Haiti Echoes North Africa, 1942 History Nearly Repeats Itself in Unlikely Alliance

By Harry Levins Of the Post-Dispatch This story draws heavily on information of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, ". written .. | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), October 4, 1994 | Go to article overview

Haiti Echoes North Africa, 1942 History Nearly Repeats Itself in Unlikely Alliance


Harry Levins Of the Post-Dispatch This story draws heavily on information of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, ". written .., St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


AMERICAN SOLDIERS invade a neutral land. There, the GIs find themselves working with the local military forces - even though the local military leaders have an awful record on human rights.

It's Haiti, yes. But it's also North Africa in the fall of 1942. Although history never repeats itself precisely, this seems to be one of those times when it comes eerily close.

*****

When the Germans overran France in World War II, they garrisoned half the country. The rest, they left in the hands of the French, under a regime based in the city of Vichy.

As you might expect, the Vichy French saw eye to eye with the Germans. These Frenchmen admired the way the Germans ran a country - with discipline, hard work, secret police and no nonsense about rights for people like Jews.

The Germans let the Vichy French hang on to France's colonies in North Africa. There, the French maintained an ill-equipped army, kept the Arabs in line and enforced a string of anti-Semitic decrees.

From the start, the Vichy French clashed with the British. Britain's Winston Churchill cast his lot with an exiled French general, Charles de Gaulle.

But the United States kept up relations with Vichy. For one thing, the embassy in France made for a valuable listening post. For another, President Franklin D. Roosevelt couldn't abide the prickly de Gaulle.

*****

In the summer of 1942, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed that the first big American military push should be in North Africa.

Trouble is, the Vichy French held the deeds to the American landing beaches in Morocco and Algeria, where the political situation was messy. Nobody knew whether the French army in North Africa would greet the Americans with huzzahs or howitzers.

Leading the Americans was Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who thought of himself as a simple soldier, unsullied by politics. He left that sort of thing to his political adviser, the State Department's Robert Murphy.

Murphy rounded up Henri Giraud, a French general who had escaped from a POW camp into Vichy France. Murphy told Eisenhower that with one word from Giraud, the French army in North Africa would stack arms and salute the Americans.

Eisenhower bought it. Nobody at his headquarters realized that Giraud lacked the slightest bit of clout with the French army in North Africa.

On Nov. 8, 1942, the GIs landed. To their vast dismay, the French shot at them. Then, Eisenhower got a startling message: Adm. Jean Darlan was on hand in Algiers.

*****

Darlan commanded Vichy France's armed forces. Like Haiti's Gen. Raoul Cedras, Darlan had real clout with the people carrying rifles.

Darlan's young son was hospitalized in Algiers, and Darlan himself just happened to be visiting the boy when the Allies landed. (Some historians have since suggested that more than mere coincidence was afoot, but nobody has any evidence. …

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