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The U.S. and Morocco in the Age of Decolonization

by David Stenner

Moroccan-American friendship is an old story, but an underappreciated chapter of that story came during the Moroccan movement from independence from France and Spain in the 1940s and 1950s. During this period, a handful of vocal Americans--most of them private citizens--began to advocate for Moroccan independence at home and abroad. At the same time, as the home to the new United Nations, New York City became a key site in the push for Moroccan decolonization. David Stenner helps lay out how the U.S. and Americans played a role in helping end the Protectorate and bring about Moroccan independence in 1956 and, importantly, how Moroccans used their relationship with Americans as a tool in a broader global, public opinion campaign against European rule.

The United States played an interesting, but often overlooked, role in the development of the Moroccan nationalist movement. The reemergence of Moroccan nationalism occurred in the wake of Operation Torch, the coordinated landings of Allied troops across North Africa on 8 November 1942. Another impetus came from an unofficial meeting on the sidelines of the Anfa Conference in January 1943. During a private dinner with Mohamed ben Youssef, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised to support Morocco’s independence; after returning home, the US president sent a letter in which he encouraged the sultan to “count on the truly unselfish aid from the people of the United States.”[i] During World War II, a group of OSS (Office of Strategic Services) agents had used the diplomatic cover provided by the American Legation in Tangier to gather intelligence to prepare the invasion. Several of them became friendly with prominent Moroccan nationalists, which caused an angry US diplomat to describe them “as distinctly anti-French and as distinctly pro-Arab.”[ii]

 

Morocco experienced an economic boom that attracted hundreds of American entrepreneurs following the end of hostilities in May 1945. Some of these businessmen actively aided the Moroccan independence movement. They usually teamed up with native merchants, many of whom were members of the Istiqlal (Independence) Party, who provided the necessary local contacts for their enterprises. Especially closely aligned with the Istiqlal was Kenneth Pendar, a former intelligence officer who co-founded the Compagnie des Boissons Hygiéniques in 1947, which bottled Coca-Cola for the local market. Coca-Cola soon began to advertise in the nationalist daily al-ʿAlam. He also used his logistical network to smuggle letters between the Spanish and French protectorates, which caused the prominent nationalist Abdelkhaleq Torres to praise Pendar’s “great efforts in the service of our cause.”[iii] In order to protect his colleagues’ commercial privileges, the head of the American Trade Association (ATA) in Casablanca, Robert E. Rodes, repeatedly traveled to Washington to lobby the federal government on their behalf. [iv] As a result, Congress passed the Hickenlooper amendment in August 1950, which threatened to halt Marshall Plan aid to countries that violated treaties to which the United States was a partner.[v] Both the Moroccan nationalists and the sultan supported these efforts, because they viewed them as great opportunities to undermine French control of the kingdom.

 

Meanwhile, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) supported the Istiqlal’s attempt to create a “free”—that is non-French—labor union. Two years following the arrest of leading labor organizers in December 1952, the AFL’s Paris-based representative Irving Brown met with French Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France to secure their release. Many Moroccans appreciated the support they received from their US counterparts. Following the founding of the Union Marocain du Travail in March 1955, its leaders celebrated “the friendship of the American trade unionists towards the workers of Morocco.”[vi] The AFL’s efforts dovetailed with the interests of the US government, which sought to undermine the influence of the left-wing CGT in North Africa amidst the heightening tensions of the early Cold War.

 

The Moroccan nationalists also traveled to the United States to gain support for their quest for independence. On 6 June 1947, Mehdi Bennouna flew from Tetouan to New York to lobby for Moroccan independence before the newly established United Nations (UN). Life in the nascent capital of international diplomacy deeply impressed the Moroccan visitor, who admired its “greatness, beauty, and colossal buildings” and remarked that “the city is big and every building equals all of Tetouan.”[vii] Several Arab diplomats offered their help and the local community of Moroccans from the southern Sous region held a fundraiser on his behalf. Bennouna visited the temporary UN building daily and created a network of personal contacts among the journalists and diplomats gathered at Lake Success. Even the New York Times reported about Bennouna’s one-man campaign for his country’s independence. Despite his best efforts, however, the UN did not take up the case of Morocco, instead focusing on seemingly more urgent issues such as the future of Palestine.

 

Inspired by Mehdi Bennouna’s overwhelmingly positive experiences during his six-month stay, the nationalist parties in both Spanish and French Morocco decided to jointly increase their activities in the North America. In November 1951, the physician Mehdi Ben Aboud traveled to New York to establish the Moroccan Office for Information and Documentation; the businessman Mohammed Laghzaoui financed a small office near the recently inaugurated UN building in Manhattan. Soon thereafter, several of their colleagues came from Morocco to support their efforts. They gave speeches about the situation in Morocco to civic associations and church groups with goal of securing public support. In a series of letters from Tetouan, Tayeb Bennouna informed his brother Mehdi, “The people’s interest in the case is at its peak and their joy over your success is indescribable.”[viii] The popular excitement even reached the royal palace as Sultan Mohamed ben Youssef “expressed his delight” about the activities of the MOID.

 

The eccentric British author Rom Landau became an important ally of the Moroccan nationalists. Having fallen in love with the kingdom during a visit three years prior, he moved to New York to supervise the production of two periodicals, the Moroccan News Bulletin and Free Morocco, which covered current affairs in North Africa and included background articles about the history of French colonialism. They described Morocco as home to an “ancient civilization” and a “people aspiring to freedom” willing to protect “American strategic interests.”[ix] Landau also wrote a hagiography of Sultan Mohammed ben Youssef, which the Moroccans distributed freely among those attending the seventh session of the UN General Assembly. On 18 November, the MOID organized a spectacular celebration of Throne Day to which they invited hundreds of international dignitaries; the four daughters of a local Moroccan family served mint tea to the guests gathered in a hall decorated with Moroccan and American flags. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Zafrullah Khan then praised the efforts of the MOID and wished “all success to His Majesty, his people, his country, and to all those who desire the liberation of Morocco.”[x]

 

Ultimately, though, the UN General Assembly only urged France to create “an atmosphere of goodwill, mutual confidence and respect” rather than demanding Morocco’s immediate independence. Yet that the intergovernmental organization had taken up their case at all motivated the nationalists to continue their efforts. Inspired by their campaign, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote an article in January 1954 calling on her compatriots to “get as much enlightenment as possible on this situation.”[xi] Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas became an even more passionate advocate for the Moroccan cause. After traveling to the kingdom in 1954, he published an article in LOOK magazine, which denounced the “racism” of the French “police state.”[xii] The members of the MOID continued their activities until Morocco’s independence from both France and Spain in March 1956.

 

In November 1957, the now-King Mohammed V traveled across the Atlantic on an official state visit. Upon his arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, he briefly recalled his historic meeting with the late President Franklin Roosevelt that had been characterized by “mutual respect and appreciation.”[xiii] The next day, the White House held a state dinner for Mohammed V, a special honor reserved for exceptionally important visitors. The king then traveled across the United States to familiarize himself with the land and its people, visiting the Metropolitan Opera, Bronx Zoo, Disneyland, a ranch in Texas, and a research laboratory in California. Especially his three eldest daughters, who accompanied him on his journey, charmed the American public through their “modern” and “emancipated” dress and behavior.

 

Mohammed V also gave a speech before the UN General Assembly during which he called for Algeria’s independence while appealing to “comprehension and cooperation, love and fraternity between the big and small nations.”[xiv] He then held a reception at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, which more than 1,000 diplomats, city officials, and members of the local Moroccan community attended.[xv] As a sign of her close relationship to the royal family, Eleanor Roosevelt sat with his three daughters in the auditorium during the king’s speech; afterwards she praised him as a great leader who “can form a bridge between the West and the Near East.”[xvi]

 

The Moroccan head of state had presented himself as a potential ally amidst the global tensions of the Cold War. US Ambassador Cannon described the state visit as “a crucial event in consolidating Morocco’s ties with the West” and went on explain that “it would be hard to imagine a better [investment] at this time for American interests in Morocco.”[xvii] The New York Times cheered that Morocco “represented a force friendly to the West.”[xviii] The Moroccans had once again presented themselves in a very favorable light and introduced the American people to a kingdom previously unknown to the vast majority of them. This generally positive image of the Moroccan monarchy persists in the United States until today.

 

[i] Letter from President Roosevelt to the Sultan of Morocco, 24 October 1947, RG59/881.00/10-2447, United States National Archives, College Park, MD (USNA).

[ii] Casablanca to Department of State, 22 November 1943, RG59/881.00/2700, USNA.

[iii] Letter from Abdelkhaleq Torres to Azzam Pasha, 9 November 1951, Documents 1949-51, Abdelkhaleq Torres Foundation, Tetouan.

[iv] “French Deny Discrimination,” New York Times, 5 August 1949, 3.

[v] Brigitte Christine Maldidier, The United States and Morocco, 1945–1953 (MA thesis, Stanford University, 1955), 26.

[vi] Letter from Tayeb Bouazza to Irving Brown, 9 November 1954, RG18-05, Box 31/2, George Meany Memorial AFL-CIO Archives at the University of Maryland University Libraries, College Park, MD.

[vii] Letter from el-Mehdi Bennouna to his brother Tayyib, 11 June 1947, Mehdi Bennouna File, Vol. 1, Bennouna Family Archive, Tetouan, Morocco (BFA).

[viii] Letter from Tayeb Bennouna to Mehdi Bennouna, 2 November 1952, Mehdi Bennouna File Vol. 2, BFA.

[ix] “Morocco and the United States,” Free Morocco 25 May 1953, 1.

[x] “Fi hafla ʿaid al-ʿarsh bi-Nyu Yurk,” al-ʿAlam, 21 November 1952, 1.

[xi] Eleanor Roosevelt, “My Day, January 3, 1953,” The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Digital Edition (2017), accessed 27 May 2018, https://www2.gwu.edu/~erpapers/myday/displaydoc.cfm?_y=1953&_f=md002422.

[xii] William O. Douglas, “The French Are Facing Disaster Again in Morocco,” Look 18, no. 21 (19 October 1954), 36.

[xiii] “Jalalat al-malik yushidu bi-l-sadaqa al-maghribiyya al-amrikiyya,” al-ʿAlam, 26 November 1957, 1.

[xiv] “Diplomatie: Le messager des nations émergeants,” al-Istiqlal, 14 December 1957, 3.

[xv] “UN Head is Host to Moroccan King,” New York Times, 10 December 1957, 19.

[xvi] Eleanor Roosevelt, “My Day, December 12, 1957,” The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Digital Edition (2017), accessed 27 May 2018, https://www2.gwu.edu/~erpapers/myday/displaydoc.cfm?_y=1957&_f=md003984.

[xvii] William M. Rountree (State Department) to Mr. Buchanan (White House), 24 March 1958, RG59/Entry P294/Visits by Foreign Heads of Government, 1928-76, Box 81, US National Archives, College Park, MD.

[xviii] “Visitor from Morocco,” New York Times, 25 November 1957, 30.

Readings:

El Amrani, Abdelaziz. "Desecularising the postcolonial resistance: the role of Islamic spirituality in the framing of Moroccan anticolonial thought." The Journal of North African Studies 28, no. 5 (2023): 1240-1264.

Laachir, Karima. "Moroccan Intellectuals Between Decolonization and the Arab Cold War: Abdallah Laroui’s Critical and Literary Writing." The Form of Ideology and the Ideology of Form: Cold War, Decolonization and Third World Print Cultures (2022).

Miller, Susan Gilson. "Filling a historical parenthesis: an introduction to ‘Morocco from World War II to Independence’." The Journal of North African Studies 19, no. 4 (2014): 461-474.

Silver, Christopher. "The sounds of Nationalism: Music, Moroccanism, and the making of Samy Elmaghribi." International Journal of Middle East Studies 52, no. 1 (2020): 23-47.

 

Stenner, David. Globalizing Morocco: Transnational activism and the postcolonial state. Stanford University Press, 2019.

----. "On the Margins of the Arab World?" International Journal of Middle East Studies 52, no. 1 (2020): 154-160.

Meet Our Guest: David Stenner

David Stenner is a historian of the modern Arab world focusing on decolonization. My work puts Middle Eastern and North African studies into conversation, thereby bridging the gap that too often separates these closely related fields. 

His first book, Globalizing Morocco: Transnational Activism and the Postcolonial State, examines the Moroccan nationalist movement's worldwide anti-colonial campaign against the French and Spanish protectorates, and how this in turn influenced domestic politics after independence in 1956. This fascinating episode of Cold War history elucidates the contributions made by non-state Third World actors to the formation of the post-1945 global order. Check out my interviews with the New Books Network and Jadaliyya for an introduction.

He is currently working on a new project entitled Popular Culture and Mass Politics in Wartime North Africa, 1939-45, which analyzes how ordinary North Africans experienced World War II. Despite the tremendous suffering caused by the global conflict, this pivotal period of North African history has been forgotten by academic and the general public alike. My work incorporates the experiences of Muslims, Jews, and European settlers into a single narrative. It shows how the war years created a shared historical experience while also accelerating social polarization that culminated in the region's decolonization after May 1945.

Dr. Stenner is currently a Humboldt Fellow and will be in residence at the LMU Munich until August 2025.

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