I've written before about how dysfunctional the prevailing Republican notion of "victory" in warfare seems to be. The US initially achieved that kind of Victory in Iraq: the enemy government was completely overthrown and the enemy country made completely subject to American occupation.
Given the aftermath of that Victory, an aftermath for which there is no end in sight, it's certainly worth asking just what we actually win with a Victory like that.
One of the most important influences on that notion was the policy of "unconditional surrender" that the United Nations insisted upon. The "United Nations" side was Our Side, with the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain being the heaviest hitters of the alliance.
John Chase took a lot back at that policy in Unconditional Surrender Reconsidered Political Science Quarterly June 1955 (behind subscription, except for the first page; some public libraries make access available to patrons online).
Diplomacy of unconditional surrender
Chase traces the actual development of the concept. It was US President Franklin Roosevelt who insisted on the formula, which was eventually agreed upon by Britain's Winston Churchill and the USSR's Josef Stalin. American psychological-warfare specialists were concerned that the unconditional-surrender policy might prolong the war by making the main enemies fight more desperately. Chase writes:
Since the President insisted on retention of the policy over so much opposition, it seems clear that in his own mind it must have served some very basic function, or have entailed some very definite advantages. Careful analysis of the available records indicates that the slogan did, in fact, have such a basic function in the over-all development of American policy, and there were very considerable advantages in it from the President's point of view. The main function, briefly stated, was to impose a damper on premature discussion of the post-war settlement, and the advantages related to three areas, the existing German government and the German people, the policy of the Soviet government, and the attitude of the American people toward the winning of the war.On the one hand, Roosevelt wanted to avoid proposals like Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points in the First World War. Roosevelt's assessment was that such a thing might lead enemies to expect an overly conciliatory attitude on the part of the Allies. He didn't want a policy which offered "any magnanimous gesture in advance of unconditional surrender "that "the Germans would misconstrue as a sign of weakness", writes Chase.
Yet Chase argues that, at the same time, Roosevelt intended for the policy to convey a strong possibility of generous treatment for the defeated populations. He told his Secretary of State Cordell Hull:
In our uncompromising policy we mean no harm to the common people of the Axis nations. But we do mean to impose punishment and retribution in full upon their guilty, barbaric leaders.Chase sums up Roosevelt's concept of the effect of the unconditional surrender policy on Germany this way:
It seems clear, then, that so far as Germany was concerned the unconditional surrender policy was intended to inform the world - Germans, Americans, and everyone else - that the Allies would accept nothing less than the complete defeat of existing enemy governments, and would not bargain or compromise with them. Both the President and Mr. Churchill agreed on this, and both went out of their way to explain that this did not mean a policy of unnecessary harshness or vindictiveness toward the common people of the Axis nations.Although I think the policy of unconditional surrender was the right one in that situation, the fact that it was appropriate in that situation does not make it into some general principle that the US should look to apply every time that US forces are engaged in hostile action. The Second World War was an historical experience, from which we can hopefully learn some constructive things. It was not a grand template drawn by a "Greatest Generation" for all American wars for all times and situations.
Chase makes an important point in connection with the effect of the policy on the German public, which is that the massive bombing of German cities (which occurred in Japan, as well) indicated to enemy civilians that they could expect rough treatment indeed from a victorious foe. He quotes Allen Dulles on the point:
Our propaganda consisted of the slogan "unconditional surrender," and was coupled with the bombing of German cities, high civilian casualties and the destruction of thousands of workers' dwellings. That this type of bombing came only from the west made a deep impression on the German masses who ascribed it to a deliberate difference in policy between East and West. They overlooked the fact that Russian aviation was not adapted to that type of bombing. (my emphasis)Although it's not directly relevant to the unconditional surrender policy, I would note that by destroying not only civilian houses but civilian businesses, the bombing policy freed up large labor resources for use in the armaments industry, heavily offsetting the effects of one of the main aims of the "strategic bombing".
And whatever Churchill's reservations may have been about the unconditional surrender policy, he wound up concluding, "It is false to suggest that it prolonged the war. Negotiation with Hitler was impossible. He was a maniac with supreme power to play his hand out to the end, which he did; and so did we."
But agreeing with Churchill's judgment in that case, which I do, does not mean that every enemy is Hitler with the "supreme power to play his hand out to the end". Or that unconditional surrender is always and everywhere valid for all wars in which the United States participates.
In relation to the Soviet Union, the unconditional surrender policy served to keep the USSR in general and their leader Stalin in particular, reassured about the intentions of his Western allies to see through the war against Germany to a mutually acceptable end. Two matters made this especially necessary: Poland and the Second Front.
Churchill, the idol of the neoconservatives, actually was prepared in 1942 to agree that the Soviet Union could keep the portions of Poland it had divided with Germany in the secret protocols to the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939. Roosevelt, who the neocons regard as a vacillating compromiser in comparison to the Great Winston, blocked the deal.
Roosevelt did commit a blunder in rashly promising the Soviets that Britain and the US would open the Second Front in the West during 1943. Stalin was understandably disappointed to hear in 1943 that the Second Front would have to wait until 1944. Regardless of the nature of the Soviet regime, their country was bearing by far the brunt of the fighting against Germany with the related human costs.
Both issues were potential sources of distrust on the part of the Soviets. The policy of unconditional surrender functioned to reassure them and to keep the US-Britain-Soviet alliance intact, even to the point of the USSR joining the war against Japan. He does mention an interesting twist, which is that the Soviets raised questions about the unconditional surrender policy at the Teheran Conference in December, 1943:
Stalin endorsed the policy in his Order of the Day of May 1, 1943. Soviet objections to it were not voiced until the Teheran Conference. By that time, however, the Western Allies were fully committed to the opening of the western front, so that the Russians may well have figured that the policy had served its main immediate purpose. It is a notable fact that even at Teheran the Russian objections were based upon tactical considerations, and that their situation was in this respect less happy than that of the Western Allies, whose tactical problem was to convince the Germans of their deadly seriousness, not of their humaneness50 On the whole it can be said that at the time it was announced, and until the tactical, propaganda argument could seem more important, the Soviets accepted unconditional surrender as the President apparently hoped and felt they would. In this respect the policy was clearly successful, and achieved what it was designed to do. (my emphasis)Unconditional surrender and national unity at home
Chase argues that the role Roosevelt saw for unconditional surrender in bolstering the US public's support for the war was intimately bound up with its purpose of cementing the alliance with Russia:
In the President's mind, unquestionably, preservation of American unity of opinion was an indispensable condition both of victory and of success in the peace to follow. The two major threats to this unity, as the President saw it, were: domestic indifference, arising from a failure to grasp the nature of the issues in this total war; and international resentment and hostility arising from a conflict of aims between the United States and, above all other Allies, the Soviet Union. In his address the President tried to deal with both these threats, explicitly and directly. He emphasized "our determination to fight this war through to the finish," and he stressed the preservation of unity between all the Allies as the indispensable condition of victory. Of course the two objectives were intimately related. Any relaxation of effort short of victory, on the home front, would result in disunity between the Allies; and any evidence of disunity - such as might arise from putting forward conflicting post-war aims - might well produce a relaxation of effort short of victory. (my emphasis)That connection between the two major considerations should not be seen as simply a truism. The United Nations' prospects for victory against Germany and Japan was heavily dependent on an Allied effort. And, however Soviet policy before and after the war is evaluated, the Soviets did carry the heaviest burden among the Allies. The withdrawal or neutralization of the Soviet Union would have changed the military situation in a fundamental way.
It's worth noting that Roosevelt saw the chief danger to domestic support as public indifference, not treason by the opposition party. At the risk of mucking up my narrative on the historical experience, the current approach is so very different that it may require extra effort for Americans today to grasp that aspect of Roosevelt's view.
Joe Conason recently focused on the Karl Rove strategy of using the 9/11 attacks to promote partisan divisiveness, in A Master of Division Truthdig.com 08/16/07:
In the aftermath of 9/11, the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, Bush quickly abandoned the example of past wartime presidents who struggled to bring the entire nation together against the enemy. With astronomical approval ratings and extraordinary unity, the president could have accomplished almost anything. But following his political guru’s direction, Bush used war as a partisan instrument—which meant dividing, not uniting, America.The only unity Rove cared about was unity of 51% of the voters behind the Republican Party's policies.
Within months after Democrats and Republicans joined arms on the Capitol steps, standing with the president against the jihadists, Rove told the Republican National Committee that the “war on terror” would become, in effect, an assault on the loyal opposition.
To win the midterm election, the White House would turn on the Democrats who had faithfully supported the invasion of Afghanistan and the USA Patriot Act. "We can go to the country on this issue," predicted Rove in January 2002, "because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and thereby protecting America." That bland description scarcely did justice to the campaign that ensued. The viciousness on the Republican side was typified by an ad campaign that led to the defeat of Sen. Max Cleland, a triple-amputee Army veteran and Bronze and Silver Star winner, by painting him as a stooge of terrorism.
In his fortuitously timed article "The Rove Presidency" in the September 2007 Atlantic Monthly, Joshua Green mainly focuses on the Rove target of long-term partisan "realignment", which to the authoritarian Republicans meant effectively establishing a one-party state. But his report on Rove is also relevant in some respects more specifically to public opinion on current wars. After the 2002 election, writes Green, the one in which the Congressional authorization for the Iraq War became the most important issue with which the Republicans based Democrats for being soft on national security, Rove's popularity in the Party soared due to "his strategy of aggressive divisiveness on the issues of war and terrorism." And he writes:
After 9/11, any pretense of shared sacrifice or of reaching across the aisle was abandoned. The administration could demand - and get - almost anything it wanted, easily flattening Democratic opposition, which it did with increasing frequency on issues like the PATRIOT Act and the right of Department of Homeland Security workers to unionize. The crisis atmosphere allowed the White House to ignore what normally would have been some of its most basic duties -working with Republicans in Congress (let alone Democrats) and laying the groundwork in Congress and with the American public for what it hoped to achieve. At the time, however, this didn't seem to matter.Now, I'm always happy to contrast Republicans unfavorably with Franklin Roosevelt. But my point here is to emphasize the put Roosevelt's desire for national unity during the Second World War into its own context, which was different than today's. Comparisons between Roosevelt's strategy of generating support for that war have to take full account of the very different situations in the parties in those days.
... "What Bush went out and did in 2002," a former administration official told me, "clearly at Karl's behest, with an eye toward the permanent Republican majority, was very aggressively attack those Democrats who voted with him and were for him. There's no question that the president helped pick up seats. But all of that goodwill was squandered." (my emphasis)
Roosevelt famously said that for the war, Dr. Win-the-War would have to take the place of Dr. New Deal. His New Deal coalition in Congress was also of necessity significantly bipartisan. The now-extinct and nearly-forgotten species called "liberal Republicans" was still thriving in those days. There were liberal Republicans who supported much of the New Deal and conservative Democrats who opposed it. Although the isolationists prior to the war including some pro-New Deal Republicans, it tended to be conservative. Still, Roosevelt judged that the votes he needed to secure his preparedness program and war policies included conservative Southern Democrats. The two parties today are far more consistently aligned on both domestic and foreign policies.
Based on American historical experience, "national unity" is a greatly overrated state, even during wars. National unity is only constructive if people are unifying behind a sound and constructive policy. Unifying behind a bad policy like Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq or an overt attack on Iran now just enables the bad policy to produce its bad results.
(I don't want to encourage sloppy revisionism, so I should add that I'm referring to the Iraq invasion more as an example of bad policy than of unity behind it. In fac, there was very significant dissent against going to war. And it was not from some isolated minority like the "anti-imperialist" intellectual dissenters in the Spanish-American War; there was great public skepticism about the Iraq War up until the invasion.)
The Roosevelt administration imprisonment in camps of Japanese-American citizens for no good reason was a decision which largely united white Democrats and white Republicans. A vigorous dissent from one party or a bipartisan alliance would have been far healthier for both democracy and the war effort in that situation.
As a factual matter, the very common notion that broad unity behind a war policy is necessary can also be questioned. Support for the Iraq War had plummeted to a restricted minority by 2006. But the current administration has been able to carry out its military policies in Iraq, including a significant escalation in The Surge, in the face of public opposition to the war and even a hostile Congressional majority.
Abraham Lincoln had great difficulty in maintaining sufficient political support among the public for the Union war effort. He faced organized, vocal, active and even sometimes violent opposition from Democratic Copperheads. Within the Republican Party itself, there was substantial support for candidacy in 1864 by John Charles Fremont. And the 1964 Presidential election against a Democratic candidate, George McClellan, who was rightly regarded as a defeatist, was a hard-fought and close one. But the Union won the war.
But whatever role the unconditional surrender policy played in unity over the war effort during the Second World War, that unity was maintained. The war retained major public support until the end.
Chase points to one historical factor that apparently still goes generally unremarked. During the Iraq War, we've sometimes seen a quote from Franklin's cousin Theodore Roosevelt about the necessity for patriotic dissent during war. The earlier Roosevelt agitated publicly for a tougher war policy than Woodrow Wilson seemed to be pursuing. Including insisting on a policy of "unconditional surrender". Chase writes:
In this connection it seems somewhat strange to this writer that no mention has been made ... of the controversial rôle played by "unconditional surrender" in World War I, and especially in the anti-Wilson speeches of Theodore Roosevelt. But the President's own memory was apparently not so short and, as Sherwood observes, the ghost of Woodrow Wilson was often at his shoulder. Indeed, in retrospect it may well be asked, what better device could be imagined to serve the President's purpose than the very slogan popularized by the "bitter-enders" in the previous war? Surely the President's political genius never burned more brightly than when he rescued this phrase from oblivion, and made it serve American purposes.One part about Chase's description of Roosevelt's presentation of the war to the public that I find puzzling is this:
Wallace Carroll mentions the President's well-known aversion to stating positively any war aims at all, and the fact that the President gave the war the uninspiring name, "The Survival War". According to Carroll the President believed that "if he attemptedto give the war a social purpose, he would arouse the hostility of the same groups which had opposed his domestic policies.""Survival War" doesn't have a real snappy sound to it, does it?
But it's misleading to say in isolation that Roosevelt didn't "give the war a social purpose". It's true he didn't try to tie any major New Deal type domestic programs to the war effort. But he did enunciate goals like the Four Freedoms in connection with the war that had definite social content; one of the Four Freedoms was "freedom from want". And he also proposed measures like the Economic Bill of Rights, which although it wasn't linked directly to war measures, did hold out the promise of a more fair shake for labor after the war. He also fought unsuccessfully against Republican opposition to allowing soldiers overseas vote absentee.
Chase points out that if we really look closely at the policy pursued with the German "satellite" nations, "unconditional surrender" wasn't always applied in its pure form. But Roosevelt still insisted upon it, even after additional attempts by the Soviets and the British to drop the formula. He calls attention to why this insistence needs to be explained after the Soviets were satisfied that the opening of the Second Front was firmly decided upon:
Had this been his only purpose, however, no reason would have existed for retaining the policy once the United States was fully committed to the Western European invasion. Hence the President's continued opposition, after this point had been reached, must be understood as indicating his belief that there were still advantages to be gained from it, in spite of its tactical disadvantages which, incidentally, the President never denied the existence of. The question then is, what were these continuing advantages?Here again, the sad postwar experience of Woodrow Wilson provided a major caution to Roosevelt:
The President was well aware ... of the danger that the United States might return to a policy of isolationism after the war. He was also well aware of the vital importance attached by the Soviet government to a solution of the German problem; and of the necessity for ending the threat to the United States of recurring European wars caused by Germany. The danger of a return to isolationism could be averted, and the basis for Allied cooperation in Germany could be laid, only if the United States were fully committed not only to immediate victory but also to whatever measures of intervention in Germany were necessary after the war to keep the peace.Conclusion
It's easy to see why a war aim of unconditional surrender would be especially appealing to those of an authoritarian turn of mind. The idea of total victory for Our Side and total defeat of The Enemy meshes well with their tendency to see issues in black-or-white, all-or-nothing, good-vs.-evil terms.
But whatever lessons the Second World War provides on the value of an unconditional surrender policy, that policy in that war needs to be understood in a realistic context. The nature of the enemy, the exigencies of the wartime alliance and coalition warfare and a judgment of the state of public opinion after two decades of an "isolationist" international posture all drove the US insistence on unconditional surrender.
Taking it as some kind of general principle or trying to apply it automatically to every war is impractical and potentially very destructive.
It's worth noting that in 1955, at the time of Chase's article, the results of the policy were being subjected to serious questioning. The criticism was largely based on the fact that insisting on unconditional surrender implied major postwar obligations:
It does seem, therefore, that although the President successfully avoided the Wilsonian error (as the President and Mr. Churchill considered it) of giving the Germans a semi-legal basis for asserting their rights, he nevertheless involved the Allies, and particularly the United States, in a moral obligation of a very far-reaching extent. This was, at any rate, the feeling of some, and was to be voiced later by some critics of the policy.Yes, taking over an entire country does involve postwar responsibilities that may not be entirely easy to fulfill. It's tempting to draw a contemporary lesson or two from that. But I'll refrain for now.
Tags: churchill, fdr, franklin roosevelt, john chase, karl rove, second world war, stalin, unconditional surrender, world war II