops hit the beaches behind a large American flag (Left) hoping that the French Army not fire on it.  American and British troops landed in French Morocco and Algeria on November 8, 1942 in the campaign called ‘Operation Torch’.  The French, chafing under Nazi restrictions, put up only brief resistance and then joined in the fight against Hitler. NPx 72-99.

The stakes were high that summer, and the moment required Roosevelt to break the stagnation in Allied military planning and get all members of the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff, as well as himself and Prime Minister Churchill, moving forward together. A breakdown in cooperation between the United States and the United Kingdom could have had devastating consequences on the war.

This July 14th memo to General Marshall is considered a rare and significant document in the Presidential Papers of Franklin D. Roosevelt. For one reason, President Roosevelt seldom used the title “Commander in Chief” when referring to himself (he had signed “C in C”). The President also typically stayed out of military decisions, and let his commanders do their work. His use of the military title appears to serve a purpose, and the occasion, a moment to use his military authority.

The discussion was over. The defeat of Germany would remain the top US objective. Cooperation would be necessary. As a result, Operation Torch (formerly Gymnast) would soon become the priority for the US military.

On November 8, 1942, US and Allied forces began landings in Morocco and Algeria – starting down the long road to defeating the Axis forces in Europe.

President Roosevelt reviewing troops at Rabat, Morocco while at the Casablanca Conference. January 21, 1943. NPx 48-22:131