The Failure and Consequences of FDR’s Unconditional Surrender Policy

On the afternoon of January 24, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed a group of reporters on the progress of World War II. The setting was Casablanca, French Morocco, and at Roosevelt’s side was British prime minister, Winston Churchill, with whom the president had just completed an 11-day conference. After briefing the reporters on topics discussed at the meeting, Roosevelt paused to clarify what the Allies were fighting for. Because, Roosevelt explained, “peace can come to the world only by the total elimination of German and Japanese war power,” Allied victory would be defined as “the unconditional surrender [of] Germany, Italy, and Japan.”

The public announcement of this policy was both unprecedented and audacious. The unconditional surrender of an entire nation, found British politician Lord Maurice Hankey, had not been demanded since the days of Rome’s war with Carthage 2,000 years before. While the unconditional surrender policy would have ramifications in Italy and Japan, it was the war with Germany that would most clearly display its deleterious effects. Roosevelt’s demand would become one of his most controversial war policies and would be regarded by some as his greatest mistake.

How the United States Came to War with Germany

Although it was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that pulled the United States into World War II, Roosevelt had always been primarily concerned with the war in Europe. In spite of promises to keep the United States out of war, Roosevelt worked publicly and behind the scenes from 1939 on to aid the Allies, going so far as to undertake joint war planning with Britain in early 1941. Roosevelt, stymied in his attempts to convince Americans to join the war, took a progressively belligerent stance towards Germany, including policies designed to intentionally create incidents between American and German naval vessels, followed by shoot-on-sight orders on German U-Boats – actions that could plausibly have been interpreted as outright war. The president’s desire to fight the Germans was no secret.

This conclusion, it should be noted, is not particularly controversial. Roosevelt’s supporters have long admitted that he pulled a reluctant America into the Second World War, with only some criticizing his dishonesty in doing so. When historians William Langer and Everett Gleason, by no means opponents of the war, wrote what would become a respected history of Roosevelt’s policy before Pearl Harbor, they titled it The Undeclared War. The narrative of an undeclared war was supported by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Harold Stark, who remarked in the Fall of 1941 that, due to the increasing conflicts between American and German ships, “Whether the country knows it or not, we are at war.”

German dictator Adolf Hitler, hoping to avoid adding America to his growing list of enemies, had ordered his submarines to avoid engagements with American ships. But Hitler’s resolve to avoid war, already weakened by the naval conflicts, was further diminished when on December 5, 1941, American newspapers leaked a War Plans Department proposal for war against Germany. Revealed just two days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the plan called for five million American soldiers to invade the European continent as early as 1943. Even though Germany’s Tripartite Pact with Japan did not require Germany to declare war on the U.S. after Pearl Harbor, Hitler realized, as Stark had, that the two countries were already at war and made it official on December 11. Roosevelt finally had the war he wanted.

The Seeds of Unconditional Surrender

One reason why Roosevelt was so eager to get into the European war was that he, like Churchill, perceived World War II as the continuation of a long pattern of German militarism. During the war, Churchill claimed that “twice within our lifetime, and three times counting that of our fathers, [the Germans] have plunged the world into their wars of expansion and aggression,” referring to the two world wars and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. Because they believed Germany was so uniquely militaristic, Roosevelt and Churchill said that it must be totally defeated.

Nurtured by the propaganda of two world wars, these opinions manifested in a virulent hatred of Germans at the highest levels of both governments. Roosevelt privately believed that “We have got to be tough with Germany, and I mean the German people, not just the Nazis. You either have to castrate [them] or you have got to treat them in such a manner so they can’t just go on reproducing people who want to continue the way they have in the past.” Across the Atlantic, British hatred for the Germans found its voice in Lord Robert Vasittart, who claimed the Germans were “a nation of killers” and “spiritual dope fiends,” on a 150-year high on the drug of militarism. “Eighty percent of the German race,” he wrote, “are the political and moral scum of the earth.”

This Allied interpretation of German history was more than a little overwrought. At the start of the Franco-Prussian War, it was the French, believing that their national pride had been insulted, that had declared war on Prussia. True, they had been manipulated by Prussian president Otto von Bismark, who viewed war as an effective way to complete his desired unification of Germany’s independent states. But France was concerned that a united Germany would alter Europe’s balance of power and didn’t need much prodding. After the war, German unification was completed under Prussian leadership.

In the interlude between the Franco-Prussian War and World War I, France and Britain aggressively expanded their empires and fought wars of conquest in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, while Belgium tortured and murdered 10 million Africans in its subjugation of the Congo. Even the United States joined in the imperial chase, fighting first the Spanish and then Filipino guerrillas to secure its domination of the Philippines. While Germany also acquired imperial possessions, it was, in the words of historian Anne Armstrong, “the only great power of the period between 1871 and 1914 to avoid war.” On the eve of World War I, both Britain and France ruled over significantly larger empires than Germany did, while the New York Times praised Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II as Europe’s “greatest factor for peace” in the prior quarter century.

When World War I broke out, the Allies blamed it on German aggression, a claim that has been debated ever since. While the Germans undoubtedly had some responsibility for the war, they clearly did not start it and its spread had many factors, including Europe’s web of alliances, lingering French animosity for Germany and British concerns over Germany’s growing influence. In other words, from the Franco-Prussian War through World War I, Germany was not a nation of pacifists, but neither was it uniquely belligerent.

While Roosevelt’s theory of incorrigible German militarism had a shaky foundation before 1939, World War II was clearly the result of German aggression, leading him to conclude that Hitler’s expansionist program derived from the German military establishment. Roosevelt, wrote Armstrong, viewed the German General Staff, the head of the German military, “as a criminal organization and…the German, and specifically the Prussian, professional officers as militarists and warmongers and enemies of democracy…”

But this, too, was hardly rooted in fact. Going back to the unification under Bismark, the German military had traditionally left foreign policy in civilian hands. Gottlieb von Jagow, Germany’s foreign minister at the start of the World War I, said that the General Staff cautioned against the war, saying that it would result in “the mutual butchery of the civilized nations of almost all Europe.” A generation later, Hitler likewise found the army reluctant to encourage war. Hitler said that when he became chancellor, “I thought the German General Staff was like a butcher’s dog – something to be held tight by the collar because it threatened to attack all and sundry. Since then I have had to recognize that the General Staff is anything but that. It has consistently tried to impede every action that I have thought necessary.” Hitler ruefully reported, “It is I who have always had to goad on this butcher’s dog.”

While many professional officers appreciated that Hitler was rebuilding the army after years of limitations under the Versailles Treaty, the German military was an unlikely source of support for Hitler or his conquistadorial spirit. The German military tradition was heavily influenced by Prussian society, which stressed courage, orderliness and respect for the law, virtues that Armstrong observed were “in direct opposition [to the] general atmosphere of the Nazi party and of the Nazi era in German public life…” Historian Thomas Fleming agreed, writing, “[The Nazis’] vulgar uniforms, their gaudy banners, their macho posturing were polar opposites of the austere style of the Prussian aristocracy.” The conflict, wrote Armstrong, went both ways, as Hitler “resented the moral disdain of Prussian officers…for Nazi posturing and flamboyance, he resented the conservatism and legalism and what he considered pessimism and defeatism which impelled the generals to disagree with all his plans for expansion.” Rather than fueling Hitler’s policies, “It was this basic dichotomy…which game impetus to the rise of an anti-Nazi movement within Germany.”

Foremost among Hitler’s opponents in the army was its chief of staff, General Ludwig Beck who, Armstrong wrote, “opposed both the aims and the methods of the regime.” As Hitler became increasingly belligerent in the late 1930s, Beck opposed him at every turn, finally resigning in protest when the führer proved unmovable. But Beck was far from alone in his opposition. Albert Wedemeyer, an American general during the war, spent two years in Germany from 1936-1938 as part of a war college exchange program. Wedemeyer reported the disdain the German officer class had for Hitler, writing “There would be veiled statements, sometimes hints which would indicate shame, disgust, or displeasure with the Nazis.” These sentiments would later balloon into outright conspiracy.

Roosevelt acknowledged none of the complexity of German history or society. Instead, he lumped Nazi radicals and conservative officers into one amorphous blob, saying in September 1943, that “when Hitler and the Nazis go out, the Prussian military clique must go with them.” To the extent that Roosevelt’s theory of German militarism was an important justification for unconditional surrender, the policy, wrote Fleming, “was aimed at a target that did not exist.”

The Announcement of Unconditional Surrender

Roosevelt’s son, Elliott, would later report that his father spontaneously thought of the phrase at the end of the Casablanca Conference. According to the younger Roosevelt, the president excitedly predicted that unconditional surrender would impress the Russians, exclaiming that “Uncle Joe [Roosevelt’s pet name for Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin] might have thought it up himself.” But the claimed spontaneity of the announcement was a bald-faced lie. Roosevelt had discussed the idea with adviser Norman H. Davis months before the conference and had referred to “the simple formula of placing the objective of this war in terms of an unconditional surrender” in a Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting on January 7, 1943, two and a half weeks before the announcement.

Roosevelt’s explanation of the historical precedent for unconditional surrender was similarly unsatisfying. Roosevelt said that he had been inspired by Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant, who had earned the moniker “Unconditional Surrender” Grant during the war. What was good enough for Grant, Roosevelt surmised, was good enough for him. One problem: Grant earned his nickname not during Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Virginia in 1865, but three years earlier when he demanded, and received, the unconditional surrender of a single garrison at Fort Donelson, Tennessee. Lee’s surrender at the end of the war had followed a traditional – that is to say, conditional – course, and did not represent the surrender of the entire Confederacy in any event. Grant’s example was clearly not the precedent Roosevelt thought it was. The president’s grasp of history was not improving.

The Allied Response 

Roosevelt’s reported prediction of Russian enthusiasm for unconditional surrender was similarly off target. At his first face-to-face meeting with Stalin later in 1943, Uncle Joe informed him that he didn’t care for the policy. According to Roosevelt aide Robert Sherwood, Stalin “felt that to leave the principle of unconditional surrender unclarified merely served to unite the German people.” It wasn’t the last time that Stalin would defy Roosevelt’s predictions.

The British also had reservations. For most of the war, Churchill was ambivalent, at times supporting the policy and at others doubting it. While he publicly backed Roosevelt, Fleming noted that “Inwardly, the prime minister was dumbfounded by FDR’s announcement – and dismayed by its probable impact on the conduct and outcome of the war.” As the war progressed, Churchill remarked that it was inadvisable to keep “uttering the slogan ‘Unconditional Surrender,'” thereby getting Germans “all fused together in a solid desperate block for whom there is no hope.” General Sir Stewart Graham Menzies, chief of the British secret intelligence service, solemnly predicted that the policy would make the Germans fight “with the despairing ferocity of cornered rats.”

The harshest criticism of Roosevelt’s policy came from Americans. Top officials and military officers – including Roosevelt’s Chief of Staff Admiral William Leahy, Secretary of State Cordell Hull and General Dwight Eisenhower – considered the policy a massive blunder that was likely to increase American casualties. Major General Ira Eaker, commander of the U.S. Eighth Air Force, was particularly incisive, reporting after the war that,

Everybody that I knew at that time when they heard this, said: ‘How stupid can you be?’ All the soldiers and the airmen who were fighting this war wanted the Germans to quit tomorrow… A child knew that once you said this to the Germans, they were going to fight to the last man. There wasn’t a man who was actually fighting in this war whom I ever met who didn’t think that this was about as stupid an operation as you could find.

Wedemeyer, who attended the Casablanca Conference as an adviser, stated his belief that unconditional surrender would “unquestionably compel the Germans to fight to the very last.” With his firsthand knowledge of anti-Nazi sentiment in Germany, he “was confident that there were many people in Germany…who wanted to get rid of Hitler. Our demand for unconditional surrender would only weld all of the Germans together.”

The Nazi Response and the German Resistance

Roosevelt’s announcement was greeted differently in Berlin, where Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s chief propagandist, could scarcely believe the cornucopia of propaganda fodder he had been handed. Goebbels exclaimed, “I should never have been able to think up so rousing a slogan. If our Western enemies tell us, we won’t deal with you, our only aim is to destroy you…how can any German, whether he likes it or not, do anything but fight on with all his strength?” The Allies had already been cautioned against giving this impression to the German people. Before the war, German diplomat Adam von Trott zu Solz warned Americans that it would be a mistake to make it appear that the upcoming war would be about destroying Germany. Trott predicted that “Even though the German people are increasingly opposed to the National-Socialist Government and embittered by its policies, it is clear that only a negligible minority of Germans will deny their support even to the present regime, if the preservation of the German nation is at stake.”

Trott had a vested interest in preventing this from happening. He was part of a small but influential group of military officers, clergy, students and members of the aristocracy that had been working to undermine Hitler since at least 1938. That year, Trott encouraged Britain and France to take a hard line with Hitler, believing that a diplomatic crisis could lead to a military overthrow of the Nazi regime. Britain and France, unable to ascertain Trott’s sincerity, took no action.

After the war began, Menzies, the head of British intelligence, maintained contact with Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, his counterpart in the German intelligence agency Abwehr. A secret opponent of the Nazis, Canaris had failed to get the British to support the resistance in the first months of the war, and his hopes of gaining American support met a similarly disappointing end. In November 1941, leading anti-Nazis met with American newsman Louis Lochner in Berlin, asking him to carry news of their movement to Roosevelt. By the time Lochner got back to the United States in July 1942, the U.S. and Germany were at war and Lochner, wrote Fleming, was told “that the president had no interest in his information about a German resistance movement to Hitler.”

Unable to secure outside support, what the resistance needed was a turn in the war’s tide, a clear indication that Hitler was leading Germany into ruin. This turn came in late 1942, when the German drive on the Russian city of Stalingrad was halted and the German Sixth Army surrounded. On January 24, 1943, the Russians split the surrounded army in two, shattering any hope that the Germans could somehow emerge victorious. For the resistance, Stalingrad, which resulted in over 400,000 German casualties, was exactly what they had been waiting for. The defeat, wrote Armstrong, “shattered [German] faith…in the integrity of the Supreme Commander and in the possibility of a final German victory.” The German people would be more receptive than ever to an overthrow of the Nazi regime. But in a display of impeccably bad timing, Roosevelt chose exactly this moment to announce his unconditional surrender demand. Just as the German people were being pulled away from Hitler, Roosevelt was driving them back to him.

A distraught Canaris remarked that Roosevelt’s announcement had “disarmed us of the last weapon with which we could have ended [the war].” Canaris believed that the German generals who would have joined in the resistance to Hitler would now refuse to weaken the nation’s unity when faced with an enemy that seemed bent on its destruction. In this Canaris’ was prescient, as the announcement, wrote Armstrong, “deterred many German officers from taking action against the Nazi government.” High-ranking general Alfred Jodl, while expressing sympathy with the resistance, declined to participate in it due to the unconditional surrender demand. He believed, wrote Armstrong, “that there was now clearly no political solution possible, that there was only one way out – a fight to the finish – that capitulation under the Casablanca Formula would be the end of the German nation.”

The Resistance Plots Hitler’s Overthrow

Back in the United States, American officials pressed Roosevelt mitigate the damage to the German resistance by at least acknowledging it. In early 1943, American diplomat George Earle met with one of Canaris’ representatives, who asked that he carry a message to Roosevelt requesting recognition of the resistance and a reconsideration of unconditional surrender if Hitler were overthrown. Earle enthusiastically delivered this message to Roosevelt, but was told to drop the matter and stop talking to Canaris. William Donovan and Allen Dulles, both agents with America’s Office of Strategic Services, brought other proposals from the resistance, offering information on German war plans in return for recognition and support, but were also rejected. Roosevelt’s position was clear: he would negotiate with nobody within Germany.

Killing Hitler became the resistance’s top priority. From the disaster at Stalingrad on, 1943 was a year of reversals for the German army, which caused an increasing number of officers to conclude that, despite the unconditional surrender demand, a negotiated peace was the only way to save Germany. But this would only be possible if Hitler were removed from power. During 1943, General Henning von Tresckow orchestrated three attempts on Hitler’s life, but each one failed. Undeterred, the resistance plotted an attack that could be carried out by someone with easy access to the dictator.

But overthrowing Hitler was only part of the resistance’s problem. The plotters also had to work out what kind of government would take his place. Without any input from the Allies, the plotters tried develop a government that could negotiate peace while simultaneously preventing an internal civil war. The prevailing plan was that, upon the successful assassination of Hitler, a respected officer like General Beck would become head of state and an experienced politician like Carl Freiderich Goerdeler, the anti-Nazi former mayor of Leipzig, would be chancellor. The conspirators developed a policy platform which included banning Nazi symbols, arresting top Nazis and putting the SS and Gestapo into concentration camps, putting accused war criminals on trial, paying reparations to the Nazis’ victims and restoring the rule of law under a new constitution. Based on the resistance’s drafts of who would fill key political positions, Armstrong concluded that “The government which would have resulted from a successful overthrow of Hitler would have been predominately conservative but it would certainly not have been the tool of a small clique of reactionary militarists.”

As the planned date for D-Day, the Allied invasion of Europe, neared, Allied military leaders again pleaded with Roosevelt to support the resistance and to make it clear that the Allies were not trying to, as one memo said, “extinguish the German people or Germany as a nation.” In April and May 1944, General Eisenhower noted that Goebbels was still using unconditional surrender to bolster German morale. Seeking to lighten the resistance his invasion forces would face in Europe, the general tried to get Roosevelt to soften his position on unconditional surrender. Eisenhower’s aide, Captain Harry Butcher, wrote, “Our psychological experts believe we would be wiser if we created a mood of acceptance of surrender in the German Army.” Eisenhower hoped to broadcast a message to German soldiers calling for them to surrender and promising fair treatment in return. Eisenhower warned, wrote Armstrong, “that the failure to issue such a statement would neglect the opportunity of exploiting the crisis in Wehrmacht morale which would inevitably result from a successful Allied landing.”

Eisenhower’s pleas were buttressed by a message from Abwehr agent Hans Bernd Gisevius who indicated, wrote Armstrong, “that many of the leading generals were then ready to break with the Hitler government in order to prevent further senseless loss of lives.” While this was not an offer of unconditional surrender, Fleming observed that a revision of Roosevelt’s terms offered a chance to secure “a bloodless conquest of the western front.” Top German commanders – including General Erwin Rommel, to whom Hitler had given responsibility for defending against the invasion – had worked for months to develop an armistice proposal that could be communicated to the Allies. The proposal, according to Armstrong,

provided for the German evacuation of the Western Theater and withdrawal behind the Westwall in return for the immediate termination of Allied bombing of German cities. In the East the front was to be shortened and held, Hitler and his top aides would be arrested and tried by a German court; the Nazi party would be removed from power and abolished; the German people would be informed of the true political and military situations. Later a final peace settlement could be arranged.

“Obviously,” continued Armstrong, “such an armistice would have required a change of policy.” But Roosevelt again ignored the concerns of his generals and the advice of his spies. No change was coming.


Roosevelt’s refusal to acknowledge the resistance very nearly destroyed the entire plot against Hitler. Among the German generals, even dedicated anti-Nazis threatened to abandon the attempt to overthrow Hitler, convinced that the Allies were intent on the destruction of Germany no matter who was in power. “The conspiracy could very well have disintegrated entirely,” wrote Armstrong, “had not General Beck remained firm: for moral reasons the crimes of the Nazi government must be stopped, regardless of the consequences.”

Other conspirators came to similar conclusions. Tresckow remarked,

The assassination must be attempted, at any cost. Even should that fail, the attempt to seize power in the capital must be undertaken. We must prove to the world and to future generations that the men of the German resistance movement dared to take the decisive step and to hazard their lives upon it. Compared with this object, nothing else matters.

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the man pegged to carry out the next attack, was in Fleming’s words, “filled with loathing for Hitler” because of the Nazis “vicious deeds.” Stauffenberg despaired further over the Allied terror bombing of German cities, which was mercilessly pounding German civilians and centers of culture to the point that Stauffenberg lamented that “A thousand years of civilization are being destroyed.” On July 20, 1944, a month and a half following the Allied invasion, Stauffenberg got his chance to do something about it.

The plot, code-named Valkyrie, took place at the Wolf’s Lair in eastern Germany. Stauffenberg, attending a meeting with Hitler and other officers, was to detonate two bombs carried in a briefcase. Once Hitler was dead, General Beck was to take command of German Home Army units and arrest SS soldiers and Nazi officials. A broadcast would then be sent out announcing the formation of a new government, led by Beck and Goerdeler, that would seek a quick end to the war.

But just as he had during previous assassination attempts, Hitler unwittingly saved his own life, this time by moving the meeting from an underground bunker to a hut. When Stauffenberg’s bomb (he only had time to activate one of them) went off, the blast was dissipated through the hut’s thin walls rather than reverberating throughout the room as it would have in the bunker. Crucially, another officer moved the briefcase that carried the bomb a few feet away from Hitler. Stauffenberg, who had excused himself a few minutes before the bomb exploded, believed the attack had been a success and signaled to the resistance to set the rest of the plan into motion. In Paris, General Heinrich von Stuelpnagel arrested all the Nazis in the city, and army officers in Berlin ordered the Home Army to do the same. But the Home Army demanded evidence that Hitler was dead before they would take action, and when it was revealed that Hitler had survived the attack, they turned from arresting Nazis to hunting down the conspirators.

The plot was a complete failure. Within days, roughly 7,000 Germans were arrested in connection with the plot and either executed, sent to concentration camps or put on show trials. Tresckow, ruminating on the fallout from the failed plot, told co-conspirator General Fabian von Schlabrendorff, “I am convinced more than ever that we have done the right thing… A man’s moral worth is established only at the point where he is prepared to give his life for his convictions.” He then committed suicide rather than be tortured by the Nazis. Beck and Rommel also committed suicide, while Stauffenberg was executed by firing squad in a courtyard. Another conspirator, Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben, was hung from meat hooks with piano wire.

It is impossible to say exactly how, or even if, the plot could have ultimately succeeded. But after the war, the surviving conspirators stated a firm belief that Roosevelt’s unconditional surrender demand bore at least some of the blame for it’s failure. Schlabrendorff wrote that the policy, “had an exclusively negative effect on the various groups of the German people” and undermined the resistance by dramatically reducing the number of people willing to join it. “[The] chances of success of the assassination attempt of July 20, “wrote Armstrong, “would have been entirely different if the demand for unconditional surrender had not been proclaimed.” Even so,

…men like Beck, Witzleben, Goerdeler, Stauffenberg, Tresckow, Trott, and many others arrived at their own unconditional decision: despite their bitter disappointment with…the pharisaic attitude and political ineptitude of the Western powers, despite the probable cost to their nation’s future in economic, political, and cultural terms, despite the doubt concerning their own positions in the future history of Germany, they determined that they must act, if not to prevent a catastrophe then at least to remove one. Many of them were puzzled, shocked, or disheartened by the announcement of the Casablanca Formula and by the Allied persistence in it, but they were not deterred by it. When they finally acted in July, 1944, it was in spite of Unconditional Surrender. It was solely to take one action to salvage what still remained of German honor.

The official Allied commentary on the plot was simply that there was an internal struggle for power between different factions of Nazis. The Allies, observed Armstrong, claimed that the conspirators “had no resonance among the German people, and no genuine anti-Nazi political or moral motivation.” This was bunk. Armstrong observed,

The resistance had cells and representatives spread throughout the ministries of the government in the major cities of Germany. The major commands of the army and of the police had been infiltrated and in each case the commanding general was a party to the plot. The major public services such as gas supply and radio were included in the plan as were other key industries…

Despite all this, Armstrong continued, “the profound political and spiritual implications of the movement were ignored and reports concerning it were suppressed” by Allied leaders.

Had Roosevelt been so inclined he could have supported and encouraged the resistance. “Through Allen Dulles’s reports”, wrote Fleming, “…the British and Americans had an intimate knowledge of the men involved in the coup. They could have painted them as moral heroes and urged other Germans to follow their examples. But the hate-tinged aura of the unconditional surrender policy refused to acknowledge the possibility of German moral heroes.” The plot to kill Hitler had no effect on Roosevelt. In late 1944, as the Allies pushed the Germans back across Western Europe, reporter Louis Lochner, now a correspondent in liberated Paris, attempted to file a report on how the decimated German resistance was still trying to undermine the regime. Lochner’s story was killed with the explanation that “the President of the United States…forbids all mention of any German resistance.”

Only after the war and Roosevelt’s death did Churchill publicly acknowledge the resistance. In 1947, as it became clear that the destruction of Germany had played into Soviet Russia’s hands, Churchill praised the men of the resistance as those who had “belonged to the noblest and greatest [of resistance movements] that have ever arisen in the history of all peoples.” Coming from Churchill, who now decried the Iron Curtain that he had helped hang, this was much too little, much too late.

The Morgenthau Plan

The German resistance would not be the last casualty attributed to unconditional surrender. As Allied armies pushed across Europe towards Germany, Roosevelt continued to ignore messages from his generals that the policy was propping up the German will to fight, thereby increasing American losses. But the Roosevelt administration had one more propaganda gift for Goebbels.

In August 1944, the American press leaked a postwar plan for Germany drawn up by Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau. The plan – which called for breaking Germany up into four small states, demolishing its industry and reducing it to an agricultural society – was largely the work of Morgenthau’s Assistant Secretary, Harry Dexter White. White, a covert communist agent, certainly knew that destroying Germany would dramatically alter Europe’s balance of power and lead to Soviet domination of Eastern and Central Europe, a fact that either did not dawn on or concern Morgenthau. Nor did its probable effect on German civilians. When warned that his plan would result in the deaths of 20 million people, Morgenthau retorted “I don’t care what happens to the population.” Expressing his support for the plan, Roosevelt remarked that “The German people must have it driven home to them that the whole nation has been engaged in a lawless conspiracy against the decencies of modern civilization.”

Churchill was shocked, and objected with Edmund Burke’s maxim that it is impossible to indict an entire nation. In Washington, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Secretary of State Hull wondered why the Treasury Department was making foreign policy decisions. Hull later said that the Morgenthau Plan “angered me as much as anything that happened during my career,” and predicted that it would only result in “a bitter-end German resistance that could cost thousands of American lives.” Only after newspapers heaped scorn on the plan did Roosevelt abandon it and blame it all on his Treasury Secretary. But, again, the damage had been done. For war-weary Germans, Morgenthau’s plan was one more clue that the Allies were intent on their destruction, and that their only choice was to fight.


The primary consequence of Roosevelt’s unconditional surrender policy was easy to predict – it was what Roosevelt’s advisers had told him would happen. Newsman John Thompson reported in March 1945 that although the war was clearly lost, the average German soldier continued fighting for fear that “he will be hopelessly caught in the same trap that threatens Nazi criminals.” Upon interviewing German officers shortly after the war, British military analyst Liddell Hart wrote that they told him that

but for [unconditional surrender], they and their troops – the factor that was more important – would have been ready to surrender sooner, separately or collectively. …But the Allied propaganda never said anything positive about the peace conditions in the way of encouraging them to give up the struggle. Its silence on the subject…tended to confirm what the Nazi propaganda told them of the dire fate in store for them if they surrendered.

In interviews with German generals, Armstrong found a common belief that unconditional surrender had prolonged the war and its concomitant death and suffering. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring stated to Armstrong his belief that “A Western policy based on the desire to reach a reasonable peace…could have brought about an earlier end to the war.” Unconditional surrender, he said, “caused needless loss of life and a dangerous degree of material destruction and social disorganization and has had disastrous moral as well as political and economic effects.” General Heinz Guderian told Armstrong that “The demand for ‘unconditional surrender’ certainly contributed to the destruction of every hope in Germany for a reasonable peace. This was true not only for the Wehrmacht and for the Generals, but also for the whole people.”

In a letter to Armstrong, General Gunther Blumentritt stated that there was widespread pessimism about the war among the German generals, who “would have been happy to seek peace in 1939 or 1940 or 1941 if the question had been theirs to decide.” Hart observed that German generals spent considerable time in the last year of the war on the question of how to work out a surrender to the Allies. Unconditional surrender was always an obstacle.

A host of Allied military leaders, including Generals Wedemeyer and Eisenhower, concurred in the belief that the policy had prolonged the wary. Military historians R. Ernest and Trevor Dupuy stated that dropping the unconditional surrender policy “would have saved thousands of lives on both sides.” After rigorously researching the subject, Armstrong wrote “the overwhelming majority of generals and military analysts, both Allied and German, seem to agreed that Unconditional Surrender did prolong the war.”

Like the July 20th plot against Hitler, it is impossible to say exactly how Roosevelt’s policy changed the course of the war, but many postwar commentators believed the war would have ended sometime between the disaster at Stalingrad in January 1943 and the failure of the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945. The lives lost across this time must then be considered to some degree preventable. The United States suffered over 750,000 dead and wounded in Europe from January 1943 onward, with over 75 percent coming during and after D-Day, and over 200,000 coming after January 1945. The British and Canadians additionally suffered over 100,000 casualties from D-Day on.

These numbers do not take into account German losses. Nor do they consider the lives lost in Nazi concentration camps. “Deaths from starvation, disease, and execution,” wrote Armstrong, “reached a peak in the final two years of the war.” While the Allied public and even soldiers were not fully aware of the Nazis’ atrocities, the Allied governments had learned of the Nazis “final solution” in late 1942. A concern for the suffering of the Nazis victims would seem to have demanded at least considering a negotiated peace with a non-Nazi government within Germany, which would undoubtedly have had less abhorrent policies than Hitler. Looking back on the probable cost of the policy in terms of human lives, Fleming concluded “this ultimatum was written in blood.”

There were other, less visible consequences of unconditional surrender. The Allies’ intentionally horrific bombing of German civilians found at least some of its justification in the policy. Conservative scholar Richard Weaver noted that unconditional surrender was based in a concept of total war “which denies all rights…and [supposes] that the new means [of warfare] entitle us to discard ancient fundamentals of ethics and law.” Unconditional surrender, Weaver believed, “strikes deep at those restraints which in the past kept warfare within bounds.”

A longer-term consequence was the strengthening of Soviet Russia’s position in postwar Europe. Guderian wrote that by the complete destruction of Germany, “Europe was deprived of the dam against Bolshevism…” Hart had predicted in 1943 that the “natural effect of destroying the German army will be to establish the overwhelming military predominance of the Red Army.” Later events proved Hart right, as the total defeat of Germany wrecked Europe’s balance of power and greatly enabled Soviet hegemony on the continent, a force which would enslave millions and endanger Western Europe for the next four decades.

A Question of Strategy

In July 1943, Hart wrote that “a good slogan…is not necessarily identical with a good strategy…” Clearly, unconditional surrender was an effective slogan for the Allies. But the immediate postwar environment, with communism expanding rapidly across Europe and Asia, led many to conclude that Roosevelt’s sloganeering reflected the Allies’ inability to develop strategic political goals.

After the war, Wedemeyer excoriated both Churchill and Roosevelt for this failure, writing,

War is…the last means resorted to for the accomplishment of an aim. It cannot be a substitute for a policy, yet Roosevelt and Churchill…seem to have regarded it as such. They confused means with ends, substituting total victory for a policy. They demanded the unconditional surrender of our enemies instead of defining civilized war aims and seeking to attain them at the least possible cost and with due regard to our future security…

Hanson Baldwin, military analyst for the New York Times, concurred, writing, “wars are merely an extension of politics by other means…” American leaders, Baldwin said, forgot “that wars have objectives; that wars without objectives represent particularly senseless slaughters…and that the general objective of war is a more stable peace. …The United States…had no peace aims; we had only the vaguest kind of idea, expressed in the vaguest kind of general principles…of the kind of postwar world we wanted.” This explained Armstrong’s observation that at Roosevelt’s conferences with Churchill and Stalin, “Decisions of the greatest political importance were made primarily, even solely, on the basis of military considerations…”

Whatever the Allies strategic goals should have been – repealing German gains, strengthening their national security, deposing Hitler, ending the Holocaust – none of them were advanced by unconditional surrender. In fact, Wedemeyer argued, the policy prevented the Allies from securing their own interests, elaborating,

Because we had no definite aim beyond the destruction of Germany and the defeat of Japan, we were prepared to ‘take the aid of the Devil himself,’ as Churchill said when he consummated an Anglo-Russian alliance in 1941. Because we fought to win military victory regardless of the consequences, we failed to bring about the better conditions which might have justified our resort to war.

Baldwin added, “Wartime propaganda added to illusions; all our enemies were knaves, all our Allies friends and comrades – military victory our only purpose.” Roosevelt’s relentless, unchallenged demonizing of all German history tinged the entire war with an aura of self-righteous morality. “Since the war [was] viewed,” wrote Armstrong, “as a massive struggle of the forces of good against the forces of evil, no compromise [was] thinkable. Compromise is possible only between human beings who recognize each other as human, as mutually fallible, not between abstract forces, and most certainly not between abstract Good and Evil.” Roosevelt never grasped the irony “That the struggle was being waged in coalition with a power [Soviet Russia] that had been a full partner in the [German] aggression of 1939 and that was at least as totalitarian as Nazi Germany…”

The lack of an overarching strategy turned military victory into strategic defeat. In another turn of irony, wrote Armstrong, “The war, begun to secure the independence of Poland and Czechoslovakia, ended with Soviet domination of Eastern and Central Europe.” The Holocaust had been ended, but only after a large percentage of Europe’s Jewish population had been killed, and long after the German resistance pleaded for help in overthrowing Hitler. Roosevelt’s unflinching devotion to his half-baked policy affected the entire course of the war. Unconditional surrender might have been a great slogan. But it was a strategic disaster.

Note: This article is part of a series on World War II. Click here for the complete series and here for a selected bibliography

Note: Quotes not linked sourced from Anne Armstrong, Unconditional Surrender)

(Cover photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)