Operation Torch at 75: FDR and the Domestic Politics of the North African Invasion
Wednesday, Nov. 8 marks the 75th anniversary of the North Africa landings by Allied forces during World War II. The 1942 landings, which constituted America’s first operation fighting Germans in the European theater, protected assets and territory around the Mediterranean and served as the launching point for the Sicilian and Italian invasions the following year.
What many do not appreciate is that U.S. military guidance at the time advocated against the landings. The joint chiefs were overruled by President Franklin D Roosevelt, who was concerned about the domestic political implications of delaying an invasion after the November congressional elections. Archival evidence from the Roosevelt Presidential Library, Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s diaries, and oral histories given by Army Chief of Staff George Marshall reveal that domestic political priorities shaped—in fact, drove—the American president’s decision-making about military operations in 1942.
The American Public Gets Impatient
Despite Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for an American offensive operation in Europe by the end of 1942, both he and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill realized that logistics were the primary obstacle. After Pearl Harbor, the United States faced significant logistics challenges in mobilizing for war. It had a small standing army and very little existing production capacity. The United States was having trouble training men quickly enough to meet the growing needs in both theaters, and did not have enough ships to transport what men and supplies it did produce. To address shortages, Democratic majorities in Congress quickly implemented a series of rations and factory conversions, and began to debate implementing price controls to curb inflation.
After months of sacrifice with few military victories to show for it, Americans began to question Roosevelt’s ability to lead the country in wartime. Republicans were campaigning on economic policies that would significantly reduce rationing and mandatory service, which Democrats were concerned would hinder the country’s ability to rapidly meet wartime production demands. Democrats also worried that should Republicans win back Congress, they would be able to roll back Roosevelt’s New Deal policies.
The key to winning public support, Democrats felt, was to show that American soldiers were taking the fight to the Germans. George B. Wolf, a friend of the president’s and an active player in the Democratic Party, predicted in an April 17 letter to Roosevelt that, “Democrats [will] lose control of Congress at the coming election, barring a military victory by the United States or United Nations.” This assessment was common knowledge across the world; White House officials took note of a radio broadcast in Rome, Italy, that, “The ill wind that blows for the Democrats is due to the fact that Roosevelt has brought the nation into war … [S]truggles will continue until there shall be military victories.”
Choosing North Africa: Debate, Dissent, and Decisions
Even as late as June 1942, the decision to land in North Africa was anything but assured. It was one of several potential operations being debated by the Combined Chiefs of Staff, and Roosevelt did not even approve the landings until the end of July. U.S. military planners were almost universally against the North Africa landings, feeling the United States was being drawn into a peripheral war to protect British colonial interests. Instead, they favored the logistically intensive cross-channel invasion plan known as Roundup because it took a direct approach and would be able to draw additional German units away from the Eastern Front. However, Churchill and the British chiefs of staff were unanimous in their refusal to support a cross-channel invasion until American troops had been battle-tested. Despite the apparent impasse, Roosevelt remained adamant that an offensive action occur in 1942, going so far as to promise Soviet leader Joseph Stalin a second front before the new year.
Every time American military planners thought they had dissuaded Roosevelt and the British from a North Africa invasion, the operation (known initially as GYMNAST) would resurface in discussions, usually as Roosevelt pushed for an offensive before the year’s end. A frustrated Henry Stimson disparagingly called GYMNAST “Roosevelt’s secret baby.” By July, Roosevelt’s advisors felt it necessary to present radical alternatives to the president out of protest, and suggested the United States abandon the European theater to focus on Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s Pacific campaign. Roosevelt was less than impressed, and angrily dismissed the idea.
At the end of July, Roosevelt overrode his military advisors and ordered the North Africa landings to occur during the fall of 1942 — one of very few direct orders he would ever give during the war. Marshall recalled, “[T]he main thing about the Mediterranean operation was something occurring at an early date, and that was the only thing we could think of that could be done at an early date.” Planning and logistics would be challenging, but Roosevelt was insistent. He threw his hands up in the air and begged Marshall, “Please make it before Election Day!”
Logistics and Delays
To move past the struggle associated with GYMNAST, the operation was rechristened TORCH. At Roosevelt’s urging, Marshall set the target invasion date for Sept. 30. This ambitious timeline gave the American and British militaries just two months to prepare for their first major offensive against the German army. On Aug. 30, Roosevelt doubled down, cabling Churchill that he wanted the operation to be a purely American affair. He wrote,
It is my earnest desire to start the attack at the earliest possible moment … I feel very strongly that the initial attacks must be made by an exclusively American ground force supported by your naval and transport and air units.
Churchill allowed the move, primarily because French North Africa was openly hostile to British forces and was less likely to fight against Americans.
However, logistics proved to be the challenge even Roosevelt could not surmount. Disorganization within the newly established supply line meant American convoys simply could not move enough materials to match Roosevelt’s accelerated timeframe. So many materials were dispersed, lost, and sunk while crossing the Atlantic that the projected landing date had to be revised several times. And so the target D-Day of Sept. 30 quickly became Oct. 15, which then became Oct. 30. In September, American military planners insisted upon a third landing site at Casablanca to protect the Strait of Gibraltar and supply lines going in and out of the Mediterranean. In October, Marshall went to Roosevelt with the bad news: TORCH would have to be delayed until Nov. 8 — five days after the congressional elections.
The chiefs made it clear that acting any sooner risked sending an underequipped and under-manned force onto the beaches of North Africa with little or no backup. Roosevelt understood that defeat in the landings would be unequivocally worse than no action at all, and resigned himself to facing public discontent in the elections. Notably, he did not make an effort to move up the landing date. Marshall later recalled, “The president was very courageous about that.”
Roosevelt did make one final request of his military commanders leading up to the elections. When he heard that British Gen. Bernard Montgomery was beginning his counteroffensive at El Alamein on Oct. 26, Roosevelt pleaded with Marshall, “Please delay it. The British always get licked.” (Even this Marshall was unable to do, and the offensive proceeded on schedule for a resounding British victory.)
The Elections, the Landings, and the Aftermath
On Nov. 3, Democrats took heavy losses in both houses of Congress: In the Senate, they lost nine seats and their supermajority, and in the House their majority slipped from over 100 to just 13. When Stephen Early, Roosevelt’s press secretary, was told of the North Africa invasion hours before it happened, the missed political opportunity was obvious. He lashed out at Marshall, yelling, “You almost lost us control of Congress by the delay!” He was not the only one who thought so: A Dec 9 election post-mortem by the Democratic Party reported:
Opinions given very generally indicated dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war … [H]ad the North Africa campaign opened one week earlier, it might have made a substantial difference in this election.
On Nov. 8, 1942, over 100,000 American and British forces landed on the beaches of Morocco and Algeria, commanded by Gen. George Patton under Supreme Allied Commander, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. They met little French opposition upon landing, and within days had struck a bargain with French commanders that led to cooperation between the two armies. Allied forces quickly consolidated gains in Morocco and Algeria. The Germans, spooked by the “neutral” Vichy government’s deal with the Allies, immediately moved to occupy southern France and support defensive positions in Tunisia. After three months of fighting, Gen.Erwin Rommel’s forces withdrew from Tunisia to Libya, where they continued to contest Allied forces for another three months. The Allies would prove victorious, however, as massive supply breakdowns led to German and Italian surrender on May 6, 1943.
Patton wrote that Roosevelt’s decision to overrule his military advisors and push forward with TORCH was “about as desperate a venture as has ever been undertaken.” In the end, though, it proved to be an enormously successful gamble. American military leaders were correct in their assessment that TORCH would delay a cross-channel invasion by up to a year, but the campaign gave Americans necessary combat experience, secured routes of transit through the Mediterranean, and provided the launch point for the Sicilian invasion.
Seventy-five years later, the landings remain a remarkable feat of coordination, cooperation, and logistical resolve that was unprecedented for the time. The strategic significance and success of Operation TORCH are no less important when placed in its political context. Even so, it is important to recall that the landings were anything but assured. Domestic politics continue to contribute to decisions about military strategy three-quarters of a century after Roosevelt issued his orders. For as long as democratic institutions allow the public to hold their commander-in-chief accountable, leaders will fight wars differently when domestic political considerations enter their decision-making calculus.
Carrie A Lee is an assistant professor at the U.S. Air War College. Her book manuscript, The Politics of Military Operations, examines how electoral politics influence military operations on the battlefield. Any views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, or Air University.