Reassessing Unconditional Surrender

The Western insistence on the unconditional surrender of its military opponents has its roots in a World War II strategy that backfired, making peace more difficult to achieve.

On the whole the Anglo-American alliance fought World War II effectively after the fall of France. Compared to the appalling failures and disasters of the First World War and the bloody blunders committed by the Soviets—much less by the Axis powers—the Americans and English developed successful strategies and used their resources efficiently. Nonetheless, they made mistakes, and one of the most frequently noted, but also a decision that has been sometimes passionately defended, concerns the demand for unconditional surrender imposed on the Axis powers.

This Allied policy, which was announced at the Casablanca conference in January 1943, has remained understandably controversial. Initially, the unconditional surrender was demanded only for Germany, Italy, and Japan. Later it was extended to the minor Axis states of Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. In these latter cases, however, the demand was meaningless since the Soviets had appropriated the armies of those countries in the final campaigns against Germany.

The prime motive for the unconditional-surrender demand was to forestall German and Japanese claims that they had not really been beaten. The demand would also discredit any claim from the Axis powers that they had been promised better treatment than they received. After World War I and the harsh Treaty of Versailles, the Germans voiced a grievance that they had been promised fairer treatment. This grievance was used to argue that the Weimar Republic had made a humiliating peace treaty instead of seeking better terms.

Even today, Western military leaders continue to repeat the formula of demanding the unconditional surrender of their military opponents and ruling out negotiated solutions: U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld demanded it of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and the U.S.-led coalition demanded it against ISIS in Syria. As of January, U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley said that the Russo-Ukrainian War would “end at some sort of negotiating table.” It was clear that the table Milley envisions is similar to the ones the leaders of Japan and Germany signed unconditional surrenders on, after he added that the United States and NATO are committed to helping Ukraine push Russia out of both Donbas and the Crimean Peninsula.

The demand for unconditional surrender did not bring an early end to the war, even after it was clear that the Axis could no longer win.

Despite the logic behind the unconditional surrender, much criticism has been made of this demand, not all of which can be easily addressed in a short space. Some of the older literature has argued that without a demand for unconditional surrender, the war would have ended much sooner, and Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe could have been prevented or the effects mitigated. Early scholarly defenders of unconditional surrender, like Wallace Carroll and Herbert Feis, both renowned diplomatic historians, were not particularly keen on these severe surrender terms, but argued that they did no harm. (Feis was unusual in opposing the demand for unconditional surrender in the case of Japan. He even maintained that Japan should have been allowed to keep its older colonies, such as Taiwan.) More recently, it has become fashionable to dodge the terms in question entirely or else to attack the critics of unconditional surrender unfairly as being in favor of keeping the Nazis in power.

Roosevelt and Churchill read an announcement of their policy demanding the unconditional surrender of the Axis Powers at the Casablanca Conference in French Morocco in January 1943 (National Museum of the U.S. Navy)

On the whole, the demand for unconditional surrender was unimaginative and certainly did not encourage disintegration in the enemy camp. Although Roosevelt and Churchill stressed that their policy did not mean the destruction of the German, Italian, and Japanese peoples, the demand for unconditional surrender did not bring an early end to the war, even after it was clear that the Axis could no longer win. Whether it was a “deal breaker” in preventing the success of the attempted coup against Hitler in July 1944 is something we can only speculate about, but we know that the German resistance certainly did not consider this demand useful for its cause, which depended on the support of wavering German military commanders. And a great deal depended on German resistance, for, had it succeeded in getting rid of the Nazi rulers, the war would have ended quickly.

Remarkably enough, many leaders in the Axis countries and even German resistance leaders (at least at first) did not take unconditional surrender seriously. They viewed it as a propaganda stunt and persisted in believing that the enemy coalition would break apart, and that the Western powers would make some sort of deal with them short of unconditional surrender. Eventually, the German resistance leaders did come to understand that the demand was serious, and unfortunately, it weakened their hand. But even Hitler’s opponents in Germany continued to hope that a negotiated peace was possible once they overthrew the Nazi state.

Unconditional surrender could have been limited to an insistence that the enemy armed forces surrender unconditionally. Curiously, the Truman administration did take that position, in effect, in sending messages to Japan in May 1945. That happened even before the Allies issued, two months later, their well-advertised Potsdam Declaration, which contained assurances about avoiding vindictive treatment if Japan surrendered. Such assurances should have been coupled with a clear statement that the promises contained in the Atlantic Charter would apply to the defeated enemy states and that the sooner they surrendered, the better off they would be.

The Atlantic Charter, declared jointly by the American and British governments in August 1941, contained among its statements the renunciation of territorial expansion by the signatories as well as the recognition of all countries’ rights to be secure in their borders. The Charter also looked forward to a new international order that those countries—which in 1941 were the joint enemies of the U.S. and England—would be allowed to join, presumably with different governments. Supporters of such assurances also favored drawing a distinction between the leaders of the two countries (Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan) and their peoples.

As for Italy and the lesser Axis states, a demand for unconditional surrender should never have been adopted. In fact, a surrender by those countries would have meant nothing other than changing sides. Whatever justification might have been given for applying unconditional surrender to Germany and Japan made no sense whatever in relation to Italy, much less to Germany’s allies against Russia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Churchill and Eisenhower foresaw this problem, but Churchill was overruled by his cabinet, and Eisenhower made no headway against the dogmatic insistence of the U.S. State Department on the need for “integral” unconditional surrender.

The announcement of this policy, without sufficient qualifications, was particularly unfortunate in its timing—January 1943—because it coincided with a real crisis in German and Axis morale, which the Allies failed to exploit. German morale had already sharply declined in the fall of 1942, as it became obvious that the war would not end soon and that Japan had shot its bolt. And things only got worse with disasters in Russia and the Mediterranean. The morale crisis was eventually overcome when most Germans discovered that they were able to hold Allied gains in Italy to a minimum after the Allies invaded that country. (Even Hitler was surprised to learn that his forces were able to hold off the Allied invasion south of Rome.) As the historian Marlis Steinert pointed out, the situation in Germany from early 1943 to September 1943 may have been more favorable for a coup against the regime than was the case in July 1944, when the German resistance failed.

The Morgenthau Plan … would “deindustrialize” Germany and leave the country permanently impoverished. Bitter opposition inside and outside the administration eventually brought the American president to his senses.

In any case, the Allies behaved with notable foolishness in 1944, when Roosevelt accepted, for at least six weeks, the reckless plan of his treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau. According to the Morgenthau Plan, which Roosevelt provisionally signed onto at the Quebec Conference, the Allies would “deindustrialize” Germany and leave the country permanently impoverished. Bitter opposition inside and outside the administration eventually brought the American president to his senses.

Japan, too, should have been offered at an earlier date definite terms in negotiations—for example, allowing the monarchy to continue. This would have been an improved version of the Potsdam Declaration, which left the question open. That was a necessary but, for Japanese leaders, not sufficient concession in return for a Japanese surrender. Until the dropping of the atomic attack on Hiroshima, even the moderates, not to mention the military hard-liners, hoped to obtain better terms. And many Japanese leaders did not take seriously what were Allied terms made at the Allied conference in Cairo, in 1943. The condition set forth there, that Japan should give up its colonies, might have been interpreted by the Japanese as a disguised peace-feeler.

Japanese General Yoshijiro Umezu signs a proclamation of unconditional surrender aboard the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945 (U.S. National Archives)

Until 1945, Marquis Kido, keeper of the lord privy seal and the emperor’s political counselor, even hoped to keep Manchuria; and Admiral Toyoda, the relatively moderate navy chief of staff, admitted to American interrogators after the war that Japanese leadership had not expected the American government to insist on the Cairo terms. Indecision on the matter of the imperial house, at such a late date, was indefensible, and in some circumstances, might have been very costly.

Once the atomic bomb was dropped, the Japanese were willing to accept the Allied position that only one condition would be granted to the defeated power: the preservation of the monarchy. The Japanese were still holding out until that point against an occupation and in favor of having their country disarm on its own. It is possible to debate whether these concessions should have been granted in order to shorten the war and the accompanying bloodshed.

Below are political mistakes committed by the Allies other than the demand for unconditional surrender.
(Strategic mistakes were also made, but those would require a separate essay to examine appropriately.)

1) Relations with the Free French and Italian governments (after Italy surrendered) were often badly handled. The former was the fault of the Americans, the latter the fault of the British. These errors were not fatal, but things would have been worse had Eisenhower and his political advisers not been saner and more realistic than other people in Washington and London.

2) There were disastrous mistakes made in dealing with the Soviets. In the last part of the war, the Western armies, as Churchill correctly argued, should have pushed as far as possible to the east, and especially into Czechoslovakia, where the Soviet military presence significantly aided the Soviets and Czech Communists. Whether the Western powers could have successfully used their penetration into the occupation zone in Germany to pressure Stalin into treating the Soviet-occupied countries decently—as Churchill, after the war, hoped would happen—is hard to determine. Unfortunately, whatever should have been the case, the Americans and British—and that included most people in Churchill’s government—were emotionally unprepared for an early confrontation with the Soviets.

This was by no means due solely to the unrealistic portrayal of the Soviets peddled by American and British officials, (some of whom were fools or worse). Arguably, the presentation of these falsehoods was at least partly motivated by fears that the Soviets would make a separate peace. There was also some fear in high places that anything smacking of an open quarrel or visible distrust between the Allies would encourage the Axis. In retrospect, it seems that the fears of a separate peace between the Soviet and Nazi governments became vastly exaggerated as the war progressed. This was particularly true after the Soviets moved into Eastern Europe in 1944 in pursuit of the fleeing German armies, all the while occupying the countries between Russia and Germany. There was just no chance that the Russians were going to spare the Germans an inevitable defeat.

Anyone who examines the news and entertainment media at the time, as well as the views expressed by contemporary “authorities” on international affairs will observe a near-universal failure to understand even the most elementary facts about the Soviet Union. There was even cowardice on the part of some people who knew, or should have known, better. The mistake of not cutting back aid to Soviet industry, late in the war, strengthened the Soviets’ military position. This helped Stalin’s government set up Soviet-style dictatorships throughout Eastern Europe, with horrendous consequences. Although we can approve of the overthrow of the Nazi empire in Europe, the question remains to what extent the substitution of Stalin’s tyranny for Hitler’s was avoidable.

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