American History on Foreign Soil: The Tangier American Legation in Morocco
What is now the Tangier American Legation in Morocco played a key role in the Allied invasion of North Africa during World War II.
If you had to guess, you’d probably think the first American-owned government property outside of our borders was in France, or Canada, or maybe even Japan. But you’d be way off. In fact, you wouldn’t even be on the right continent.
The longest tenured American-owned property on foreign soil is in Africa -- Tangier, Morocco, to be exact. It’s the only National Historic Landmark on foreign soil and has served as a symbol of American engagement with the Islamic world and North Africa since the early days of the republic.
Morocco was the first country to recognize American statehood (in June of 1786). What is now known as the Tangier American Legation in Morocco (TALIM) was gifted to the American government by Sultan Moulay Suleiman in 1821. Since then, it’s acquired quite a bit of history.
The property started off as the U.S. Consulate and transitioned to the U.S. Legation to Morocco when the countries established full diplomatic relations in 1905. After Morocco regained its independence from Spanish and French protectorates in 1956, the building reverted to Consulate General status before serving as an Arabic language school for American diplomats and a training center for Peace Corps volunteers.
Spurred by the potential sale of the site and the U.S. Bicentennial, a group of diplomats and academics eventually converted the site to TALIM, a cultural and conference center that includes a museum, research library, and Arabic literacy program for the women of the medina of Tangier.
But beyond TALIM’s official history are even more compelling tales:
- The original incarnation is believed to have been destroyed by the French Bombardment of Tangier in 1844.
- During World War II, the Tangier Legation was the largest U.S. mission in North Africa and the only one not in Vichy French territory.
- It played a key role in the success of the 1942 Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria -- known as Operation Torch.
- The site also was pivotal in the evacuation of thousands of Jewish refugees from occupied Europe throughout the war.
The original American Legation complex in Tangier is thought to have been destroyed in the French bombardment of the city in 1844. The remaining structures date from the mid-19th century through the 1930s.
Today, however, the 16,500-square-foot Moroccan Courtyard style complex bears a few battle scars of its own.
A 2011 State Department historic building report cited weight and pressure from abutting buildings, along with the high humidity of Tangier, as causes of damage and decay of the Legation. And though the property has benefited from roughly $400,000 remedial work over the last five years, it continues to suffer from cracks in its plaster and cement walls; shifting foundations; and rot, mold, and insect infestations.
But despite its physical frailties, the Legation manages to maintain a vibrant role as an American cultural center in Morocco and North Africa. May it do so for many years to come.