Roosevelt Demands Unconditional Surrender

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Freedom Betrayed, by Herbert Hoover

The demand of unconditional surrender hung heavy over the Second World War; the term played a leading role in the buildup to the use of the atomic bomb by the United States against Japan. I have written about this in a review of another book, The Decision To Use the Atomic Bomb, by Gar Alperovitz. The review can be found here.

From my review of Alperovitz’ work, I quote the following:

During 1945, and especially after Germany was defeated, Japan made many overtures looking for a path to surrender. Japan did this directly to the U.S., and also through various other diplomatic channels. Additionally, the U.S., due to interception of Japanese transmissions, understood well the situation and desires of the Japanese government and Emperor.

An end of the war was desired. Japan’s primary (and substantially only) concern was with the continued insistence by the Americans of the idea of “unconditional surrender.” To Japan, this meant risking the life and government of the Emperor – a possibility that was beyond consideration. Japan seemed quite prepared for a complete surrender of all military activity and assets, but as the Emperor was in a manner considered a “god”, the idea of his embarrassment and dethroning – let alone the risk of standing for war crimes – was unthinkable.

Further, most U.S. military leaders made quite clear to the political leaders that the best hope for a surrender of Japanese military forces was for those forces to get the word from the Emperor – in other words, the maintenance of the Emperor was a necessity if there was to be hope of avoiding a devastating and continuing fight to the finish with Japan.

I do not intend to dive further into the end of the war and the decision regarding the use of the bomb at this time; I am looking forward to reading Hoover’s treatment on the matter. However, I refer to the Japanese view to demonstrate the strong impact the term “unconditional surrender” had on disallowing the bringing of the war to an earlier and less destructive conclusion.

The political leaders, primarily Roosevelt, continually insisted on the term, whereas the military leaders saw the cost this condition would have on the battlefield. So much for allowing military leaders the room to fight the war.

This concept of unconditional surrender as necessary to bring the was to conclusion first came into being as a result of the Casablanca Conference between Roosevelt and Churchill, in mid-January, 1943.

The military situation at the time was as follows: the Germans were defeated at Stalingrad in November, 1942, with the remainder of their troops in that region having surrendered to the Russians. According to General Anders, “For Germany, it was a blow from which she never recovered….” In the Pacific, MacArthur had achieved successes in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek were fighting against both the Japanese and the Chinese Communists, led by Mao Tse-tung.

To Stalin’s chagrin, Roosevelt and Churchill went soft on the timing of establishing a second front in Western Europe. Churchill conveyed to Stalin that the allies would be prepared for such an assault in August, but the commitment was quite conditional. Stalin desired the attack to come in the Spring or early Summer. Of course, it did not even come that year.

At the conclusion of the conference, Roosevelt and Churchill held a press conference. Roosevelt said that he and Churchill…

…were determined to accept nothing less than the unconditional surrender of Germany, Japan, and Italy…

Churchill said later that he was surprised by this statement. Churchill adds that he was told by Harry Hopkins that the President said to him:

…then suddenly the Press Conference was on, and Winston and I had had no time to prepare for it; and the thought popped into my mind that they had called Grant “Old Unconditional Surrender,” and the next thing I knew I had said it.

Is it possible that the President made such a strong demand off the cuff? Did it just pop into his mind, as he apparently told Hopkins? Did he not realize a press conference was upon him, with no time to prepare? Of all the things that might have popped into his mind, why this?

Roosevelt repeated the statement later (for example in a February 1943 address to the White House Correspondents’ Association), demonstrating that it was not a passing phase.

Hoover continues:

The Chiefs of Staff were apparently not consulted. Admiral William D. Leahy, in his book, says:

…As far as I could learn, this policy had not been discussed with the Combined Chiefs and, from a military viewpoint, its execution might add to our difficulties in succeeding campaigns because it would mean we would have to destroy the enemy….

Others in the military expressed similar concerns. Such a demand would compel the Germans (and eventually the Japanese) to fight to the last. Instead of being encouraged to withdraw support from Hitler, such a demand would place even the most moderate of German military leaders and soldiers in the position to have to fight unto the end. It would weld the enemy together, instead of offering an opportunity to break the enemy apart. Military leaders added that the result of “unconditional surrender” would be to destroy Germany, leaving Russia to dominate Europe after the war.

German generals, in interviews after the war, commented on the difficulty of this condition. In interviews with British historian B. H. Liddell Hart, generals told him “that but for this they and their troops – the factor that was more important – would have been ready to surrender sooner, separately or collectively…”

In a most prophetic statement, early in 1943 the Spanish Foreign Minister Count Francisco Gomez Jordana y Souza sent a memorandum to British Ambassador Sir Samuel Hoare:

…If events develop in the future as they have up to now, it would be Russia which will penetrate deep into German territory. And we ask the question: if this should occur, which is the greater danger not only for the continent but for England herself, a Germany not totally defeated and with sufficient strength to serve as a rampart against Communism, a Germany hated by all her neighbors, which would deprive her of authority though she remained intact, or a Sovietized Germany which would certainly furnish Russia with the added strength of her war preparations, her engineers, her specialised workmen and technicians, which would enable Russia to extend herself an empire without precedent from the Atlantic to the Pacific? …And we ask a second question: is there anybody in the centre of Europe, in that mosaic of countries without consistency or unity, bled moreover by war and foreign domination, who could contain the ambitions of Stalin: There is certainly no one…

In 1949, Edward C. W. von Selzam, a former member of the German Foreign Service, in a letter to the New York Times, said regarding the condition of unconditional surrender that it

…drove most of the vacillating generals away from the opposition, and attached them for “better or worse” to Hitler…. In this, I contend, the real tragedy of the Casablanca Declaration is to be found.

Lord Beaverbrook, a member of the British Cabinet, in 1949 denounced “Unconditional Surrender” as the greatest blunder of the war.

Hanson Baldwin, military editor of the New York Times, gave his view:

… [Unconditional surrender] was perhaps the biggest political mistake of the war….it was an open invitation to unconditional resistance; it discouraged opposition to Hitler, probably lengthened the war, cost us lives….

But was it simply a “political mistake”? On several occasions, by both military and political leaders, Roosevelt was approached about this demand. In some cases, the desire was to seek clarification – what exactly was meant by the term (in 1945, this was certainly important to the Japanese, as the primary concern was for the future of the emperor)? Such clarification would have made it easier, perhaps, for the enemy to stop the fight. In other cases, it was to stop referring to this condition – soft-peddle it, if you will.

In each case, Roosevelt refused. Despite the costs to the U.S. and allied military of fighting an enemy with this unconditional surrender hanging over their heads, Roosevelt would not budge. What others have graciously called a “blunder” or a “mistake” seems instead to have been a carefully chosen path by Roosevelt. He (and later Truman) had countless opportunities to take a different approach. They chose not to do so. This choice prolonged the war, and in doing so cost countless thousands if not millions of lives of combatants and civilians for both the allies and the enemy.

I will refer to a statement made by George Victor, in his book The Pearl Harbor Myth: Rethinking the Unthinkable:

Events are poorly explained by making assumptions that crucial acts by competent, conscientious leaders were capricious, careless, or negligent. And U.S. leaders who figured in the Pearl Harbor disaster were highly competent and conscientious.

While Victor was speaking of the events preceding Pearl Harbor, it strikes me that the statement is equally applicable to events in Germany. For such a significant event as the terms by which the greatest war the world has known would be brought to an end, it is not possible that this idea was born on the fly. This was a deliberate choice by Roosevelt, and later continued by Truman. If the desire was to bring an early end to the war, it was a tragic choice. Therefore, one must conclude there was a different desire.

Reprinted with permission from the Bionic Mosquito.

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