Books: Why FDR Decided to Demand Unconditional Surrender

Culture Watch

Mr. Fleming is a member of the board of HNN.

The following is excerpted from Mr. Fleming's new book, The New Dealer's War.

Within a week of the Democratic Party's debacle in the 1942 midterm elections, the New Dealers had a war to sell. On Sunday, November 8, at 7 o'clock, reporters were summoned to the White House to be told that an American army under the command of an unknown general named Dwight D. Eisenhower was landing in North Africa as part of a giant pincer movement designed to clear the south shore of the Mediterranean of Axis troops. The British had started the process in October with a victory at El Alamein in Egypt that sent General Erwin Rommel and his vaunted Afrika Corps reeling west in chaotic retreat.

The North African assault, codenamed TORCH, suddenly acquired unexpected political complications. Relations between the French and the British were only a step above the enemy level since Churchill, after the fall of France, ordered the Royal Navy to seize the French fleet at Oran to prevent it from falling into German hands. When the French admiral refused to surrender his ships, the British opened fire on the anchored vessels, a decision Churchill admitted was"the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned." The reaction to this slaughter in French North Africa and in Vichy, the new capital of defeated France, was profoundly negative.

Attempts to sell TORCH as an American operation got nowhere, even though the initial landings were assigned to U.S. troops and their British counterparts were kept in discreet reserve. To bolster this deception, a message from Roosevelt was broadcast and dropped in leaflets:"We come among you to repulse the cruel invaders who would remove forever your rights of self government..." With Roosevelt's approval, Murphy had smuggled General Henri Giraud into Algiers on the theory that this supposedly popular World War I hero, who had recently escaped from a German prison, could persuade his countrymen to greet the Americans as comrades.

This carefully planned diplomacy was a disastrous flop. The first wave of American soldiers to hit North Africa's beaches found themselves fighting for their lives against attacking French tanks and infantry. Giraud's call for an immediate cease fire was ignored. Admiral Jean Francois Darlan, one of Vichy's most powerful spokesmen, was visiting his polio-stricken son in Algiers and countermanded the general's appeal. At one beachhead only desperate heroics by Colonel Harry H. Semmes, who had led the first American tank attack in World War I, prevented a French armored assault from driving part of General George H. Patton's Western Task Force into the sea.

Murphy and Eisenhower decided to cut a deal with Darlan. In return for making him High Commissioner of North Africa and guaranteeing that the French would continue to control of their colonies, the short dapper admiral doublecrossed his Vichy cohorts and ordered French troops to stop shooting on November 11 -- a day that recalled America's role as France's savior in World War I.

Almost instantly, New Dealers and their supporters in the press raised a huge uproar in the United States. Columnists such as Drew Pearson and Walter Winchell called it"a deal with the devil." Walter Lippmann, doyen of American political commentators, deplored the arrangement. In a broadcast from London, Edward R. Morrow said the British were appalled -- a claim which may have bolstered his status as a liberal but not his skill as a reporter. The British man in the street may have been perturbed but His Majesty's Secret Service had been negotiating with Darlan for weeks before the invasion. Time, always ready to make trouble for Roosevelt, piously asked how we could do business with one of Hitler's stooges.

11Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr was so undone by the Darlan deal, he told Secretary of War Henry Stimson that he had lost all interest in the war. Stimson invited him and (the poet) Archibald MacLeish, now a senior official with the OWI, to tea to discuss the matter. The visit became a classic confrontation between the New Dealers' approach to the war and those who rated realism above moral purity. Stimson lectured his guests on the military advantages of the Darlan deal. He stressed the fact that it was a temporary arrangement, not a new departure in foreign policy. Morgenthau tried to make Stimson read Murrow's broadcast. The Secretary of War said he could not care less what some (expletives deleted) reporter in London thought. Darlan's cease fire had saved thousands of American lives and rescued the invasion from potential disaster.

Morgenthau denounced Darlan as a man who had sold thousands of people into"slavery." There were some things more important than"temporary military victories," he ranted."There is a considerable group of rich people ln this country who would make peace with Hitler tomorrow...The only people who want to fight are the working men and women, and if they once get the idea that we are going to favor these Fascists...they're going to say what's the use of fighting just to put that kind of people back into power?" The secretary predicted sit-down strikes and production slowdowns would soon be sweeping the country.

A few days later, Morgenthau lectured FDR in the Oval Office for twenty minutes, claiming the Darlan deal had fatally impugned the nation's honor. Roosevelt, already acutely disturbed by the press attacks, told him it might have taken ten weeks to subdue the French, giving the Germans time to pour in reinforcements. In a tense press conference not long after this meeting with his secretary of the treasury, Roosevelt used the word"temporary" five times, describing the arrangement with Darlan.

But the liberal assault on the deal continued. James Warburg, deputy director of Office of War Information's overseas branch, said it would destroy the belief of people everywhere in the good faith of the United States. The head of the OWI office in London chimed in with a similar opinion, declaring"the moral authority of the president is being impaired." Even Eleanor Roosevelt joined the negative chorus. Admiral William Leahy, FDR's military chief of staff and liaison to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that at a White House dinner,"Mrs. Roosevelt did most of the talking" and"appeared to be opposed to Darlan's efforts on our behalf."

The crusty Leahy made sure the president stayed on the military's side of the argument. When Roosevelt murmured uneasy comments about Darlan, Leahy told FDR"we should indefinitely continue to try to use everybody -- good, bad and indifferent, who promised to be of assistance ln reducing the length of our casualty list."

FDR's confidante and speech writer, Sam Rosenman, later recalled that Roosevelt devoted hours to refuting the liberal assault on his Darlan policy."He strongly resented this criticism," Rosenman wrote,"indeed I do not remember his ever being more deeply affected by a political attack, especially since it came chiefly from those who usually supported him." At times, FDR"bitterly read aloud" what a liberal columnist or editorialists had said about him, and"expressed his resentment."

Roosevelt was also expressing acute political anxiety. The mid-term election had revealed that his traditional allies in the Democratic Party, the Irish and other ethnics, were staying home in droves. With the South hostile, the liberals were the only bloc of support he had left. If he lost them he would be isolated.

The defeat at the polls, which put Roosevelt on the defensive in Congress, and the uproar over Darlan, which had New Dealers questioning FDR's credentials as a liberal, were clearly in the forefront of Franklin D. Roosevelt's consciousness on January 9, 1943, when he began a top secret train trip to Florida. There he and his entourage boarded planes for a long flight to North Africa. Waiting for them was Winston Churchill and a much larger entourage of British diplomats and generals.

For ten days the two leaders met and argued amiably and compromised 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 numerous staffs argued much less amiably and in some cases declined to compromise. Finally, on January 24, 1943, 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 gray suit and a dark tie. Churchill was replete with homburg, cigar and a dark blue suit and vest that seemed more suitable 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, FDR 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 called 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 of Germany, Italy and Japan."

As the reporters scribbled, FDR added:"It does not mean the destruction of the population of Germany, Italy or Japan, but it does mean the destruction of the philosophies in those countries which are based on conquest and the subjugation of other people." In subsequent remarks, Roosevelt made it clear that the latter comment was little more than an afterthought. The main message was unconditional surrender. He even suggested calling Casablanca the"unconditional surrender meeting."

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 who have plunged the world into storm and ruin." It may well have been his finest hour as a political performer. Inwardly, the prime minister was dumbfounded by FDR's announcement -- and dismayed by its probable impact on the conduct and outcome of the war.

Among the Prime Minister's British colleagues, dismay and alarm were, if possible, even deeper. The chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), General Sir Stewart Graham Menzies, considered unconditional surrender disastrous not only to certain secret operations already in progress but because it would make the Germans fight"with the despairing ferocity of cornered rats." Air Marshal Sir John Slessor called it"unfortunate" and maintained to the end of his life that were it not for the policy, air power alone could have ended the war. Lord Maurice Hankey, one of Churchill's senior advisors (he had held important government posts for over three decades) was so perturbed he went back to England and researched fifteen 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. In fact, Lord Hankey could find only one noteworthy example of unconditional surrender in recorded history: the ultimatum that the Romans gave the Carthaginians in the Third Punic War. The Carthaginians rejected it and the Romans felt this justified razing Carthage to the ground -- something they intended to do in the first place.

The feeling of dismay was shared by not a few Americans in the ranks of VIPs standing behind the two leaders. General Dwight D. Eisenhower thought unconditional surrender would 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." General Albert Wedemeyer, the man who had survived the big leak uproar of December 4, 1941, was even more appalled. He decried unconditional surrender from the moment he heard it. It would, he said,"weld all the Germans together." Having spent two recent years in Berlin attending the German War College, he had heard a lot about the deep divisions between the Nazis and the Wehrmacht's generals.

Even more vehement was Major General Ira C. Eaker, commander of the U.S. Eighth Air Force. He had flown from England to fight off an attempt by the RAF to force the Americans to join them in bombing Germany by night."Everybody I knew at the time when they heard this [unconditional surrender] 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 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 the war whom I ever met who didn't think this was about as stupid an operation as you could find."

11Although Chief of Staff General George Marshall never expressed his opinion of unconditional surrender with such vehemence -- it would have been out of character, for one thing -- he would soon make it clear that he too considered the policy a major blunder. Deliberately excluded from the conference by the president was another opponent, the U.S. Secretary of State, Cordell Hull. Determined as usual to invent his own foreign policy, the president had brought no high level State Department officials with him to Casablanca.

When the news of unconditional surrender reached Berlin, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the silverhaired chief of the Abwehr, the German intelligence service, turned to one his deputies, General Erwin Lahousen, and said, with a sigh:"You know, my dear Lahousen, the students of history will not need to trouble their heads after this war, as they did after the last, to determine who was guilty of starting it. The case is however different when we consider 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. Unconditional surrender, no, our generals will not swallow that. Now I cannot see any solution." Canaris was one of the leaders of the German Resistance to Hitler.

Elsewhere in the German capital, Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda chief, was in a state of 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?"

From the point of view of Canaris and the other members of the German Resistance, the timing of the unconditional surrender declaration at Casablanca could not have been worse. It was announced on the day that the Russians split in half the German army trapped in the Stalingrad pocket, making its destruction inevitable. For two years the conspirators had been waiting for a defeat of this magnitude, which would force the German generals to admit the war was lost -- and agree to support a coup d'etat. At the very moment when this precarious hope seemed to be coming true, Roosevelt had delivered it a lethal blow.

On January 22, 1943, Ulrich von Hassell, a senior official in the German Foreign office, whose diary is one of the few surviving records of the German resistance, wrote:"According to people who...have pipe lines to the Army both on the battle front and at home, there is now a real possibility for peace. The evil of the situation is revealed in the fact that at this same time there come reports from the 'enemy's side' which give rise to ever-increasing doubts as to whether they are now holding out for the complete destruction of Germany."

FDR later claimed that unconditional surrender had just"popped into my mind" at the press conference -- an explanation accepted by a dismaying number of historians. In fact, when the president said this, he had in his lap notes he had dictated to prepare for the press conference, which contain virtually identical sentences about the policy. Unconditional surrender was anything but accidental and its meaning and intent were profoundly serious. It represented FDR's attempt to assuage his liberal critics in America and give the war a moral purpose, a rallying cry it had thus far lacked.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Copyrighted.

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Harry M Merryman - 4/28/2006

Fleming's description of the etiology of Roosevelt's unconditional surrender policy is far too narrow. The context that is missing -- and far more important than what Fleming supplies -- is the course of the war on the eastern front and relations between the allies. Although the Soviets were in the process of inflicting a crushing defeat on the Germans at Stalingrad, there was cause to worry that the Germans would try to negotiate a separate peace with Moscow that Stalin might accept. Indeed, Roosevelt knew (because we had broken their codes) that the Japanese were encouraging the Germans to reach an armistice with the Soviets. (This would become an even greater worry for the western allies, a couple of months later, when a stunningly successful German counter-attack shook Soviet resolve and morale.) The result of such an armistice would have enabled Hitler to concentrate his forces in the west, making an invasion of the continent much more costly and even, perhaps, providing the Germans with the strength to invade England. Add to this background the fact that right up until the start of Soviet-German hostilities, the Soviet Union had been negotiating with the Germans to become a signatory to the Tripartite Pact, again at the urging of both Italy and Japan. Roosevelt knew that Stalin was deeply suspicious of the western allies' intentions and resolve, dramatically and worryingly signified by his absence from the conference. If the need to demonstrate commitment and resolve to a wavering ally is not good enough reason for Roosevelt's statement, consider the moral context. Given the atrocities the Germans were known to be commiting, any conclusion to the war short of unconditional surrender would imply negotiating peace with mass murderers. There is other context, as well, including the (mistaken) belief that a policy of unconditional surrender might encourage those who opposed Hitler to take action against him. That Fleming's focus with regard to this episode in the War is so narrowly drawn to those surrounding events which tend to portray Roosevelt's motives in the worst possible light says more about the author's biases and undermines his credibility as reliable analyst of events. Unfortunately, this is a shortcoming of the book from which this passage is drawn.