3-027 Editorial Note on ARCADIA Conference

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Subject: World War II

Editorial Note on ARCADIA Conference

December 22, 1941-January 14, 1942

Japan’s attack on the Allies in the Pacific, President Roosevelt told Britain’s Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, had put the United States “in the same boat with you and the people of the Empire.” Churchill immediately suggested that they convene a conference in Washington to examine Allied strategic plans, supply, and organization. President Roosevelt and his advisers would have preferred a delay of a week or two, but they acquiesced. (Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States: The Conferences at Washington, 1941-1942, and Casablanca, 1943 [Washington: GPO, 1968], pp. 4-5; Churchill and Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence, ed. Warren F. Kimball, 3 vols. [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984], 1: 285-86.)

The prime minister’s party sailed from Scotland aboard the new battleship Duke of York on December 14. His party included Lord Beaverbrook, the minister of supply; Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound; Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal; and Field Marshal Sir John Dill, who had been replaced as chief of the Imperial General Staff on November 17 by Sir Alan Brooke, but who “was trusted and respected by all” and was to remain in Washington with the British Joint Staff Mission. The group spent most of the rough eight-day crossing discussing strategy and drawing up papers to be presented to their United States counterparts. (Winston S. Churchill, The Grand Alliance, a volume in The Second World War [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1950], pp. 626,641-46. The official British history of the conference—to which Churchill gave the code name ARCADIA—is J. M. A. Gwyer, Grand Strategy, volume 3, part 1, June 1941-August 1942, a volume in the History of the Second World War [London: HMSO, 1964], pp. 315-401.)

On December 18 Churchill sent Roosevelt a brief message outlining the main points he proposed for discussion. He desired agreements with the United States on: (1) the “fundamental basis of joint strategy”; (2) immediate military efforts and the allocation and distribution of forces and materiel; and (3) a U.K.-U.S. committee of military chiefs (similar to the British Chiefs of Staff Committee) to control (2) in order to achieve (1). President Roosevelt immediately called his military advisers to the White House and informed them of the nature of the coming meetings and of his desire that they attend. (Foreign Relations, Conferences at Washington and Casablanca, pp. 37-38.)

Planners in the War and Navy departments immediately began to prepare position papers, but neither they nor the president were prepared to offer any well-integrated grand strategy for the United States. Interservice differences of opinion were “thinly disguised by very general language,” and the exchange of views on possible near-future movements of army forces was reserved. The president and his chiefs of staff were uncertain how to proceed with strategy discussions until they had talked with their British opposite numbers. (Cline, Washington Command Post, pp. 88-89; Matloff and Snell, Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare, 1941-1942, pp. 97-98.)

The British delegation arrived in Washington on the evening of December 22. The prime minister immediately went to the White House, where he, the president, and their political (but not their military) advisers talked at length about the strategic situation. Churchill was successful in obtaining the president’s sympathy for Operation GYMNAST, the occupation of French North Africa. British strategy had changed little since the Atlantic Conference in August; their intent was still to hold the line against Japan in the Pacific and to concentrate on defeating Germany. The Allies would build and tighten a steel ring around Germany, strangling its morale and powers of resistance, then launch invasions in conjunction with local patriot uprisings designed to liberate the occupied populations, and finally smash the Nazi citadel itself. The occupation of French North Africa was to be a key operation in closing the ring. The situation on the Russian front added a new reason for carrying out GYMNAST. Churchill believed that there was “general agreement” at the meeting that if Hitler was frustrated and stalemated on the plains of Russia, he might turn southeast into the Middle East or south, via the Iberian Peninsula, and expand his domination into northern Africa. (Churchill, Grand Alliance, pp. 657-59, 662-65.)

Several times, beginning with the Atlantic Conference, the British had mentioned the value of United States military intervention in north and west Africa. U.S. Army planners had considered the idea but concluded that the United States did not have adequate forces for such an operation, that local French cooperation was too uncertain, and that the whole operation would contribute only marginally to the defeat of Germany—which could only be achieved by smashing its armies on the Continent. British successes during November and December 1941 in clearing Italian-German forces from Cyrenaica, however, encouraged British planners to believe in the possibility of a sudden Axis collapse in North Africa. After President Roosevelt expressed interest on December 21 in the possibility of an amphibious attack on Dakar, Marshall had ordered Major General Joseph W. Stilwell to Washington with the intention of putting him in command of such an operation. Army planners remained highly dubious about an expedition to northwest Africa. (Matloff and Snell, Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare, 1941-1942, pp. 102-5.)

On December 23 Churchill presented the president with a four-part memorandum that delineated the British position on joint strategy and organization and that defined the ARCADIA Conference agenda until its end on January 14, 1942. For the proposed GYMNAST operation the British expected to furnish 55,000 men (two divisions and an armored unit) from the United Kingdom for landings on the Mediterranean coast, and the United States would provide an initial complement of 25,000 men (to be followed by a minimum of an additional 125,000 in the six months after the initial landings) to secure French Morocco. British troops would be replaced by the dispatch of four divisions (one armored) of partially trained United States troops to Northern Ireland (Operation MAGNET). (Foreign Relations, Conferences at Washington and Casablanca, pp. 23-24; the entire memorandum is printed on pp. 21-37.)

United States military planners believed the North African operation a risky diversion of the main thrust against Germany rather than a critical closing of the ring around it. Furthermore, their estimates of the forces ultimately required for GYMNAST were two to three times higher than those by the British—i.e., as many as 300,000 men. A Joint Planning Committee began working to arrange compromises regarding forces, and shipping experts were directed to find the vessels necessary simultaneously to carry out troop movements to the South Pacific, Iceland, Ireland, and French North Africa. (Matloff and Snell, Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare, 1941-1942, pp. 104-11.)

It is not likely that Marshall had a chance to study the lengthy British memorandum prior to the first plenary session in the White House in the early evening of December 23. This was the first of six such meetings during the conference, and Marshall took rough notes. Later that evening, following his return from a dinner given by Secretaries Stimson and Knox for the military delegations, Marshall dictated the more comprehensive notes that follow (Papers of George Catlett Marshall, #3-028 [3: 31-37]).

Recommended Citation: ThePapers of George Catlett Marshall, ed.Larry I. Bland and Sharon Ritenour Stevens(Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 3, “The Right Man for the Job,” December 7, 1941-May 31, 1943 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), pp. 29-31.

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