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Unconditional surrender and the totalitarian temptation

It has become increasingly obvious that totalitarianism has been driving not only American foreign policy, but also the culture war.

(Image: Антон Дмитриев/

As the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Japan approaches, it is worth pondering the concept of unconditional surrender – a policy often regarded by Catholic critics of the bombing as the real reason the United States was “forced” to use nuclear weapons. Whether the Truman administration’s insistence upon unconditional surrender really was the crux of the affair, it certainly seems that since 1945 unconditional surrender has become the norm in American discourse about war and peace, rather than the exception. Indeed, thanks to the triumphalist mythology which grew up following World War II, many Americans now take for granted that only a complete regime change in the opposing nation – along with the forcible Americanization of the defeated enemy – counts as a true military victory.

Why else, for instance, would George H.W. Bush be criticized by hawkish pundits for not “finishing the job” during Desert Storm? According to such critics, merely driving the Iraqi military from Kuwait was not enough. Supposedly, the US was obliged not only to defeat Sadaam Hussein’s government but to destroy it and create a new one. Cost was no object. The enormous expenditure of lives and treasure such a grand agenda necessarily entailed did not seem to trouble the would-be nation-builders, who would get their way under the more reckless administration of Bush’s son.

If we use the term total surrender instead of unconditional surrender, perhaps the point is clearer: The fixation upon total surrender represents an embrace of the ethos of total war, and it is hard not to see a connection between such an ethos and the tendency toward totalitarian government. In any event, to treat unconditional surrender as normative is to reject the spirit of just war doctrine, as perennially taught by the Church. “Victory” and “conquest” are not necessarily synonymous.

Moreover, as the British writer Aldous Huxley observed, a spirit of restraint has always played a major role in defining Western civilization, especially in the wake of the disastrous Thirty Years’ War:

For more than a hundred years the politicians and generals of Europe consciously resisted the temptation to use their military resources to the limits of destructiveness or (in the majority of conflicts) to go on fighting until the enemy was totally annihilated. They were aggressors, of course, greedy for profit and glory; but they were also conservatives, determined at all costs to keep their world intact, as a going concern.

It is worth noting that Huxley does not romanticize old-time conservatives, “greedy for profit and glory” as they were. What he does instead is recognize such admittedly flawed figures as being preferable to totalitarians, who would sooner see the whole world end than grant any concessions to the opposition at a negotiating table. For the spirit of restraint suddenly collapsed throughout Europe once warfare became charged with messianic ideology:

For the last thirty years there have been no conservatives; there have been only nationalistic radicals of the right and nationalistic radicals of the left. The last conservative statesman was the fifth Marquess of Lansdowne; and when he wrote a letter to the Times, suggesting that the First World War should be concluded with a compromise, as most of the wars of the eighteenth century had been, the editor of that once conservative journal refused to print it.

As many readers are no doubt aware, American participation in the First World War was motivated by a sentiment directly opposed to that of the Marquess of Lansdowne, by the call to “make the world safe for democracy” – whatever the cost. Under the leadership of President Wilson, America took part in the dismantlement and deconstruction of what remained of Old Europe, a Europe defined by Catholicism. Wilson’s good intentions paved the way not only for the Nazis and Communists and all the wretched destruction those movements entailed, but also for today’s aggressively secular humanist European Union.

Nor can Americans take for granted that their own communities will remain safe for much longer from the forces represented by the total war mindset. For it has become increasingly obvious that totalitarianism has been driving not only American foreign policy, but also the culture war. Clearly, many activists and protestors believe it would be better for America to burn to the ground than for any part of it to persist tainted by lingering vestiges of “white supremacy” – i.e., Western identity.

And their vindictive program is eerily reminiscent of the cultural and social engineering which the American regime is in the habit of inflicting upon conquered opponents. Ironically, then, those hawks who mistake America for the world’s savior share at least one practice in common – “democratization” – with the anti-Americans who hate it.

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About Jerry Salyer 56 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor and freelance writer.


  1. Fair points, and insistence on “total surrender” does contain the serious pitfalls noted by the author. Yet it seems undeniable, that a negotiated peace or truce, with Hitler and/or the Japanese militarists, would have allowed both to retrench and rearm and probably wage aggressive war again within a decade or so. It’s one thing to negotiate an end to a war, and another to put an end to the lust for power and dominance that fuels the compulsion for aggressive war in the first place.

    • In the case of Japan, a negotiated peace probably would have prevented the takeover of China by the Reds. As Mao’s death count seems to be the highest of the all the 20th century mass murderers, this is surely relevant. Also, the likelihood that the Korean and Vietnam Wars would have occurred would have been much lower.

      • Yes, the unpredictable and far-reaching consequences of a few words…

        The term “unconditional surrender” caught the fancy of President Roosevelt, who lifted it from the 1862 Civil War Battle of Fort Donelson on the border of Tennessee and Kentucky. The slogan was used to mobilize the American public.

        Transplanted from a single battle from elsewhere in history, during World War II the term meant very different things in very different cultures, and in the context of (not a single battle but) a global confrontation. What did “unconditional surrender” mean to the bushido culture of Japan, both traditional and militarized? Did the slogan extend the war in the Pacific far longer than the atomic bombs are thought by many to have shortened it? And, yes, what about the later loss of China? Even parts of the American press encouraged Truman to explain both what “unconditional surrender” did mean AND what it did not mean.

        Mere words…

  2. Mr. Salyer could perhaps benefit from a reading of Victor Davis Hanson’s “Carnage and Culture.” [Sorry, can’t do italics.] It might broaden his perspective.

  3. Considering the malicious nature of the Nazi and Japanese expansionist regimes, I don’t think any other policy but unconditional surrender could have achieved real peace in and since 1945, just as I think that the failure to wipe out the North Korean regime has left us with a ticking time bomb even today, 70 years later. Likewise, the failure to end aggressive communism in North Vietnam has led to 50 years of subjugation of that entire country. That having been said, unconditional surrender should not be viewed as an unconditional requirement of any and all wars.

  4. People seem to forget that there was an opportunity for a “negotiated peace” in 1944. If the Allies had given Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators any encouragement, perhaps a dignified truce could have been negotiated. As for the East, what did our total war achieve? Hirohito and his dynasty on the throne, still today. Japanese warlords transformed into financial moguls. And for these results we destroyed Hamburg, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Cost/benefit analysis anyone? Not to mention just war analysis.

  5. A Military History Visualized video on YouTube has a long, wide ranging interview about WWII titled “D.M. Giangreco on the Invasion of Japan, Lend Lease & much more.”
    The interview has a list of timestamps so you can jump around to various topics. According to D.M. Giangreco the Japanese military had a strategy of maximum bloodletting to stretch out the war. He talks about the Japanese redoubt strategy to bleed any American invasion and to stretch out the war. He said that the view of WWII has been Eurocentric and there being a lack of appreciation of the large combat losses in the Pacific Theater. He pointed out how differently the Japanese military viewed things like casualties. He said that the emperor had to send out personal envoys to deliver the surrender instructions to forces out in the field to insure compliance. There were a large number of Japanese forces based off the Japanese homeland. He claims that it was understood that the Potsdam Declaration was directed solely against the military and not the emperor.
    Another YouTube video titled “Douglas MacArthur And Japan – The First Eight Weeks” is a presentation by Christopher L. Kolakowski, Director of the MacArthur Memorial about the eight weeks from mid-August to mid-October 1945.
    The presenter details how MacArthur used symbols and an understanding of Japanese culture to manage the occupation during the transition between wartime and peacetime Japan. He said that there were 3 million Japanese troops who were overseas and needed to be repatriated at the end of the war. He made some closing remarks about the nature of the transition during the occupation. He quoted a statement written by the Japanese Prime Minister about defeat that is at about the 36:30 minute mark.

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  1. Unconditional surrender and the totalitarian temptation – Via Nova Media
  2. Unconditional surrender and the totalitarian temptation | Passionists Missionaries Kenya, Vice Province of St. Charles Lwanga, Fathers & Brothers

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