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Unconditional surrender is a surrender without conditions, in which no guarantees are given to the surrendering party except for those provided by international law. Announcing that only unconditional surrender is acceptable puts psychological pressure on a weaker adversary. Among the most notable unconditional surrenders are the Confederate States of America to the United Statesmarker in the American Civil War and by the Axis powers in World War II.


In the era post World War II, the comparable example of unconditional surrender is that of the Pakistani army in East Pakistan at the hands of the Indian army and the Mukti Bahini during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 or the latter half of Bangladesh Liberation War. Here 93,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered unconditionally to the Indian Allied Forces (Mitro Bahini) commander Lt Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora.

United States usage

The most famous early use of the phrase occurred during the 1862 Battle of Fort Donelsonmarker in the American Civil War. Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant of the Union Army received a request for terms from the fort's commanding officer, Confederate Brigadier General Simon Bolivar Buckner. Grant's reply was that "no terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works." When news of Grant's victory—one of the Union's first in the Civil War—was received in Washington, D.C.marker, newspapers remarked (and President Abraham Lincoln endorsed) that Ulysses S. Grant's first two initials, "U.S.," stood for "Unconditional Surrender," which would later become his nickname.

However, subsequent surrenders to Grant were not unconditional. When Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court Housemarker in 1865, Grant agreed to allow the men under Lee's command to go home under parole and to keep sidearms and private horses. Generous terms were also offered to John C. Pemberton at Vicksburgmarker and (by Grant's subordinate, William T. Sherman) to Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolinamarker.

Grant was not the first and only officer in the Civil War to use such a term. The first instance came when Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman asked for terms of surrender during the Battle of Fort Henrymarker. Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote replied, "no sir, your surrender will be unconditional". Even at Fort Donelson, when a Confederate messenger first approached Brig. Gen. Charles F. Smith, Grant's subordinate, for terms of surrender, Smith stated "I'll have no terms with Rebels with guns in their hands, my terms are unconditional and immediate surrender". The messenger was passed along to Grant but there is no evidence that either Foote or Smith influenced Grant's decision later on that day. In 1863 Ambrose Burnside forced an unconditional surrender of the Cumberland Gap and 2,300 Confederate soldiers.

The use of the term was revived during World War II at the Casablanca conference when American President Franklin D. Roosevelt sprang it on the other Allies and the press as the objective of the war against the Axis Powers of Germanymarker, Italymarker, and Japanmarker. The term was also used at the end of World War II when Japan surrendered to the Allies.

Criticism of its World War II use

Both Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin disapproved of the demand for unconditional surrender, as did most senior U.S. officials (except General Dwight D. Eisenhower). It has been estimated that it helped prolong the war in Europe through its usefulness to German domestic propaganda that used it to encourage further resistance against the Allied armies, and its suppressive effect on the German resistance movement since even after a coup against Adolf Hitler there was no "assurance that such action would improve the treatment meted out to their country". It has also been argued that without the demand for unconditional surrender Central Europe might not have fallen behind the Iron curtain.

Surrender at discretion

In siege warfare, the demand that the garrison unconditionally surrenders to the besiegers is traditionally phrased as "surrender at discretion." For example, at the siege of Stirling during the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion:

It was also seen at the Battle of the Alamomarker, when Santa Anna asked Jim Bowie and William B. Travis for unconditional surrender. Even though Bowie wished to surrender unconditionally, Travis refused, retaliated by firing a cannon at Santa Anna's army, and wrote in his final dispatches:

The phrase surrender at discretion is still used in treaties, for example the Rome Statute that entered into force on July 1, 2002, specifies under "Article 8 war crimes, Paragraph 2.b" that:

This wording in the Rome Statute is taken almost word for word from Article 23 of the 1907 IV Hague Convention The Laws and Customs of War on Land: " is especially forbidden - ... To kill or wound an enemy who, having laid down his arms, or having no longer means of defence, has surrendered at discretion", and is part of the customary laws of war.

See also

References and notes

  1. Burnside's Official Report
  2. See Chapter 9 of Thomas Toughill's "A World To Gain" (Clairview Books, 2004)for a detailed examination of how Roosevelt's policy, of which Churchill knew nothing in advance, came to be adopted at the Casablanca Conference.
  3. Michael Balfour, " Another Look at 'Unconditional Surrender'", International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-), Vol. 46, No. 4 (Oct., 1970), pp. 719-736
  4. IV Hague Convention The Laws and Customs of War on Land October 18, 1907. Article 23
  5. The Nuremberg War Trial judgment on The Law Relating to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity held that "The rules of land warfare expressed in the [Hague Convention of 1907] undoubtedly represented an advance over existing international law at the time of their adoption. But the Convention expressly stated that it was an attempt "to revise the general laws and customs of war," which it thus recognised to be then existing, but by 1939 these rules laid down in the Convention were recognised by all civilised nations, and were regarded as being declaratory of the laws and customs of war...",( Judgement : The Law Relating to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity contained in the Avalon Project archive at Yale Law School).

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