Memorandum by Mr. Ridgway B. Knight, of the Embassy in France, to the Ambassador in France (Caffery)1


Notwithstanding my best efforts to render the briefest report possible concerning the North African situation, I find myself obliged to submit a rather voluminous paper,2 as it is impossible to view the [Page 682] present political crisis without considering the important economic, social and psychological factors which form its components.

While the situation throughout French North Africa did not impress me as being desperate, I have returned with the feeling that on the whole it is serious and calls for the prompt application by France of long-term evolution programs imbued equally with two directives: an equitable recognition of native aspirations, and firmness in the application of such programs in order to prevent the development of chaotic situations in countries still far from ready for western democratic ways.

The spirit of genuine nationalism, which is extensive, gives the impression of being even greater than it is in view of the general loss of confidence in France’s strength as well as in her intentions, which has resulted in timorousness on the part of the pro-French native elements doubtful of the value of French protection and therefore unwilling to run the risk of incurring the wrath of the apparently victorious Nationalists.

On the whole, for reasons exposed at length in the attached report, the impression was derived that fundamentally the worst situation exists in Algeria where there does not exist a homogeneous or well-rounded native social structure, and where the extent of French land ownership and economic penetration makes it difficult to imagine a satisfactory modus vivendi. In Algeria unreasoning and bitter antagonism is the most widespread. In considering the two Protectorates, the situation in Morocco seemed more dangerous because of the youth and inexperience of the fast developing Nationalist movement allied to the more manly and warlike characteristics of the Moroccan natives. Fortunately, however, the Sultan, who has with shrewd mastery achieved great influence and prestige during the past few years, could exert a salutary restraining influence if he saw fit. In Tunisia, where a relatively larger Nationalist movement exists, it was felt there was less tension because of the greater sophistication and more realistic approach of the Nationalists, allied to the gentler traits of the softer Tunisian masses.

However, the above opinions are essentially based on long-term developments as, with the extent of Nationalist agitation throughout North Africa,… combined with the resolve to vigorously repress any outbreaks detected among French Army officers, not to speak of the fear of the military rank and file, making a certain “trigger happiness” all too likely, a bloody incident of the Casablanca type3 could [Page 683] easily occur in any one of the three French North African geographical units.

Referring to the French Army, the official line stressed by the Commanding Generals at Algiers, Rabat and Tunis was that “the Army is ready for anything”: effectives at full strength and morale excellent. However, a very close friend with whom I worked during the war in Morocco, in Italy and in France, and who now is in command of the Moroccan Goums, said that Nationalist agitation had already begun to have some effect among his men. When one bears in mind that the Goums are nearly entirely recruited in the Berber mountain districts of Morocco, that they are officered by top native specialists unusually close to their men, this admission appears sufficient reason to accept the “official line” with some scepticism.

Last but not least, I was disappointed and definitely concerned to find a wide misunderstanding of what I conceive to be Communist strategy in North Africa. All too often I heard the confident assertion that the Communists were “on the run” and that “it is impossible to make a good Marxist out of a good Moslem.” Few people seem to realize that the Communists are the first to recognize this state of affairs and are not attempting to convert the Moslem masses to doctrinaire Marxism. Nearly everyone gloated over the fact that the Nationalist parties in North Africa were steadfastly refusing Communist offers of “union” and were blind to the significance of Communist support of these same movements, regardless of their aloofness. No official and only a few civilians realized what to us seems the obvious Communist progress: support the Nationalists at all costs, achieve the “Nationalist-bourgeois revolution” and shake off the solid French administrative and police armatures of the various units. This result achieved, using the protective catch-words of “democracy” and “liberty”, as well as some rigged “Constituent Assembly” or another such “mass instrument”, they would purge anti-Communist Nationalist elements and, notwithstanding the smallness of the real Communist core, achieve control.

This type of thinking was all too often listened to indulgently as coming from someone who had “Communism on the brain.”

Many French officials are so far from realizing our real concern in the matter that a number of them—and in important positions—expressed the fear that the United States, thinking that France was on the run in North Africa, and wishing to select the lesser of two evils, was ready to back the Nationalists “in order to avoid Communist domination of strategically placed French North Africa.”

Ridgway B. Knight
  1. Copy transmitted to the Department in covering despatch 8985, June 16, from Paris; received June 25. Mr. Knight made a trip to Algeria, Morocco, and Tunis, April 14–May 7.
  2. Not printed.
  3. The Consul General at Casablanca (Lewis) reported in despatch 599, April 10, that disorders broke out in Casablanca on April 7 between Senegalese troops stationed there and Moroccan civilians, causing heavy casualties.