Magnanimity in Victory

An Address Given to a Study Group on Ending Wars, held in Verona, Italy

I am very happy to be here. I would like to share with you some American attempts to achieve post-war reconciliation. Our experiences have been quite different from those of most countries, so it may be a logical subject for me to discuss.

Let me start with our dreadful Civil War in the late 19th century, the most expensive in lives that we have ever fought. At the end of that war, the commanders of the opposing armies, General Robert E. Lee of the South and General Ulysses Grant of the North, met at Appomattox to sign the articles of surrender. Many people in the South thought that although their army had been defeated, the South itself had not been extensively occupied (it never was), and that therefore it should continue the struggle by having its soldiers go into the hills and become guerrillas. No, said Lee, we have lost the war. It is over. We are one country now. We will submit honorably to our defeat.

On the northern side, General Grant also acted very correctly. He refused to let the Southern army be humiliated in any way. When they marched forward to lay down their arms, the officer who was receiving the surrender, Brigadier General Joshua Chamberlain of Maine, ordered his troops to give the full military salute to the defeated, acknowledging them once again as fellow-citizens. (You don’t salute prisoners.) This made a wonderful impression. After the surrender, Lee had two requests of Grant. The first was that officers be permitted to keep their sidearms, to be able to enforce order, to which Grant agreed immediately. The second was that cavalrymen be permitted to retain their horses, which would be required for spring planting, the South being an agricultural land. Again, Grant agreed immediately. My point is that although the subsequent partial occupation of the South and the liberation of its slaves generated lots of friction, the surrender itself, and thereafter, Lincoln’s intent, were a model of courtesy.

A more recent example is the ending of the First World War. President Wilson felt very strongly that once the Kaiser had departed, Germany should be dealt with generously and welcomed back into the community of nations. The French, however, having lost the Franco-Prussian war within living memory, insisted that the Germans be treated with the utmost severity and kept weak. The British accepted this position. The British prime minister used a curious expression, that the victors should “squeeze the Kaiser until the pips squeak.” (The pips are the little seeds inside a fruit.)

So President Wilson’s position was never adopted. The Germans were handled with great harshness, and their economy was deliberately ruined and kept unstable.

We know the result. Germany was consumed by a spirit of revenge, which led to the rise of Nazism and the Second World War, which was more horrible than the first.

At the end of the Second World War, America had to make peace with Germany and Japan. This time Germany was divided into separate zones of occupation, and within the American zone, the population was treated kindly, with the result that Germany became one of America’s closest allies in the postwar period. (The Russians, on the contrary, were extremely cruel, as you can imagine, and carried off everything they could.)

Europeans do not realize that for America the Second World War was even more bitter and costly in the Pacific than in Europe. It was dreadful. But in any event, after it finally ended, the occupation of Japan was carried out with correctness. The Emperor was allowed to retain his position, slightly modified. I once visited General MacArthur’s Tokyo office in the Dai-Ichi Building, exactly opposite and over the Imperial Palace. I was impressed to see that the General did not choose an office facing to the front, where he could look directly down on the Emperor’s residence, but off to one side where he couldn’t: an interesting courtesy. At the end of the occupation, Japan was fully accepted as an independent country, and voluntarily allied itself with America, a relationship which has persisted to this day.

My general point in reciting these experiences is simply that in postwar reconstruction, the only satisfactory attitude is one of good will. Any other approach may ignite in the victims an intense desire to fight the battle all over again in order to reverse the victory.

The correct attitude for a victor who wants to avoid a repetition of a war is to abandon any thought of revenge, however monstrous have been the acts of the defeated. Instill an attitude of  benevolence, of magnanimity; even, if possible, seek areas of collaboration.

It may be that wars inspired by religion are thus harder to settle than wars over national rivalry. “Deus vult” (God wills!) cried the Crusaders; the fury of today’s jihadists is similar. Those are very hard attitudes to overcome. Such wars are likely to be conducted, and to end, with great cruelty, and to start up again afterwards.