Foreign Policy Blogs

A Wide Ocean, Difficult Days & Ties that Bind: Morocco-U.S. Relations 50 Years after JFK’s Assassination

Kennedy Dinner Party for King Hassan IIOn Friday, we will look back on the 50 years since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and how that tragic event in Dallas changed history. Also, on Friday, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI will pay a state visit to Washington, D.C. and meet with President Barack Obama to look forward at how both our nations can build on more than two centuries of continuous cooperation.

There is a powerful historic link between the events of this week and those of fifty years ago. In March 1963, just months before the assassination, King Mohammed VI’s father, the late King Hassan II, came to the U.S. and met with President Kennedy. Both were young leaders at the time – President Kennedy was 45-years-old and King Hassan II, at 33, had only taken over the throne after the death of his father, King Mohammed V, two years earlier. As the first country to recognize U.S. independence, Morocco holds a unique place in U.S. history and the elaborate fanfare around the royal visit befitted such a deserving ally.  When King Hassan II arrived at Union Station in Washington, D.C., President Kennedy, with Jacqueline at his side, put U.S.-Morocco relations in the proper historical context,

“Though a wide ocean separates our two countries, they have been bound together throughout our history. Your country was the first to recognize the United States in the most difficult days of our Revolution.”

Then, President Kennedy, deftly aware of the challenges the U.S. faced around the world, explained why our partnership with Morocco would be so important in the years to come,

“Yours is a distinguished record as the leader of your country [Morocco] which occupies a position of strategic importance in the world, which occupies a position of increasing significance along the Mediterranean and along the Atlantic.”

In 1963, President Kennedy recognized the need for U.S. allies in the Cold War, so he looked to Morocco whose “strategic importance” and “increasing significance” was clear. Morocco took a firm stand with the U.S. during the Cold War and suffered the consequences – rifts which, today, still strain relations with its neighbors and former Soviet-bloc countries.

That day, President Kennedy also knew that our countries’ bonds could not be maintained by military cooperation alone, but through the efforts of young men and women “anxious to sacrifice their energies and time and toil to the cause of world peace and human progress.”  This visionary endeavor came to life through the Peace Corps program, one of President Kennedy’s most lasting achievements that has had an enormous impact in Morocco. Since 1963, nearly 5,000 U.S. volunteers have served in Morocco and many proudly maintain their connection to Morocco through work with various government agencies, NGOs, and civil society groups.

King Hassan II also understood that the years ahead would require old friends to work ever closer and, on that day, called for  “a new era of stronger ties in the field of true and honest and unselfish cooperation […] for freedom, peace, and human dignity throughout the world.” Only months later, President Kennedy was assassinated, ushering in the most difficult days of an American generation.  A few years later, King Hassan II would escape two assassination attempts himself and overcome formidable challenges as he navigated the difficult path to protect his country from the wars and instability that surrounded them.

On Friday, the legacies of their predecessors will paint a striking backdrop for President Obama and King Mohammed VI. They will no doubt reflect on the similarities of the two visits separated by a half century. Both are young leaders (only two years apart in age) who came to power on a wave of hope for change and reform. Both have laid out ambitious, forward-looking plans to transform their countries – from healthcare and immigration reform to women’s equality and social development. They have both been tested, faced opposition, yet stand by their principles and vision, looking past short-term political scorecards to the long-term well-being, prosperity and progress of the nations they have been entrusted to lead.

And in many ways, the challenges we face today present historic opportunities for cooperation between the US and Morocco as they did 50 years ago.  Just as the Cold War demanded allies of strategic position and importance, our present struggle against terrorism beckons the same. Morocco, among the first Arab nations to condemn the attacks of 9/11, is that strategic partner in North Africa – where the Arab Spring began – and America’s best ally in the Sahara-Sahel region with an increasing presence of al-Qaeda linked terrorist groups and complacent regimes that harbor them. This cooperation extends throughout the region, where Morocco has and continues to be that reliable, credible friend for the U.S. from the conflict in Syria, Israel and Palestine to a number of vulnerable areas in its vicinity on the verge of becoming failed states.

Of course, both leaders realize – as did their predecessors 50 years ago – that security is only one pillar of prosperity. Though long-time trade partners, in 1963, the U.S. and Morocco had yet to create the framework to formalize and strengthen this partnership. In 2005, Morocco and the U.S. entered into a Free Trade Agreement and, while its potential has yet to be fully realized, it holds much promise for the economic prosperity of hundreds of millions of citizens in both countries.

This meeting on Friday also presents the U.S. with an opportunity it didn’t have 50 years ago. In 1963, Spain still had its colonial hold over Morocco’s southern provinces and the rebel separatist group, the Polisario Front, had yet to challenge the Kingdom’s centuries-old ties to the territory. The resulting three-decades old conflict in the Western Sahara, which King Mohammed VI very accurately called a dispute from a “long-gone era” still festers and puts the lives of thousands of refugees held by the Polisario Front in jeopardy. For years, the U.S. has stated support for Morocco’s compromise proposal to end the conflict – now the U.S. must add will to its words. It’s past time to put this relic in the history books where it belongs, so that we can focus on writing new chapters of prosperity, security and progress deserving of THIS era.

This week, the solemn 50th anniversary will remind us that challenges will come, yet can be overcome. And the sometimes rough road ahead of us can be made smoother by the support of friends, like Morocco, who stand by our side during the good and the bad times. History teaches and the regular reaffirmations of friendship demonstrate that while presidents and kings come and go at their appointed time, the ties that bind our two nations will carry us through our difficult days.

Click the image below to watch the video from the 1963 visit. (Courtesy of the JFK Presidential Library)




Calvin Dark

Calvin Dark is an international policy and strategic communications professional based in Washington, DC. For more than 10 years, he has advised US and international bodies and organizations, primarily focusing on political, economic and cultural relations with Latin America, Western Europe and the Middle East and North Africa. Calvin is also a social media enthusiast trying to connect the world one tweet, post and #hashtag at a time.

Calvin was a Fulbright Scholar to Morocco where he conducted research on civil society’s role in increasing transparency and public confidence in Morocco’s government institutions and services. Calvin received his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and French from Duke University and has studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Paris, France. He speaks French, Spanish, Arabic and English (North Carolina’s special dialect.)

Calvin is also passionate about Southern storytelling and oral histories and is the author of Tales From My Dark Side [], a collection of stories about the Darks, a central North Carolina family and their unique ways of reconciling the complex notions of race, community and family.

Anything else? Oh yea, he loves to spin and is a spin instructor.

Contact Calvin at [email protected]