Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, American ground troops saw virtually no action for almost a year. It was not because President Roosevelt or the American public were unwilling; the American army was just not prepared—and Roosevelt, at least, was not sure where he wanted to fight. 33
Roosevelt recognized that the most pressing military needs were in Europe. France had been defeated; Britain was under nightly attack. With the bulk of the German army heading toward Moscow, the Russians were taking a terrible beating--they begged Roosevelt for a second front that would pull off some of the German divisions that were pounding across their country.
Given all of these factors, an attack from England across the channel into occupied France made the most sense. The proposal—code-named Operation Sledgehammer—was supported by most of the American high command. But this plan would cost thousands of lives and wipe out a large part of the existing American army. Moreover, most Americans were only really interested in fighting Japan. A costly cross-channel invasion would therefore not only cost lives, it could cost Roosevelt the support of the American public.
What Roosevelt needed was some sort of action that would satisfy the American public clamoring for action, be relatively safe and casualty free so that the public would not turn against the war, and offer at least a token front so that the Russians would get some relief.
North Africa fit these criteria. Prior to Pearl Harbor, Germany, Italy, and Britain had battled to protect their interest in North Africa. By mid 1942, Britain had driven the Italians out and fought a see-saw battle with the Germans in Libya and Egypt. Further to the west, Germany controlled Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia through its proxies, the Vichy French—the French who, faced with certain defeat in 1940, had opted to collaborate with their German invaders rather than resist them. Germany had deployed a few divisions to defend their Mediterranean acquisition, but they had not committed huge resources to the region. It was, therefore, not much of a second front—the Russian were certain to complain that an action in North Africa provided only minimal help. But it was something.
Therefore on 8 November 1942, 124,000 British and American troops landed at Casablanca in Morocco, and Oran and Algiers in Algeria.
The attacking armies were unsure as to how the Vichy French troops would respond—the Vichy were, after all, under the control of an occupying German army. Moreover, American diplomats and intelligence officers had contacted Vichy commanders promising them a role in the Allied effort if they provided no resistance. British and American negotiators also reminded the Vichy of their successful alliance during World War I. But French memories were not all positive. The United States had stood by quietly when France was overrun by Germany in 1940. And shortly after France had surrendered to the Germans, their fleet was attacked by the British at Mers-el-Kébir.
The Ally-French relationship was, therefore, a mixture of historic friendship and recent animosity. Not surprisingly, the Vichy response to the American invasion was mixed. Some units lay down their arms, others attacked the Allied forces as they attempted to land. The most intense resistance occurred at Casablanca. Under the command of General George Patton, American troops waded ashore waving the stars and stripes in hopes that the Vichy would not fire on them—but they did. Two days of intense fighting followed, including air battles between American and French pilots both flying American planes. In the end, the resistance in North Africa was ended only by promising Vichy Admiral Jean Darlan that he would remain in power—North Africa would continue to be governed not by the leaders of the French Resistance, but by those who had surrendered and then collaborated with the Germans.
Operation Torch thus provided Roosevelt with uneven results. Casualties were held to a minimum—about 500 Allied soldiers were killed, another 700 were injured. The United States got the quick, painless action that Roosevelt believed necessary to slowly lead the American public toward intervention in Europe rather than Japan. But Roosevelt also had to cut a deal with a fascist collaborator and leave the discredited Vichy, rather than the heroic French Resistance, in power. In December, Darlan was assassinated, allowing the United States to install the far more respectable Henri Giraud, one of the leaders of the French Resistance. But the deal with Darlan left a bad taste in the mouths of many Americans. Nor were the Russians all that pleased with the scope of the “second front” mounted by the Americans in response to their urgent pleas.