Unconditional Surrender



PROBABLY the two most fateful words used in the life of the present generation wore “unconditional surrender. ” They influenced the conduct and shaped the outcome of World War II. Hardly a person is living on whom the words have not impinged in some measure. Yet for all their importance it is a little-known fact that they were first proclaimed as Allied policy without premeditation and consultation. They were thrown out at a press conference by President Roosevelt at Casablanca on January 24, 1943. That was at the close of the British-American meeting in North Africa. Mr. Roosevelt had not been authorized to lay down peace terms on behalf of the Allies. The subject of ultimate peace was not discussed at Casablanca. No message had passed between Washington and London defining the final conditions on which ultimate surrender would be accepted. Moreover, President Roosevelt went into the press conference in which he “ad-libbed” the historic phrase at a time when the defeat of the Axis was not in sight and promise of it was a stirring but unsubstantiated act of faith.

Mr. Roosevelt was later to explain privately how he came to use the words. He had taken part in staff conferences planning the future of the war. The victory in North Africa opened inspiring possibilities for action. The landing in France, which had been delayed because of the North African operation, was reinstated as the chief Allied purpose. It could be abetted by attacks from the south of Europe. At Casablanca it had been decided to go on to Sicily, and the hope dawned that Italy might be knocked out of the war. Light was breaking after a long and exhausting darkness.

These plans fired President Roosevelt’s imagination, and he later said that as he sat before the correspondents, giving his impression of the talks, he wished to convey to them the dramatic sense of growing power which he himself felt. What flashed into his mind was the message of General Grant to General Buckner, commander of Fort Donclson, in February, 1862. The Confederate general, hard pressed with his 14,000 men, and overestimating Grant’s strength, had asked his terms for capitulation. The reply sent by General Grant is celebrated: “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.” The second sentence meant as much to the President as the first. As he saw the situation, the Allies were proposing to move upon all the works of the great Axis Fortress, first in Italy, then in Franco, with the possibility at last of assaults through the Balkans. And with those potentialities glowing in the President’s mind, the natural corollary to them, “unconditional surrender,” seemed to him part of the theme.

When General Grant used the words there was in them a high note of daring. He intentionally sounded more overwhelming than in fact he was. So did President Roosevelt that day in Casablanca. His own spirit had been uplifted after the long season of defeat and humiliation of the Allies. He delighted in throwing to the men in the Axis Fortress the same challenge which had broken the resistance in Fort Donelson.

As President Roosevelt himself revealed, the phrase was not previously cleared with Prime Minister Churchill or the Combined Chiefs of Staff. When the time came for the scheduled press conference, the consultation between the political heads, usual in such circumstances, had not been held. The awkward talks with General Giraud and General de Gaulle over French leadership in North Africa had taken longer than had been anticipated. So when the hour arrived for the press conference it was quickly agreed that President Roosevelt should conduct it. What he was to say was left to his judgment and, as history was to learn, to his impulse. The words “unconditional surrender” rolled out without any enlightening reference to the whole message of General Grant; hence no stress could be put on the explanatory phrase: “I propose to move immediately upon your works. ” In the words as used, the Allies were committed to fight the war to complete victory, without compromise.

Thus what had been an epitome of some strategic planning became world policy. It was a policy that was to cause misgivings in Allied countries as the end of the war came into view. Many were to ask if adherence to the two words was not to prove extravagant in Allied lives, since it would be demonstrated that the words were stiffening enemy morale rather than breaking it. General Eisenhower, responsible for victory in the West, was worried over that word “unconditional.” German propaganda was exploiting it effectively. In the Pacific the skilled conductors of psychological warfare beamed to Japan most explicit assurances that unconditional surrender could be conditional and indeed could include a guarantee of the continuation of the dynasty. Until the war ended, such anxieties were unavoidable.


,s President Roosevelt used the words he felt that they would raise Allied morale, which needed a stimulant. The Germans at the time recorded the propaganda value of the phrase. It did not strike them as a challenge to themselves, or something to make them doubt their victory. What they saw was that the Allies needed a shot in the arm, that they had received it, and that it had almost immediate effect. Rut President Roosevelt also felt that he was making ultimate policy.

As victory neared, the Allied world did accept the idea that it must be complete. It was understood that the forces and institutions which had produced the war could not be uprooted by compromise. Those who recognized World War II as the resumption of World War I were prepared to pay the additional price it would cost to make victory total. And though the Allied leaders did not think the policy through, or carefully weigh all its implications, they accepted it.

But these same Allied leaders finally were driven to question the wisdom of the policy. General Eisenhower was to challenge it almost at once. Captain Harry C. Butcher, his naval aide, wrote in his diary on August 12, 1943: “What had appeared to be a quick collapse of Italy had disappeared into uncertainty, with the definite knowledge that the Italians are solidifying their opposition to us and are really fighting. Around headquarters, we are inclined to attribute this to the hard-boiled attitude of the Prime Minister and the President, who publicly insisted on ‘unconditional surrender’ as soon as Mussolini was out. No surrender was ever made without some conditions.” On April 14, the following year, General Eisenhower discussed the meaning of unconditional surrender with Edward R. Stettinius, and Captain Butcher wrote: “There is a feeling that at Casablanca the President and the Prime Minister, more likely the former, seized on Grant’s famous terms without realizing the full implications to the enemy. Goebbels has made great capital with it to strengthen the morale of the German people and army. Our psychological experts believe we would be wiser if we created a mood of acceptance of surrender in the German army which would make possible a collapse of resistance similar to that which took place in Tunisia.”

For a time President Roosevelt was averse to changing the terms, though General Eisenhower strongly urged that the President permit him to make a declaration after the Normandy landing to the German commander, “reciting in soldierly language the principal points of the surrender terms.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff instructed the Navy Department’s Special Warfare Branch to make a study of the unconditional surrender policy. Captain Ellis M. Zacharias, in his Secret Missions, recounts that the study showed the policy to have been a brilliant success as a morale builder in 1943, but that it had worked against Allied interests later on. By then the origin of the phrase appears to have been forgotten, for the Navy researchers went into the terms General Grant had offered to General Lee at Appomattox. “In the Civil War,” wrote Captain Zacharias, “General Grant was given power to accept the Confederacy’s surrender ‘unconditionally’—which meant that General Grant did not have to obtain the approval of President Lincoln or his cabinet for his acceptance. Other Northern generals were given similar powers conditionally, which meant that they had to obtain the approval of President Lincoln and, General Grant to making surrender arrangements. Thus it was evident that ‘unconditional surrender’ was an administrative term referring to the manner in which surrender could be accepted and not the manner in which it was to be demanded or offered.”

This tortured interpretation of “unconditional surrender” expressed Captain Zaeharias’s zeal to be able to offer certain conditions to the Japanese in his broadcasts to Japan which were to have much to do in bringing about Japanese capitulation. The ardent captain wished to assure the Japanese that they could keep the Emperor, and indeed he obtained authority to do so. For, as he says, President Roosevelt at the time of his death favored a revision of the phrase, and President Truman subsequently agreed to it.

Allen W. Dulles, stationed in Switzerland for the OSS during the war, and in close touch with resistance groups inside Germany, was to find that the “unconditional surrender” terms prevented more than one coup for the overthrow of Hitler. German generals apparently were on the verge of treason throughout the war, and any glimmer of compromise from the West might have assured the success of their conspiracies.


IT is impossible at this time to set up a balance sheet for the celebrated phrase. It gained much; it cost much. But even if the war in the West could have ended earlier and at lower cost by a compromise with German generals, that would have meant the survival of the German military, in spirit if not in actual power. And it is impossible to gauge what that might have meant to the world in years to come. In 1918 the German Army was beaten but saved its prestige, and a repetition of that survival might have meant another upsurge of German power and a third world war.

It is well to stress one gain from the policy. No voice has been or can be lifted by Germans or Japanese to the effect that they were cheated into surrender by promises that have not been kept. In neither country will a demagogue like Hitler be able to stir up the fury of the people by repeating the charge that they were the victims of betrayal. Hitler built up the legend that Wilson’s Fourteen Points had been the basis of the German surrender, and that the Allies had not kept their bargain. How much this legend was worth to him is, of course, only a surmise. It might have been the difference between success and failure, for it meant a great deal. He did not create the legend. It was there from the earliest days after Matthias Erzberger signed the Treaty of Versailles. The belief was shared by the mass of the German people.

At the time, little attention was paid in this country to the legend and its evil potentiality. It could have been disproved to the satisfaction of the most confirmed German patriot, had the United States taken the trouble to present its case. But the German people, having read of Wilson’s predilection for peace without victory, witnessed the destruction after the war of a German military power that did not appear to have been defeated in the field. What they were not convincingly told was that the Allies amended the Fourteen Points before they were accepted by the Germans. Nor did they understand that the Germans assented to the destruction of their military power knowing that they were militarily beaten without suffering the final defeat in the field, and knowing that to prolong the fight would cost only a needless sacrifice of countless lives.

The chief mistake of the Allies in agreeing to the Armistice of 1918 has usually been cited as the failure to march on Berlin and there to dictate the peace. But it also was a tragic mistake to permit the Germans to believe that they were offered a peace without victory or one based on the Fourteen Points. For this fertilized the ground from which a harvest of madness and revenge was to be gathered. It helped create a Hitler. It gave even moderate Germans an excuse for concealing the evasion of disarmament. It was the ethical justification for the intrigues of a man like Stresemann to reconstruct German power while pretending to incorporate Germany into a peaceful world. No doubt Marshal Foch was amply right in demanding the march to Berlin. But even without it a thoroughgoing disproof of the legend of betrayal might have done much to spare the world a disaster.

This passage of history will not be repeated. However reckless the first spontaneous announcement of “unconditional surrender” may have been, it will not permit another Hitler to sow again the lie about a peace of betrayal. When the Germans laid down their arms in 1945 it was an ineradicable confession of defeat. They expected hard terms and they never can pretend otherwise. The Japanese leaders are under no illusion that they were not overwhelmingly beaten. And while after the Second World War the Allies so far have wasted the peace like a prodigal running through a fortune, that has been their own folly, not the mistake of permitting righteous wrath to revive the enemy so that he is preparing to strike back. This is a consequence of President Roosevelt’s strange invention of a world doctrine, and one that will bless the world for many years.