FDR’s blind insistence on unconditional surrender prolonged World War II and cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
From January 14 to January 24, 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met and argued amiably and com- promised even more amiably in the sunny resort of Anfa, a collection of luxurious villas around a three-story hotel some three miles south of Casablanca. Nearby, their staffs argued much less amiably and in some cases declined to compromise. Finally, reporters gathered in the courtyard of Roosevelt’s villa to hear the two leaders sum up the historic conclave.
FDR sat with his lifeless legs jauntily crossed, wearing a light grey suit and a dark tie. Churchill was replete with Homburg, cigar, and a dark blue suit and vest that seemed more appropriate for the House of Commons than a backdrop of waving palm trees and tropical sunshine. Beaming, FDR declared that the two allies had reached “complete agreement” on the future conduct of the war.
He and the prime minister, Roosevelt continued, had also hammered out a policy that would guarantee both victory and a peaceful world for generations to come. “Some of you Britishers know the old story—we had a general named U.S. Grant,” Roosevelt said. “His name was Ulysses Simpson Grant but in my, and the prime minister’s early days he was called ‘Unconditional Surrender Grant.’ The elimination of German, Japanese and Italian war power means the unconditional surrender by Germany, Italy, and Japan.”
Winston Churchill manfully chimed in with a hearty endorsement of their “unconquerable will” to pursue victory until they obtained “the unconditional surrender of the criminal forces that have plunged the world into storm and ruin.”
It may well have been his finest hour as a political performer. Inwardly, Churchill was dumbfounded by Roosevelt’s announcement—and dismayed by its probable impact on the conduct and outcome of the war.
The prime minister’s British colleagues were even more alarmed. The chief of British intelligence, Maj. Gen. Sir Stewart Graham Menzies, considered unconditional surrender disastrous, not only to certain secret operations he already had in progress, but also because it would make the Germans fight “with the despairing ferocity of cornered rats.”
Assistant Chief of the Air Staff (and future air marshal) Sir John Slessor maintained to the end of his life that were it not for the policy, air power alone could have ended the war. Lord Robert Hankey, one of Churchill’s diplomatic advisers, was so perturbed that he returned to England and researched 15 British wars back to 1600. In only one, the Boer War, had the idea of unconditional surrender even been considered, and it had been hastily dropped when the Boers announced they would fight until doomsday.
That consternation was shared by not a few Americans in the ranks of VIPs standing behind the two leaders. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower thought unconditional surrender was idiotic—it could do nothing but cost American lives. Later, he said: “If you were given two choices, one to mount a scaffold, the other to charge twenty bayonets, you might as well charge twenty bayonets.”
Lt. Gen. Albert Wedemeyer, who was the architect of the strategy for D-Day, was even more appalled. He decried the idea from the moment he heard it. Just before the war, he had spent two years in Germany attending the Berlin War College and he knew firsthand the deep divisions between Hitler and the German General Staff. An unconditional surrender policy would, he accurately predicted, “weld all the Germans together.”
Deliberately excluded from the conference by the president was another vehement opponent of the policy, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Determined as usual to invent his own foreign policy, Roosevelt had brought no high-level American diplomats with him to Casablanca.
In Berlin, the news of the Allies’ unconditional surrender policy sent Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief, into euphoria. He called Roosevelt’s announcement “world historical tomfoolery of the first order.” To one of his colleagues, he admitted: “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?”
Elsewhere in the German capital, Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, the silver-haired chief of the Abwehr, the German intelligence service, turned to one of his deputies and said with a sigh: “The students of history will not need to trouble their heads with this war, as they did with the last one, over who was guilty of starting it. The case is, however, different when we consider the guilt for prolonging the war. I believe that the other side have now disarmed us of the last weapon with which we could have ended it.”
Of all these reactions to Roosevelt’s Casablanca declaration, that of Canaris was by far the most important. With his clear-eyed grasp of men and politics, the Abwehr chief saw that unless the president could be persuaded to alter the policy of unconditional surrender, the plot that he and other Germans had been painstakingly concocting to depose Adolf Hitler and negotiate peace was doomed to failure.
Why had Roosevelt chosen this moment to announce the policy? Where had it come from? In his seemingly ingenuous way, FDR later claimed that the phrase had just “popped into my mind” at the press conference. The president sometimes liked to picture himself as a rather frivolous character, a juggler who did not let his left hand know what his right hand was doing.
But the meaning and intent of the unconditional surrender policy was anything but frivolous, and its origin was not in the least accidental.
The term “unconditional surrender” was first floated in American foreign policy documents in the spring of 1942 by the State Department’s Advisory Committee on Postwar Foreign Policy, a committee created by Roosevelt three weeks after Pearl Harbor. Its chairman, Norman H. Davis, was a former adviser to Woodrow Wilson and a frequent collaborator with FDR on foreign policy matters.
There is little doubt that FDR told Davis what policy he wanted them to recommend; FDR had determined to pursue unconditional surrender very early in the war. It was foreshadowed in his annual message to Congress on January 6, 1942, less than a month after Pearl Harbor, when he declared: “There has never been— there can never be—successful compromise between good and evil. Only total victory can reward the champions of tolerance, and decency, and faith.”
At a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on January 7, 1943, Roosevelt told Gen. George Marshall he intended to propose unconditional surrender to Churchill as a way of reassuring Josef Stalin that the British and Americans would not make a premature peace— even though they were still a long way from launching the second front that Moscow repeatedly and impatiently demanded.
A more immediate reason for the announcement was the uproar created by the U.S. Army and State Department’s deal in late 1942 with the French Nazi collaborator, Adm. Jean-François Darlan, to end French resistance to the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa. Liberal columnists such as Drew Pearson and Walter Lippman had decried it as a “deal with the devil,” a reaction that took Roosevelt by surprise. Within the administration, liberal friends such as Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. told Roosevelt the moral integrity of the United States had been impugned, and demanded Eisenhower’s head when the general appointed Darlan to be the civil and military chief of French North Africa. The outcry had a profound impact on Roosevelt.
These two factors—the desires to reassure Stalin and to expunge the stain of Darlan—to a large extent explain the timing of the announcement of the policy of unconditional surrender. They do not explain its source. That requires a look back to Roosevelt’s experience in World War I when, as assistant secretary of the navy, he watched the tense, brutal peacemaking process with Germany destroy the presidency and the health of Woodrow Wilson, a leader he deeply admired. From this experience Roosevelt acquired an intense animus—hatred would be a better word—for Germany.
As for the unconditional surrender slogan itself, FDR, a Democrat, never revealed its real source because it came from Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican president whose influence FDR did his utmost to conceal. At the close of World War I, T.R. had differed violently with Woodrow Wilson when he offered the reeling Germans an armistice and peace on the basis of his idealistic Fourteen Points. The Republican Roosevelt had insisted that nothing less than the unconditional surrender of the German army would guarantee the peace, an idea that the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, Gen. John J. Pershing, also endorsed.
Hitler’s repudiation of the war guilt clause in the Treaty of Versailles and his reckless aggressions had convinced Roosevelt that T.R. and General Pershing had been correct, and he was determined to apply this lesson of history to the war he was running. The playwright Robert Sherwood, who worked closely with FDR and his chief adviser, Harry Hopkins, as a speechwriter and confidant, concluded that unconditional surrender was “very deeply deliberated…a true statement of Roosevelt’s policy.”
Apparently, Roosevelt had discussed unconditional surrender with Churchill some five days before he announced it at Casablanca. Although he did not object to the idea, the British prime minister seems to have had grave reservations about making it a public slogan to which they would be tied for the rest of the war. So it was Roosevelt’s public announcement that left Churchill “dumbfounded,” as one of Casablanca’s participants later told Cordell Hull.
As a more erudite student of history than Roosevelt, Churchill knew the danger of applying lessons from history to statecraft. The lessons were too often irrelevant to the realities of a new time and a very different situation. Seldom has this been truer than in the case of Nazi Germany, considering the strength of German opposition to Hitler. Roosevelt’s commitment to unconditional surrender led him to disregard the existence of those courageous men and women who risked their lives and reputations to redeem their country from one of the most evil regimes in history.
Since the war began, British intelligence chief Menzies and the Abwehr’s Admiral Canaris, two seeming opponents in the art and science of black warfare, had been in shadowy touch with each other through emissaries who shuttled from Berlin and London to the borders of the Nazi empire. In 1940 the Abwehr leaked Hitler’s planned assault on Holland, Belgium, and France. The British and French dismissed it as a ruse and discovered, too late, that its details were excruciatingly authentic. While the admiral went briskly about the business of intelligence, running spy networks throughout Europe, evidence accumulated suggesting the astonishing possibility that the head of the Abwehr was a secret enemy of the Nazi regime.
Around Canaris was grouped a loose confederation of Hitler opponents in the German Foreign Office, the army, and the political world. They included Ulrich von Hassel, a career diplomat whose diaries are a main source of information about the resistance; Gen. Ludwig Beck, former chief of the general staff, who resigned in protest when Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia in 1939 in violation of the Munich agreement; and Count Helmuth von Moltke, great-grandnephew of the general who had defeated France in 1871 and made Germany a world power. Another important figure was Karl-Friedrich Goerdeler, the former mayor of Leipzig, whom the Nazis dismissed from his post when he refused to remove a monument to the great German-Jewish composer, Felix Mendelssohn.
Beck, the key figure, was still deeply admired by many generals on active duty. Through him, the conspirators hoped to persuade the army to stage a coup d’état to remove and, if necessary, kill Hitler.
When an Allied invasion fleet began landing 200,000 men on the African coast on November 8, 1942, Canaris, the Abwehr director, had rushed to Algeciras on the Spanish coast to galvanize the horde of agents working out of the German consulate in Tangier. The British intelligence chief in nearby Gibraltar decided to seize him—until a message arrived from Menzies: “Leave our man alone.” Almost certainly the reason Menzies interfered in a plot to kidnap Admiral Canaris only a few weeks before the Casablanca conference was that he knew of the high-level Ger – man conspiracy.
Not long after, Menzies received a message from Canaris asking if they could meet secretly somewhere in Portugal or Spain. Visions of an ultimate intelligence triumph danced through Menzies’ head— he and Canaris could negotiate a peace that would save millions of lives. But when the Secret Intelligence Service chief asked his superiors in the British Foreign Office for permission to meet the admiral, they curtly refused. Ostensibly, they feared offending the Russians.
That explanation must have made Canaris smile. The Russians had been trying to conclude a separate peace with Hitler virtually from the moment he attacked them.
Throughout the war, there were forces in the British Foreign Office convulsed with hatred for Germany. Much of that can be traced to one man, Lord Robert Vansittart, who had been the permanent undersecretary of the Foreign Office from 1930 to 1938, when Anthony Eden gave him a more resounding title but a less powerful position as chief diplomatic adviser. Like his friend Churchill, Vansittart had begun warning England against German aggression from the day Hitler seized power. But Vansittart combined his prophecies with a hatred that made the Ku Klux Klan’s antipathy for blacks, Jews, and Catholics seem bland, writing in 1940 that “eighty percent of the German race are the political and moral scum of the earth.” Needless to say, he was a passionate supporter of unconditional surrender. In his spirit and the spirit of Casablanca, the Foreign Office issued a blanket order to its representatives to henceforth ignore peace proposals from any and all Germans.
Canaris was not particularly surprised by this démarche. He had an intimate knowledge of the animosity World War I had fostered between the two countries. He had run German intelligence in Spain in the early years of that war and was so successful, according to one story, the infuriated British tried to assassinate him. From the start of the conspiracy against Hitler, Canaris had placed his chief hope of saving Germany in a negotiation with the Americans. When the United States entered the war, the Abwehr chief and the men around him tried desperately to communicate with Roosevelt.
They used all sorts of emissaries, beginning with Louis P. Lochner, the former bureau chief of the Associated Press in Berlin, who rushed to the White House the moment he was repatriated from Germany in June 1942. He was brusquely informed that the president had “no interest whatsoever” in his information.
Six months later Roosevelt announced his policy of unconditional surrender on the very day that the Russians split in half the German Sixth Army trapped in the Stalingrad pocket, making its destruction inevitable. For two years Canaris and his fellow conspirators had been waiting for a defeat of this magnitude, one that would force the general staff to admit the war was lost—and agree to support a coup d’état. At the very moment when this precarious hope seemed to be coming true, Roosevelt had delivered it a terrible blow.
For a professionial soldier, the term unconditional surrender reeked of contempt and dishonor. Since the beginning of conflicts between civilized states, most wars had been concluded by negotiation, in which the victors tacitly admitted the losers had the right to make some claims to decent treatment for having fought courageously.
Before Casablanca, Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben, Germany’s supreme commander of the West, had told Canaris that he loathed Hitler and was ready to do everything in his power to overthrow him. After Casablanca, Witzleben said: “Now, no honorable man can lead the German people into such a situation.” Gen. Hans Guderian, the inventor of panzer warfare, declined to participate in the plot for the same reason, when Col. Hans Oster, second in command to Canaris, approached him. Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl, chief of the German armed forces operations staff, said at the Nuremberg War Crimes trials that unconditional surrender had been a crucial element in his refusal to join the conspiracy. Nevertheless, Canaris redoubled his efforts to reach out to the United States.
In June 1943, Helmuth von Moltke journeyed to Istanbul to talk to the U.S. naval attaché, George Earle, a Balkans expert who wanted to rescue Eastern Europe from Soviet domination. Earle persuaded William Donovan, head of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, to come to Istanbul. There, the Germans offered to fly a member of the German general staff to London to arrange for a peaceful surrender of the western front—if unconditional surrender were modified. Donovan rushed to the White House, only to discover FDR had no desire to negotiate with “these East German Junkers.”
Around the same time, Canaris developed a seemingly more fruitful contact in Berne, where Allen Dulles had become the Office of Strategic Services station chief. Here the messenger was Hans Bernd Gisevius, also an Abwehr agent, disguised as the German vice consul in Zurich. To bolster his bona fides, Canaris leaked reams of secret information about the German war effort to Dulles, who forwarded it to Washington with strong recommendations to cooperate with the resistance movement, which he code-named “Breakers.” From the White House came only silence. Nothing came of a similar initiative in Stockholm, also launched by the German Foreign Office in 1943.
With mounting desperation, Canaris himself took to the field in Spain. With the help of the Spanish Foreign Office, in August 1943 he arranged a meeting between himself, Menzies, and Donovan at Santander. It was surely one of the strangest and most fateful encounters of the war. Menzies was disobeying the orders of his putative commanders, the Foreign Office bureaucrats, and Donovan was acutely aware by now that Roosevelt was equally hostile to his presence. But Canaris charmed and convinced both men of the logic of his proposal to work out an arrangement whereby the Anglo-Americans would support a coup d’état and peace on the basis of the German borders of 1939—surrendering all Hitler’s conquests. One of Canaris’s deputies, who was present at the meeting, said it was the most exciting experience in his secret service career.
When the two Allied intelligence chiefs reported to their superiors, however, the reception was, if possible, even more venomously negative. For Canaris, the disappointment was crushing— and it soon became doubly depressing when his enemies in the Nazi hierarchy, who had long suspected the Abwehr of treason, began to strike at some of his most trusted subordinates.
First, Oster and one of his cohorts were caught aiding escaping Jews. Next Moltke attended a garden party at which a number of indiscreet things were said about the regime. After one more futile trip to Ankara in the last weeks of 1943 to try to contact the American ambassador to Cairo, who was an old friend, Count von Moltke, too, was arrested. Investigators from several branches of the Nazi apparatus threatened Canaris and his grip on the Abwehr.
While the German resistance struggled to win recognition from Roosevelt, his antipathy toward them and the German people was hardening. In May 1943 Churchill came to Washington for a conference, code-named “Trident.” Probably reacting to the attempts by Canaris to reach him through Donovan, Roosevelt told the prime minister he wanted to issue a declaration that he would refuse to negotiate with the Nazi regime, the German army high command, or any other group or individual in Germany. Churchill, once more demonstrating his dislike for taking such an intransigent public stand, managed to talk him out of it.
But the prime minister himself was not above calling for total war and total victory in terms that made unconditional surrender seem like a threat of annihilation. In a speech to the House of Commons in September 1943, Churchill distinguished between the treatment he planned to mete out to the Italian and the German people. He saw few if any obstacles to the Italians regaining “their rightful place among the free democracies of the modern world.”
Not so the Germans. “Twice within our lifetimes, three times counting that of our fathers, they have plunged the world into their wars of expansion and aggression. They combine in the most deadly manner the qualities of the warrior and the slave. They do not value freedom themselves and the spectacle of it among others is hateful to them.” He went on to denounce Prussia as “the core of the pestilence.” Nazi tyranny and Prussian militarism had to be “rooted out” before Germany could return to the family of nations. This was pure Vansittartism. Lord Robert was saying virtually identical things in the House of Lords.
While this war of vituperation raged, the Americans and the British were getting some rude shocks in the shooting war. In the invasions of North Africa and Sicily, German tanks repeatedly demonstrated their superiority over American-made armor, and the veteran German infantryman proved an equally formidable foe. Then came the invasion of Italy, where unconditional surrender ruined an easy conquest.
Shortly after Sicily fell, Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III dismissed Benito Mussolini and appointed Field Marshal Pietro Badoglio premier. Badoglio immediately opened secret negotiations with American emissaries to get Italy out of the war. Everything seemed to be moving toward a stunning capitulation, which would have opened a huge gap in Hitler’s Festung Europa. But Roosevelt insisted that he would accept only unconditional surrender—and the removal of the king and the field marshal. Badoglio angrily withdrew from the negotiations and for over six weeks the talks were stalled while Eisenhower, Churchill, and others desperately tried to persuade the president to let them cut a deal that would have saved thousands of British and American lives.
By the time Roosevelt relented and permitted the king and the marshal to remain in power, the Germans had poured 24 divisions into Italy, and the Italians had no country to surrender.
Canaris, incidentally, did his utmost to contribute to the attempt at a secret surrender, making a personal trip to Italy and reporting back to Berlin that there was nothing to the rumors of Italian treachery. That gesture pulled out many of the last props from his position as the head of the Abwehr.
When the Americans landed at Salerno, they found the Germans with their tanks and 88mm cannons in the hills waiting for them. Only massive bombardments from the escorting fleet and the insertion of the elite 82nd Airborne Division into the collapsing beachhead prevented a debacle. Instead of reaching Rome in a week or two, as optimists had predicted, the British and Americans found themselves up to their axles in mud, confronted by thousands of Germans manning the mountainous Gustav Line 100 miles south of the Eternal City. Unconditional surrender started to look like a slogan printed in Allied blood.
When Roosevelt finally met Josef Stalin at Tehran in November 1943, the man for whom the policy had supposedly been tailored bluntly told the president it was a very bad idea. The Russian dictator said he thought its vagueness and implied threat only served to unite the German people. He favored an explicit statement of terms. Churchill, who rarely agreed with Stalin on anything, emphatically endorsed this idea. Neither succeeded in changing Roosevelt’s mind. Stalin and Roosevelt later forced Churchill to agree to schedule the invasion of northern France for May 1944.
The invasion of France became the focus on both sides of the battle lines. With the Russians advancing inexorably from the east, Canaris realized that opponents of Hitler were running out of time. Early in 1944, his Nazi enemies succeeded in ousting Canaris from control of the Abwehr. However, they were unable to make their suspicions of his treason into a factual case against him, and Hitler put the admiral in charge of a small agency supervising the civilian war effort. Canaris was able to leave numerous subordinates in the Abwehr who were still committed to Hitler’s destruction.
A younger man now assumed leadership of the conspiracy. Thirty-seven-year-old Col. Claus von Stauffenberg had no connection to the Protestant East German Junkers and Prussians on whom Churchill, Roosevelt, and Vansittart focused their antipathy. He was a Catholic and a descendant of the nobility of the principality of Württemberg in south Germany, an area that even Vansittart admitted, in an unguarded moment, had democratic tendencies. Nazism’s vicious deeds had filled Stauffenberg with loathing for Hitler—and the Anglo-American bombing offensive convinced him that it was time to act. “A thousand years of civilization are being destroyed,” he said.
Stauffenberg had no doubts about the necessity of killing Hitler—and he was in a position to do it, as well as seize control of Germany. Badly wounded by an Allied air attack in Tunisia in which he lost his right forearm, his left eye, and two fingers on his remaining hand, the colonel had become a staff officer of the Home Army, composed of training units, divisions in rest areas, and convalescents, numbering about 600,000 men. They were organized into a formal army to make sure Germany’s millions of slave laborers did not attempt an uprising. Stauffenberg proposed to kill Hitler and use this force to wrest power from the Nazis.
Unbeknownst to the German conspirators, they were acquiring allies on the other side. As British and American planners contemplated the harsh realities of at- tacking the 1.5 million–man German army in France, doubts about the policy of unconditional surrender escalated. It soon became evident that virtually no one in either Allied government supported the policy except Roosevelt and those in his White House circle.
On March 25, 1944, Gen. George Marshall and the Joint Chiefs of Staff submitted a memorandum to the president, urging “that a reassessment of the formula of unconditional surrender should be made…at a very early date.” The chiefs proposed a proclamation that would assure the Germans the Allies had no desire to “extinguish the German people or Germany as a nation.”
On April 1, 1944, Roosevelt replied with an outburst that revealed as never before the extent of his disdain for Germany. “A somewhat long and painful experience in and out of Germany leads me to believe that German philosophy cannot be changed by decree, law, or military order. The change must be evolutionary and may take two generations.” In his opinion, the very word Reich had to be scoured from the German soul.
General Marshall was dismayed by this response. He told Gen. Sir John Dill, the British liaison officer in Washington, that they were “up against an obstinate Dutchman.” In London, Marshall’s protégé and D-Day’s commander, Dwight Eisenhower, was even more disappointed. Ike decided to try to change the president’s mind on his own. On April 14, 1944, Eisenhower met with Edward R. Stettinius, who had recently become undersecretary of state, and requested that he ask Cordell Hull to intercede with Roosevelt to give the Germans a “white alley”—a path they could take to surrender with honor.
Eisenhower was drawing on his experience in Italy, reasoning that if the Allies had proposed installing an Italian field marshal as premier, what was wrong with the same approach for Germany? In his cable to Hull, Stettinius, obviously quoting Eisenhower, said they should try to encourage the emergence of a German Badoglio. The cable also added the suggestion that after the beachhead was established in France, Eisenhower should call on the German commander in the West to surrender.
From the White House, in response to this extraordinary message, came another bout of silence.
Eisenhower was encouraged and he ordered a proclamation prepared that became, under the influence of his psychological warfare experts, a warm personal chat with the German soldier, urging him to trust the Allies. A copy of the speech was rushed to the White House—and again the response was silence.
On May 31, 1944, Eisenhower’s speech was attacked from an entirely unexpected quarter. Winston Churchill wrote an uncharacteristically violent letter to the supreme commander, accusing him of “begging before we have won the battle.” Never, he claimed, had he ever read anything “less suitable” for soldiers.
In light of Churchill’s previous strong reservations about unconditional surrender, this letter is incomprehensible—unless he was simply doing a favor for his devious American counterpart in Washington, D.C. Certainly, there was a flurry of interchange between the two leaders in June and July, as Churchill attempted to promote a push through the Balkans instead of southern France, with the United States increasingly becoming the dominant partner in the war.
A few months earlier, when they had disagreed about the composition of the Italian government, Churchill had rather plaintively reminded Roosevelt that he had “loyally tried to support” any statement to which Roosevelt was “personally committed.” By now it was evident that there was literally nothing in the war to which Roosevelt was as personally committed as unconditional surrender.
Churchill’s blast finished Eisenhower’s attempt to modify unconditional surrender. He swallowed his doubts and led his army to the beaches of Normandy and beyond as an obedient supporter of the policy. But the German army, after yielding the beachhead, still demonstrated a ferocious readiness to fight in Normandy’s hedgerows. Now others began to have severe doubts about the policy.
On July 19, 1944, Churchill came under heavy attack in the House of Commons. Both Labour and Conservatives sharply questioned the policy of unconditional surrender. Members repeatedly demanded to know why the prime minister’s government refused to state peace terms for Germany. The next day, Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, the voice of Lord Vansittart in Churchill’s cabinet, replied in the House of Commons by sternly endorsing unconditional surrender and punishment of the entire German nation.
“I say Hitler is symptomatic of the entire German mentality,” he declared. “The German people put [him] where he is.”
While Eden was defending intransigence, Colonel Stauffenberg was on a plane to the Adolf Hitler’s East German headquarters near Rastenburg in East Prussia, to confer with the Wolfschanze, führer about the readiness of the Home Army. In his briefcase he carried two extremely powerful bombs supplied by the Abwehr. By noon one of the bombs with a 10-minute delay had exploded (with only three fingers, he hadn’t been able to arm the other), and the colonel was on his way back to Berlin, certain that Hitler was dead.
Stauffenberg flashed a coded signal to the capital, where the commander of the Home Army put another code word, Valkryie, on the army’s teleprinter circuit. This was an alert that was supposed to bring all units rushing to their assigned posts, guns in hand. At the Bendlerblock, the huge German Third Reich military headquarters on the Bendlerstrasse in Berlin, General Beck planned to broadcast a statement to these soldiers, announcing he was their new commander. Stauffenberg had a document ready to broadcast to the nation, announcing Hitler’s death and the formation of a republic with Beck and Goerdeler among the chief figures—and their determination to bring the war to a swift end.
But at the last moment a staff colonel leaning over a map to explain a troop movement to Hitler moved Stauffenberg’s briefcase. A heavy oak table leg shielded the führer from most of the blast. Four around the table died, but Hitler—the seat blown out of his trousers, his coat ripped up the back, both eardrums ruptured, his right arm wounded—survived.
In Berlin, many members of the Home Army, particularly the young commander of a battalion of elite Prussian Guards whom Beck ordered to arrest Goebbels, wanted proof that Hitler was dead. At his headquarters, the Nazi propaganda chief put through a call to Rastenburg—and proved Hitler was still alive. The commander and other younger officers turned violently against the conspirators. Before the night was over, Beck was dead by his own hand and Stauffenberg and three others had been executed in the Bendlerblock courtyard.
On the day Stauffenberg triggered his bomb, Roosevelt was en route to Hawaii on a Pacific inspection tour. Churchill was aboard a light cruiser off Normandy. Both knew about the failed attempt almost immediately. Roosevelt said nothing and Churchill confined himself to a gloating remark about “a very great disturbance in the German machine.”
The only nation praising the conspirators was the Soviet Union. A member of the Free German Committee broadcast: “Generals, officers, soldiers! Cease fire at once and turn your arms against Hitler. Do not fail these courageous men!”
In Hawaii on July 29, 1944, Roosevelt gave a press conference at which someone asked him whether unconditional surrender also applied to Japan. After answering in the affirmative—arguably making the eventual use of the atomic bomb inevitable—Roosevelt heaped scorn on those who had criticized the policy. He claimed they did not understand his historical comparison. He then proceeded to give a totally erroneous description of Robert E. Lee’s conversation with Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, in which Roosevelt maintained that Grant kept demanding unconditional surrender while Lee pleaded with him for food for his starving soldiers. When Lee finally accepted unconditional surrender (according to FDR—in fact the Union general never mentioned the term), Grant gave him food and permitted his officers to keep their horses for spring plowing.
The president seemed to be implying that if the Germans surrendered unconditionally, they too could expect decent treatment. This history lesson demonstrated the dangers of a gentleman’s C at Harvard.
Roosevelt soon belied this implied promise of humane treatment to a surrendered Germany. In August 1944, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. visited England and returned to tell Roosevelt he thought the British were much too benevolent in their postwar plans for Germany. “Give me thirty minutes with Churchill and I can correct this,” Roosevelt told Morgenthau. “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…so they can’t just go on reproducing people who want to continue…[as] in the past.”
Morgenthau added fuel to the presidential ire by showing FDR a copy of the Handbook of Military Government that the War Department had prepared. Roosevelt denounced it in a fiery letter to Henry Stimson, the secretary of war, because it “gives me the impression that Germany is to be restored just as much as the Netherlands and Belgium.” Morgenthau left the White House convinced that he had received a mandate to create a better plan to deal with prostrate Germany.
The result was the Morgenthau Plan, prepared by a Treasury Department team. It proposed to divide Germany into four parts—long a Vansittart recommendation. It also recommended destroying all the industry in the Ruhr and Saar basins, and turning Central Europe and the German people into agriculturists. “I don’t care what happens to the population,”
Morgenthau told his staff. Roosevelt gave the proposal his heartfelt approval.
The president was so enthusiastic that he invited Morgenthau to accompany him to a conference with Churchill at Quebec from September 12 to 16, 1944. When the treasury secretary outlined his program to Churchill at a state dinner, the prime minister was aghast. Churchill said he agreed with an earlier British statesman, Edmund Burke, that you cannot indict an entire nation. At his most vehement, Churchill said it would be like chaining England to a dead body.
The next day, while Roosevelt watched with icy amusement, Churchill had to negotiate with Morgenthau about how much Lend-Lease aid the bankrupt British government could expect from the United States after the Germans surrendered. Morgenthau dangled $3 billion in front of him, but Roosevelt made it very clear that the money would not be forthcoming until Churchill agreed to “cooperate” on their plan for postwar Germany. Swallowing his previous protestations, the mortified Churchill initialed the Morgenthau Plan.
Back in Washington, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Secretary of State Cordell Hull launched an all-out assault against Morgenthau’s brainchild. Stimson pointed out that it violated the Atlantic Charter, which promised both victors and vanquished equal opportunity for the pursuit of happiness. He claimed it would create 40 million superfluous Germans, 19 million in the Ruhr alone. Roosevelt remained adamant, until some shrewd infighter leaked the essence of the plan to columnist Drew Pearson. Within the week, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other papers had dug out the whole story. From Congress and from editorial pages all over the country a firestorm of disapproval engulfed the White House.
In Germany, Goebbels seized on the plan as final proof that the United States was determined to destroy Germany. This propaganda disaster coincided with the collapse of hopes that the German army would crumble after the fall of Paris. The Wehrmacht smashed an attempt to slash into the Reich from the north, at Arnhem. The Republican candidate for president, Thomas E. Dewey, joined the chorus of disapproval, accusing Roosevelt of inspiring the Germans to resist to the last man.
Roosevelt responded by demonstrating how he earned nicknames such as the juggler. He summoned Stimson to the White House and told him he agreed with him completely. He never had the slightest intention of adopting the Morgenthau Plan. The treasury secretary and his friends had, he solemnly declared, “pulled a boner.”
A few weeks later Roosevelt tried to create a tabula rasa by telling Cordell Hull he was opposed to making any postwar plans for “a country we do not yet occupy.”
While this charade played out in Washington, some 500 leaders of the German resistance were being tortured by the Gestapo and tried before a so-called People’s Court, packed with Nazi party members who jeered and hooted at them. Field marshals and generals, colonels and former officials of the Foreign Office and the Abwehr were forced to wear clothes that were either ridiculously large or small, to make them look as much like buffoons as possible. Yet they managed to defend themselves with calm dignity, boldly testifying that they had tried to overthrow Hitler because Nazism filled them with moral and spiritual revulsion.
Neither Churchill nor Roosevelt, nor any of their spokesmen, uttered a public word of sympathy or regret for these men. Instead, the Anglo-Americans showered Germany with mocking leaflets, sneering that the conspiracy was a sure sign of imminent collapse.
On the battlefield, however, the combination of the unconditional surrender policy and news of the Morgenthau Plan guaranteed that the Wehrmacht would make a fierce stand. In November 1944, the Germans inflicted a strategic defeat on the immense American army that was striving to reach the Rhine, fighting it to a standstill in the Hürtgen Forest and the countryside around Aachen. On November 22, a worried Eisenhower cabled the Joint Chiefs of Staff urging “that we should redouble our efforts to find a solution to the problem of reducing the German will to resist.” The chiefs turned to Roosevelt, who stubbornly refused to say a word. But he asked Churchill to broadcast a redefinition of unconditional surrender, inviting the Germans to join in “this great effort for decency and peace among human beings.”
Churchill replied that the War Cabinet disapproved the idea because it would “confess our errors.” With more than a touch of sarcasm, Churchill added: “The General Grant attitude ‘to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer’ appears one to which I see no alternative. In the meantime I shall remain set in unconditional surrender, which is where you put me.”
On December 21, 1944, the Wehrmacht stunned the British and Americans by assembling 250,000 men and 1,000 tanks and smashing out of the forest of the Ardennes in an all-or-nothing attempt to seize the port of Antwerp and strand the Allied army in the field without food or gasoline. The fighting and dying in the mud and snow at Bastogne and other, more obscure crossroads in the ensuing Battle of the Bulge became a saga of American courage. But in light of what we now know about unconditional surrender, it may have been unnecessary.
After the breakout from Normandy and the capture of Paris, Germany’s position was strategically hopeless and every field-grade officer in the German Army—and not a few of the enlisted men— knew it. Their continued desperate resistance—which cost the Americans 418,791 dead and wounded, and the British and Canadians another 107,000—was the bitter fruit of unconditional surrender.
These figures do not include air force losses, or casualties in other theaters, such as Italy. If we take into account Russian and German losses, including German civilian casualties from Allied bombing, the total number of dead and wounded approaches two million. If we add to this toll the number of Jews who were killed in the last nine months of the war, the figure can probably be doubled. The slogan “unconditional surrender” was indeed written in blood.
With luck and dash, the Americans finally crossed the Rhine on March 7, 1945, by seizing the Ludendorff Bridge near the town of Remagen. Thereafter, the German army’s collapse accelerated as utter hopelessness overwhelmed the ranks. While armored columns trapped 400,000 German soldiers in the Ruhr Pocket and other Allied tank task forces raced east and south, the Germans moved Admiral Canaris and Colonel Oster to a prison camp in Bavaria. On April 9, with American tanks less than 50 miles away, they were taken from their cells and hanged. During the previous night, Canaris tapped out a farewell message to a Danish secret agent in the next cell. “I die for my country and with a clear conscience.”
On April 4, an American armored task force of the 89th Infantry Division captured the village of Ohrdruf. Outside was a complex of buildings surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Inside, Americans gaped in disbelief at the ragged skeletons that stumbled toward them. In the buildings, bodies of those who had starved to death were stacked like cordwood. The outside world had discovered the first German concentration camp.
On April 11, other units of the Third Army reached Buchenwald and tankers of the Ninth Army discovered Nordhausen. The next day an appalled Eisenhower visited Ohrdruf and ordered every American unit within travelling distance to be taken there to see the horror. As he left the camp, he turned to a sentry and said: “Still having trouble hating them?”
Eisenhower’s words are a capsule explanation of why the tragedy of America’s failure to negotiate with the German resistance to Hitler has largely faded from memory. The concentration camps seemed to validate the policy of unconditional surrender. But 50 years later, it has become apparent that at least the last nine months of horror in Ohrdruf and the other camps might have been prevented had hatred not been the arbiter of Anglo-American diplomacy throughout the war.
In the United States, an exhausted Franklin D. Roosevelt had retreated to Warm Springs in a desperate attempt to regain his faltering health. There is no evidence that he heard the news of the discoveries of Ohrdruf, Nordhausen, and Buchenwald. At around noon on the 12th of that same April, while sitting for a portrait, he died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.
How would FDR have reacted to the concentration camps? From his past performance, it seems almost certain he would have seized the moment to revive the Morgenthau Plan and renew his punitive campaign against the country he loathed. On the night before he died, he had a final conversation with Henry Morgenthau Jr. in which the treasury secretary delivered another lecture on the dangers of a soft peace for Germany. “Henry,” Roosevelt said, “I am with you one hundred percent.”
Events soon demonstrated the fatuity of Roosevelt’s and Morgenthau’s ideas about how to deal with Germany. As Stimson and others pointed out at the time, Germany was the economic heart of Europe—and their blind desire to eviscerate it would have crippled the continent’s prosperity forever. This fact, plus the looming menace of Stalinist Communism, rendered the policy null and void virtually from the day Roosevelt died.
Franklin Roosevelt’s great confrere, Winston Churchill, soon abandoned his Vansittartism and included West Germany in his campaign to rally the free world against Communist hegemony. He also tried to make some amends for the policy of unconditional surrender and his failure to recognize the German resistance movement.
In 1947, in a speech to Parliament, Churchill described Canaris and his fellow conspirators as men who “belonged to the noblest and greatest [of resistance movements] that have ever arisen in the history of all peoples.”
Originally published in the Winter 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.