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The lessons of ‘Casablanca’

The 1942 film and 1943 conference make a strong case against isolationism.

U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt reviews his troops in Casablanca from a jeep on Jan. 14, 1943. The tall walking figure at his side is Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark. Credit: National Museum of the U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt reviews his troops in Casablanca from a jeep on Jan. 14, 1943. The tall walking figure at his side is Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark. Credit: National Museum of the U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons.
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Clifford D. May
Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), as well as a columnist for “The Washington Times.”

One of my all-time favorite films is “Casablanca” starring Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, an American nightclub owner—and isolationist— in Morocco as the Nazis are goose stepping across Europe and beyond.

“I’m not fighting for anything anymore except myself,” he tells Ilsa, the elusive love of his life. “I’m the only cause I’m interested in.”

When Major Strasser, an officer of the Third Reich, asks Rick what nationality he holds, Rick replies: “I’m a drunkard.”

Rick tells Louis Renault, the corrupt French police prefect: “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

“Casablanca” was written in 1941 during the months preceding the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. The film was released in 1942.

And in January 1943, just two months after the Anglo-American landings in North Africa, President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in, yes, Casablanca, where he declared his war aim. 

It was not a “ceasefire,” an “exit strategy,” or a “responsible conclusion.”

Instead, he demanded that Germany, Italy and Japan—the Axis Powers—surrender, and that they do so “unconditionally.”

This astonished some of his advisers. Couldn’t the conflict be terminated sooner through negotiations, with compromises on both sides leading to a “diplomatic solution”?

Was it necessary for all Hitler’s deputies to wave white flags? Couldn’t the Allies promise the Japanese that their revered emperor would retain his throne?

Roosevelt’s answer: No. Our enemies must put down their weapons, and we’ll decide what happens after.

He made clear that “unconditional surrender” did not imply the destruction of the German, Italian and Japanese peoples. But he was intent on “the destruction of the philosophies in those countries which are based on conquest and the subjugation of other people.”

By “philosophies,” he meant what today we call ideologies or, in the case of Islamists, theologies.

He recognized that Nazism, Fascism and Japanese militarism were evil and needed to be discredited and de-legitimized.

Why not eradicated? Because that’s not realistic, as should be obvious now when demonstrators in multiple cities and campuses are calling for the genocide of Israelis—a neo-Nazi “final solution” to the “Jewish question” in the Middle East.

Roosevelt also understood that because World War I ended with a ceasefire, an armistice, many Germans came to believe they hadn’t really been defeated. That paved the road to World War II.

The lesson Roosevelt taught was not learned by all his successors. The Korean war ended, in January 1953, in an armistice, a stalemate. The result: Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s dynastic dictator, is today nuclear-armed and closely aligned with Beijing and Moscow.

In 1973, America’s defeat in Vietnam was spun as a “peace agreement,” for which the late Henry Kissinger was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Kissinger, to his credit, attempted to return the prize after the Fall of Saigon in 1975.

In 2011, President Obama ordered a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, squandering the hard-won military victory of the 2007 “surge.” The Islamic State soon arose, and U.S. forces returned to fight them. Since then, Shi’ite militias under Tehran’s command have been inching their way toward power in Iraq, attacking Americans dozens of times without serious consequences.  

In Syria, dictator Bashar al-Assad crossed Obama’s “red line” against the use of chemical weapons, also without serious consequences. He’s gone on to murder at least half a million of his own citizens and remain in power thanks to support from Tehran and Moscow.

And in August 2021, President Biden chose to capitulate to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Did this track record influence Russian President Vladimir Putin as he considered the risks and rewards of attempting to conquer and subjugate Ukraine in 2022? Of course.

Xi Jinping, supreme ruler of China, backs Putin’s imperialism. Both are increasingly close to the Iranian theocrats who fund, arm and train Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

Is America’s track record also serving to influence Xi as he considers the risks and rewards of attempting to conquer and subjugate the people of Taiwan? Of course.

The United States could pose the only serious impediment to the ambitions of the tyrants who rule China, Russia and Iran. Which is why those tyrants are collaborating to diminish and, if possible, defeat the United States.

If a significant number of Americans don’t get that, or think it doesn’t matter, or maybe even think it’s justified, so much the better for the tyrants.

If you do get it, you also understand why it’s vital that the United States become now, as it was under Roosevelt, the “arsenal of democracy”—providing our allies with the means to defend themselves against common enemies.

This isn’t rocket science but, let me remind you, rockets made in Iran are killing Ukrainians. And Hamas, with Tehran’s support, continues to fire rockets at Israel.

The war that Hamas launched against Israel with multiple atrocities and war crimes could end tomorrow if Hamas’s commanders—either those hiding in Gaza’s tunnels or those luxuriating in Qatar’s five-star hotels—were to unconditionally surrender.

The United Nations and many NGOs that claim to care about human rights refuse to demand that. Why do you suppose that is?

Back to our movie: “If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die,” Victor Lazlo, the Czech Resistance leader, tells Rick. “Well, what of it?” Rick replies. “It will be out of its misery.”

But in the film’s final scene, Rick shoots Major Strasser, and decides to join the fight. “You’ve become a patriot,” Louis Renault observes.

Did the movie have any influence on Roosevelt? Maybe. I bet President Biden has seen it, but he should watch it again. So, too, should all the Republican candidates for president.

Casablanca, I might point out, translates as White House.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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