Franklin D. Roosevelt (in suit, seated in jeep at left) reviews US troops as military commander Lieutenant General George S. Patton (right), Casablanca, Morocco, Jan. 17, 1943.
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By Lily Rothman
July 23, 2015

President Obama travels to Kenya on Thursday to attend the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, and then continues his African trip with a visit to Ethiopia, the first time a sitting U.S. president will visit that country. He’ll be focused on global business and peaceful diplomacy—a far cry from what happened with the first sitting president to visit Africa.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt landed on the continent 72 years ago amid World War II, it was the first time since the Civil War that a sitting president had visited an active war zone, as well as the first time ever that one had traveled by plane. The occasion was Roosevelt’s January 1943 visit to Casablanca to discuss the conflict with Winston Churchill.

As TIME reported shortly after, the trip was a fruitful one. The air-travel part of the plan was kept secret—an important concern given that the president’s plane was flying over an ocean patrolled by Axis planes and ships—but, once he arrived safely and the meetings got underway, the world was looped in on what had happened:

U.S. news correspondents in North Africa were flown secretly to Casablanca for a press conference on the tenth day. They found well-pleased Franklin Roosevelt in the garden of the villa where he had stayed: he was comfortable in a light grey suit, the angle of his long cigaret holder was even jauntier than usual.

This was the first press conference any American President had ever held beneath a protective umbrella of fighter planes. In the desert heat, beneath the roaring planes, General de Gaulle and General Giraud shook hands while photographers’ flash bulbs popped. The President said this was a momentous moment.

The two war leaders lived up to the moment. They explained that they had reached “complete agreement” on 1943 war plans, that the goal was “unconditional surrender” of the Axis nations. The President remarked that their meeting had been unprecedented in history; the Prime Minister added that it surpassed anything in his World War I experience. The President had some good morale-building words for American troops abroad: “I have seen the bulk of several divisions. I have eaten lunch in the field, and it was a darn good lunch, too. . . . Our soldiers are eager to carry on the fight and I want you to tell the folks back home that I am proud of them. …”

Read the full story from 1943, here in the TIME Vault: Appointment in Africa


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