Occupied by U.S. forces in November 1942, Morocco contributed approximately 350,000 troops to fight in the liberation of France and Western Europe. Despite deep ties to France and the French culture, the Moroccan people increasingly embraced nationalism. In January 1943, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled to Casablanca, where he met with Winston Churchill for ten days to plan strategy. At that time Roosevelt also met with Moroccan Sultan Sidi Mohammed (1927–1961) and proclaimed American support for Morocco's eventual independence.
With growing nationalist sentiment in Morocco, the French government exiled the sultan and his family, first to Corsica and then to Madagascar during 1953–1955. In the wake of the Indochina War and with the outbreak of rebellion in Algeria in 1954, France granted independence to both Morocco and Tunisia in 1956, although Spain continued to control the Western Sahara region until the mid-1970s and still retains the small enclaves of Cuenta and Melilla along the Mediterranean coast.
Returning from exile a national hero in November 1955, the sultan became King Mohammed V upon independence on 2 March 1956. The king was both the nation's spiritual leader, as a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, and its political head of government. In this period, Morocco maintained close ties to the United States.
Upon Mohammed V's unexpected death in March 1961, his son, Crown Prince Moulay Hassan, became king as Hassan II and ruled for the next four decades until his death in July 1999. Hassan, while lacking the charisma and unifying ability of his father, was nonetheless an effective leader, able to balance relations with the West, whose economic and political aid helped modernize his country, and the Middle East, whose Islamic heritage was his basis for power.
Although the Moroccan government was ostensibly a constitutional monarchy, in reality Hassan controlled nearly all sectors of government, including the military. Strongly opposed to communism, he oppressed the leftist Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires (Socialist Union of Popular Forces) for much of the 1960s. Notwithstanding, Morocco enjoyed cordial relationships with communist countries such as the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China (PRC).
In 1970 a new constitution providing for a unicameral legislature came into being, but this failed to placate political and military opponents of Hassan's centralized authority. Army elements led by General Muhammad Oufkir staged two unsuccessful coups, one in July 1971 and another in August 1972, that the king barely survived. To strengthen his position, Hassan embarked on an effort to secure the Western Sahara. In November 1975 he called upon 200,000 of his countrymen to take part in the Green March, in which they peacefully crossed into Western Sahara to demonstrate Moroccan determination to regain that territory, which historically had been part of Morocco. Despite widespread international criticism, Morocco annexed the phosphate-rich region upon its abandonment by Spain a few months later. This action led to a protracted guerrilla war with the Saharawi resistance, known as the Polisario. In this struggle, the United States supported Morocco, the result of the long-standing alliance between the two countries. As part of this arrangement, U.S. forces enjoyed access to bases in the country, although they relinquished control of their last air base in Africa, at Kenitra, to Morocco in October 1978.
The early 1980s saw increasing domestic difficulties, including the cost of war in Western Sahara, a sluggish economy, rising inflation, and a severe drought. In 1981 these problems contributed to food riots in Casablanca in which some one hundred people died. A $1.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), changes in the tax structure, improvements in agriculture, and increased revenue from trade and tourism ameliorated many of these problems in the second half of the decade.
Hassan pursued a conciliatory foreign policy. In the 1980s he worked to secure Arab recognition of Israel and an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict. In July 1986 he held two days of talks on Palestinian issues with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Hassan also sought to improve relationships among other Arab states as a result of the Cold War. In 1984 he organized the Islamic Congress of Casablanca and created the Arabic-African Union with Libya. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Morocco aligned itself squarely with the United States and sent troops to defend Saudi Arabia.
During Hassan's reign, literacy, women's equality, and economic well-being all increased substantially. The social and economic disparity between urban and rural populations decreased through improved education, health care, and communication. But rising Islamic fundamentalism posed difficult challenges for Morocco in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These problems continue to the present under the leadership of Hassan's son and successor, King Mohammed VI. Challenges include continued fighting in Western Sahara, reducing constraints on private activity and foreign trade, and achieving sustainable economic growth.
Nelson, Harold D., ed. Morocco: A Country Study. Washington, DC: American University, 1985.; Pennell, C. R. Morocco since 1830: A History. New York: New York University Press, 2000.