On this day in 1942, just as the Allies were preparing an invasion of North Africa during World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt broadcasts a message directed at Vichy France and its leader Marshal Petain. Petain, who chose to collaborate with the Germans in 1940 rather than fight them, was nominally the leader of France but the country was far from free. (Exiled French General Charles De Gaulle was considered the leader of the “Free French.”)
FDR’s radio broadcast was intended to appeal to the patriotism of Petain and the Francophile residents of the French colonies in North Africa and the Nazi-controlled portion of France. American ships had just arrived in North Africa carrying the Allied Expeditionary Force. The consummate orator, Roosevelt warned French listeners that if they did not assist the Allies in throwing off the “Axis yoke” that it would mean the “death knell of the French Empire.” In his message, Roosevelt reminded Petain that the Axis powers had plundered France of its savings, industry and transport, and looted the nation’s farms and factories “all for the benefit of a Nazi Reich and Fascist Italy.” Calling himself an “old friend of France,” Roosevelt promised that America was not looking to take over French territory in North Africa. He hoped Petain might encourage his fellow countrymen to rise up and help boot out the Germans.
Petain, however, was not moved by Roosevelt’s words. In a written reply sent the same day, Petain lamented “It is with stupor and sadness that I learned tonight of the aggression of [American] troops against North Africa.” He denied that Germany’s treatment of France had been as bad as Roosevelt described and, furthermore, promised to defend French territory against any aggressor, America included.
“Operation Torch,” the code name for the Allied invasion of North Africa, commenced that same day, led by General Dwight D. Eisenhower. After a month of fighting against Vichy troops, the Allies, with help from a small number of Free French forces and colonists, were able to gain a foothold in North Africa. Roosevelt’s promise to rout the Germans from North Africa was carried out by May 1943.